Barilaro has his work cut out

19 November 2016

 

The result of last weekend’s by-election in Orange in central New South Wales mightn’t have been finalised as yet.  But it already has one major victim.

One of three seats holding by-elections to fill vacant seats in State Parliament, Orange was seen as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, which has been governing in NSW since 2011.  Lately, rural voters have been angry about various issues, such as enforced mergers of local councils and a ban on greyhound racing.  Both the council and greyhound issues were seen as the work of the Liberals, who dominate the Nationals in the Coalition.

Because of the need for Coalition unity, the largely rural Nationals must often give ground to the largely urban Liberals.  This can be tested when issues have a city-country divide, meaning a difference of opinion between city slickers and rural folk.  Although there’s been anger in both rural and urban areas over local councils, the ban on greyhound racing hasn’t angered urban voters as much as rural voters, and of course many of the latter live in the Orange area, which the Nationals have represented for decades without much trouble – at least until last weekend.

At the by-election last weekend, voters in Orange really let the Nationals have it, to the point where the seat might change hands.

For the record, besides Orange, the two other areas having by-elections last weekend were Canterbury and Wollongong, and the Labor Party won both of those, with the Coalition opting against running in either.

Although not yet final, the result in Orange has triggered the downfall of Troy Grant, who resigned as leader of the Nationals, and therefore as Deputy Premier as well, earlier this week.  It was thought that, had there been a big swing against the Nationals in Orange, Grant might’ve faced a leadership challenge.  And indeed there was a big swing in Orange.  But Grant resigned almost at once, although he might’ve been dumped if he didn’t go first.

Being Deputy Premier comes automatically for the leader of the Nationals, whoever that is, when the Coalition governs in NSW.  This is because the Liberals outnumber, and sometimes dominate, the Nationals in the Coalition.  The same idea applies when the Coalition governs at Federal level – this is why Barnaby Joyce, currently the leader of the Nationals in Federal Parliament, is also Deputy Prime Minister in the Turnbull Coalition Government, and why people from Tim Fischer to Warren Truss have both led the Nationals and been Deputy Prime Minister in Coalition governments at the same time in recent decades.

Mind you, this doesn’t happen after the Coalition loses elections.  When out of office, the Liberals and Nationals go their separate ways, to some extent.  This is why, between the aftermath of the Federal Coalition’s loss of office in 2007 and its return to office in 2013, while the Opposition Leader was always a Liberal, the Deputy Opposition Leader was a Liberal rather than a National.  In this case, holding this role from 2007 to 2013 was Julie Bishop, who’s been deputy leader of the Liberals since that 2007 loss.  This also applies when the NSW Coalition is out of office, as it was from 1995 to 2011.

In the meantime, with Grant resigning as leader of the Nationals, the newly-elected leader is John Barilaro, who holds the seat of Monaro, in the state’s south.  The Nationals also have a new deputy leader, in the form of Niall Blair.

I think that Barilaro has a struggle ahead of him.  Guiding the Nationals through their current troubles is hard enough, but he’ll have another problem in holding Monaro, which hasn’t been easy to hold.  He really has his work cut out because of both the Nationals’ troubles and having to hold Monaro.

Because Monaro has frequently changed hands when governments have changed hands over many decades, it’s very much a swinging seat.  The Coalition held it for years while governing until an election in 1976, when it lost office to Labor.  And among Labor’s 1976 gains was Monaro.  Labor lost both this seat and an election to the Coalition in 1988.  The Coalition held it despite losing office at an election in 1995, and again despite losing an election in 1999.  Labor won it in 2003, two elections after winning office in 1995, and lost it to the Coalition, along with an election, in 2011.

Candidate quality can be a factor in a seat like this.  Peter Cochran won it for the Nationals in 1988, when the Coalition won office, and he held it until 1999, even though the Coalition lost office in 1995.  Although the Nationals held it with Peter Webb in 1999, Steve Whan managed to win it for Labor in 2003.  It was always a marginal seat during these years, but Whan held it despite a swing against Labor in 2007.  It fell to the Coalition in 2011, with Barilaro beating Whan, as the Coalition won office.  But Whan’s effort here might’ve prevented a bigger swing to the Coalition, as Monaro was less marginal than other Coalition gains which had been safer for Labor before.  Unsurprisingly, Whan ran again in 2015, but Barilaro was able to hold him off.

This shows how Barilaro will struggle leading the Nationals at this time.  The job of holding a seat like Monaro becomes harder when the sitting member also serves as Deputy Premier.

 

Queenslanders revisit the past

14 November 2016

 

Might Queenslanders be heading to the polls for an early election?  There was speculation earlier this year of one, although I haven’t heard more since then.  But it could happen, if Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk decides to call it early.

Barely two years have passed since the last Queensland election, in January 2015.  It saw the Labor Party return to office after a single term out, albeit only after getting support from the crossbench.  Labor had been comprehensively voted out of office at an election in March 2012, fourteen years after winning office, again with crossbench support, in June 1998.  Mind you, before 2012, Labor hadn’t lost an election in Queensland since November 1986.  Starting in 1989, Labor won eight Queensland elections in a row, the last of these elections being in 2009.  But Labor had a short stint out of office during this long period.

