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.

 

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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.

 

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.

 

Ruddock shown the exit door for no good reason

15 February 2016

 

The Liberals have pushed Philip Ruddock out of Federal Parliament.  I don’t believe otherwise.  Ruddock himself might deny it, but there’s too much evidence to suggest that he’s been pushed into retiring from politics.

It’s by no means uncommon for MPs to call time on their political careers, at their own free will, when elections aren’t far away.  But I doubt that this has been the case with Ruddock, who was elected to Parliament before I was even born.

With the next Federal election long predicted to be happening during this year, my feeling is that if Ruddock really had felt like retiring, he’d have announced his retirement a least a year ago.  That said, the timing of his announcement of retirement, likely to be months out from the election, probably shouldn’t be an issue in itself.  But over recent months there’s been speculation that if some Liberal MPs, especially older ones, didn’t choose to retire, they’d face challenges to their preselection, meaning their positions as Liberal candidates for elections.  And Ruddock’s been among those Liberals thought to be under the gun.  When you couple this speculation of a push against older Liberals with the timing of Ruddock’s retirement announcement, his retirement doesn’t look to be on his terms.

While no MP stays around forever, Ruddock looks to have been shown the exit door from Parliament, and for no good reason.  It’s true that he’s now aged in his seventies, but age alone shouldn’t be an excuse to show any MP the door.  Given the length of service given by Ruddock to the Liberal Party, and the regard in which many Liberals hold many things that he’s done throughout his service, he really deserved to be free to depart at a time of his choosing.

Ruddock has been in Parliament for more than forty-two years.  He was elected to the seat of Parramatta, in western Sydney, at a by-election in 1973.  In 1977 he switched to a new seat nearby, called Dundas, and he held it until 1993, when it was abolished.  From there he switched to the seat of Berowra, in northern Sydney, where he’s been ever since.

When the Liberal-National Coalition won office in 1996, after thirteen years out of office, Ruddock became Immigration Minister, and he held that post for a number of years.  It was during his time there, in 2001, that immigration suddenly became a hot political issue, particularly the question of people trying to sail to Australia on leaky boats from countries to the north, often after paying people smugglers to put them on boats, and how the Coalition sought to stop the arrival of these “boat people”.  A quietly-spoken person, Ruddock himself wasn’t overly vocal during the intense debate over this issue, but he was firm in arguing the Coalition Government’s case.  Indeed when a Federal election came later that year, Ruddock drew massive applause from the Coalition’s faithful supporters during Coalition campaigning when Prime Minister John Howard mentioned him – the cheers among the Coalition faithful were arguably as great for Ruddock as they were for Howard.  Amid this environment came a memorable “we will decide who comes to this country” declaration from Howard, with people remembering it, regardless of whether they agreed or not.

Because the Coalition’s policies succeeded in stopping the arrival of boat people, many Liberals came to hold Ruddock in high regard.  After the Coalition lost office to the Labor Party in 2007, Labor reversed the Coalition’s policies, and boat people started coming again, so it was unsurprising that the Coalition restored its policies when it returned to office in 2013, with boat arrivals subsequently stopping again.  Of course, the immigration debate in 2001 upset lots of people around the country, and some Liberal MPs felt that the Coalition was too harsh – this is why I deliberately say that “many” Liberals, rather than all, regard Ruddock highly.

Having been in Parliament for so long, Ruddock has seen the Coalition’s fortunes change over time.  In late 1972, a year before Ruddock’s arrival, the Coalition parties lost office for the first time in decades, and they seemed to regard their loss as illegitimate.  Ruddock therefore would’ve watched them fight ruthlessly to return to office in 1975, seem to dither until losing office in 1983, go through years of interal warfare over leadership, lose another four elections, return to office in 1996, survive a few close elections, lose office in 2007 after appearing stale, almost win in 2010, and fight ruthlessly until returning to office in 2013.  He’d have also watched his political opponents go through highs and lows, and watched Australia go through both economic boom times and recessions.

