Hard Senate contest for minor players

17 June 2017


Frustration with one thing or another led to Federal Parliament becoming what it looks like today.  Although a Federal election was always expected last year, a few different things would’ve made Parliament a little different.  Mind you, the frustration could’ve also produced a different result.

Last year’s election was a rare double-dissolution, meaning a complete dissolution of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  There haven’t been that many double-dissolution elections since Federal Parliament was established in 1901.  Normally, Federal elections would involve a complete dissolution of the House of Reps, but not of the Senate.  However, because the Liberal-National Coalition became increasingly frustrated with being unable to get legislation through the Senate over time, as well as other reasons, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull saw fit to call a double-dissolution.

Had the election last year been like most other elections before it, there’d have been six out of twelve Senators from each state facing the voters – hence the term “half-Senate election”.  But the Senators up for election wouldn’t have been those who won seats at the previous election, in 2013.  Instead, the Senators winning seats at the election before it, in 2010, would’ve been up for election last year, while the Senators winning seats in 2013 would’ve been due to face the voters at the next election, due in 2019.

When the Coalition won office in 2013, it ended up having to deal with a large number of crossbenchers who held the balance of power in the Senate.  There were eighteen Senate crossbenchers, and the Greens made up the bulk of this bunch – ten in all.  The other eight included of three people from a political party set up by billionaire Clive Palmer, as well as individuals from other parties.  Most of these people were elected in 2013, so they wouldn’t have been facing the voters again until 2019.  Had there been only a half-Senate election instead of a double-dissolution last year, the Coalition would’ve found itself still having to deal with many of those crossbenchers after the election.

This would’ve frustrated the Coalition, and was probably one of the reasons why a double-dissolution was called.  Because many of those Senate crossbenchers won their seats on other people’s preferences instead of their own popular votes, it was thought that some of them could lose their seats, especially as the Coalition was able to get enough support in the Senate to reform Senate voting.  But instead, the double-dissolution produced a larger crossbench in the Senate, with controversial figures Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch among those elected, although some of those Senators elected in 2013 ended up losing their seats.  In that sense, the double-dissolution arguably backfired for the Coalition.

The reform to Senate voting meant that voters could direct preferences to their choice of parties, rather than just candidates.  It used to be that, as a voter, you’d have two choices with the Senate – you could choose one party and vote for only it in a box above a thick black line on a ballot paper, or you could vote for every candidate from every party and group below that thick black line.  When people voted above the line, parties decided where votes went after candidates were elected or eliminated.  This meant that parties could direct votes to their choice of other parties, or away from those that they disliked, regardless of whether voters liked those choices or not.  In 2013, many minor parties decided to direct preferences amongst each other, so that votes wouldn’t reach the major parties – this led to minor players, such as Ricky Muir, winning seats with minuscule shares of the popular vote.  By reforming Senate voting, it was thought that this kind of event couldn’t happen again, unless voters themselves indicated that they wanted it.

Whatever the merits of reforming Senate voting, I suspect that the major parties wouldn’t have been too thrilled to see a larger Senate crossbench, especially with the likes of Hanson and Hinch there.

The next election, regardless of frustrations in dealing with Senate crossbenchers, will likely involve a half-Senate election.  With more votes therefore needed to win Senate seats, it’ll mean a harder Senate contest for minor players, unless their vote in any state is really strong.

To win a seat in a half-Senate election, you need about 14.3 per cent of the vote in one of the states.  Looking at the last election results, only the party of popular Senator Nick Xenophon would’ve won a seat on popular votes alone, with about 21.7 per cent of the vote in South Australia.

The Greens probably would’ve won enough votes in some states to have Senators elected on preferences.  They won about 11.2 per cent of the vote in Tasmania, 10.9 per cent in Victoria, and 10.5 per cent in Western Australia.

Similarly, Hanson probably would’ve won enough votes to get elected on preferences, with about 9.2 per cent of the vote in Queensland.

To win Senate seats at the next election, you’d be needing huge votes.  For example, in New South Wales you’re looking at well over 600,000 votes.  Getting that many votes won’t come easy for minor players in particular.

The hard challenge thus looms for minor players at the next election.  How or whether they obtain a bigger vote remains something to watch.


By-election results lead to nothing

28 May 2017


Few people outside northern Sydney’s Pittwater region will probably have heard of Alex McTaggart.  A popular local mayor, he was in the New South Wales Parliament for fifteen months – a period of time almost short enough for you to fail to even notice that he was there.  He entered after a by-election in late 2005, but lost his seat in early 2007.

The circumstances behind that 2005 by-election were dramatic.  McTaggart ran as an Independent in that by-election, for the seat of Pittwater, and won it from the Liberal Party, in whose hands it’d been since its creation.  The by-election followed the sudden downfall of Liberal leader John Brogden.  Elected to Pittwater in 1996, Brogden gained the Liberal leadership in 2002, lost a general election in 2003, and was thought likely to win the next election, in 2007, until revelations broke of him behaving badly while in a drunken state at a function.  He was in a bad mental condition after resigning as Liberal leader in August 2005, and he left Parliament soon after.

