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.

 

Nationals against Liberals in WA

26 February 2017

 

History might well record Hendy Cowan as the last National to have been Deputy Premier of Western Australia.  The political scene there since his time in that role would suggest as much.

Voters in WA will go to the polls for a state election next month.  This election sees the Liberal Party, led by Premier Colin Barnett, seeking a third term in office, having been there since 2008.  Barnett initially led the Liberals into office with the support of crossbenchers in a hung parliament after an election in 2008, and then won a majority at the next election, in 2013.

It’s worth noting that I describe the Liberals as having taken office.  They’ve been governing with the help of an alliance with the Nationals.  And they’ve freely run against each other at past elections, even viciously at times.  This is quite different from what happens elsewhere in Australia.

Usually, the Liberals and the Nationals govern together in office under a formal partnership – hence the description of their partnership as the Coalition.  And most often the Liberals have outnumbered the Nationals in the Coalition.

But the Liberal-National Coalition, as it’s long been known at Federal level and in the bigger states, doesn’t actually exist in WA.  However, it used to exist there.  And it was during this existence that Cowan was leader of the WA Nationals, as well as Deputy Premier from 1993 to 2001.

In those years, with more Liberals than Nationals in Coalition ranks, Liberal leader Richard Court was Premier, with Cowan directly beneath him.  Court had led the Coalition to an election win in early 1993 over the Labor Party, which had been in office for the previous ten years.  Another election win followed for Court in late 1996, but he lost office to Labor leader Geoff Gallop at the next election, in early 2001.

By the end of 2001, both Cowan and Court had left.  Cowan departed to contest a seat at a Federal election later that year, and he was defeated, while Court resigned from politics altogether after his election loss.

After Court’s departure, Barnett became Liberal leader, and went on to lose the next election, in 2005.  He quit the leadership and was intending to retire at the next election, which was due in early 2009 but actually came in 2008, when Premier Alan Carpenter saw fit to go to the polls early.  Carpenter had been Premier since early 2006, following the resignation of Gallop, who’d been battling depression.

However, Barnett returned to the Liberal leadership ahead of that 2008 election, because the Liberals had been going through leadership problems of various sorts since he’d quit in 2005.  And indeed their problems were thought to have prompted Carpenter to call the election early.

The 2008 election result produced a hung parliament, with Labor falling three seats short of a majority.

But what made the election significant was the position of the Nationals.  It’d always been normal for the Liberals and Nationals to go their separate ways after losing office at elections, and this was what happened in WA in 2001.  However, at the 2008 election, the Nationals weren’t so willing to side up with the Liberals.  Instead, they took an independent stand, to the point where they considered supporting Labor.

They took a firm stand on implementing a policy known as Royalties for Regions, which guaranteed that regional WA would get a large proportion of public spending, particularly from payments to the state from its massive mining industry.  For years there was a perception that regional areas, not just in WA but across the country, got much less than the big cities in terms of public spending, despite being the home of much of the country’s agricultural and mining sectors, which have long served as the backbone of the national economy.  And concerns about this perceived lack of a return in the regions were major.

Eventually, the Liberals agreed to implement Royalties for Regions, and were able to get the Nationals to support them.  Therefore the Liberals and Barnett took office, with a promise of directing more spending to the regions.  But unlike previously, the Nationals only had some ministerial seats in the Barnett Government, and the job of Deputy Premier went to a Liberal.  Even though the Liberals later won an election outright and no longer needed their alliance with the Nationals, they maintained it.

Now an election is coming up, and like at previous elections, we’ll see Nationals going against Liberals in WA.  There’s doubt about whether the Liberals can win again under Barnett, who’s been around for so long.  But doubts also loom over whether voters have warmed to Labor, now led by Mark McGowan.

Support for controversial political figure Pauline Hanson is also strong in WA, so she’ll muddy the waters a bit.

But the days of closer ties between the Liberals and Nationals seem so long ago, when you consider the political scene now.  The Nationals now show more of an independent streak than they showed when Cowan was leading them.

 

Voters fatigued in northern Sydney

12 February 2017

 

Voters in part of Sydney’s inner north face their fourth visit to election booths in barely two years.  Having already been twice for general elections and once because of a politician who decided to leave early, they’ll soon be going again because of a politician’s early exit.