An election in 1995 left Labor governing with a majority of one seat in Parliament.  Early the following year, Labor lost one of its seats in a by-election, leaving both it and the Coalition deadlocked on forty-four seats each, while one Independent, Liz Cunningham, held the balance of power.  Despite coming from a regional area whose voters normally supported Labor, Cunningham gave her support to the Coalition, thus tipping Labor out of office – no governments have been tipped out of office in non-election periods since then.

Labor regained office when Queenslanders next went to the polls, in June 1998.  By then, politics had seen the rise of Pauline Hanson, who really polarised voters across the country.  But it seemed that she polarised voters in Queensland, her home state, more than anywhere else.  After forming her own political party, Hanson watched with pride as her party won eleven seats in the 1998 election in Queensland.  But the new MPs ended up leaving Hanson’s party, and Hanson herself, then a Federal MP, was later voted out.

Both Labor and the Coalition lost seats to Hanson’s party, but Labor gained seats from the Coalition, to the point of ending up one seat short of a majority, and was able to return to office with the support of a newly-elected Independent, Peter Wellington, even though Wellington held a seat in a region where voters favoured the Coalition.

Interestingly, although both Cunningham and Wellington might’ve been seen as betraying their constituents, in giving support to governments of the wrong “colour”, it seemed like their constituents didn’t actually mind.  Both Independents kept holding their seats at one election after another.  Cunningham retired in 2015, but Wellington’s still there now.

After initially needing crossbench support to take office in 1998, Labor went on to win big majorities at the next four elections.  But by 2012, Labor had become incompetent and scandal-plagued, and voters reduced it to a mere seven seats, out of eighty-nine available, when the election came.

Some years earlier, the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland had merged, to form the Liberal National Party.  It took two elections for the LNP to win office, albeit due largely to voters really wanting to rid themselves of Labor, but after winning in 2012, the LNP went on to be immensely unpopular, and was voted out after a single term, in 2015.

At the time, nobody really expected Labor to win, and indeed not many people knew the name of the Labor leader, who was Palaszczuk.  But the 2015 election left crossbenchers holding the balance of power, and Labor got back with crossbench support.

When Hanson first arrived on the political scene in the 1990s, the Queensland Parliament had a crossbencher holding the balance of power.  An election then came, but the balance power was again in the hands of the crossbench after that election.

Two decades on, after contesting several elections without success, Hanson has returned to the political scene, and people are talking about what impact she’ll have on the next Queensland election.  And now, like then, the Queensland Parliament again has the balance of power in the hands of the crossbench.

I don’t know how many Queenslanders remember that period of the 1990s when Hanson was wreaking havoc on the political scene, given that it all happened two decades ago.  But those with long memories probably wouldn’t have expected to revisit the past, as they now look likely to do.

The next Queensland election won’t have to happen until about January 2018.  But because Queensland doesn’t have fixed parliamentary terms, like most other Australian states have, the Premier of the day can call the election at will.  How Hanson impacts on that next election remains to be seen.  There might be thoughts on whether crossbenchers will again hold the balance of power after the election, but many voters will find themselves remembering that they’ve been down that road before.

 

Top End victory looms for Labor

27 August 2016

 

There seems to have been an increase in Australia over many years, if not the last few decades overall, in voters throwing out governments more out of desperation to be rid of them, rather than because of enthusiasm for the alternatives.  When voters want to throw governments out, sometimes they simply don’t care what the alternatives are – they just see or hear alternatives effectively saying, “We’re not those people.”

An election occurring today in the Northern Territory looks very much like playing out this way.  Voters there look like electing the Labor Party and throwing out the Country Liberal Party, or CLP for short.

The previous election here, in 2012, saw the CLP win office for the first time since 2001, when it lost to Labor.  Although there might’ve been a time factor at play when Labor lost office in 2012, after eleven years there, the result then was unlike in past NT elections, because the CLP had won office largely after a backlash against Labor in non-urban seats.

While you’d normally expect elections anywhere to be decided in the suburbs of capital cities, the 2012 election in the Territory saw no change in its capital of Darwin – the change happened in rural seats and vast outback seats.  The CLP took power after winning the seats of Arafura and Arnhem and Daly in the north, and the massive seat of Stuart in the west.  Another massive outback seat, Namatjira in the south, had an unusual situation with its sitting member, Alison Anderson, having originally represented the area as a Labor MP before moving to the crossbench – she joined the CLP ahead of the 2012 election, when she won her seat as a CLP candidate.

But after winning office, the CLP imploded.  Terry Mills had led the CLP into office with victory in 2012, but less than a year later, he was dumped in a leadership coup.  As a result, the new leader following the coup was Adam Giles, who became the first Aborigine to hold the job of Territory Chief Minister or State Premier anywhere in Australia.  In the years to follow, there were numerous instances of scandals and infighting.  Several MPs left the CLP to sit on the crossbench, and the CLP lost its parliamentary majority, meaning that it could only govern with the help of crossbenchers.