Pittwater voters believed that the Liberals themselves were behind Brogden’s downfall, as many Liberal MPs and officials disagreed with his aims for the future.  Because his seat was really safe for the Liberals, the Labor Party didn’t contest the by-election.  Some people believe that Labor’s absence made victory possibly for McTaggart, because Labor voters in Pittwater would’ve been looking elsewhere, and the Liberals would’ve lost much support in the area because of Brogden’s departure.  Being a popular mayor, McTaggart would’ve been a known quantity, and he ended up winning the by-election.

But in March 2007. when the next general election came, McTaggart’s career ended, with the Liberals regaining his seat.  As Labor ran here, like in every other seat, lots of voters supporting McTaggart in 2005 returned to Labor, so his vote dropped off.  And the Liberal candidate beating McTaggart was Rob Stokes, who became a minister in 2011.

The rise and fall of McTaggart jolted my memory earlier this year, when I heard about the sudden departures of Mike Baird and Jillian Skinner.  There was widespread surprise when Baird resigned as State Premier in January, although the exit of Skinner, the long-serving Health Minister who’d been tipped to lose her job after many years in it, surprised people less.  Both Baird and Skinner held safe seats in northern Sydney, which Labor had no chance of winning.  Therefore, I tipped no surprises in the by-elections to come in Manly and North Shore, the former seats of Baird and Skinner respectively, while Labor, unsurprisingly, didn’t contest either by-election.

Over time, I’ve seen the major parties lose by-elections to unconventional candidates, when their traditional rivals haven’t run, in seats considered safe – at least from their traditional rivals.  It’s like voters in those seats simply support or oppose the major parties holding them.  Apart from when the Liberals lost Pittwater to McTaggart after Labor opted against running, I remember when Labor lost a by-election for a safe seat to the Greens in the Wollongong area outside Sydney, which the Liberals skipped.

I’ve even seen the major parties lose those safe seats in general elections as well as by-elections, and with their traditional rivals running.  A by-election for Orange last year serves as a good example – this seat was safe for the Nationals, but at the by-election it fell to a candidate standing on behalf of shooters and fishers and farmers, even though Labor also ran.  And I remember how Tony Windsor won a safe seat from the Nationals at a Federal election in 2001, with the Labor vote collapsing in that seat.  Clearly Windsor won over voters who’d previously supported Labor more out of disliking the Nationals than actually liking Labor, as well as those who’d supported the Nationals only because they didn’t like Labor.  These circumstances have at times seen Independents like Ted Mack and Cathy McGowan elected to Parliament.

Going back to the seats of Manly and North Shore, when by-elections came for them last month, the Liberals won both.  There were big swings against the Liberals, but not big enough for them to lose, and they didn’t take long to claim victory.  For the record, Labor held one of its seats in another by-election at the same time.

I’d expected those by-election results in Manly and North Shore to lead to nothing, and they did.  As Labor skipped them, Independents unsurprisingly came second after preferences.  But even if any of them had won, I’d now be tipping any such winner to lose at the next general election, due in 2019.  The rise of fall of McTaggart, who lost his seat in a general election less than two years after winning it in a by-election, is typical.

I also remember an Independent coming second in a by-election for the Federal seat of North Sydney in late 2015.  With this a safe seat for the Liberals, Labor skipped that by-election.  But at a general election the following year, with Labor running this time, the second-placed Independent from 2015 lost support and finished well behind.

Voter dissatisfaction often puts Independents in Parliament at by-elections, especially when major parties don’t run.  But Independents must really stand out to win over voters at election time.  The lack of outstanding Independents lets the major parties keep power that they should really lose.


Dutton has more bullets to dodge

14 May 2017

Delusions of grandeur probably enabled Michael Lavarch to enter Federal Parliament thirty years ago.  Back then, in July 1987, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister and leading the Labor Party to its third straight election win under his leadership since it went his way in early 1983 – never before had Labor won three Federal elections in a row.  But it wasn’t Lavarch having delusions of grandeur at that time.

Instead, having delusions, albeit in the year or so leading up to that July 1987 election, was Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the long-serving Premier of Queensland.  Believing neither Labor nor the Liberal-National Coalition to be capable of leading Australia to a better future, Bjelke-Petersen had fantasies about running for Federal Parliament, achieving an election win, and taking over the country.  In the end, his fanciful push did nothing but split the Coalition.  Although the Coalition had its own problems before he entered the fray, he had more than a small part in the Coalition’s loss of that 1987 election.  Months after that election, he resigned as Premier, and was lucky to avoid imprisonment over corruption exposed from the time of his premiership.

The 1987 election saw Labor win four seats from the Coalition in Queensland, as well as two seats elsewhere in Australia, although it lost two seats to the Coalition in New South Wales and Victoria.  And one of the new Labor MPs from Queensland was Lavarch.

Gaining the seat of Fisher from the Coalition in 1987, Lavarch held it at the next election, in 1990.  But with electoral redistributions occurring in Queensland and other states, ahead of the next election, which came in 1993, Lavarch chose to run for the newly-created seat of Dickson.  He ended up winning it.

