Inner Melbourne’s electoral lesson

4 December 2017

 

The Liberal Party generally has little chance of winning seats in places like inner Melbourne.  This area has long been strong for the Labor Party, notwithstanding some occasional Liberal wins over time.

But a by-election for a Labor seat in inner Melbourne, which the Liberals didn’t contest, arguably showed that Liberal voters in that area would rather vote for the Greens than Labor, or at least give the Greens their preferences over Labor.  This area is perhaps one where voters either love or loathe Labor.

Actually I’m being cheeky here – this isn’t strictly a reference to a recent by-election in the Labor-held seat of Northcote, which the Greens ended up winning.

Instead I refer to a by-election in another inner Melbourne seat, Albert Park, which occurred around this time ten years ago, in late 2007.

That Albert Park by-election followed the surprise departure of Victorian Deputy Premier John Thwaites.  Because Albert Park was safe for Labor, the Liberals opted against contesting the by-election.  In the end, although Labor held the seat without much trouble, the Greens came second by a smaller margin than the Liberals had come at previous general elections.

Thwaites actually resigned from Parliament together with Premier Steve Bracks, who’d been in the top job since a surprise election win in late 1999.  Elected Labor leader just months earlier, Bracks wasn’t rated much of a chance of winning when Premier Jeff Kennett called the election.  But a surprise backlash against Kennett across rural Victoria ended up tipping him out, and Bracks became Premier.  He’d held another Melbourne seat, Williamstown, for a few years before his rise to first the Labor leadership and then the top job.

Albert Park and Williamstown actually sit beside each other.  Between them is the Yarra River, where it flows into Port Phillip.  And with Thwaites and Bracks both resigning together, by-elections for their old seats were held at the same time, with the Liberals opting against contesting either by-election.  The Greens also did better in Williamstown in the absence of the Liberals, but they didn’t get as close to Labor as they got in Albert Park, with Labor’s Williamstown margin much bigger.

If there were lessons to learn from these by-elections, the most apparent would’ve been of Liberal voters liking the Greens more than they liked Labor.

Ten years on, these by-elections, particularly in Albert Park, came back to me after the recent Northcote by-election, which Labor lost to the Greens.  That by-election followed the untimely death of Labor MP Fiona Richardson.  Notwithstanding the rise in the popularity of the Greens across inner Melbourne over time, I was sure that Labor would hold Northcote, because the by-election came about under tragic circumstances, and not many by-elections following deaths have resulted in seats changing hands.  Needless to say, I was wrong.

The rise of the Greens in inner Melbourne is beyond question.  After coming closer to Labor in various inner Melbourne seats than the Liberals over the years, the Greens have won seats, both at state level and nationally.  They’re now stronger in numerous seats than the Liberals.  Mind you, while the Greens have mostly taken seats off Labor, they also won a Liberal-held seat in inner Melbourne in 2014.

And because the Liberals didn’t contest the by-election in Northcote, Liberal voters there were required to direct their support elsewhere.  Clearly many of them, if not most of them, opted for the Greens ahead of Labor.

The by-election was thus a double-tragedy for Labor.  It lost a popular member and then lost that member’s old seat.  What could be sadder than that?

The Albert Park by-election ten years ago, together with the Northcote by-election just weeks ago, might well have taught us inner Melbourne’s electoral lesson – Liberal voters around there prefer the Greens to Labor, even though across much of the country the opposite applies.  That said, this mightn’t just apply to inner Melbourne, as the Greens have also overtaken the Liberals in terms of threatening Labor in inner Sydney.

How the Liberals react to this will be interesting.  They might forget about telling their supporters in inner Melbourne to direct preferences, to Labor or the Greens, leaving those players to fight it out there.  Such a tactic would let them direct their resources elsewhere in general elections, especially in defending their marginal seats.  Given that Labor and Greens appear to enjoy additional support from lots of activist groups, the Liberals might think twice about contesting seats where their support is weak.  But they might as well leave the battles for places like inner Melbourne to Labor and the Greens, because they seem irrelevant there now.

 

Advertisements

By-elections should see Turnbull through

2 December 2017

 

Little more needs to be said or written regarding the trouble afflicting Malcolm Turnbull since he led the Liberal-National Coalition to a narrow election win last year.  After he became leader of the Liberal Party, and thereby Prime Minister, in a surprise challenge to incumbent Tony Abbott in September 2015, he was initially much more popular than his predecessor.  But that popularity dropped away, and when Australians went to the polls in July 2016, he finished up with a one-seat majority.  Since then, he’s endured all sorts of dramas.

Basically, many within the Liberal ranks can’t abide him.  He’s long been a man with principles, but they’re different from what many Liberals support, and he can’t act upon them.  This makes him look weak, and questions continually loom over his leadership.

One of the dramas afflicting him, however, looks like ending today, with a by-election happening in the seat of New England, in rural New South Wales.  Barnaby Joyce held the seat until October, when a court ruling disqualified him and four other people from Federal Parliament.  By-elections usually allow voters to show governments, and indeed their opponents as well, what they think of them, so as to send a message of sorts ahead of general elections.  But Joyce looks like winning today’s by-election.  This should give Turnbull some breathing space.