Now the CLP looks like a rabble, and while few pollsters pay attention to this neck of the wood, it looks voters want it out of office, regardless of what the alternative is.

Therefore Labor looks like winning today’s election, purely due to voter dissatisfaction with the CLP.  There doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for Labor, and little seems known about what Labor would do in office, but voters seemingly couldn’t care less.

In terms of the Territory and its future, particularly its economy, not much seems to have attracted attention during the election campaign.  There have been some concerns about economic management, and one suspects that more attention might be paid to that if not for the internal problems afflicting the Giles Government.  Without those problems, the economy might’ve been more concerning to voters.

At the moment, there are twenty-five seats in the Territory Parliament.  The CLP currently holds twelve seats, leaving it one seat short of a majority, and Labor holds seven seats.  Six other seats are in the hands of Independents, four of whom are former CLP MPs, while a fifth Independent is a former Labor MP – only the sixth of these Independents, Gerry Wood, was actually elected as an Independent previously.

With a big swing to Labor predicted in the Territory, I’m tipping a big majority for Labor, which will include the gaining of some Independent-held seats.  Most Labor gains will be in the northern region, nicknamed the Top End, although I also expect Labor to win two outback seats away from the north.

My tip is for Labor to win Arafura, Arnhem, Blain, Daly, Drysdale, Fong Lim, Karama, Namatjira, Port Darwin, Sanderson, and Stuart.  All bar Karama went to the CLP in 2012, with Karama being the seat now held by a former Labor MP on the crossbench.  Added to the existing Labor tally of seven seats, this would take its tally to eighteen.  I tip the CLP to only win four seats – Braitling, Brennan, Katherine, and Spillett.  Three other seats, Araluen and Goyder and Nelson, will remain with Independents.

This election thus has a scenario where a Top End victory looms for Labor.  I call it a Top End victory because Labor’s gains will mostly be in the north, notwithstanding two likely gains away from there.  Labor will win because Territory voters just want the CLP gone.

 

Canberra combatants cross the lake

20 August 2016

 

The Molonglo River has long appeared to be a dividing line between the northern and southern parts of Canberra, since it became the national capital last century.  This was even before a dam was built on the river to the west of the city centre, creating what became Lake Burley Griffin.  For argument’s sake, if you were to get in a boat on the river near Canberra Airport on the city’s eastern fringe, and then sail west, you’d come upon the lake beyond a large hillside near the river’s northern shoreline.

On the northern side of this watery divide, Canberra has its central shopping district, as well as the Australian National University.  On the southern side are lots of governmental buildings, among which is where Federal Parliament has sat since it moved there in the 1920s – before then it’d sat in Melbourne when established in 1901.

But a few decades ago, a certain change has produced parliaments on either side of Lake Burley Griffin.  The change came in the late 1980s, when the Australian Capital Territory became self-governing.  Lying somewhere near Canberra’s city centre is the ACT Parliament, made up of seventeen members in a single parliamentary chamber.  This is different from the dual-chamber parliaments existing both at the national level and in most Australian states.

With parliaments on either side of the lake, something mildly amusing can be made in relation to two Canberra-based politicians, namely Katy Gallagher from the Labor Party and Zed Seselja from the Liberal Party.  Both were leaders in ACT politics over the years, most significantly when they faced each other at the last ACT election, in October 2012, and now they’re in Federal Parliament.  One could argue that they both crossed the lake, if I could put it as such, to carry on their battle.

Although their switches differed in many ways, I could imagine a droll little scenario in relation to Gallagher and Seselja.  Only with Canberra’s geographic setting could it be possible for two prominent Canberra combatants to leave their local parliamentary chamber, walk along a major road heading south, cross the lake, head up to a hill where another chamber lies, and continue their battle there.  Of course, this fanciful scenario didn’t quite happen that way, but having parliaments on either side of the lake could’ve made it possible!

That 2012 ACT election saw Gallagher narrowly defeat Seselja, albeit only with the support of a crossbencher.  Back then, Gallagher had been Labor leader and Chief Minister of the ACT since 2011, following the departure of the long-serving Jon Stanhope, who’d taken Labor into office with crossbench support in the wake of an election in late 2001.  Seselja led the Liberals to within striking distance of victory in 2012, ultimately falling short by a few seats.  In fact the Labor and Liberal parties won eight seats apiece, out of a possible seventeen, with a Green holding the balance of power.  Support from the Green enabled Labor to hold office.

After this narrow loss, Seselja set his sights on Federal Parliament.  He challenged ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries for his seat in a preselection vote in 2013, and he won, duly entering the Senate later that year.  Humphries had been there since 2003, replacing veteran Liberal Senator Margaret Reid.

Ironically, Humphries had entered the Senate after a stint as ACT Liberal leader and Chief Minister, losing office in the 2001 election to Labor under Stanhope.  Labor has governed continuously in the ACT since that election.