By now, Hawke had left, after Paul Keating defeated him in a Labor leadership ballot and become Prime Minister in late 1991.  Although hugely unpopular among voters, Keating managed to lead Labor to an unlikely election victory in 1993.

But at the next election, in 1996, Labor lost office to the Coalition in a landslide.  Among many Labor MPs to lose their seats were thirteen people in the Keating ministry.  And among those highly-ranked casualties was Lavarch, who was then Attorney-General.

As for Dickson, which Lavarch lost to the Coalition, it went back to Labor in 1998, but the Coalition regained it in 2001.  The successful Coalition candidate was Peter Dutton, who’s held it ever since.  He became a minister several years later, remained a frontbencher between when the Coalition lost office in 2007 and returned to office in 2013, and is nowadays the Immigration Minister.

Mind you, Dickson hasn’t been easy for Dutton to hold since he won it.  For about a decade after its creation, it was a political graveyard, switching between Labor and the Coalition.  In fact, holding Dickson has been like dodging bullets for Dutton, who was a policeman before entering Parliament.

He dodged his first bullet when he held Dickson in 2004, making him the first person to hold that seat since its creation.

He dodged his second bullet at the next election, in 2007, when he narrowly held Dickson in the face of a large swing to Labor, especially in Queensland, the home state of Kevin Rudd, who’d become Labor leader a year earlier.  Rudd became very popular among voters all over the country.  And because Queenslanders liked the idea of one of their own potentially becoming Prime Minister, Labor won many seats in Queensland as Rudd led Labor to its first win since 1993.

An electoral redistribution in Queensland ahead of the next election, which was due in 2010, made Dickson harder for Dutton to hold.  In fact, he tried to leave the seat, seeking preselection for another seat, which he lost – he ended up contesting Dickson again.

But then came June 2010, when Rudd was suddenly dumped in a leadership coup.  His popularity had begun falling earlier that year, although he was still quite popular with voters.  However, many Labor MPs hated him, and they used his declining popularity as an excuse to dump him as Labor leader, in favour of Julia Gillard.

Queenslanders in particular hated the dumping of Rudd, and Labor almost lost an election later that year.  Many of Labor’s Queensland gains from 2007 were lost.  This might’ve saved Dutton, as I think that he’d have lost his seat if not for the dumping of Rudd – hence the third bullet that Dutton dodged.

After narrowing losing that 2010 election, the Coalition comfortably won the next election, in 2013.  Dutton, therefore, had nothing to worry about.

But the next election, in 2016, saw the Coalition almost lose office.  As for Dutton, he almost lost his seat – this was the fourth bullet that he dodged.

In terms of the next election, due in 2019, opinion polls suggest a swing against the Coalition, with Dutton struggling to hold his seat.  But an electoral redistribution is also due in Queensland soon, so Dutton’s seat could be different in terms of what areas it covers when the next election comes.

Dodging bullets probably doesn’t faze Dutton, as an ex-cop.  But current polling trends and a pending redistribution suggest that, politically, he still has more bullets to dodge yet.  History shows him successfully dodging many bullets, as both a cop and a politician, but his future might look clouded.


Bernardi looks like a new Hall

6 May 2017

The last Federal election in mid-2016 began with eighteen crossbenchers, meaning from neither the Liberal-National Coalition nor the Labor Party, in the Senate.  The result of the election, which the Coalition only just won, was a rise in the number of Senate crossbenchers, to twenty.  Now another face is on that crossbench, namely Cory Bernardi of South Australia, who recently quit the Coalition and formed his own political party.

How Bernardi’s defection affects the Coalition remains to be seen.  Even before that, the Coalition needed the support of a decent number of Senate crossbenchers to get any legislation passed.  Bernardi will probably vote with the Coalition on most issues, as I haven’t noticed any issues likely to make him vote with Labor against the Coalition.

The question is whether any Coalition people in the House of Representatives, where the Coalition has a tiny majority, will see fit to defect to Bernardi’s party.  There’s been some speculation of defections within the Reps, but I don’t see any coming in the near future.

However, I’d be interested to see how Bernardi’s defection affects his home state of South Australia, where a general election comes next year.  Even if no MPs join Bernardi’s party there, its very presence might be troubling, in a state where Liberal fortunes haven’t been good for more than four decades.

Indeed I wonder if Bernardi might become a modern-day version of a controversial South Australian politician – Steele Hall, who was State Premier from 1968 to 1970 and later served in Federal Parliament.

Suggesting that Bernardi looks like a new Hall might be a stretch.  But the state of Liberal politics in South Australia over many years makes me rate the comparison appropriate, in a broader context.

It was during the 1940s that the Liberal Party of Australia, as we know it today, first emerged.  But while it didn’t take too long to win elections, in various states as well as nationally, it didn’t have representation, at least officially, in the State Parliament of South Australia until the mid-1970s.  That representation came from MPs formerly with another political party – the Liberal and Country League, or the LCL for short.