The general elections were expected.  Indeed the timing of one of them was decided more than two decades ago, whereas the other one could’ve happened at any certain time.  But the politicians deciding on early exits weren’t expected.  As such, you’d be forgiven for thinking that voters in this neck of the woods resent having to keep going to the polls in such a short space of time.

In terms of these visits to the polls, the first of them was for a state election in New South Wales in March 2015.  The date of this election was known long ago.  The NSW Parliament, like its counterparts in most other states, has fixed terms and election dates.  Since 1995, state elections in NSW have been held every fourth year, during the month of March.  They were subsequently held in 1999, 2003, 2007, and 2011 – hence no surprise in the coming of that election in 2015.

The second of the visits to the polls in this part of Sydney was later that year, for a by-election in the Federal seat of North Sydney.  This followed the resignation of Joe Hockey, who decided to call it quits after being dumped as Treasurer in the wake of a leadership challenge which saw Tony Abbott dumped as Prime Minister in favour of Malcolm Turnbull.  A Federal election was due the following year, but Hockey got out early, forcing the by-election.

That Federal election was the third of the visits to the polls for voters in this part of Sydney.  It was due in the second half of 2016, with the previous election having occurred three years earlier, in September 2013.  It ended up coming in July, which was perhaps earlier than expected, but voters would’ve known that it was coming.

Three visits to election booths in sixteen months might annoy voters, especially if any or all of them should result from politicians deciding to quit early instead of waiting until the next general election.

But before long, voters in this part of Sydney will face another by-election, following the departure from the NSW Parliament of former minister Jillian Skinner, who holds the seat of North Shore.  This will be their fourth visit to the polls in just two years.

NSW voters don’t face a general election for another two years – it’s already fixed for March 2019.  But with Skinner deciding against waiting until then, another visit to polls looms for some voters in northern Sydney.  They might well be fatigued after visiting the polls yet again.

Having said that, I think that Skinner mightn’t have gone at this time if not for something else happening first.  That other thing was the resignation last month of Mike Baird as leader of the Liberal Party, and therefore as State Premier, as well as from Parliament altogether.  Baird’s exit from the top job was a surprise, and his decision to exit Parliament immediately was even more so, notwithstanding health issues affecting his family at the moment when his exit was announced.  There was talk for some time about Baird possibly reshuffling his ministry and either demoting or dumping Skinner, who’d been Health Minister since the 2011 election and previously handled the health portfolio when she was an Opposition MP.  She didn’t want to go, and had apparently threatened to quit politics if she lost her job.  Baird’s decision to exit might well have made it easier for Skinner to be dumped, if that’d been the wish of new Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

The Liberals mightn’t have wanted a by-election at this time, particularly amid public anger over issues like merging of local councils.  Perhaps this scared them out of moving Skinner on from the health portfolio.  But with the exit of Baird triggering a by-election, in the seat of Manly, the loss of Skinner and another by-election didn’t matter as much.

Sometimes, several by-elections can take place at once.  Indeed I read that the Labor Party lost several MPs around the middle of 1983 – the first of them had passed away, meaning that a by-election was coming for the seat of that deceased MP, so other Labor MPs chose to resign soon after that passing, thus bringing about several by-elections at once, all of which Labor won.  This makes the coming by-elections in Manly and North Shore less problematic to some degree.

Labor has no chance of winning either of those by-election, and I even doubt that it’ll contest them.  And while both Manly and North Shore have fallen to Independents for long periods in the past, I don’t know of any well-known Independents running in them.

The Liberals will probably win both by-elections, however early it might be to make such a call.  There might be fatigue or resentment over arguably needless visits to the polls, especially in Sydney’s inner north, but nothing surprising looks like coming out of them.

 

Regret likely after Dickson’s switch

30 January 2017

 

Defections in politics have often killed careers off.  Those who’ve followed politics and elections for longer than me would know of countless instances of politicians, mainly from major political parties, defecting to minor parties or just quitting to sit as Independents, only to lose their seats when elections have come.  When politicians defect, they’re either having to stand on their own two political feet or joining mobs with weaker organisations than what they leave behind.

I can remember a few politicians leaving major parties for minor parties, and losing at subsequent elections.  I even remember such politicians serving as Independents between switches, and ultimately becoming Independents again.

Such thoughts came into my head earlier this month, when I heard about the defection of Queensland politician Steve Dickson to the mob of controversial figure Pauline Hanson.