I dare say that Ruddock has many interesting stories to tell about events in Parliament during his time there, which public mightn’t already know.  He might’ve seen coming what political events might’ve surprised us all when they happened.  Hopefully he’ll have passed on his wealth of knowledge and insight for the Liberals in particular to remember.

Sadly the wrong reasoning looks to have seen Ruddock depart.  Of course, many people will miss him, and many will be glad to see the back of him.  But he really deserved to depart on his terms after almost forty-three years in Parliament.  Few like him last as long as that.

 

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.

 

By-election forgotten as Liberal fortunes turn

30 October 2015

 

The surprise leadership coup of last month, which saw the Liberal Party dump Tony Abbott as leader and Prime Minister in favour of Malcolm Turnbull, seemed to put a Federal by-election in Western Australia almost in the shade.  The by-election, in the seat of Canning, on the fringe of Perth, was rated as a test of Abbott’s leadership, and some pundits were predicting that the Liberals would lose the seat.  But when they dumped Abbott for Turnbull just days out from the by-election, their fortunes seemed to turn around to the point where the by-election meant little.

Brought about by the untimely death of Liberal MP Don Randall, the Canning by-election should’ve been rated a non-event in the general scheme of things.  The Liberals held the seat by a margin of 11.8 per cent over the Labor Party.  Such a margin normally wouldn’t rate as a winnable seat.

However, the unpopularity of Abbott made Canning look vulnerable.  Opinion polls were showing swings against the Liberals potentially as high as the margin in Canning, which would’ve been disastrous for them and for Abbott’s leadership.  Abbott had never been popular – he was only elected Prime Minister because Labor had become so consumed with infighting that voters were put off.

Many people had long been predicting that Abbott’s leadership would be in trouble, and it looked like the issue would come to a head after the by-election, even if the Liberals had won it.  Governments sometimes get kicks up the rear end at by-elections, if voters are angry enough with them and want to show their anger before general elections come.  In any case, I wasn’t among those expecting a challenge to Abbott, simply because I didn’t see any viable alternatives.

I’d felt that the Liberals would never turn to Turnbull, who holds views on various issues, such as climate change, which are firmly at odds with Liberal MPs.  There was talk of the Liberals turning to either deputy leader Julie Bishop or senior minister Scott Morrison in place of Abbott.  But I didn’t see either as up to the job.  I think that Bishop isn’t cut out for leadership – she lacks the charisma as a speaker, and doesn’t make people snap to attention when they hear her.  As for Morrison, I rate him a better communicator who can get his message across well, but he’s only been in Parliament since 2007 and he probably needs more time before he’s ready for leadership.  Therefore, before the leadership coup, I didn’t see anyone else as able to replace Abbott – hence my surprise when the leadership coup happened, especially with the Canning by-election just days away.

Some people wondered if voters in Canning would react badly to the leadership coup.  Voters across the country had become sick of leadership changes in recent years, especially by Labor, whose MPs seemed to panic over leadership time and again.

In the end, the by-election result was a win to the Liberals, despite a swing of 6-7 per cent against them, which was perhaps in line with predictions.  I’d actually predicted the swing to be a bit larger, especially as by-elections often enable voters to give incumbent governments a collective kick up the rear end if they’re unhappy with them.

I suspect that had Abbott still been leading when the by-election happened, the eventual result would’ve set off leadership speculation in the media.  Given that opinion polls seemed to be showing a swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor on a nationwide basis, a swing in that range in Canning would’ve set the hares running, even though the Liberals would’ve held the seat.

But the leadership coup looks to have been a blessing for the Liberals.  Several opinion polls have shown their support turning around since Turnbull became leader, and they’ve gone from facing election defeat after a single term in office to looking like they’ll clearly win the next election, due in about twelve months’ time.

Until the coup, the Canning by-election was looking likely to give Labor a boost, despite voters’ misgivings about Labor’s performance.  But now it seems as if the by-election has been forgotten as Turnbull has made Liberal fortunes turn in a big way.

How long Turnbull’s popularity lasts will be worth looking at.  Many Liberals still believe in doing things that Abbott was aiming for before he lost the leadership.  Turnbull might change a few things, but he might still believe in other things.  The challenge will be whether Turnbull can persuade voters to accept what they’ve thought to be unpopular policies or plans, at least since the unpopular Abbott had been in charge.

