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.


Crossbench negotiations won’t end soon

21 December 2015


The change in leadership in September might’ve been, at least at this stage, the best thing to have happened to the Federal Coalition of late.  With the unpopular Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, polls consistently showed the Coalition heading for a major election defeat after a single term in office.  But after Malcolm Turnbull challenged Abbott for the leadership and beat him, the Coalition’s fortunes have turned around.  Now another Coalition election win looks beyond question.

But one thing won’t change after the next election – the need for the Prime Minister, whoever it is, to negotiate with the Senate, where minor parties and Independents hold the balance of power.  Currently, the Coalition needs support from six out of eighteen Senate crossbenchers to pass legislation.  After the next election, these numbers might change, but the need for crossbench negotiations in the Senate won’t end soon.

To understand the Senate situation, it’s worth noting when the last few Federal elections have happened, in reverse order.  They’ve been held in 2013, 2010, 2007, and 2004.  The reason for noting these election years will be explained shortly.

Elections generally are for all seats in the House of Representatives and a majority of seats in the Senate.  I say “a majority” advisedly, because in theory election include half-Senate elections, meaning half of all Senate seats going up for grabs, but this isn’t totally accurate.  This is because Parliament was set up before the territories, namely the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, even existed, let alone had representation.

Both the Northern Territory and the ACT have two Senators each, and the Coalition and the Labor Party always win those four seats.  Mind you, had Abbott still been leading, I’d have rated the Coalition’s ACT Senate seat as vulnerable, with the ACT considered less conservative than other parts of Australia, as well as less tolerant of Abbott.  But under Turnbull, the Coalition’s ACT seat looks safe.

The terms of state-based Senators end at every second election, with half of them facing voters on a rotating basis, hence the description of half-Senate elections.  Therefore the Senators who won seats at the last election, in 2013, won’t face the voters at the next election, due next year, but at the one after that, probably coming in 2019.  These Senators include the popular South Australian Independent Nick Xenophon, originally elected in 2007 before being elected again in 2013, so he’s not facing the voters next year.

The Senators who won seats at the 2010 election, the one prior to the last, will face the voters next year.  So we should note what happened with the Senate in 2010, specifically in the states.  The results back then show the Coalition now having little ground available to make up in the Senate.

The 2010 election saw mixed Senate results in the states, which have six seats each up for grabs at election time.  In Tasmania, Labor won three seats to the Coalition’s two, with the Greens winning one seat.  In Victoria, the Coalition and Labor won two seats apiece, with the Greens winning one seat, while another minor player, John Madigan, also won a seat.  In every other state, the Coalition won three seats to Labor’s two, with the Greens winning one seat.

Usually the Coalition and Labor together win five out of six available Senate seats in each state, with minor players often winning the sixth seat.  The stronger of the major parties will likely win three seats in those circumstances, though this varies from election to election and from state to state.

As such, the Coalition can’t increase its Senate numbers by much at the next election.  It’s defending three Senate seats apiece in four states, and it can only improve its numbers by one in both Victoria and Tasmania, where it won only two seats apiece.  I tip the Coalition to pick up those extra seats in those two states, but it won’t get a vote strong enough in any state to win a fourth seat, notwithstanding Turnbull’s popularity.

The Coalition will probably gain its third Victorian seat at the expense of Madigan, who snuck into the Senate on preferences in 2010.  Its third Tasmanian seat will probably come at the expense of Labor, which won three Tasmanian seats in 2010 but is now on the nose with voters.  But this would still leave the Coalition, assuming that it wins the election overall and three Senate seats in every state, needing maybe four crossbench Senate votes to pass legislation.

Turnbull’s rise has left Labor in such bad shape that it’ll probably lose ground in the Senate.  But Labor might only lose one seat in Tasmania, as it won two seats in every other state and isn’t likely to improve or worsen.

The Greens will hold most of their seats, as their vote remains quite strong across the country.  I rate them vulnerable in Queensland, where their vote seem less as in other states, but they may hold, as the major parties together hold five seats there already and no other minor players look that appealing.

Delicate Senate negotiations, with the kind of people once described by one of Turnbull’s predecessors as “unrepresentative swill”, look like continuing beyond the next election.  The rise of Turnbull as Prime Minister hasn’t made this possibility less likely as such.


Costly election hurdles highlighted by Palmer

19 April 2015

The last Federal election was notable as one in which a wealthy business figure bought parliamentary power.  Although not the main story of the election, it was far from insignificant.  What drew more attention was the election as Prime Minister of a man whom most Aussies disliked, some more vocally than others, all because his rival was part of a long-running leadership squabble that turned people off everywhere.

Elections in which voters can’t abide either government leaders or their opponents aren’t unheard of as such.  In those circumstances, voters invariably look elsewhere.  And sometimes minor players get elected, occasionally with the balance of power in parliaments and virtually the final say on whether or not government legislation is passed.

Over time, various minor political players have ended up with power over parliamentary chambers and the passage of legislation.  The Democrats enjoyed such power for many years.  Of late the Greens have enjoyed such power.  Both federally and at state level, various minor players have enjoyed this kind of power at one time or another.

But has anyone ever known of advertisements, either on television or radio, going to air for these minor players at election time?  Until 2013, I’d never seen or heard such ads, so I suspect that they’ve never been made, although I stand to be corrected on this.

What made the 2013 Federal election so different was the airing of ads for a minor player on the political scene.  Normally at election time we regularly see and hear ads for the major political parties, namely Labor and the Coalition parties.  But in 2013, voters saw and heard lots of ads for a political party set up by Clive Palmer, a billionaire who made his wealth in the mining industry.  Given his immense wealth, he ended up highlighting what’s long been a costly election hurdle for minor political players.