Dickson is a former minister who’s been in State Parliament for many years, representing the Liberal National Party in a region on the Sunshine Coast, north of Brisbane.  But this month he announced that he was joining Hanson’s mob, amid preparations for a general election due next year, although it’s been suggested that the election might actually take place this year.

Having shaken national politics after winning a Senate seat in a Federal election last year, thus ending a long run of unsuccessful election runs which followed a brief period in Federal Parliament in the 1990s, Hanson clearly intends to shake the political scene more.

There are echoes of her parliamentary stint from the 1990s in her presence on the scene now.  Back then, she had enough support across the country, and in Queensland in particular, to form her own political party, which ended up winning seats at an election in that state in 1998.  But Hanson’s party imploded after that, with all bar a few MPs from 1998 coming back at the next election, in 2001.  The party continued to exist in name, but was largely ignored.  By then, Hanson had lost her seat in Federal Parliament, and tried numerous times to win seats at different elections, before her success last year.

Her parliamentary return has revived interest in her and her mob, and people are talking about what impact she’ll have on elections in various states, especially Queensland.

And the defection of Dickson will help her, to some extent, because she’s now got a voice in the Queensland Parliament, which is already fragile because crossbenchers hold the balance of power there.  The Labor Party has governed in Queensland since the last election, in 2015, after obtaining crossbench support, and the LNP is trying to return to office.  Somehow, despite this fragility, Labor has managed to govern without too much trouble – and it has to govern responsibly, because even the slightest hint of improper behaviour can prompt crossbenchers to withdraw their support, thus tipping Labor out.

But will Dickson make it back to Parliament at the next election as a Hansonite, if I could describe him that way?  My suspicion is that he won’t make it back.

Support for Hanson doesn’t seem to have been overly strong in Queensland’s urbanised south-east, taking in not just Brisbane but the Gold Coast to the south of it and the Sunshine Coast to the north of it.  Hanson’s support has largely been in regional areas, and while Hansonites won a couple of seats on Brisbane’s fringes in 1998, they seemed to be in poorer areas than elsewhere.  And the Sunshine Coast, where Dickson is based, doesn’t strike me as a region of battlers, even though it has many retirees who seem very supportive of Hanson.  I think that Hanson’s mob could win seats, but not around there.

The relative lack of support for Hanson on the Sunshine Coast makes me predict regret as likely after Dickson’s switch to Hanson’s mob.  Dickson’s career will probably end as a result of his switch.  The strength of his personal vote, regardless of which banner he runs under, might be the only thing to save him when Queenslanders cast their votes.

 

Liberals unlikely to face dark times

27 January 2017

 

The political scene never really has been, or will be, short of surprises.  And nearly four decades ago, a state election in New South Wales produced results which surprised many.

Only those who have long memories and follow politics closely would know of the Labor Party winning some unlikely seats in a big election win in 1978.  After narrowly winning office in NSW at an election in 1976, Labor was able to increase its majority two years later.  Among the seats going to Labor in 1978 were Manly and Willoughby – the very seats held at the start of this month by, respectively, the man who resigned as NSW Premier and the woman now replacing him.

This isn’t to suggest that Labor could win either seat nowadays.  You’d have to be a one-eyed Labor supporter to think that.  But both seats have been vulnerable to changing hands at one time or another over the years.

Back in 1978, Neville Wran was proving very popular as Premier.  He’d been elected Labor leader after an election loss in 1973, and led Labor to victory in a close election result in 1976.  The final result wasn’t known for a little while, with almost two weeks passing before the Premier at the time, Sir Eric Willis, conceded defeat to Wran.  From there, it seemed like Wran could do no wrong.  Although he didn’t have to call the next election until 1979, he went to the polls a year early, and he won handsomely.

The election was dreadful for the Liberal Party, which didn’t seem to cope well with losing office in 1976, despite the closeness of the result and the possibility that one defection or resignation or death could potentially tip Wran out of office.  In that 1978 election, the Liberals lost many seats which wouldn’t have thought of as possible Labor gains.  Worse still, among the defeated Liberals was Opposition Leader Peter Coleman, who’d become Liberal leader less than a year earlier.