 

Bizarre rise to political leadership

24 October 2015

Last month marked thirty years since a bizarre event took place in politics.  Even if you’re conditioned to expect the unexpected in politics, I doubt that anybody would’ve confidently predicted what happened in Canberra in early September 1985.

How often does a man start a day as the deputy leader of a political party, theoretically one step away from being a rooster, and wonder if by day’s end he’ll be a feather duster as a mere MP on the party’s backbench, only to end up actually the leader of the party and hence a rooster?

Well, this was what happened to John Howard in September 1985.  Arguably by accident, he became leader of the Liberal Party, for the first of two stints in the job, the second of which included his election as Prime Minister in a big election win in 1996 and more than a decade on top.

Howard had run for the Liberal leadership after the Liberals lost office in 1983, with defeated Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser calling it quits in the aftermath, but Andrew Peacock beat Howard to the leadership.  Both Peacock and Howard had been senior ministers under Fraser, the former holding several different portfolios in the Fraser Government and the latter being Treasurer for all but the first two years of it.  Peacock was considered the more popular of the two among Liberal MPs, but Howard was thought to be stronger on advocating policy.

In late 1984, less than two years after leading the Labor Party to its first Federal election win since 1974, Prime Minister Bob Hawke saw fit to call a snap election.  Despite Hawke’s immense popularity, Peacock reduced his parliamentary majority a fair bit in that election.  Afterwards, Peacock was unsurprisingly elected as Liberal leader again.  But Howard publicly declined to rule out challenging Peacock for the leadership in future, which unsettled Peacock to some degree.  Howard presumably decided that Liberal MPs clearly preferred Peacock to him, and that he should just concentrate on doing his job as both a shadow minister and as deputy leader of the Liberals, to which he’d been elected.

During the period from late 1984 until September 1985, Howard came across as a better parliamentary performer than Peacock, who was considered all-style-no-substance.  Peacock subsequently became flustered and was convinced that Howard was undermining him, although Howard was never apparently doing any such thing.  In the end, Peacock sought a change of deputy leadership, but nobody was really interested in taking on Howard.  A challenger was subsequently found, namely former minister John Moore, who ran reluctantly.

When a vote was held for the deputy leadership, Howard was probably wondering if he’d still have the job by day’s end.  But he ended up winning the vote over Moore.  Peacock was therefore humiliated, and he resigned as leader, with Howard becoming the new leader in the aftermath.

Howard’s accidental rise to the Liberal leadership that day must surely rate as a bizarre rise to political leadership if ever you could describe one.

Interestingly, soon after Howard had become Liberal leader, he and his supporters held a celebratory meeting, during which his wife proclaimed that their next destination, so to speak, would be The Lodge, namely the official residence of the Prime Minister in Canberra.  But history shows eleven years passing before they got there.

In that eleven-year period, Howard would go through rough times which might’ve broken the back of countless other politicians.  He’d go on to lose an election to Hawke in 1987, lose the Liberal leadership to Peacock in a surprise coup in 1989, live through election losses in 1990 and 1993, and ultimately return to the Liberal leadership in 1995, ten years after first obtaining it and only after Liberal MPs reluctantly decided that only he could bring them back to office.  Howard sensed that he’d never been as popular among Liberals as Peacock was, and his accidental rise to the leadership in 1985 didn’t really endear him to them, for years after the event.

As a final point, when Howard finally made it to The Lodge upon his election as Prime Minister in 1996, he seldom lived there.  He preferred to base himself at Kirribilli House, the Sydney residence of the Prime Minister, which happened to be close to his northern Sydney home base, and also because he regarded Sydney as more important than the national capital in terms of business affairs.

History shows Howard going through a rocky road in politics, as many political leaders would’ve endured.  But his first stint as Liberal leader, putting him a stone’s throw from the top job in the country, came about after a bizarre political event.  Few stories of would-be roosters avoiding becoming would-be feather dusters could match what Howard went through back in September 1985.