This whole drama started a few months ago, when the Greens lost Senator Scott Ludlam, who resigned after learning that he was a dual citizen.  By law, members of Parliament cannot be citizens of countries other than Australia.  Ludlam had been born overseas and came to Australia as a child, but despite becoming an Australian citizen, he was found to retained citizenship of another country, so he resigned from the Senate.

The Greens then lost another Senator under similar circumstances, and word got out about numerous other politicians being in trouble because of dual citizenship.  In some cases, by virtue of having parents born overseas, politicians had been citizens of other countries, without their own knowledge.  And one of those caught up in the drama was Joyce, who was leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister when it all began.

Seven politicians had their citizenship status, and thereby their eligibility for Federal Parliament, examined in court.  Joyce was among the seven.  In October, the court ruled that five of them, including Joyce, were dual citizens, and they were disqualified from Parliament as a result.

It turned out that more politicians had citizenship clouds having over their heads, but the allegations surrounding them didn’t surface all at once.  This was why not all of them had their citizenship status examined in court.  Since then, all Federal MPs have been required to verify their citizenship, and the whole saga won’t end for some time yet.

In the meantime, although Joyce wasn’t the only politician disqualified in that October court ruling, he was the only member of the House of Representatives to be disqualified, so only his seat would have a by-election.  The other disqualified people were Senators, so the Senate results from the 2016 election were simply recounted, and new candidates were subsequently elected.

That said, another by-election will be held later this month for similar reasons to those affecting Joyce.  It’ll be in Bennelong, in northern Sydney, from which sitting Liberal MP John Alexander resigned after suspecting that he too had dual citizenship.  He actually resigned before he could be referred to court.  But this by-election isn’t happening today because he resigned long after the start of the drama in which Joyce was caught up.

Naturally, both Joyce and Alexander sorted out issues regarding their citizenship, so they were free to run as candidates for the by-elections.  In the case of Joyce, the New England by-election taking place today should be settled easily.

He first won New England in 2013, upon the retirement of popular Independent MP Tony Windsor, who’d won it in 2001.  Normally it’d be a safe seat for the Nationals.

Windsor won it from Stuart St Clair, a first-term National who’d entered Parliament in place of the long-serving Ian Sinclair in 1998.  Sinclair had held the seat since 1963, after a few years in the State Parliament of NSW.  He became leader of the Nationals in early 1984, and was dumped from the leadership in 1989.  He retired after losing preselection to St Clair.  But Windsor ended St Clair’s brief career in 2001.

New England is a rural seat where the Labor Party is usually an irrelevancy, although Sinclair came close to losing the seat a few times.  Notwithstanding Sinclair’s close calls, many voters here don’t see Labor as caring about them, although Labor’s vote is often inflated as voters who hate the Nationals end up voting for Labor.  Over recent decades, other voters have become unhappy with the Nationals, but they couldn’t vote for Labor either.  When Windsor ran, he won the votes of those unhappy with both the Nationals and Labor.  When he retired, he left Joyce an easy path to victory.

Major disillusionment with the Coalition probably won’t cost Joyce today’s New England by-election.  There’s no appealing alternative out there.  The Bennelong by-election will be closer, but I suspect that Alexander will win.  The two by-elections should therefore see Turnbull through for a period of time.

 

Queensland sending Labor back in

25 November 2017

 

The Labor Party looks like getting home in a close election in Queensland today.

Polls have predicted something like a 52-48 split after preferences in Labor’s favour, which would be slightly higher than what happened at the last election, in early 2015, when Labor unexpectedly won.  Although Labor hasn’t looked like it deserved to win back then, and probably doesn’t appear deserving of a win now, it’ll end up winning again.  But the result will be close.

The Liberal National Party, which lost office in 2015 after a single term in it, isn’t really inspiring voters.  Its loss in 2015 came after a huge election win in 2012.  Since then, voters haven’t warmed to it, and indeed its vote looks to have slipped away.

Back in 2012, Queenslanders voted overwhelmingly for the LNP, putting Labor out of office for the first time since 1998 – and in fact reducing Labor to just seven of eighty-nine seats in State Parliament.  By any measure, this was a drubbing.  But the LNP in general, and Premier Campbell Newman in particular, went on to upset Queenslanders everywhere on many issues.

As such, when they went to the polls in 2015, they turned on the LNP to the point of wiping out its parliamentary majority, and Newman lost his own seat.

To be fair, back then Newman’s seat was marginal, and the LNP was actually tipped to win narrowly, though a new leader would be sought to replace Newman.  But with the LNP losing its majority, Labor managed to take power with crossbench support, and the new Premier was Labor leader Annastasia Palaszczuk – a person whom arguably few voters had even heard of pre-election, and whose name fewer could either say or spell!

Since the election, Palaszczuk has survived the loss of a few MPs who, for one reason or another, went to the crossbench.  Looking back, it seems that she’s done little more than survive, because not too many voters can say what she’s achieve in terms of policy.