After gaining office in South Australia during the 1930s, the LCL governed continuously for the next three decades.  It lost office at an election in 1965, but returned to office after the next election, in 1968.  By then, Hall had become LCL leader, after the defeat of the long-serving Sir Thomas Playford at that 1965 election.  Hall was Premier for two years, but lost office at an election in 1970.  As a result of differing opinions, Hall formed his own little group within the LCL, in March 1972.

The group was called the Liberal Movement, or the LM for short.  Among LCL MPs with Hall in the LM were David Tonkin and Dean Brown – both of whom would later have terms as Premier.

Later, the LM became a political party in its own right, after the LCL declared it a separate body.  Hall went out of the LCL as a result, but only a few supporters went with him.  Most LM people, including Tonkin and Brown, chose to stay with the LCL.

A few years after this split, the LCL and the LM settled their differences, and came back together.  Some LM people didn’t return, but Hall was among those who did.

By that stage, they could all be described as members of the Liberal Party.

However, since this split in the 1970s, the Liberals have seldom won elections in South Australia.  Indeed they’ve arguably been in a state of semi-permanent civil war.  To be fair, it wouldn’t have helped to be facing popular Labor leaders like Don Dunstan and John Bannon and Mike Rann, each of whom served for many years as Premier.

Tonkin led the Liberals to an election win in 1979, but lost the next election, in 1982.  The Liberals lost elections in 1985 and 1989, before winning in 1993, under Brown.  But he was rolled in a surprise leadership coup in 1996, and John Olsen became Liberal leader and Premier as a result.  Olsen almost lost the next election, in 1997, and resigned in 2001 after a scandal engulfed him.  The new Liberal leader and Premier, Rob Kerin, narrowly lost an election in 2002.  The Liberals have been out of office ever since.

Even before winning office in 1993, the Liberals had problems.  Labor had begun to unravel amid major financial scandals after its 1989 election win, but voters weren’t flocking to the Liberals.  Indeed Brown was out of Parliament as Labor began to unravel, having lost his seat to a former colleague who’d stood against him as an Independent in 1985.  He only returned when another former colleague suddenly quit Parliament in 1992, much to the behest of Olsen, who was a fierce rival and hadn’t sided with Hall.

Coupled with various leaders and leadership challenges since Kerin’s 2002 defeat, you can see how fiercely the South Australian Liberals have fought each other for so long.

How the Liberals do at the next South Australian election seemingly matters little with their internal squabbles, even though they should win, because Labor looks stale after almost sixteen years of governance.  The defection of Bernardi might unsettle the Liberals now, just as Hall and his group unsettled them in the past.


Tasmanian seats out of Lambie’s reach

23 April 2017


There have been numerous times when political parties have emerged with names built around the politicians who founded them.  In Australia we’ve seen the likes of Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter and others go down this path during the past two decades.  While they’ve enjoyed success at times, their success hasn’t necessarily been long-lasting or widespread, or both.

Formerly with the Liberal Party until being dumped for some controversial comments on various issues, Hanson won much support across the country during the 1990s, and she saw fit to set up a political party bearing her own name.  Although her party went on to win sets in various parliaments, most of the people who won them ended up falling out with the party, for one reason or another, and went in their own directions.  Hanson herself lost her seat in Federal Parliament soon after setting up her party, while support for her party dropped.  She then contested many elections over the following years, and ultimately won a seat at a Federal election in 2016.  Now that she’s back in Parliament, support for her party has grown again.

Katter went down a similar path after falling out with the Nationals in 2001.  Formerly a State MP and minister in Queensland before entering Federal Parliament in 1993, he set up his own party after going to the crossbench.  His party won a few seats in Queensland Parliament, but support for his party seems confined to Queensland’s far north and west.

And then there’s the case of mining tycoon and billionaire Clive Palmer, who set up his own political party ahead of a Federal election in 2013.  Arguably due in no small part to Palmer’s use of his wealth to run election advertisements on television, a luxury which minor parties can’t really afford at election time, the tycoon’s party won enough votes to pick up several seats in Parliament.  But the party didn’t take long to implode, with two MPs walking away soon after entering Parliament.  Palmer himself, having been elected only narrowly, quit Parliament at the 2016 election, amid problems afflicting his business interests, and his party’s seats were all lost.

Interestingly, one of the politicians to leave Palmer’s party back then is still in Parliament now, having set up another political party and won a seat in 2016.  That person is Senator Jacqui Lambie, from Tasmania.

A former soldier who was injured and spent some time on welfare before entering the Senate, Lambie wouldn’t have made it there if she hadn’t been with Palmer’s party.  But after going her own way, she managed to hold her seat in her own right.  Needing to win about 7.7 per cent of the statewide vote to hold her seat, she and her party won about 8.3 per cent of the vote, which was more than enough.  She might’ve appeared to be on some sort of probation after walking away from Palmer’s party, but after holding her seat with more than enough votes at the next election that she faced, she couldn’t have done more.

I suspect that if Tasmanian voters can’t abide the Labor Party or the Liberal-National Coalition or the Greens, they might turn to Lambie.  She’s become a feisty figure who’s not afraid to speak her mind on various issues, which makes her controversial.