In the meantime, Gallagher left the ACT Parliament a few years after the close election result in 2012, and entered the Senate after veteran Labor Senator Kate Lundy resigned.

Now both Gallagher and Seselja sit on opposite sides of a parliamentary chamber, like they sat before in another parliamentary chamber, albeit in positions not as senior as they were previously.  I suppose that we’re always wishing for politicians to “go and jump in the lake”.  Rarely would there be an example of politicians swapping parliaments on either side of a lake to go on with a battle.

 

Turnbull set to make it home

2 July 2016

 

Busy days and a twisty campaign for the 2016 Federal election have kept me away from commenting on it of late.  And today the campaign has come to its end, with Australians voting whether to continue with the Liberal-National Coalition Government or change direction.

Having looked at the last opinion polls ahead of voting, I’m predicting a swing of 3-4 per cent against the Coalition nationwide, but it looks like Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will lead the Coalition to a narrow win in the House of Representatives.  Swings aren’t always uniform at election time, meaning that some seats within the range of a uniform swing don’t necessarily fall, and some such seats unlikely to fall.  That’s why I believe that Turnbull is set to make it narrowly home.

The last election, in 2013, saw the 150-seat House fall comfortably to the Coalition over the Labor Party, with a 90-55 win, while a quintet of crossbenchers won the other seats.

Since the 2013 election, there have been electoral redistributions in several places, which have changed the numbers there.  Brought about by population changes, with the aim of giving as near as possible to an even number of voters in every seat in selected states or territories, the redistributions have notionally given the Coalition a new seat in Western Australia, notionally given Labor a trio of Coalition-held seats in New South Wales, and taken away one Labor-held seat.  As a result, the House now shows the Coalition 88-57 ahead of Labor.  This has reduced Labor’s task of a 21-seat target to a 19-seat target.

While this year was always going to be an election year, three years on from the last election, the last year has been been full of twists and turns.  The Coalition had won the last election largely off the back of massive voter dissatisfaction with Labor, but voters themselves didn’t like Tony Abbott, who was then the Coalition leader, and they only voted for because they were fed up with Labor.  It only took a few months for their dissatisfaction with Abbott to really show in the polls, and for month after month one poll after another showed voters ready to throw the Coalition out of office, after a single term there.  This brought about a leadership challenge in September last year, with Abbott dumped in favour of Turnbull.  But after enjoying much bigger approval ratings among voters for several months, Turnbull also lost favour with them, and in the first six months of this year he’s nosedived from looking unbeatable to looking vulnerable.

The amazing thing is that many people, myself included, didn’t expect Labor to be in with a shout after its 2013 election loss.  Even though voters hated Abbott, it seemed hard to believe that they could want to go back to Labor after throwing Labor out in a big way in 2013.  The switch from Abbott to Turnbull initially sent Labor’s stocks into freefall, but Labor has come back in a big way, and now looks to be in with a chance.

The trouble, as I see it, is that the Coalition has upset many people with its policy agenda, particularly when it comes to reducing public spending and a massive budget deficit that Labor had left behind.  Voters didn’t like Labor’s deficit, but they’ve been uneasy about how the Coalition intends to deal with it.  They’re afraid that spending cuts will leave them worse off and unable to spend more, and they’re afraid that the Coalition might try to return to a deregulated system of employment laws, which cost countless people a good chunk of their income and left them worried about of losing their jobs to people willing to accept less pay for work.  I could sum up their thoughts as saying, “We don’t like Labor’s clumsiness, but we also don’t like the Coalition’s stinginess.”

Those circumstances make the 2016 election interesting.  My prediction is for an overall swing of 3-4 per cent against the Coalition, but not all Coalition seats within that range will be lost, because of differing attitudes across different states and territories.  So my seat tips are as follows, albeit not without some close calls.

The Coalition will end up losing the seats of Petrie, Capricornia, Lyons, Solomon, Hindmarsh, Eden-Monaro, Lindsay, Robertson, Page, Reid, Macarthur, Bonner, Brisbane, and Cowan to Labor – 14 seats in all.  But on the other hand, the Coalition will end up winning McEwen and Chisholm and Bruce from Labor – a trio of Victorian seats.  Also, the Coalition will win back Fairfax in Queensland, with the departure from politics of mining tycoon Clive Palmer.  This points to a result of 78-68 to the Coalition over Labor, with a quartet of Independents holding the remaining seats.

I tip the Coalition to hold the seats of Braddon, Banks, Deakin, Gilmore, Corangamite, La Trobe, Bass, Forde, and Macquarie in the face of challenges.  Most of these seats are within the uniform swing range, with some above, but I think that the Coalition will hold them.

As for the Senate, it’ll be a lottery.  I won’t predict numbers, but I’m predicting the Coalition to face having to deal with balance-of-power crossbenchers in the Senate, just like previously.

This election will probably see Turnbull make it home.  But few would’ve tipped him to struggle before now.

 

July poll caused by mad-Tone disease

24 April 2016

 

Had the change of leadership last September led to the expected results, the next Federal election would’ve been held in about September or October this year.  Now the election looks likely to be a few months earlier, in July.  Although this shouldn’t really raise eyebrows, there’s more to this than meets the eye, at least at first glance.