Labor and Palaszczuk are fortunate that the LNP, led by Tim Nicholls, has hardly looked like troubling them.  Indeed voters seem to have come to really dislike the LNP and Nicholls.  And few credible alternatives seem to exist.

You shouldn’t be fooled by the rise of minor players like Pauline Hanson or the Greens, because their support generally isn’t strong enough to win seats.  Queensland elections don’t involve proportional representation, where your share of the vote across a given jurisdiction can win you a seat within that jurisdiction.  Instead, there are only single-member seats, where you need at least 40-45 per cent of the vote within a seat to really have a chance of winning it.  Minor parties and Independents don’t often achieve that level of concentrated support.

Admittedly, I think that there’s enough support concentrated in a few areas for Hanson’s party to winning.  I see Hanson’s party winning both Lockyer and Maryborough.  The former, west of Brisbane, is currently-LNP held, while the latter, near the coastal region where Fraser Island lies, is Labor-held.  However, the party will lose Buderim, held by LNP defector Steve Dickson.  But I don’t see the Greens winning anywhere.

It’s worth noting that an electoral redistribution took place ahead of this election, which increased the number of parliamentary seats from eighty-nine to ninety-three.  This makes forty-seven the number for a parliamentary majority.

Despite the volatility of the Queensland electorate, and predictions of a hung election result, with nobody winning a majority, I’m tipping Labor to actually win a majority.

This sounds like a bold call, but I can’t see Labor losing more than two seats.  Apart from Maryborough, I tip Labor to lose regional Bundaberg to the LNP.  I tip Labor to pick up various seats, especially in Queensland’s urbanised south-east.

This election might well have been about the state economy, which isn’t in good shape, and about coalmining, which has polarised the state to some degree, with regional voters arguably in favour of new mines and urban voters against them on environmental grounds.  Some regional opposition exists to the idea of mining on prime farmland, especially on the Darling Downs around Toowoomba, though opponents of mining in that area seemingly have nowhere to go.  And with Labor proposing to reduce reliance on coal for electricity generation, in favour of solar and wind sources, there’s been talk of higher electricity prices – an issue causing massive anger across the country.

But Hanson’s presence in the campaign might override other issues.  Labor has always been intolerant of Hanson, whereas the LNP has been ambivalent, and with urban voters also largely anti-Hanson, Labor might use Hanson to attract urban voters who’d usually support the LNP.  This helped Labor in past elections, and might help Labor again.

I tip Labor to regain several seats lost through the defection of MPs.  Labor should also gain Burdekin, Chatsworth, Everton, Gaven, Glass House, Mansfield, Mount Ommaney, Redlands, and Whitsunday – all LNP wins in 2015.  The LNP, despite losing Lockyer, will regain Buderim from Dickson and gain Nicklin from a retiring Independent, as well as winning Bundaberg from Labor.

Voters in Queensland look like sending Labor back in for a second term.  Although close, I’m tipping a Labor majority.  Neither side really inspires, but Labor looks like doing enough to get home.

 

Lost Independent from 2007

12 November 2017

 

Federal politics lost someone special around this time a decade ago, in November 2007.

That month stands out as the time of a Federal election which saw John Howard lose office after almost twelve years as Prime Minister.  Despite this undignified exit from politics, Howard is still revered within the Liberal Party to this day.  His time as PM was longer than any other except Sir Robert Menzies, and apart from these two, no other Australian PM has been in office for ten years or longer.

But early in the same month as Howard’s election defeat, cancer claimed the life of the much-respected Federal MP Peter Andren.  Although Andren had already announced his retirement from politics ahead of the election which was called for that month, his death, just months after he’d revealed that he was battling cancer, would’ve been a shock.

In political systems where two or sometimes three parties usually dominate, it’s not often that you come across quality politicians outside the dominant parties.  There have been plenty of Independents in politics over time, but sometimes they just come and go.  In Andren, however, you’d find something of a rare breed.

Formerly a well-known television newsreader in central New South Wales, Andren entered Federal Parliament after winning the seat of Calare in 1996.  The seat takes in regional centres including Lithgow and Bathurst and Orange.  In those days, the Labor Party held the seat, having won it from the Nationals in 1983, but with the sitting Labor member, David Simmons, having announced his retirement, it was vacant.  Both the Liberals and the Nationals ran candidates against Labor, making for a three-cornered contest.  But from out of nowhere came Andren, running as an Independent.  In the end, despite winning less than a third of all votes in the seat, Andren actually topped the vote count, finishing ahead of all three major parties’ candidates, and went on to win the seat on preferences.  In fact, Andren’s win came at the same time as Howard was leading the Liberal-National Coalition to its first election win since 1980.  This meant that Howard’s time as PM began at the same time as Andren’s time in Federal Parliament – and it just happened that the 2007 election saw the end of both Howard and Andren.

After the 1996 result, Andren went on to increase his vote, and his majority, at elections to follow in 1998 and 2001 and 2004.  In fact, he won a majority of primary votes in 2001, meaning that he had more votes than every other candidate in his seat put together, and didn’t need anybody’s preferences to hold his seat – Independent MPs rarely achieve this kind of result.  He managed to make his seat virtually the safest in Federal Parliament.