In fact the election came just months after the resignation from Parliament of Willis, who’d been Liberal leader for less than two years, thereby triggering a by-election in his old seat of Earlwood, in Sydney’s south.  Labor candidate Ken Gabb ended up winning the by-election, and would hold the seat for about a decade.  Wran might well have decided to call a general election early as a result of this by-election.

It’s worth noting that the Liberal candidate for this by-election, and indeed for the general election later in the year, was none other than Alan Jones, nowadays a controversial radio broadcaster in Sydney.

Under Wran’s leadership, Labor gained not only the seats of two Liberal leaders in Coleman and Willis, but seats including Manly and Willoughby, both in Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs.  Nowadays you’d probably do a double-take if you were told that Labor had previously won those seats.

They didn’t stay in Labor hands for very long.  Willoughby returned to the Liberal fold at an election in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1984 that Manly returned to the Liberal fold.  Since then, only once has Willoughby come close to changing hands – this was in 2003, upon the retirement of Peter Collins, who’d regained the seat for the Liberals in 1981.  When he retired, an Independent candidate split the local vote, and the Liberals came close to losing the seat.  In the end, however, the Liberal candidate, Gladys Berejiklian, only just won, but she’s since held the seat comfortably.

But Manly has changed hands a few times since 1978.  Labor lost it to the Liberals in 1984, who in turn lost it to an Independent in 1991.  It stayed in Independent hands until 2007, when the Liberals regained the seat through Mike Baird.

History shows that Baird and Berejiklian would go on to be ministers after an election in 2011.  After a scandal brought down Barry O’Farrell as Liberal leader and Premier, it was Baird who succeeded him.  He won an election in 2015, and was immensely popular for many months.  But after some tough decisions, his popularity waned, and amid some concerns for family health, he resigned this month, with Berejiklian succeeding him.

These past events show how the unexpected happens in politics.  Years ago, the Liberals lost seats to Labor which arguably shouldn’t have fallen.  Of course, nowadays it seems that the Liberals are unlikely to face these dark times again.  But the surprising element of politics can make almost anything possible.

 

Danger not obvious in Ley’s seat

22 January 2017

 

Ministerial and parliamentary entitlements have constantly made bad names out of politicians.  There’s a blurry line between what they can and can’t claim taxpayer funds for, in terms of trips taken for work and various allowances of all sorts.  I’ve lost count of how many times they’ve ended up in news headlines because of questions over their entitlements, often referred to as lurks and perks.

I don’t need to go into details about what triggered the resignation of Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley earlier this month.  Enough has been written and said of that, and most people as such would know that she’s just another politician to have crossed some ethical line regarding lurks and perks, perceived or otherwise.  Of course, for many years, public cynicism of politicians has grown and grown, and lurks and perks have been part of the reason for that growing cynicism.  Admittedly, some politicians have taken stands against lurks and perks, but they’ve been far and few between.

Questions unsurprisingly loom over what the future holds for Ley, a senior minister in the Turnbull Government until she resigned.  Although it’s not unheard of for ministers to come back after resigning in the wake of scandals, it doesn’t appear likely that Ley will return as a minister.  Whether she remains in Federal Parliament is yet to be seen, given that she’s been there for the best part of two decades.

But I doubt that her trouble over lurks and perks will cost her as far as the next election is concerned.  Although she might retire, I can’t her seat falling into other hands – at least not at this stage.

She holds Farrer, a rural seat in southern New South Wales which has been in the hands of the Liberal Party for much of its existence.  Created in 1949, Farrer takes in the regional centre of Albury, and runs along the northern side of the Murray River, which makes up much of the state’s border with Victoria.  It’s fair to assume that a seat like Farrer would more likely be in the hands of the Nationals rather than the Liberals.

When Ley entered Federal Parliament in 2001, she won Farrer for the Liberals upon the retirement of Tim Fischer, a National, who’d held the seat since 1984.  Fischer, who was the leader of the Nationals for most of the 1990s and Deputy Prime Minister for several years, is in fact the only non-Liberal to have held Farrer since its creation.

Over time, despite the existence of the Liberal-National Coalition, there have been times when the Liberals and Nationals have run against each other in some seats – hence the existence of three-cornered contests, when you add the Labor Party to the mix.  Generally, however, they don’t run against each other where there are sitting members.  This means that the Liberals won’t run against sitting Nationals, and the Nationals won’t run against sitting Liberals.  A three-cornered contest is possible, though, when a sitting Liberal or National retires at election time.