Back in 2013, the Liberal-National Coalition had won an election off the back of major public satisfaction with the Labor Party, which had endured leadership problems and looked somewhat incompetent in office.  But despite the election win, the Coalition leader had always been unpopular with the voters, and this didn’t change when he became Prime Minister.  His unpopularity somehow gave Labor a chance of winning office back despite its troubles, and for many months one opinion poll after another confirmed it.  This scared the Liberal Party, and in September last year it led to a leadership challenge against the PM, which he lost.

People widely thought that a different person as PM would bring results, particularly with getting legislation through the Senate, where the Coalition lacked a majority and could only pass legislation with the support of crossbenchers.  Whereas the former PM was considered a combative type, with a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the Senate crossbenchers, the new PM was thought more likely to be able to persuade them to support legislation, and unpopular legislation at that.

But during months of initially high popularity with the voters, the new PM seems to have merely floated ideas, and dropped them at the first sign of unpopularity with voters.  This leaves voters unsure about what he seeks to do on various issues, including the hard job of reducing Federal budget deficits.  At the same time, people have long known where he stands on some issues, but they’re so at odds with where many Liberals stand that he’s unable to stand by his own principles.   And he also seems to have merely adapted the combative approach of his ousted predecessor.

The former PM and his cheer squad often ranted about the unhelpfulness of the Senate when he couldn’t get legislation through.  But his unpopularity meant that any election called with him in charge would see the Coalition defeated.  And the new PM, as well as seeing his initial popularity slip away, has gone from looking like a crossbench persuader to looking like a crossbench destroyer, which his predecessor probably sought to be.

Many people, myself included, didn’t expect the new PM to become as flustered and frustrated as this.  Indeed at first he was arguably accepting of the need to deal with the Senate crossbench, because that was how it was.  But he’s since moved to change how people win Senate seats at elections, making it harder for non-Coalition and non-Labor people to win Senate seats, and threatened an early election if the Senate crossbenchers didn’t support some other legislation.  With the Senate crossbenchers refusing to give in, the PM has carried out his threat, and now a July poll looks likely.

And here’s why I’ve been referring to both the former PM and the new PM by those terms, for the moment.  Given that men known as Tony sometimes go by the nickname “Tone”, I apply this contextually to the former PM, Tony Abbott, who was considered combative and sometimes mad, even if not always angry in the true sense of the word.  As for man who became PM last September, Malcolm Turnbull, he’s lately been replicating the combative approach of his predecessor – I call this “mad-Tone disease”.

It might sound crude, but I think that it sums up the approach of Turnbull’s predecessor, for reasons above.  And I didn’t believe that Turnbull would turn as nasty as he’s become in relation to the Senate crossbenchers.  But now Australia looks like having a July poll, unexpectedly caused by a case of mad-Tone disease, afflicting a leader thought least likely to catch it.

Normally, Federal elections see voters electing half of twelve Senators in each state.  But if the Senate repeatedly rejects certain pieces of legislation, the PM can move for a double-dissolution election, whereby all twelve Senators in each state face the voters.  The only danger for the major parties is that minor parties and Independents need fewer votes to win seats in double-dissolution elections, because in each state there are more available seats, which are won on a proportional basis, meaning how many votes parties and candidates win within their given state.  In the meantime, the territories have two Senators each, and they face the voters at every election.  And a double-dissolution now looks to be coming.

The coming election will have surprised people in terms of timing.  But what surprises more would be that the poll should result from mad-Tone disease, care of a former PM with a penchant for unwelcome combat.

 

New England’s nasty battle of flawed men

17 April 2016

 

The retirement of a veteran National ahead of a state election in New South Wales in 1991 set in train a memorable political career.  But nobody would’ve known it at the time.

The Nationals had to hold a preselection vote, to choose someone to succeed the retiring National, Noel Park, who’d held the seat of Tamworth for years.  Although a successor to Park was chosen, a rival beaten for preselection ended up running as an Independent against that chosen National in Tamworth at that 1991 election.  And the rival, named Tony Windsor, won the seat.

Windsor immediately attracted media attention after this, albeit not of his making.  He and another three Independents found themselves holding the balance of power in the NSW Parliament, after the election, against expectations, produced a hung result.

The election cost Premier Nick Greiner his parliamentary majority, and he could only govern with Independent support.  He initially needed only one crossbench vote, and Windsor provided it.  But the loss of a seat in a by-election later left Greiner reliant on more crossbench votes, and he ultimately resigned after a scandal surrounding a former minister.  Meanwhile, Windsor went on to hold Tamworth at elections in 1995 and 1999, winning a large majority of the primary vote there in 1999.

Two years later, widespread rural dissatisfaction with the Nationals prompted Windsor to run for Federal Parliament, and he won the seat of New England, which overlapped much of his old Tamworth seat.  Immensely popular, he held it at the next three Federal elections, the last of them in 2010, but the years following the 2010 election left his reputation somewhat tarnished.