However, I’m not convinced that Lambie’s party will have that big an impact on the next general election in Tasmania, which comes early next year.  The reason is how seats are won in elections there.

There are twenty-five seats, spread across five electorates up for grabs in the Tasmanian Parliament – hence five seats per electorate.  Being multi-seat electorates, they look easier for minor parties to win seats in.  Candidates are elected if they win roughly a sixth of the vote in any electorate.  The reason for a sixth being the “magic” proportion is that, when working out roughly how many votes you need in order to win a seat within an electorate, you need to divide the total vote by a number which is one more than the number of seats up for grabs in that electorate – hence the need for roughly a sixth of the vote in order to win one of five seats in each Tasmanian electorate.

But people actually vote for candidates, rather than for parties.  It doesn’t matter how much of the vote goes to political parties as a whole – it’s up to their candidates to win seats on their own steam, even if they get elected with other candidates’ preferences.

This is what arguably puts Tasmanian seats, as far as the next Tasmanian election is concerned, out of Lambie’s reach.  Voters may like Lambie herself, but they’d be voting for people standing under her umbrella, if I could put it that way.  Unless Lambie has candidates who share most of her views on various issues, and are trusted across large parts of Tasmania, they’ll probably struggle to win seats in their own right.

Few wouldn’t regard Lambie as a breath of fresh air in politics.  She’s got a rawness about her which appeals to many.  But her party might struggle to win seats in her home state when people can’t vote for her personally.


McGowan victorious as Liberals go west

9 April 2017


Probably few people outside Western Australia would’ve heard of Mark McGowan until last month.  Although now State Premier, he was State Opposition Leader for a number of years, and questions had loomed over whether he was up to the job of governing the state – let alone whether people knew who he was.  But at a general election last month, WA voters were so fed up with the Barnett Liberal Government that they put aside any doubts about the Labor Party, led by McGowan, and turned to Labor in a big way.

After more than eight years in office, the Liberal Party suffered a massive election defeat, winning only thirteen seats out of fifty-nine in the Lower House.  The previous election, in 2013, had seen the Liberals emerge with more than thirty seats – the tally last month was halved from what it’d been before.  Meanwhile, Labor went from twenty-one seats in 2013 to forty-one last month, meaning that it’d almost doubled its 2013 tally.

The Liberals had taken office in 2008 with the help of an alliance with the Nationals, and in 2013 they won enough seats to govern alone, but they maintained the alliance.  As for the Nationals, they fell from seven seats in 2013 to five seats last month.  And one of the casualties of the election was Brendan Grylls, the leader of the Nationals, who lost his seat of Pilbara to Labor.

The result was always tipped to see a big swing against the Liberals, in part to reverse a big swing to the Liberals in 2013, when Labor was really unpopular in the state.  Indeed McGowan himself was Labor leader at the time.  But over time this unpopularity for Labor reversed, especially as the WA economy hit bad times with the end of a big mining boom, after which big budget deficits and high unemployment resulted.  As for Premier Colin Barnett, who’d led the Liberals to victory in 2008, albeit after reversing plans to retire from politics back then, he went from being immensely popular to the opposite, and by last month, voters were angry and almost desperate to see the back of him.

These sentiments saw Labor and McGowan emerge victorious, as predicted in opinion polls.  By election day, there were predictions of a swing of around 10-11 per cent against the Liberals, and indeed they suffered a big swing.  Labor won by a bigger margin than expected as voters massively turned against the Liberals.  I’d argue that the election saw the Liberals go west – if you’ll pardon the pun.

Before the election, I’d tipped Labor to win thirteen seats from the Liberals, two of which actually had Labor members but were notionally in Liberals hands after an electoral redistribution, which saw seat boundaries change to reflect population change between elections.  My tips had been for Balcatta, Belmont, Collie-Preston, Forrestfield, Joondalup, Kalamunda, Morley, Mount Lawley, Perth, Southern River, Swan Hills, Wanneroo, and West Swan to go from the Liberals to Labor.  In the meantime, I’d also tipped the Liberals to regain Hillarys from an Independent who’d quit the Liberals last year.  These tips all came to pass.

The redistribution also created a new seat called Baldivis, which was notionally in Labor hands before the election.  There was no reason to doubt that Labor would hold this new seat, and it did so.

However, as usual, there were results that I didn’t tip.  Labor also won Bunbury, Darling Range, Jandakot, Kingsley, and Murray-Wellington from the Liberals.  Two new seats notionally in Liberal hands following the redistribution, Bicton and Burns Beach, were also Labor gains.  The gaining of Pilbara by Labor from the Nationals was another result that I didn’t tip.  And apart from Pilbara, the Nationals also lost Kalgoorlie, which went to the Liberals.

As for the Upper House, the results there could’ve gone in any direction.  The Liberals had won seventeen seats out of thirty-six in 2013, but last month they won nine.  Labor went from eleven seats in 2013 to fourteen last month, but it fell well short of a majority, meaning that it needs crossbench support to pass legislation.  The Nationals fell from five seats to four, and the Greens also finished with four after losing one of two existing seats but gaining three seats in other areas, while the remaining seats went to other minor players.  I’d tipped one seat to go to the party of the controversial Pauline Hanson – her party ended up with three seats, one of them in Perth and the other two outside Perth.