Turnbull’s rise triggers climate change

27 September 2015

Massive dissatisfaction with the Abbott Coalition Government probably had countless people expecting a leadership change.  But there were too many factors making most people, including myself, doubt that it’d happen so soon – hence the sense of shock when it happened just under a fortnight ago, and just after the second anniversary of the election of the Abbott Government to power.

No sensible person would argue that Tony Abbott was ever popular during his time as Liberal Party leader, whether as Opposition Leader from 2009 or as Prime Minister from 2013.  In fact, most people had long disliked him.  They ended up voting for him because the Labor Party became distracting from governing because of internal leadership squabbles, and he’d done a good job of making the voters doubt the competency in office of Labor, particularly regarding economic management.  But despite winning an election, Abbott never had voters warming to him, and once the main players in Labor’s troubles had departed politics, people no longer had anything reminding them of why they’d voted for Abbott and the opinion polls began to show it.

Having lost office to an unpopular rival, Labor was somehow able to benefit from this scenario, and found itself consistently ahead of the Liberal-National Coalition in the opinion polls, despite having done nothing to attract the voters.  The Coalition made some mistakes in terms of policies and explaining the reasons behind them to voters, but these were all that Labor needed to lead in the polls.

However, despite the unpopularity of the Coalition and especially of Abbott, there was doubt over whether a leadership change would happen in the Coalition.  Everybody talked about Malcolm Turnbull as a better alternative, and more popular with the voters, but the majority of Coalition MPs couldn’t abide him.  And no other Coalition MPs even looked like they had what it took to replace Abbott, at least in the short term.

So there would’ve been some surprise when Turnbull quit his post as Communications Minister and moved to challenge Abbott for the Liberal leadership.  He ended up beating Abbott 54-44 in a vote among Liberal MPs, which wasn’t quite an even split but also wasn’t a comfortable margin.  The Liberals were clearly divided over Turnbull, and time will tell whether he can gain the trust of those who voted against him.

Turnbull is seen as too close to Labor on certain issues.  He’s a firm believer in reducing environmental pollution and tackling climate change, which the Coalition is arguably divided over, with many Coalition MPs dismissing the whole notion of climate change as a myth.  He’s more tolerant of same-sex marriage than other Coalition MPs, and he’s long championed the notion of constitutionally changing Australia to make the country a republic.  Labor is more inclined to support these issues than the Coalition, and many in the Coalition ranks can’t abide Turnbull because of his positions on them.

But polls have consistently shown voters rating Turnbull more highly than Abbott as a leader.  Turnbull has firm convictions, and he is articulate and able to sell messages well as a communicator.  Some people argue that Turnbull could lure many voters away from Labor, particularly those who voted against the Liberals more because of disliking Abbott than actually preferring Labor.  It may take several opinion polls over the coming months to show what effect Turnbull’s rise has on the Coalition’s vote.  In a sense, we’ll soon see whether or not his rise to the Liberal leadership triggers climate change, albeit of a political kind rather than an environmental kind.

Now the challenge facing Turnbull as Prime Minister relates to the Coalition’s policies and its ability to sell them to the public.  The Coalition has been burnt in the polls because of unpopular policies in relation to cuts in public spending and possible changes to employment laws.  Although voters seem to accept that there’s a major budget deficit, they’re scared that potential spending cuts will hurt them personally.  They’re not convinced that the Coalition wants to tackle tax avoidance by major companies, and they’re scared that the Coalition might try to deregulate the employment market, removing things like penalty rates for shift-based jobs, as happened when the Coalition was last in office.  Can Turnbull convince voters to accept its policy agenda, or make any cuts seem less painful?

More importantly, can Turnbull convince the crossbenchers in the Senate, whose support he needs to pass laws?  He needs six extra Senate votes to pass any laws, and he needs to engage with those Senators and persuade them as well as the public.  I suspect that he’d do a better job of persuading and negotiating than Abbott did, but it’s not going to be easy.

Turnbull might just bring the Coalition’s vote up in the opinion polls.  But he needs to win over the cynics in his own ranks, as well as the public and the crossbench Senators who could make or break his policy agenda.  Very interesting times lie ahead as Turnbull confronts challenges from different directions.