If Ley, a Liberal MP, retires at the next election, the Nationals might field a candidate in her seat of Farrer.  But if she chooses to stay on, the Nationals won’t run against her.  In seats like Farrer, Labor has never been regarded as a threat, and only the most incredible circumstances would give Labor a chance there.

Perhaps only a well-known Independent candidate could threaten Ley in Farrer if she stays on.  Given the past success of Independents like Peter Andren and Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, in rural seats where Labor was never really going to threaten the Coalition, Ley’s seat could fall in that category.  The next election won’t be for some time, and there’s no sign of Independents looking to threaten Ley, so if there’s any danger in Ley’s seat, it’s not obvious at the moment.  The likelihood will probably be survival for Ley in the short term.

 

Close strengths of the third kind

20 January 2017

 

Results of elections sometimes make people wonder what impact they’ll have on future elections.  And one question to come out of a Federal election last year relates to the Senate, where the Coalition Government needs support of crossbenchers to get laws passed.  The next election isn’t due until 2019, so the Government almost certainly has two more years of negotiating and persuading ahead as it seeks to implement its policies.

The Government holds only a tiny majority in the House of Representatives, which makes governing hard enough.  Having to negotiate with Senate crossbenchers makes it harder still.  We’ve seen in the past how negotiating and persuading and making deals put off many politicians, not to mention the voters.  But they have to learn to live with it somehow.

In terms of last year’s election, there were mixed fortunes for Senators generally, and for crossbenchers in particular.  Some lost their seats, but more were elected, so the number of Senate crossbenchers grew from eighteen to twenty, out of seventy-six available.  The Coalition won thirty seats, and the Labor Party won twenty-six.

As far as the Senate vote was concerned, the Coalition finished first and Labor second in every state.  But different minor players finished behind them in third.  At least in terms of merely finishing third, the Greens fared best, beaten by others in only two of six states, namely Queensland and South Australia, where Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon were respectively the best of the rest.

Xenophon was by far the most outstanding of the minor players, as he and his mob won about 21.8 per cent of the vote in South Australia.  More than one in five South Australians voted for him.  So strong was this vote that Xenophon had two running mates elected to the Senate on his coattails.

The Greens finished third in four states, winning about 11.2 per cent of the vote in Tasmania, 10.9 per cent in Victoria, 10.5 per cent in Western Australia, and 7.4 per cent in New South Wales.  In Queensland, it was Hanson and her mob finishing third with about 9.2 per cent of the vote.

Already you can see how astonishing the appeal of Xenophon was – at least in South Australia.  His share of the vote in that state was about twice as big as that for the next best of those finishing third elsewhere, namely for the Greens in Tasmania.

Also, the vote for Xenophon was astonishing in terms of those finishing third and fourth in each state.  In South Australia, the Greens finished fourth behind Xenophon with abour 5.9 per cent of the vote – less than a third of what Xenophon got.  In no other state was the gap between third and fourth as big as that.  Additionally, I note that the share of the vote for the Greens in South Australia was similar to that in Victoria for controversial broadcaster Derryn Hinch, who finished fourth behind the Greens in that state.  And in Tasmania, Jacqui Lambie and her mob finished fourth behind the Greens with about 8.3 per cent of the vote.

Interestingly, the Greens won a similar share of the vote across three states, and Hanson’s share of the vote in Queensland was not much smaller.  I suspect that if not for Xenophon, the vote for the Greens in South Australia would’ve been similar to what it was in other states, though it might’ve been a little bigger in Tasmania if not for Lambie.

In this context, when you look at these third players, their strengths appear similar across the states, even though they’re at different ends of the spectrum.  I’m tempted to play on a film title and describe this as a case of close strengths of the third kind.

The next election won’t involve some of these Senate crossbenchers, because of how Parliament is constituted.  It’s been decided that of each state’s twelve Senators elected last year, the first six elected will have the next election off, and will instead face the voters at the election after next, due in about 2022.  Seven crossbenchers are among those to have won enough votes to earn the next election off.  The other thirteen crossbenchers will face the voters at the next election.  Xenophon and one of his running mates, Stirling Griff, will have the next election off, as will both Hanson and Lambie, along with three of the nine Greens in the Senate.

Some in the Government will be relieved to see off more than a few crossbenchers at the next election.  But those remaining will still have to be dealt with.