Before the election, the Labor Party had dumped Kevin Rudd as leader and Prime Minister in a surprise coup, and installed Julia Gillard in the top job.  Rudd had led Labor to victory in 2007 and had been very popular among voters, but various dramas sent his popularity plunging and Labor MPs suddenly dumped him.  Anger over this cost Labor its majority at the election, and left Windsor and other crossbenchers with the balance of power.  Despite holding a seat where most voters would’ve preferred the Liberal-National Coalition over Labor, Windsor chose to support Gillard, whom he found more tolerable than Coalition leader Tony Abbott, and Labor was able to continue in office.  Windsor also had little regard for well-known National Barnaby Joyce, and he said as much.

Abbott and the Coalition, and their media cheer squad, subsequently waged a relentless stop-at-nothing war against the Independents, as well as Labor, to try shaming the Independents into tipping Labor out of office.  The Coalition was particularly peeved at Windsor, and ahead of a Federal election in 2013, Joyce chose to leave the Senate, where he’d been since 2005, in order to run against Windsor in New England.

But just before the 2013 election was called, Windsor chose to leave Parliament.  Although he apparently wasn’t in good health when he announced his departure, many people accused him of running away to avoid the wrath of his constituents for backing Labor instead of the Coalition after the 2010 election.

Had Windsor chosen to stay and fight, I suspect that he might’ve beaten Joyce, for reasons that I’ll explain later, and the battle would’ve been nasty.  In the end, with Windsor out of the picture, Joyce unsurprisingly won New England with ease, and the Coalition won the 2013 election.  But three years later, it looks like the nasty battle avoided in 2013 might now happen at the next election, because of what’s happened since.

The issue of mining on prime farmland, which angers many voters in NSW and Queensland, has prompted Windsor to make a comeback in New England, pitting him against Joyce, who now leads the Nationals following the retirement of Warren Truss.  So this coming election will feature New England’s nasty battle of two well-known men, and flawed men at that.

Joyce was a well-known maverick and rogue when only a backbench MP, freely speaking his mind and voting as he saw fit, even if the Nationals or Liberals hated it.  But when he went to the Coalition frontbench, he lost much freedom.  While backbench Liberals and Nationals can vote as they see fit, their frontbenchers must support positions taken by a majority of them.  And Joyce, as a National surrounded by Liberals, many with little or no understanding of the bush, can’t vote on principle unless most Liberals agree with him.

He can groan loudly about mining on prime farmland, or other issues, but if most Liberals want something done, he must toe their line.  He’s now a flawed politician.

Many people also consider Windsor flawed, after he supported Gillard and Labor.  But they forget that he voted against Gillard and Labor at times, including over abolition of a building industry authority, which the Coalition now seeks to revive.  Unlike Joyce, Windsor remains free to act on principle.

Flaws surround both Joyce and Windsor.  But I just don’t see mining on prime farmland, or any other issue, as triggering enough anger all over New England to ultimately bring Joyce down.  Windsor will probably suffer his first loss since that Tamworth preselection vote ahead of the 1991 NSW election.  The battle between those two men, whatever their flaws, will nevertheless be watched keenly.

 

Great night when an Independent stunned all

20 March 2016

 

This past week marked an anniversary of sorts.  Around this time ten years ago, in March 2006, something incredible happened in politics.  And I watched it happen, during the first visit that I ever made to an election tally room.

I’d gone to Adelaide to follow a state election in South Australia, the result of which was a comfortable win for the Labor Party over the Liberal Party.  But the election is memorable for another reason, which I’ll explain shortly.

The tally room in Adelaide wasn’t like tally rooms that I’d seen glimpses of on television before.  Tally rooms themselves are now almost extinct – they used to be in exhibition houses or similarly large buildings, which you could sometimes visit to watch election results coming in, but technology has pretty much made them obsolete.

This Adelaide tally room in 2006 was inside a television studio, and there were temporary stages set up for television networks to cover the election, while near them were rows of tables where people from radio stations sat as they covered the results.  On a back wall was a large screen, showing election results in every parliamentary seats, and they’d be updated electronically.  This kind of screen has replaced old-fashioned election result boards, on which election officials would constantly put up numbers as they received the latest results in each seat.  I saw with a few other election followers on a mezzanine level overlooking the tally room, and we watched the results coming in on that big screen.

By and large, the election results didn’t surprise.  Labor had come to power in 2002 with Mike Rann as leader, and he’d been popular as Premier, so he was widely tipped to win this election in 2006.  Sure enough, he won.  But something else of note happened here – it certainly amazed me, as a visitor to this place at the time.