What made the 2001 result more interesting for Andren was what’d happened in the months leading up to it.  He’d been just another voice in the House of Representatives, where Howard had a comfortable majority, despite lacking it in the Senate, when the issue of immigration suddenly became a hot political topic.  When Howard acted to prevent the arrival in Australian waters of a freighter carrying would-be immigrants who’d tried to sail in on a leaky boat, a furious debate began across the country.  Labor was torn over whether to let the immigrants in or keep them out, and ultimately ended up largely supporting Howard on the issue.  Andren, however, spoke against Howard’s actions, believing that the immigrants should be allowed in.  Given that public sentiment was largely in Howard’s favour, and that rural voters would’ve been perceived as bigger supporters of Howard than city-based voters, Andren might’ve been seen as signing his political death warrant, in taking a stand seemingly at odds with public sentiment.

But Andren took a stand on principle, stated his reasons for his stand, and made them known to voters in his rural seat.  In the end, this seemed to do him more good than harm.  His constituents might’ve disagreed with him on this issue, but they probably knew that his stands on other issues were in line with their views, and they knew that he’d have acted as he’d seen fit.  Unlike major party politicians, he was seen as beholden to nobody.  He was seen as a person of principle.

As a result, when Australian voters went to the polls in November 2001, support for Andren rose enough to win him a majority of votes in his seat – before preferences were counted.  He was immensely popular, and voters clearly trusted him, even if they might well have disagreed with him.

One can only wonder what Andren would do in today’s political environment, where hung parliaments and minority governments, or something near them, have become almost normal, at least at a national level.  Three years after Andren’s death, Federal Parliament ended up deadlocked for the first time since the 1940s.  And an election last year almost deadlocked it again.  Andren might well have more respect today than he did back when he was in Parliament.

Voters these days seem to look more closely at Independents and minor parties than they used to.  How they’d look at that lost Independent from 2007 is something interesting to consider.  Rarely would you see someone of his ilk in politics nowadays.

 

Results of by-elections read wrong

29 October 2017

 

By-elections often bring incumbent governments relief or grief, or occasionally neither.  They can be seen as opportunities for some voters to show governments what they think of their policies well in advance of general elections.  Sometimes governments lose seats at by-elections, occasionally to minor parties, but then they win them back when the next general election comes.  By-election losses frequently see governments initially promising to “learn” their “lessons”, but in the end they look like they didn’t learn anything.

As far as the Liberal-National Coalition currently governing in New South Wales is concerned, three by-elections earlier this month brought no grief, with two of them bringing relief and the third of them looking meaningless.

The two by-elections to bring relief were in Cootamundra and Murray, in the south-west of the state.  The meaningless by-election was in Blacktown, in western Sydney.

In both Cootamundra and Murray, held by the Nationals, there was speculation that the Nationals could lose, after they’d lost one of their safe seats, Orange, in another by-election late last year.  Rural voters have been really unhappy with the Nationals of late, because they perceive them as capitulating to the Liberals over issues that concern them, such as local council mergers and greyhound racing, and the Liberals are seen as caring more about city voters with views different those of rural voters, even though the Liberals themselves hold many rural seats.

However, on the morning after the by-elections, it was clear that the Nationals had managed to hold both seats, although there were swings of around 15-20 per cent against them.  On those grounds, the by-elections could be described as having just come and gone.

As for the by-election in Blacktown, already a safe seat for the Labor Party, nothing changed.  One of only a handful of seats to remain in Labor’s hands after a huge defeat at a general election in 2011, during which nearby seats fell to the Liberals, Blacktown wasn’t thought likely to change hands, so there was no Liberal candidate at this by-election.  This was why the result was meaningless for the Coalition.

Mind you, I’ve seen the major parties lose seats to minor parties at by-elections when their traditional rivals haven’t run.  But there didn’t appear to be an outstanding alternative candidate running around in Blacktown, meaning that people normally voting for the Liberals there really had nowhere to go.  As such, the by-election was arguably a foregone conclusion, with Labor holding, and that was what happened.

The Coalition would’ve been relieved at the results of both rural by-elections, having won when losses were considered possible.  But I suspect that, as far as Labor goes, it’s likely to have read those results wrong.

Labor would’ve tried to paint the by-elections as showing the Coalition on the nose with voters.  There’s some truth in that.  But I don’t see them as showing voters really warming to Labor, which doesn’t look like a credible alternative at the moment.  If anything, Labor only seems to be adding to the noises from voters unhappy with the Coalition, without giving them a reason to vote for Labor.

It must be remembered that when the Coalition lost Orange last year, it didn’t fall to Labor.  Instead, it fell to a candidate from a minor party presenting itself as a voice for shooters and fishers and farmers, largely in rural areas.

That minor party was tipped to possibly win in both Cootamundra and Murray, but despite polling well, it didn’t succeed.  Somehow, I suspect that its win in Orange last year was a one-off, and that it’ll lose at the next general election, due in 2019.