 

More global tremors to come in 2017

8 January 2017

 

Lots of people would’ve regarded 2016 as a turbulent year politically.  Australia began the year with a Federal election coming, and after it came and went, the Liberal-National Coalition Government only just won.  It governs with a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, and can’t pass legislation without support from a bigger number of crossbenchers in the Senate.  But this election was only part of the year’s events.

Among the crossbenchers with whom the Coalition must at least consider dealing with is the long-derided Pauline Hanson, elected to Parliament this year after many failed attempts to win a seat over many years.  Although widely ridiculed and hated, she has much support among unhappy voters who fear losing their jobs and feel somewhat like aliens in their own country.  And they often blame political and business leaders, and immigrants, for their ills.

Despite the close election result, the Coalition managed to pass some legislation with support from enough Senate crossbenchers.  But it’s still struggling to get support to reduce public sector debt.  And it’s rumoured that some Coalition MPs might break away, because they distrust the motives and beliefs of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.  Mind you, at the moment I don’t see this or any other issues potentially bringing down Turnbull, or the Coalition, so I don’t see an election coming earlier than when it’s due, in 2019.  As such, the state of Australian politics doesn’t seem too bad.

But I can’t help wondering if 2017 will make 2016 appear less turbulent.  Notwithstanding the events in Australia, there was more turbulence elsewhere in the world in 2016.  In the context of both years, however, I expect more global tremors to come.  If you consider 2016 turbulent, politics might get rougher in 2017.

The main talking point at the end of 2016 was in the United States of America, where elected as President, against most expectations, was larger-than-life businessman and loudmouth Donald Trump, of the Republican Party.  In a presidential election in November, Trump comfortably defeated veteran politician Hillary Clinton, of the Democratic Party.  Trump was a political “outsider” running against an “insider”, and a distrusted one at that, but few tipped him to win, because of his tendency to offend and upset people everywhere, which happened a lot both before and during the election campaign.  Despite this, he won, shocking both his country and the world, and leaving many wondering how it could happen.

In US elections, presidential candidates don’t strictly need to win more votes than their rivals across the country.  They just need to win more votes than their rivals on a state-by-state basis, and ideally in bigger states.  And wins in some bigger states enabled Trump to defeat Clinton.

I watched the election on television, following the coverage of it for hours.  As a pundit, I’d tipped Trump to win two states from Clinton, namely small Iowa and big Ohio, but I’d also tipped him to lose big North Carolina to Clinton – hence a clear win for Clinton.  After many hours, Trump looked to have held North Carolina, and gained not only Iowa and Ohio but also big Florida, always a battleground state at election time.  But even with those extra states, Trump still looking like losing.

What I didn’t see coming was Trump defeating Clinton in three big states, Michigan and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – states not won by the Republicans since the 1980s.  These states’ votes got Trump home.

It seemed like voter anger with established politicians, including Clinton, was greater than doubts about Trump.  And many backing Trump feared for their future, largely blaming business and politicians for their ills – similar to Hanson backers in Australia.

Outside the US, the other shock of 2016 occurred across the Atlantic Ocean.  It might’ve surrounded only a referendum, rather than an election, but it was still significant.

Voters in the United Kingdom were asked to choose whether to leave or remain in the European Union, which enabled people to travel and business to operate with more freedom across European countries.  This freedom also existed for immigrants from outside the EU.  Widely thought was that the UK would vote to remain in the EU.  But by a narrow majority, people in the UK voted to leave.  Like Hanson backers in Australia and Trump backers in the US, those voting for the UK to leave the EU feared for their futures, again largely blaming business and politicians for their ills.  What this does to the UK in terms of business and people’s freedom to move remains to be seen.

But if events in the UK and the US shocked the world, I tip more to come in 2017.

Similar anxieties are apparent in some European countries.  These look like featuring in elections happening in France and Germany and the Netherlands.  Two of those countries have big-name political figures who could win over lots of unhappy voters.  Although elections are coming up elsewhere in the world, these ones will be watched.

There would’ve been shocks from political events in some countries in 2016.  But more shocks from elections elsewhere in 2017 might make 2016 seem tame.  And at least they have elections, when some countries across the world have no democracy at all.  This stuff makes me, as an Australian, grateful to be in a stable country with elections held freely.