Mixed signals likely in Canning

14 September 2015

The recent death of Don Randall has triggered a Federal by-election in Western Australia, which happens this Saturday.  Unsurprisingly, it’s been talked and written about as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, with its popularity long on the skids, despite an apparent lack of appeal among voters for the Labor Party.

By-elections usually happen when MPs die or resign well before general elections happen.  These are separate elections held only in the seats of former MPs upon their departure.  In the case of the late Randall, the by-election caused by his death will happen in the seat of Canning, based on the southern fringe of Perth.

Randall had two stints in Federal Parliament, albeit without doing much of note.  He was first elected in the seat of Swan, in Perth’s south, in 1996, and was defeated in 1998.  He stood successfully for Canning in 2001, and held that seat until his death.  But the thing for which I remember Randall most was in fact a grubby jibe, which I’ll come to.

At first glance, the Liberal Party really shouldn’t lose Canning.  It holds this seat by a margin of about 11.8 per cent over Labor.  But when I last looked closely at some opinion polls a few months ago, they showed swings to Labor as high as the Canning margin in Western Australia alone – well above a predicted swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor nationwide, as well as the swing about 4.3 per cent needed by Labor simply to win the next election.  I haven’t looked closely at the polls of late simply because they’ve lacked geographic breakdowns, which I see more value in than the nationwide snapshots that most opinion polls focus on.  Anyway, the polls have actually suggested that Canning is more vulnerable than it looks.

Canning has also been something of a swinging seat over the last few decades.  The Liberals held it during the years when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, lost it to Labor when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister in 1983, and won it from Labor when John Howard was elected Prime Minister in 1996.  Labor regained the seat in 1998, before Randall regained it for the Liberals in 2001.  In later years he survived one strong challenge from Labor candidate Alannah MacTiernan, a former State Labor Government minister.

When Randall first entered Parliament in 1996, he won Swan from Labor, after Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley left that seat to run for Brand, a safer Labor seat at the time.  In the end, Beazley was almost beaten in Brand.  Some observers put his near-defeat down to the reluctance of the Australian Democrats, led by Senator Cheryl Kernot, to direct preferences to Labor, to whom they’d usually directed their preferences at past elections.  Despite this near-death experience, Beazley became Labor leader after former Prime Minister Paul Keating departed.

In late 1997, the highly-regarded Kernot stunned all and sundry when she announced her defection from the Democrats to the Labor Party.  It seemed that Labor figures had been courting Kernot, who was disillusioned with the agenda of the Howard Coalition Government in those days – Labor was trying to distance itself from the unpopular Keating and might’ve seen Kernot as a break from the Keating era.  But Kernot had a hard time in Labor ranks, and was defeated in 2001, before it was revealed that she’d been having an affair with Labor stalwart Gareth Evans.

It was after Kernot’s defection to Labor that Randall did what I remember him most for.  Standing up in Parliament, Randall described Kernot as having “the morals of an alley cat” – a grubby remark.

There might well have been some irony in this incident.  Kernot arguably played some part in almost finishing off the career of Labor stalwart Beazley, but the insulting of her after her defection came from a man who would’ve finished off the career of Beazley if he hadn’t left the seat of Swan to run for Brand.

After this insult, Randall seemingly achieved little else in politics.  He lost Swan in 1998, before returning to Parliament by winning Canning in 2001.

Meanwhile, going back to the by-election resulting from his death, an element of sympathy might save the Liberals in his seat.  By-elections rarely change hands when triggered by deaths, and despite the unpopularity of the Liberals at this time, voters mightn’t be as keen to give them a kick in the rear end as they’d be if MPs call it quits outside election time for no good reason.

Mixed signals await in Canning with this coming by-election.  There’ll be a decent swing against the Liberals, but probably not big enough to lose them the seat, though any swing above 6-7 per cent against them could send Labor cock-a-hoop, despite voters’ doubts about Labor.  My tip is for a swing of 7-8 per cent to Labor, which wouldn’t be too bad a result for the Liberals at this time.  The size of the swing will grab attention, showing whether or not voters might gradually turn back to the Coalition.