It’ll continue to win seats in the Upper House, where it only needs to win a relatively small proportion of the vote across the state to win seats there.  But in Lower House seats, such as Orange, it could only win if it obtained a majority of votes – meaning more votes than every other candidate put together.  Minor parties don’t achieve this often.  They sometimes succeed at by-elections, but lose them at general elections.

The results of this month’s by-elections in NSW probably show the Coalition losing its popularity in many parts of the state.  But voters aren’t really warming to Labor as such.  This might save the Coalition from defeat in 2019.  Labor really needs to give voters an inspiring reason to support it, but nothing inspirational looks like coming from Labor at this time.

 

Nasty battle awaits Brock

16 October 2017

 

The Liberal Party hasn’t won a general election in South Australia in twenty years.  You have to go back to this time in late 1997 to find the last Liberal election win in that state.

Even then, that 1997 win only came with crossbench support, as the election result was a deadlock.  The Liberals, having won office outright four years earlier, in December 1993, ended up losing their majority in 1997.  Crossbenchers finished up with the balance of power, and the Liberals managed to survive.

Dean Brown led the Liberals to victory in 1993.  This was in fact their first election win since 1979, as they’d gone on to lose office at an election in 1982.

But the Liberals in SA have been in a state of virtual civil war for decades.  Even winning office in 1993 wasn’t enough to keep their internal battles in check, let alone bring them to an end.  As a result, Brown was suddenly dumped in a leadership coup in 1996.  Not even the prestige of being Premier saved him.  The coup saw John Olsen become Liberal leader and Premier.

Olsen would go on to lead the Liberals to their near-defeat at the 1997 election.  He resigned in late 2001 as a result of a scandal, and Rob Kerin succeeded him.

The next election in SA came in early 2002, by which time Kerin had been Premier for only a matter of months.  Ironically, that 2002 election produced another deadlock, but this time Kerin was unable to get crossbench support to continue governing, and the Labor Party, led by Mike Rann, took power.

Kerin remained Liberal leader after that 2002 loss.  He led the Liberals to a big defeat at the next election, in 2006, with Labor obtaining a clear majority.  Labor held on with a smaller majority after the next election, in 2010.

By then, Kerin was gone.  He’d quit Parliament after his 2006 election defeat, triggering a by-election in his old seat of Frome, to the north of Adelaide.  Winning that by-election was Independent candidate Geoff Brock.

Having taken power with crossbench support in 2002, Labor had outright election wins in both 2006 and 2010.  But of course, the years of governing took their toll.  When the next election came in March 2014, the result was another deadlock, with Labor losing its majority.  By then, Rann had departed as Labor leader and Premier, and Jay Weatherill had succeeded him.

This election left the balance of power in the hands of two Independents – one of whom was Brock, the Independent in what would’ve otherwise been a safe Liberal seat.  Having been just a mere MP for years, Brock suddenly found himself in the spotlight.

The other Independent holding the balance of power along with Brock was Bob Such, a former Liberal from suburban Adelaide.

But this situation didn’t last long.  Shortly after the election, with the results still yet to be declared, Such fell ill.  The onus was now on Brock to support one side or the other.

Probably because of Labor having fallen a seat short of a majority, Brock chose to give his support to Labor.  As a result, Labor narrowly survived.

But it didn’t end there.  Weatherill saw fit to offer Brock a place in his ministry, which Brock accepted.  Not long after, a Liberal MP defected to the crossbench, and also went into Weatherill’s ministry.

This might’ve surprised many people.  But Weatherill’s predecessor, Rann, had done the same thing during his first term in office, when Labor didn’t have the numbers to govern alone.  Rann saw fit to offer places in his ministry to non-Labor MPs after taking office, and even after his big election in 2006 made him no longer reliant on the non-Labor MPs serving in his ministry, he kept them on.  To have dumped them, because of no longer needing them, wouldn’t have been a good look.  Undoubtedly Weatherill would’ve noted Rann’s actions before he offered ministerial places to non-Labor MPs in 2014.

As a footnote, Such died shortly after falling ill in the aftermath of that 2014 election, and Labor narrowly won a by-election for his old seat.  Labor hadn’t held that particular seat, Fisher, since 1989, when Such had won it, as a Liberal candidate, before later falling out with the Liberals.

Since then, age and other problems have worn the Labor Government down.  The most obvious problems relate to electricity and power shortages, including when a massive storm caused a massive blackout across the state around this time last year.  You’d think that Labor should lose the next election, which comes next March, but with the Liberals failing to really inspire voters, doubts still linger.

As for Brock, he’ll probably face a nasty battle in his seat.  The Liberals have consistently run vicious election campaigns against Independents who’ve sided with Labor after ending up with the balance of power in various parliaments around the country.  With Brock holding what’d otherwise be a safe Liberal seat, the Liberals will probably try to paint him as a “Labor Independent”, dishonest though that is.

Independents don’t back governments of the wrong “colour” lightly.  I’ve seen them do so in the past, and sometimes they’ve survived, though not always.

The next election in SA will almost certainly include a nasty battle which awaits Brock in his seat.  The challenge for him to withstand such nastiness will test him greatly.