The result in WA came about because of voter dissatisfaction with the Liberals and with Barnett, but they probably had doubts about Labor beforehand.  Labor has quite a job ahead in convincing voters that it can govern after much doubt had loomed for so long.


By-elections say nothing of Labor

26 March 2017


The shock resignation in January of Mike Baird as Premier of New South Wales, and from State Parliament altogether, triggered a by-election for his old seat.  In the wake of his exit, one of his long-serving ministers, Jillian Skinner, also resigned from Parliament, amid speculation that she’d be dumped from the ministry, thus bringing about another by-election.  Now both by-elections will held in the coming month, in the northern Sydney seats of Manly and North Shore.

A third by-election will be held at the same time, in the seat of Gosford, to the north of Sydney.  It follows the resignation of Kathy Smith, who only entered Parliament at the last election, in March 2015, but is now battling ill health.

People argue that these by-elections will give voters a chance to state what they think of the Liberal-National Coalition, which won office in a big way in March 2011 but has since lost much of its gloss.  The Coalition then lost many seats when voters went to the polls in 2015, but it still had a comfortable majority.  However, some controversial decisions have upset voters in many parts of NSW, and late last year the Coalition lost one of its safe seats in a by-election in regional NSW as a result.  And it’s been suggested that the Coalition could face trouble as far as both Manly and North Shore are concerned.

It’s worth noting that the Labor Party, which lost office in 2011 after years of scandal but then won back a lot of lost seats in 2015, isn’t running candidates in either Manly or North Shore.  On the other hand, Labor will defend Gosford, which Smith won from the Coalition in 2015 after it’d been lost in 2011.  There’ll be a Liberal candidate in Gosford, but nobody expects that candidate to win.

When you consider the absence of Labor candidates in Manly and North Shore, and the fact that Gosford is a Labor-held seat, you can’t really see these by-elections as indicating where Labor stands with the public in NSW.  Although they’ll give a section of the public to express any anger with the Coalition in general and the Liberals in particular, they’ll say virtually nothing of the public view of Labor.

Although Manly and North Shore are considered safe for the Liberals, at least as far as running against Labor is concerned, both seats have fallen to Independents at one time or another over previous decades.  There are Independents and minor parties running in both seats, as well as in Gosford, but there doesn’t appear to be any outstanding candidate for whom people in those seats would vote if they’re unhappy with the Liberals.  Had there been any such obvious candidates, I’d rate the Liberals vulnerable.  That said, given the by-election loss last year, which was something of a surprise, I’m not totally writing off the idea of a non-Liberal win in either Manly or North Shore as such.

Mind you, it’s hard to see what a non-Liberal win in either of those seats would mean for Labor.  The presence of minor players in Parliament actually makes it harder for Labor to win the next election, which comes in 2019, although the paradox is that their presence will make it easier for the Coalition to lose.

A loss of less than ten seats would cost the Coalition its parliamentary majority at the next election, and force it to rely on crossbenchers to govern.  But Labor needs to gain almost twice as many seats in order to win a majority.

At the last election, the Coalition scored a 54-34 win over Labor in the 93-seat Lower House.  The remaining seats went to a trio of Greens and a pair of Independents.

The result meant that the Coalition would lose its majority if it lost eight seats.  But it left Labor needing to gain thirteen seats to win a majority.

So far, Labor hasn’t shown much to indicate that voters are really warming to it generally, or to Labor leader Luke Foley in particular.  The Coalition might be unpopular, but Labor isn’t really winning over unhappy voters.

This story has played out quite frequently in politics across Australia.  Voters have been unhappy with governments, but they haven’t really found inspiring alternatives who can be trusted to govern.  Two years remain before NSW voters can inspire stick with or dump the Coalition.  But there seems to be little inspiration for Labor, so any change at the next election might result from voters simply wanting any alternative to what they have at the present time.


Success of Xenophon elusive to others

18 March 2017


The phenomenal story of South Australian politician Nick Xenophon began exactly eleven years ago today.  It was on 18 March 2006 when South Australian voters went to the polls for a state election, and about one in every five voters supported Xenophon.

Admittedly, Xenophon had been elected to State Parliament during the late 1990s, but back then he’d arguably been just another politician, narrowly elected with the help of preferences from elsewhere.  From then until 2006, you’d been forgiven for ignoring him, although on various issues he’d taken stands at odds with those of the main political parties, to the point where they directed preferences away from him at election time.

With virtually everyone else directing preferences away from him, he wouldn’t have been expected back in Parliament.  As an outsider visiting SA for the first time, I knew little about him, and I took the view that he wouldn’t be back.

But SA voters decided otherwise.  And that night was the start of something incredible.

Xenophon only needed to win about 8.3 per cent of the statewide vote to hold his seat in that 2006 election.  He ended up with a vote more than twice as big, which enabled him to get a running mate elected on his coattails.  With only his principles to stand on, he was surely facing a mammoth challenge of holding his seat – or so you’d have thought.  Voters in SA clearly decided that they’d support him if they couldn’t abide other political parties, especially the main ones, namely the Labor Party and the Liberal Party.