Sydney might still have Moore coming

11 September 2015

Local council elections happen in New South Wales in about a year’s time.  There’s been talk that many local councils mightn’t even exist when elections come around, with the State Government looking to merge councils everywhere.

I’m not convinced that council mergers, forced or otherwise, will play that heavily on the minds of voters.  In terms of what local councils do, you’d think of them as the bodies responsible for garbage collection and street repairs, and from whom you need approval if you’re looking to build a new house or extend an existing one.  There have been several council mergers across NSW over the last decade or so, but despite a lot of hype, they don’t seem to have mattered much to voters in the end.

My mind goes back to the forced merger of two councils in Sydney’s inner west, creating a new council named Canada Bay, which came about despite local opposition.  In those days, the Labor Party was governing in NSW, and the merger was talked up as a major issue.  But when local council elections came years later, Labor won several seats on the merged council, and also won the mayoral election, which was by popular vote, quite easily.  This dispelled the notion of local anger over council mergers.

Only one council merger in recent memory has caused local resentment – the merging of Sydney City Council and a neighbouring council in early 2004.  It catapulted State MP Clover Moore into the job of Lord Mayor of Sydney, and she looks like staying forever, despite the efforts of many to get rid of her.

Moore’s election of Lord Mayor of Sydney City Council, which only takes in a relative handful of suburbs in inner Sydney rather than a vast part of the Sydney metropolitan region, was basically a backlash against what inner urban voters saw as grubby politics.  The State Labor Government of the time merged two councils to create one larger council taking in the Sydney CBD and surrounds, and sacked the elected councillors.  It was thought that Labor was trying to stack the council with people more likely to approve projects, specifically new buildings and office towers, which major property developers were really keen to construct in order to make a quick buck, regardless of whether their proposed buildings would fit in with the character of the CBD, among other reasons.  Voters saw Labor, and the Liberal Party for that matter, as beholden to big businesses, or “the top end of town”, which they resented.  Sensing the resentment, Moore chose to run for the Lord Mayoralty of the merged council, and won.  She came across as some kind of “voice” of “little people” against “big people”, despite concerns about possible clashes over the mayoralty and her existing job as a State MP.  Inner urban voters have elected her again and again ever since.

Because of this popularity, Moore has seen fit to pursue ideas like replacing streets’ traffic lanes with bicycle lanes and light rail.  She clearly thinks that voters will support her and her ideas, largely because they distrust the major political parties.  The dedicated bicycle lanes, known as cycleways, have annoyed many business owners, because they’ve taken away parking spaces and disrupted flows for vehicular traffic.  But despite the existence of many small businesses in the inner city, voters seem to think of big business when they hear the term “business”, and see business as caring more about a quick buck than ordinary people’s needs.  Credible or not, this is perhaps inner urban voters’ collective attitude regarding business, and might be why they trust Moore.  Both Labor and the Liberals have tried various things to get Moore out of politics, but she’s beaten them every time.

This might be why the Liberal-National Coalition, which has governed NSW since 2011, has pursued ideas such as building light rail lines through the CBD, despite the inevitable disruption to vehicular traffic and some long-held resistance from the business community.  I sense that the Coalition is trying to paint itself as sharing Moore’s ideals, because it knows that voters seem to like what she’s for, and copying her ideas might be the only means of ending her career.

But I suspect that Moore will stay on, rather than retire.  Light rail will take time to build, and with local council elections a year away, there might be suspicions that the Coalition is only copying her until election time, in the hope of confusing voters into tossing Moore out, before ditching her ideas.  I think that Moore will stay on until her vision of light rail and cycleways and other stuff is complete.  If you’ll pardon the pun, there’ll still be more, or Moore, coming soon in terms of what features Sydney might have.

The trust of Moore in inner Sydney stems clearly from distrust of the major parties.  I can’t see even merging Sydney City Council with other councils or splitting it up as likely to bring Moore down.  Distrust of major parties will probably give Moore at least another mayoral term.