 

By-elections don’t show threats

25 September 2017

 

 

The New South Wales Parliament recently lost two members, who’d actually been elected to it at the same time.  And for their side of politics, the time of their election was dark.

I refer to two Nationals, Katrina Hodgkinson and Adrian Piccoli, both former ministers in the Liberal-National Coalition Government in power in NSW since 2011.  They entered Parliament together, at an election in 1999, when the Coalition suffered one of its worst defeats in memory.  Recently they both resigned from Parliament, and by-elections will soon be held in their old seats, Cootamundra and Murray respectively.

The 1999 election was really bad for the Coalition.  Having narrowly lost to the Labor Party at the previous election, in 1995, the Coalition had a big loss in 1999.  It came away with only 33 seats out of 93, whereas Labor won 55.  At later elections, in 2003 and 2007, the Coalition only picked up a handful of seats.  Labor began to implode, amid scandals and incompetence, not much more than twelve months after its 2007 win.  By the time of the 2011 election, Labor had become so decrepit that the Coalition only had to stand up straight and it’d win easily – the Coalition’s margin was a huge 69-20 over Labor.  Both Hodgkinson and Piccoli became ministers after that win.  Now they’ve both left.

But it’s hard to judge what the resulting by-elections might show, in relation to what the Coalition’s prospects might be at the next general election, which comes in 2019.  Labor isn’t that popular across rural NSW, including in the south-west of the state, where both Cootamundra and Murray lie.  However, given that the Coalition lost one of its safest rural seats in a by-election late last year, there’s been talk of potential losses in either or both of these coming by-elections.  Admittedly, the Coalition’s by-election loss last year was to a non-Labor candidate, and both Cootamundra and Murray look like seats where non-Labor candidates might pose more of a threat to the Coalition than Labor, but any loss might look like a boost for Labor – even though it shouldn’t do so.

Although by-elections normally see swings against incumbents, and sometimes result in seats changing hands, they don’t always serve as guides as to what might happen when general elections come around.  The lack of enthusiasm for Labor across rural NSW means that these coming by-elections don’t show obvious threats for the Coalition.

The Coalition’s by-election loss last year was in Orange, in central NSW.  The winner of that by-election was a candidate from a party representing shooters and fishers and farmers – the sort of people who’d normally vote for the Nationals.  However, over time they’ve come to regard the Nationals as less than representative of them.

Perhaps this is no surprise.  The Liberal Party has long dominated within the Coalition, being predominantly city-based but also tending to win many rural and regional seats over the years.  Indeed in the south-west of NSW, the Liberals hold the seats of Albury and Wagga Wagga, which actually extend beyond the reach of the cities after which they’re named, while the Nationals hold Cootamundra and Murray.  Rightly or wrongly, many rural voters see the Nationals as frequently opting against pushing the Liberals on issues where they don’t see eye to eye – hence a drop in support for the Nationals.

As such, when I heard about the coming by-elections, I heard some speculation that the Nationals could possibly lose either Cootamundra or Murray, if not both.  But for the reasons above, I’m not convinced that the Nationals will lose either seat, although I also wouldn’t be surprised if they lost, especially given what happened in Orange last year.

For the record, there’ll also be a by-election in Blacktown, in western Sydney, following the resignation of Labor MP John Robertson.  I expect Labor to hold that seat, simply because the Coalition isn’t that popular out there, despite winning numerous seats in western Sydney amid a huge plunge in Labor’s popularity in 2011.

The coming by-elections mightn’t say too much about the next general election.  The Coalition’s popularity has dropped off, but there’s not much enthusiasm for Labor, especially in rural NSW.  The by-elections might just come and go, with few people wiser about what the future holds for either political side.

 

Fixed state terms limit Federal options

23 September 2017

 

March has evolved as close to an annual election month in Australian politics.  In three of every four years, at least one state election is fixed for that month, though there can be more if some state’s Premier sees fit to send voters to the polls.

But this wasn’t always the case.  Four of six Australian states have fixed parliamentary terms, so we know when voters will go to the polls in those states.  It used to be that they could go to the polls at a time of their Premier’s choosing.  This remains the case in both Queensland and Tasmania, but the other states began fixing their parliamentary terms about two decades ago.

New South Wales went to fixed parliamentary terms during the 1990s.  Since then, fixed terms have come to South Australia and Victoria and Western Australia.  Also with fixed terms now are the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.  In each of these states and territories, parliamentary terms last four years.

As far as the month of March is concerned, it happens that only in leap years – when the prior month of February has twenty-nine days instead of twenty-eight – is there no fixed election date during March.  This was the case last year, which was a leap year.

In March this year, Western Australia went to the polls.  That state had last gone to the polls in March 2013, and will next go to the polls in March 2021.  Next year, March will be the election month in South Australia, which last went to the polls in March 2014, while March 2019 will be the election month in New South Wales, four years after its last poll in March 2015.

The other state with fixed terms, Victoria, next goes to the polls in November next year, with its last election having taken place in November 2014.  As for the two territories, their voters both went to the polls last year, and will next go to the polls in 2020.