This is why I consider Xenophon’s story to have really begun in 2006, rather than at the time of his original election to Parliament.  And events since then confirm this.

A year after Xenophon had that 2006 success, he ran for Federal Parliament, and won a Senate seat.  When he next faced the voters, in 2013, he won almost one in every four votes across SA, and came close to getting a running mate elected.  At last year’s Federal election, although support for Xenophon fell back to about one in every five votes, he held his seat again.  And because he’d formed his own political party, support for him was such that several members of his party won seats as well.

It’s true that when it comes to politicians who aren’t from major parties, they form their own political parties, thinking that support for them will lead to the people running under their “umbrella” – for want of a better term.  But it doesn’t always work out that way.

However, to some extent, Xenophon seems to be enjoying success here.   When you compare him with the likes of Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter and Clive Palmer, all of whom formed their own political parties with the thought of getting people elected on the basis of their own popularity, he looks to be doing right what they’re doing wrong.  To be fair, Hanson and Katter and Palmer all had people elected at one time or another because of their popularity, but nothing more has come of them.

In a way, the success of Xenophon has been elusive to others, although how long this situation lasts is anyone’s guess.

Hanson’s party had some success at elections, particularly in Queensland, but the elected people all fell out with Hanson after their election.  Katter’s party had a few successes in Queensland, but the party’s support base seems non-existent beyond the state’s far north and west, which Katter himself represents in Federal Parliament.  Palmer’s party won a few seats at election time in 2013, before virtually imploding.

I think that Xenophon is taking a steadier approach with his political party.  At last year’s Federal election, the party ran candidates in a few places outside SA, but they had little support.  The support for the party seems very much in SA.  Xenophon probably won’t try to win over voters in other states, unless he thinks that he might have a chance.

You can contrast Xenophon’s approach with that of Hanson, who’s constantly gone across the country to gather support, but often failing to spend enough time in places where her support is strong enough to potentially win seats.

The success of Xenophon hasn’t come easy, and nor has it come by visions of grandeur as such.  Having taken a steady approach, Xenophon and his party might succeed where others have failed.


Wild west looks like electing McGowan

11 March 2017


Lots of political eyes face west today.  They’re watching with interest a state election in Western Australia, where Colin Barnett seeks a third term as Premier, with his challenger being Mark McGowan.  Whatever the result, people will argue over whether there are any implications for the Federal Government and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

WA isn’t in good shape at the moment.  After years of riding high on a boom in the mining industry, the end of the boom has brought hard times, with both budget deficits and high unemployment causing major concern.

The Liberal Party, led by Barnett, took power in the wake of a close election result in September 2008.  They actually needed the support of crossbenchers to govern, because nobody had a parliamentary majority after the election.  And Barnett went on to gain a majority with a comfortable election win in March 2013.

Now Barnett looks like losing today, after almost nine years as Premier.  Various opinion polls suggest a swing of around 10-11 per cent against him, which is very big.  His time in office and the state of the economy will work against him.  There are also concerns about plans to privatise electricity distributor Western Power, and to build a major freight link, both of which the Labor Party, led by McGowan, will oppose.

That said, McGowan hasn’t exactly won over voters as Opposition Leader.  He was in this role when Barnett won comfortably in the 2013 election, with Labor losing plenty of seats in that.  Even though he’s remained in the leadership, many doubts have loomed over him over time – to the point where there was talk of bringing former Federal minister Stephen Smith into State Parliament to take over as Labor leader, which didn’t happen.  It seems like McGowan appears more popular simply because voters want Barnett gone.

To be fair, although opinion polls predict a big swing against Barnett and the Liberals, this will be some sort of correction to 2013.  They had a big win then because Labor was very unpopular, albeit due to factors outside WA.  Voters were very angry with Labor at the national level, when Julia Gillard was Prime Minister and had policies which made Labor unpopular.  And as State Labor leader, McGowan bore voters’ anger over Gillard.  With Gillard now gone and Labor more popular at the national level, McGowan no longer has the external factors from 2013 to worry about.  And regardless of what the opinion polls were predicting for today’s election, there was always going to be a swing back to Labor after the big swing away from it in 2013.

The other surprise factor in the election has been controversial politician Pauline Hanson, whose popularity in WA is stronger than in any other state except Queensland.  With her own political party fielding candidates, she’ll have some sort of influence on the election outcome, although her support won’t win her party more than the odd seat at today’s election.  The Liberals will swap preferences with Hanson’s candidates in places, even at the expense of the Nationals, who formed an alliance with the Liberals in the wake of the 2008 election, which enabled Barnett to take power.  Labor, on the other hand, has no tolerance of Hanson whatsoever.

Hanson’s presence gives this election a “wild” feel, on top of the poor shape of the WA economy and voter dissatisfaction with many things.  It’s fair to argue that WA might look like the wild west, and today the state looks like electing McGowan.