Elections in South Australia are similar to Federal elections.  The State Parliament of SA has two chambers, namely the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council.  Elections for the Lower House, which is the Assembly, are for forty-seven single-member seats, and governments are formed here.  In the Upper House, which is the Council, there are twenty-two seats, with half of them, eleven in all, going up for grabs at election time, and the whole state is treated here as one single electorate.  To win a Lower House seat, you need a majority of the vote in that seat, but just over a twelfth of the statewide vote will win you an Upper House seat.  It’s worth noting that, to work out how many votes are needed to win a seat within a single electorate, especially with two or more seats in it, you have to divide the total vote in the electorate by a number which is one more than the number of seats up for grabs, and then add one vote to the divided total – hence the need for just over a twelfth of the statewide vote to win one of eleven Upper House seats.

Going into the 2006 election, among those politicians facing the voters was one particular bloke who’d won an Upper House with other people’s preferences two elections earlier, in 1997.  When I went to the election tally room in 2006, I only knew that he’d been a critic of poker machines, and that the major parties and some minor players were directing preferences away from him.  So I didn’t expect him to hold his seat, although I didn’t know how other people had tipped him to do.

How wrong I was.  Needing just over a twelfth of the statewide vote to be elected, this man and his team of candidates won roughly a fifth of the vote – enough to win two seats.  Not only did this man hold his seat, but he got a teammate elected on his coattails!  In fact, his team finished only a few percentage points behind the Liberal Opposition.

And so began, arguably at this moment, the phenomena that was this man, named Nick Xenophon.  Although already in Parliament, he mightn’t have been expected to hold his seat when he next faced the voters, having originally been elected on preferences.  But in 2006, he won in his own right, and actually did more than that.

This was therefore a great night for those with cynicism regarding politicians, as here was a moment when an Independent stunned all with an amazing win.

And Xenophon hasn’t looked back since.  Over a year after his 2006 win, he chose to run for Federal Parliament, and won a Senate seat in SA with ease.  His vote wasn’t as high as in the state election, but it was enough for him to win in his own right – he didn’t need preferences to win, which would’ve been rare for an Independent.  And when he next faced the voters in 2013, voters were so unhappy with the major parties that Xenophon increased his vote, and almost got a teammate elected.  He and his mate actually won more votes than Labor.

Now Xenophon looks safe in the Senate.  He’ll last as long as he wants to.  Rarely would you find an Independent so widely trusted when voters can’t abide the major parties.

 

Labor power pause ended by Bannon

31 January 2016

 

Plenty of memories would’ve been jolted among dedicated voters of the Labor Party, once described as the “true believers”, after the death late last year of John Bannon, who was Premier of South Australia from 1982 to 1992.  Bannon was among several State Labor leaders to win office around Australia just before Bob Hawke led Labor to a Federal election win in 1983, and they were later considered the upholders of a great Labor era, as well as the ones to bury bad memories after the end of the Whitlam Government in 1975.

Bannon led Labor to victory in SA after a single term out of office in late 1982.  He’d go on to win elections in 1985 and 1989, before a series of scandals, including the collapse of a major bank, triggered his departure.

In the year before Hawke was elected Prime Minister, Labor had won office in Victoria and SA, with John Cain being elected Premier of Victoria ahead of Bannon in SA, although between these triumphs Labor lost office in Tasmania after years in power.  Then Brian Burke led Labor to victory in Western Australia shortly before Hawke’s triumph.  Cain governed until 1990 and Burke governed until 1988, so Bannon outlasted both of them.  In the meantime, another Labor leader, Neville Wran, had been Premier of New South Wales for years before Cain, Bannon, Burke, and Hawke came to power.

But in a broader context, Bannon’s triumph was probably less grand than it seemed.  His win in 1982 came after Labor had lost office in 1979, and before that Labor hadn’t lost a state election in SA since 1968.  After 1982, Labor governed in SA until losing office in 1993, and nearly regained office in 1997, before regaining office in 2002.

SA has been strong for Labor for some time.  Going back 50 years to 1966, Labor had been governing only since the previous year, when it won an election – before then, it hadn’t governed in SA for many decades.  The Labor record here from 1966 was an election defeat in 1968, an election victory in 1970, defeat in 1979, victory in 1982, defeat in 1993, and victory in 2002, since which it’s remained in office despite a few near-misses at elections.  With Labor’s 1970 and 1982 wins following defeats in the elections immediately before them, and a near-miss in 1997 following defeat in 1993, the 1982 win might seem more like a Labor power pause, if I could put it like that, ended by Bannon.

Having strong leaders like Bannon would’ve helped Labor in SA.  Before Bannon, Don Dunstan was Premier for many years, and after Bannon it was Mike Rann who had a long stint as Premier.  Without them, Labor wasn’t as strong, and lost office after both Dunstan and then Bannon left.  After Rann left, new Labor leader and Premier Jay Weatherill narrowly held on to win an election in 2014, despite being expected to lose.

At the same time, a lack of strong opponents also would’ve helped Labor.  Until the defeat of the Coalition Government in Victoria in 2014, the Labor Government in Tasmania in 1992 was the last to lose office after a single term, and before that it was the Liberal Government in SA in 1982 to meet this fate, although the Liberal Government in SA in 1997 came close to meeting this fate as well.  After the 2014 election in SA, I spoke to a guy who was once a Liberal MP – he described the Liberal Party in SA as a basket case.