At the moment, three states are due to hold elections in the next six months or so.  They are Queensland and South Australia and Tasmania.

While we know that South Australia will go to the polls in March next year, the Premiers of Queensland and Tasmania can call their state’s elections when they see fit.  It’s likely that Queenslanders will go to the polls first, as their state’s parliamentary terms last only three years and they last went to the polls in January 2015.  But there’s been speculation that they might go to the polls before the end of this year.  Tasmanians might well go to the polls in March next year, as their state’s parliamentary terms last four years, and indeed since 2006 they’ve gone to the polls on the same day as South Australians.

On a personal note, I pray that the Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, somehow sees fit to send his state’s voters to the polls on a different date from when South Australians go to the polls – as an election tragic, it’s really annoying when two different states go to the polls on the same day, because you can’t be in two states at once!

In a sense, the many fixed state terms might have some sort of bearing on the next Federal election.  Although it’s not unprecedented for general election campaigns to take place at both state and national level at the same time, it doesn’t happen much.  And perhaps political leaders prefer to avoid such clashes.  The preference to avoid these clashes might therefore limit Federal options in terms of election dates.

The next Federal election is due before July 2019.  But the election date itself isn’t fixed, so when it comes is the Prime Minister’s call.  However, my feeling at this point is that the election will happen either between August and October next year, or around April and May in 2019.  These periods are outside any state election campaign periods, so there won’t be too much of a national-state clash, if there is one.

Although the popularity of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition has been low since the last election, I’m not sure what effect this has on the election date.  I think that, even if the Coalition continues to lag in the polls, Turnbull won’t lose his job before the election.  He’s clearly not the popular figure that he’d long been before, but there’s no clear alternative to him waiting in the wings.

In that respect, I can’t believe that some people keep talking about bringing back Tony Abbott, whom Turnbull defeated in a leadership challenge around this time two years ago.  Abbott might’ve led the Coalition to an election win in 2013, but he was never popular, winning largely due to the unpopularity of the Labor Party, and as Prime Minister he annoyed and scared the voters immensely.

Although Turnbull narrowly won the last election, in 2016, I suspect that if Abbott had still been leading after September 2015, Labor would’ve won.  Voters won’t tolerate an Abbott return under any circumstances.

The next Federal election might well happen around this time next year, if not six or seven months after that time.  The potential clash of state campaigns makes those options for a Federal poll look more realistic.

 

Bernardi’s crossbench recruits

28 August 2017

 

Disillusionment with Australia’s political establishment arguably goes back decades, rather than just years.  There were minor parties winning seats at times long ago, which would’ve been a sign of some disillusionment, both in Federal Parliament and in its state counterparts.  But I suspect that the 1990s were when the disillusionment really became entrenched, with minor players popping up in parliamentary chambers everywhere.

The arrival of Pauline Hanson in Federal Parliament in 1996 probably illustrates the disillusionment best.  Although she was only there for two years before losing her seat, she kept fighting again and again to win seats at election time.  But after arriving on the political scene and saying things which resonated with perhaps millions of people while annoying the established politicians, she saw fit to start her own political party, and even though she and her party imploded after some successes, they never went away.

Now there are plenty of anti-establishment politicians around.  Hanson is one of them, and so is Nick Xenophon, both of whom started political movements bearing their own names.  To date, both have enjoyed some level of success, but they have also endured some bad moments.  Bob Katter is another anti-establishment politician to have started his own political party, but he and his party haven’t enjoyed anywhere near the level of success that Hanson and Xenophon have enjoyed.

Some would consider the Greens to be anti-establishment.  After all, their people went into politics following time as activists on environmental issues – although not always those.  But in recent years, they’ve come to be seen as part of the establishment.  When Federal Parliament became deadlocked after a general election in 2010, and the Greens ended up with one seat in the House of Representatives and enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate, they had power to make deals and, to some extend, dictate what governments could or couldn’t do.  Although they’re not as powerful in Federal Parliament as they used to be, with their support having declined a bit in recent years, they can still be powerful players at times.

Earlier this year, Cory Bernardi appeared to join the anti-establishment ranks.  He quit the Liberal Party, which he’d represented in the Senate since 2006, to form his own political party.  But while Hanson and Xenophon and Katter started parties bearing their names, Bernardi didn’t do this.  He’s formed a conservative movement, whose aim is to win over conservative voters who might otherwise vote for the Liberals but can’t abide Malcolm Turnbull – whom Bernardi himself is strongly at odds with on various issues.

It didn’t take too long for Bernardi’s party to attract sitting politicians.  Already three have joined, from South Australia and Victoria.  But little has happened since.

When you look at Bernardi’s party now, you only see crossbench recruits.  And all are Upper House members, who win seats on the basis of statewide support, rather than through a strong concentration of support within small areas.

After Bernardi formed his party, he was able to recruit two people from his home state of South Australia.  Two members of the Upper House of State Parliament there joined him, after the winding up of the Family First Party, which they’d been with.  Family First was wound up following the downfall of Bob Day, who resigned from the Senate following problems with both a former business empire, among other things.  Because Family First was considered conservative, the party’s two State MPs in South Australian went over to Bernardi.  Joining Bernardi’s party a bit later was a crossbench member of the Upper House of State Parliament in Victoria.