Palmer’s ability to spend a fortune to get his political party much airtime, especially during television news bulletins, when people were most likely to be watching television, was arguably an advantage unprecedented for minor players.  Getting a television ad to air must cost a fortune, especially during the most watched periods of the day, even if the ad itself costs little to make.  I lost count of the number of times that I saw Palmer talking, straight to a camera, in television ads during news bulletins.  Palmer just said a variety of simple sentences, strung together by blurring images, to make voters think that he could do a better job of running the country than either Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott.  I’d never before seen so many ads for a minor party, though there weren’t more of those than there were for the major parties.

Voters were definitely disillusioned with Rudd and Abbott.  Rudd was popularly elected as Prime Minister in 2007, and he remained popular for years, but after a few months of sliding popularity, Rudd was rolled in a surprise coup in 2010, with Julia Gillard becoming Prime Minister.  Because the coup was such a shock and never really explained, voters hated it, and they revolted to the point of almost tipping Gillard out of office at an election soon after – disliking Abbott probably stopped voters from throwing Gillard out.  Brooding over the coup, Rudd sniped away and undermined Gillard’s leadership, though Gillard herself didn’t do a good job of winning voters over to her, and Rudd ultimately won a leadership challenge to return as Prime Minister.  Having almost beaten Gillard in 2010, and embittered at only just failing, Abbott went on to behave with relentless opportunism and negativity.  Abbott had long peeved voters with his combative style as a minister in the Howard Government, but after he’d become Opposition Leader, the Rudd-Gillard saga made people look at Abbott more often.

In the meantime, Palmer became disillusioned with governmental processes and saw fit to start his own political party.  Using his wealth and capitalising on voters’ disillusionment, he won a large chunk of the vote across the country – enough to win three Senate seats among what became a crossbench of eighteen Senators.  Several other minor players also won seats.

Since then, two of Palmer’s Senators have left his party for various reasons.  Time will tell whether they end up as credible politicians.  But they wouldn’t have entered Parliament without support provided by Palmer.  Some irony would probably exist in the notion, which may or may not come to pass, of two respected political careers having begun because of a man whose wealth highlighted a costly election hurdle that minor political players invariably face.

Senate crossbenchers can be persuaded

23 March 2015

Quirky fortune got David Leyonhjelm elected to the Senate in 2013.  Now he’s among eighteen crossbench Senators holding the balance of power there, although some people put that number at only eight.  So you might wonder what the fortune was for Leyonhjelm, a Liberal Democrat from New South Wales, whose name is pronounced “Lion-helm” and can be remembered if you think of a “lion at the helm”.

When Australians cast their votes at the last Federal election, in 2013, the Liberal Democrats won 9.5 per cent of the Senate vote in NSW.  This was well above their second-best share of the vote, about 3.5 per cent in South Australia.  At the previous election, in 2010, they won only about 2.3 per cent of the Senate vote in NSW, and then a similar share in Queensland.

How was this surge from 2.3 per cent to 9.5 per cent in NSW possible?  Some people argued that, when parties and groups were drawn to select the order in which they’d be listed on Senate ballot papers in different states, the Liberal Democrats were lucky enough to draw first place in NSW.  Many NSW voters saw the name “Liberal” in first place on the Senate ballot paper in that state and voted “1” in the box under the name – they presumably thought that they were voting for the Liberals and Nationals in the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott, when in fact they were voting for Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats!

This outcome really peeved the Coalition, and particularly the Liberal Party.  I actually thought that I heard speculation of the Liberals apparently seeking to legislate to prevent the use of “Liberal” in the name of any other political group – if true, this sounds petty.

Nevertheless, Leyonhjelm is now among eighteen crossbenchers holding the balance of power in the Senate.  But some people put that number of crossbenchers at only eight, because the Greens hold ten of the eighteen Senate seats not held by either the Coalition parties or the Labor Party, and the Greens are more likely than not to vote with Labor in opposing the Coalition Government on any piece of legislation.

Even so, the Coalition parties only need the votes of six crossbench Senators to get legislation passed.  In a sense, they can afford to ignore Labor and the Greens.  And they’ve managed to get some bills passed, such as the abolition of controversial carbon and mining taxes.  But they’ve failed to get other things passed so far, and it seems frustrating.

My point about Leyonhjelm is that he’s spoken about how the Coalition’s ministers deal with the crossbenchers in seeking to get the votes needed to pass legislation.  Late last year, I saw Leyonhjelm on television, and he said that some ministers were better than others in terms of persuading the crossbenchers and negotiating with them.  He cited Senator Mathias Cormann as the best in that respect, and he also praised Scott Morrison, although he didn’t mention any other names in either a good or bad light.  And last week he reiterated his praise for Cormann and Morrison in a report in a major newspaper.

Admittedly, Leyonhjelm is only one of the Senate crossbenchers, and he can’t necessarily speak for the rest of them.  I don’t know if the other crossbenchers have spoken similarly about the Coalition’s ministers.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if they have similar stories to tell, if they choose to say as much publicly.

The Senate crossbenchers can be persuaded to support legislation, but only if the Coalition plays its cards right.  At least one crossbencher has already indicated that Cormann and Morrison have clearly done some things right.  What have they done right that other ministers have done wrong?  Maybe the way that Cormann and Morrison have gone about their business would need to be used as a guide for their ministerial colleagues.