In terms of how strong SA has been for Labor since 1966, it’s worth noting that SA has been Labor’s strongest state.  Labor has governed there for a total of about 36 of those past 50 years.  In that same period Labor has governed for a total of about 32 years in Tasmania, 28 in NSW, 23 in Victoria, 22 in Queensland, and 21 in WA.

In 1966 there weren’t governments in either the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory.  They didn’t come until the 1970s in the former and the late 1980s in the latter.  Labor’s total time in office has been 11 years in the Northern Territory, and about 19 years in the ACT.

The death of Bannon late last year would’ve left many Labor people remembering better days.  More such memories will stir when other successful Labor leaders have passed on.

 

Lessons from North Sydney for minor players

27 December 2015

 

Both sides of politics have much to think about as a new year dawns.  With a Federal election coming next year, the Turnbull Coalition Government looks assured of victory, with the Opposition looking unelectable, at least as far as opinion polls go.  But it won’t be easy for the Liberal-National Coalition, as it’s got to make hard decisions about public spending and employment laws, among other things, even with the Labor Party hardly looking like a viable alternative.

Neither side looks like taking much out of the North Sydney by-election, which happened earlier this month.  Triggered by the resignation from Federal Parliament of former Treasurer Joe Hockey, it resulted in a fairly comfortable win for the Liberals.  There was a swing against them, but because Labor didn’t contest the by-election, conclusions weren’t so clear.

There were also more candidates contesting the by-election than had contested the seat at the last Federal election, in 2013.  As such, the vote went all over the place!  The Liberals had a swing of about 12-13 per cent against them on primary votes, and Independent candidate Stephen Ruff came second with 18-19 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals finished about 60-40 ahead of Ruff after preferences.

The big swing against the Liberals should’ve been troubling for them.  But there wasn’t really an appealing alternative candidate to North Sydney, so the swing seems less damaging.  And with more candidates running, even excluding Labor, voters can look elsewhere if they wish.

The rise in candidates contesting North Sydney made me think of a by-election in Victoria long ago.  It followed the resignation of Pat McNamara, who’d previously been leader of the Nationals and Deputy Premier in Victoria.  At a state election in 1999, McNamara won the rural seat of Benalla fairly comfortably from Labor candidate Denise Allen.  She was actually the only candidate running against McNamara.  When he resigned the following year, several candidates ran in the resulting Benalla by-election against the Nationals and Allen, who again stood for Labor.

With the Nationals out of favour in Benalla, there was a swing against them both on primary votes and after preferences, and Labor won.  However, probably due to the larger field of candidates than in the previous year’s election, Labor’s primary vote also dropped.

Benalla voters clearly had doubts about Labor, although they were unhappier with the Nationals.  It might be that at the previous year’s election, with only the Nationals and Labor to choose from, voters unhappy with both options basically made their choice by first rejecting the option that they disliked more – hardly an inspiring way to vote.  But Labor still finished first on primary votes, ahead of the Nationals, before winning the by-election on preferences, and you can’t fault that.

The Benalla by-election result back then makes me think that this month’s North Sydney by-election, had Labor run, might’ve seen swings on primary votes against the big political players.  When more candidates contest an election, voters have more choice, and if they’re unhappy they can naturally look elsewhere.

However, if there are lessons from this by-election in North Sydney, they’re really for minor players, be they minor parties or Independent candidates.  These lessons are important ahead of next year’s Federal election, especially if voters are unhappy with both the Coalition and Labor.

With Labor skipping the by-election, I’d have expected the Greens to win over people who’d otherwise voted for Labor in North Sydney.  After all, it’s a wealthy electorate with people tending to care more about issues like human rights and environmentalism, as they don’t worry about losing their jobs or their homes.  But support for the Greens barely changed, and their candidate finished behind Ruff.  Are the Greens now less strong than before?

Mind you, because the vote went all over the place, I wouldn’t strictly conclude that Ruff won over those who’d have otherwise voted for Labor.  If Ruff chooses to run as a candidate in North Sydney at the next election, would his vote from the by-election rise or fall?  With Labor having no chance of winning North Sydney, would voters unhappy with the Liberals support an alternative like Ruff?  Most North Sydney people didn’t vote for him in the by-election, so would they even consider him at the next election?

Voters usually don’t support Independents unless they feel like they really know them.  It’s not enough just to have “Independent” or the letters “I-N-D” after your name on a ballot paper.  If voters don’t feel familiar with minor players, even disliking the major parties won’t necessarily sway them.

Federal Independent MP Andrew Wilkie was widely known, as an intelligence analyst, before his election in 2010.  He’d contested several elections before finally winning a seat, and now looks like he’ll hold it for some time.  Having a high profile also helped the late Peter Andren in 1996, when he was elected as a Federal Independent MP.  He was a television newsreader in central New South Wales, so people in that region knew who he was, and he held his seat comfortably until his death.  Of course, countless Independents have lost elections despite being widely known, but being known often helps.

The lessons from North Sydney seem clear.  Minor political players in particular should heed them before the next election comes.