But because Bernardi’s three “colleagues” were crossbenchers when they joined his party, their impact remains to be seen.  Bernardi hasn’t attracted anybody from the ranks of the Liberals or the Nationals, many of whom share his conservative values.

Had a major party politician defected to Bernardi’s party, there’d have been more than just a ripple.  But nobody has done so yet.  It’s true that anything can happen in politics, and I wouldn’t write off the prospect of a major party defection, but I’m not seeing any evidence of a defection coming.

Bernardi himself lacks the charisma to make people snap to attention whenever they hear him.  Some politicians have that.  You can’t recognise his voice at once when you turn on a radio or television or whatever.  He’s quite articulate in his views, but he doesn’t have a huge degree of appeal.  Time will tell if he can attract disillusioned voters both inside and outside his home state, particularly if they distrust the likes of Hanson and Xenophon as much as the political establishment.

 

NSW Coalition exodus looms

26 August 2017

 

The Labor Party played a bit of parliamentary switcheroo in New South Wales as a result of last year’s Federal election.  This saw Linda Burney switch from State Parliament to Federal Parliament, Sophie Cotsis switch between chambers in State Parliament, and John Graham enter State Parliament.  It also showed how new faces come to Parliament.

During last year, Burney resigned from her seat of Canterbury in the Lower House of State Parliament, in order to run for Federal Parliament, to which she was subsequently elected.  This triggered a by-election in Canterbury, in the inner west of Sydney.  Labor chose Cotsis, then a member of the Upper House of State Parliament, as its candidate for the Canterbury by-election.  She had to resign from the Upper House to contest that by-election, and she won it.

When members of the Lower House die or resign before completing their terms, there are usually by-elections held to fill their seats.  Lower House seats only cover specific areas of the state, which can be big or small, depending on the population.  Seats in big cities can be quite small in area, whereas seats in rural areas can be huge because they cover small towns with relatively few people living in them.

The Upper House, by contrast, acts like one large electorate representing the entire state as a whole.  You can be elected to this chamber regardless of whether you live in Ballina or Bathurst or Bondi.  When Upper House members die or resign before completing their terms, their parties simply choose new people to replace them for the rest of their terms.

Therefore, when Cotsis resigned from the Upper House, Labor had to choose one of its rank and file members to fill her seat.  The person chosen was Graham.  He’ll be in the Upper House until 2023, unless he dies or departs for some other reason – he actually won’t face NSW voters when they next go to the polls, in 2019.

It’s important to note that the NSW Upper House has forty-two seats, with half of them going up for grabs at each election – twenty-one in number – on a rotating basis.  The last NSW election was in 2015, and the one prior was in 2011.  The next two NSW elections will be in 2019 and 2023.  As such, those people elected to the Upper House at the last election, in 2015, won’t face the voters until 2023.  This applies also to Graham, because his predecessor Cotsis was among those elected in 2015.

The same goes for another replacement in the Upper House, namely Justin Field of the Greens.  He entered the Upper House when the Greens chose him to fill a vacant seat following the death of John Kaye, who was elected in 2015.

The Upper House members facing the voters in 2019 will be those elected in 2011, or their replacements.  And because I refer to the 2011 election, things get interesting.

The 2011 election saw the Liberal-National Coalition smash Labor.  In the Lower House, made up of ninety-three seats, Labor won only twenty of them, while the Coalition won sixty-nine.  A similar drubbing occurred in the Upper House, where Labor won a mere five seats out of twenty-one and the Coalition won eleven – in other words, the Coalition actually won a majority of available Upper House seats.  You rarely see that at elections!

This drubbing will, to some extent, trouble the Coalition.  While the Coalition will lose seats in either parliamentary chamber at the next election, its likely losses in the Upper House will be bigger than usual, simply because of its big win in 2011.

It’s true that every election triggers an exodus of sorts.  But the likely NSW Coalition exodus at the next election, in 2019, won’t exactly be small – at least as far as the Upper House in concerned.  I suspect that a bigger exodus looms within the Coalition’s Upper House ranks in 2019.

Normally, the Coalition and Labor can be expected to win sixteen or seventeen Upper House seats at election time, out of a possible twenty-one.  The overall election winner would probably take about nine seats, with the biggest loser probably taking seven or eight seats.  Of course, these numbers might be larger unless voters are so unhappy with the Coalition and Labor that they term to minor players.

The Coalition’s eleven Upper House seats from 2011 will fall in number in 2019, without question.  But by how much will depend on how popular the Coalition is at election time.

The Coalition’s popularity has fallen over the years, and it’ll lose plenty of seats, although the lack of enthusiasm among voters for Labor might make a difference to the likely losses.  I personally think that the Coalition will lose at least three or four Upper House seats in 2019.  Many Coalition people in the Upper House might choose to head for the exit doors, rather than endure the indignity of losing their seats, which they arguably won off the back of a previous election drubbing unlikely to recur at any stage in future.