In terms of the last election, the result was a comfortable win for the Liberals, who won thirty-one seats out of fifty-nine in the Lower House, where governments are formed, while Labor won twenty-one seats and the Nationals won seven.  But these numbers have changed following an electoral redistribution, which came about to ensure as near as possible to an equal number of voters in each electorate.  Population changes naturally bring about electoral redistributions after elections.  This latest redistribution gives the Liberals an extra seat at the expense of Labor.  Today, Labor needs to gain ten seats to win the election outright, without needing crossbencher support to govern.

I’m tipping Labor to win thirteen seats from the Liberals, mostly in suburban Perth.  Two seats, West Swan and Collie-Preston, have Labor members but are notionally Liberal-held because of the redistribution – I tip Labor to take both seats.  My other Labor gains are Balcatta, Belmont, Forrestfield, Joondalup, Kalamunda, Morley, Mount Lawley, Perth, Southern River, Swan Hills, and Wanneroo.  This result would give Labor thirty-three seats over nineteen for the Liberals.  However, the Liberals should regain Hillarys from an Independent who’s quit the Liberals.

The Upper House will be more interesting.  Last time, the Liberals won seventeen seats out of thirty-six, ahead of eleven for Labor and five for the Nationals and two for the Greens, while the Shooters and Fishers also won a seat.  While I’m tipping some chopping and changing among the established players, I also tip one of Hanson’s candidates to win a seat here, in either the state’s south-west or the agricultural region east of Perth.

The wild west looks like turning to Labor, and this could hurt Turnbull and the Federal Liberals.  But should the result be close, the lessons might be less clear.


Possible leader lost around Gosford

5 March 2017


Politicians always come and go.  Sometimes, they go before people even notice that they’ve been there.  But occasionally you see politicians come on the scene, and others rate them as worth looking out for in future, whether as future ministers or leaders or whatever.  And then, all of a sudden, they go, for one reason or another.

This thought crossed my mind when I heard about a by-election soon to happen in the Gosford area north of Sydney.

But I’m actually making mischief here!  I don’t know if Kathy Smith, the outgoing politician responsible for this by-election, was considered someone to look out for.  Only those close to Smith would’ve known if she was one to look out for, until ill health forced her to leave the New South Wales Parliament just two years after entering it.

I was actually thinking about when voters in the Gosford area had to vote in a by-election more than thirty years ago, following the untimely death of a politician who might well have become a leader if fate hadn’t intervened so tragically – Paul Landa.

For sure, it’s only speculation to suggest that Landa might’ve ended up a leader.  But his death, from a heart attack, didn’t come long after he’d positioned himself to lead.  Given what he did before then, I’m inclined to wonder if he was a possible leader, until he was suddenly lost to politics, in late 1984.  This loss triggered a by-election around Gosford.

Landa entered the Upper House of State Parliament in 1973.  Also there at the time was a certain individual named Neville Wran.  Before the end of that year, Wran left the Upper House to run for a seat in the Lower House at a state election, and after winning that Lower House seat, he became leader of the Labor Party.

Wran led Labor to an election win, and became Premier, in May 1976.  And Landa was one of his ministers.  Despite winning only narrowly in 1976, Wran became very popular, and went on to win three more elections, before resigning in 1986.

It’s important to note that Wran couldn’t have become Labor leader, let alone Premier, if he’d still been in the Upper House.  Constitutionally, governments in New South Wales are formed in the Lower House, of which the Premier must be a member.  This is also the case in most parliaments across Australia, as well as in Federal Parliament, where the Prime Minister must be a member of the Lower House.  Although Wran came to be rated as a possible Labor leader while in the Upper House, he had to transfer to the Lower House if he was to lead.  This he duly did – and the rest is history.

As for Landa, who’d been among Wran’s minister since his 1976 election win, he made the decision to transfer to the Lower House ahead of an election which was due in late 1984, but actually came earlier that year.  It’s fair to assume that he must’ve considered himself a possible successor to Wran – otherwise, why would he have transferred?  Landa duly left the Upper House, and in that 1984 election, he won the Lower House seat of Peats, in the Gosford area.  But by year’s end, he was gone, having died of a heart attack.  A by-election was subsequently held in Peats early in 1985.

Given what happened to the Labor Party after Landa’s death, one can only wonder what the Wran Government lost when it lost Landa.  When Wran ultimately decided to resign, many of his ministers had bad reputations at the time, though one of them might well have seemed likely to succeed him.  In the end, it was a minister from the Upper House, Barrie Unsworth, who ended up succeeding Wran as Labor leader and Premier, but he had to leave the Upper House and attempt to win a seat in the Lower House in a by-election, in order to be in the job.  This he duly did, but he came close to losing the by-election.  And Labor lost office two years later.  Might this have happened under Landa?  We’ll never know that one.

But the Peats by-election in the Gosford area from long ago came back to my mind when I heard about the resignation of Smith.  As it turns out, the by-election for her old seat will happen at the same time as by-elections are happening in two other seats.  The results of these by-elections will be watched, even though one of them came about for unfortunate reasons that nobody could’ve foreseen.