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.

 

Hell hath no fury like minor players scorned

23 December 2016

 

Varied have been the attitudes of major political parties in relation to minor players over time.  I use the term “minor players” to describe Independents and minor parties, the latter of which are sometimes so small that they’re called “micro-parties”.  There have been times when major parties have become comfortable with them, and times when they’ve been absolutely intolerant of them.

But when major parties become angry with minor players, or fearful of them, they try to make it as hard as possible for them to win seats at elections.  Sometimes they succeed, but at other times their efforts fail, and more minor players emerge.

You’ve probably heard a quote which goes like this – “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”  It means that there’s nothing as bad as a woman who’s really angry.  And when talking about a situation where lots of unhappy voters throw in their lot with minor political players, especially when they think that major political parties are trying to make seats harder to win at election time, I could play on that quote and say, “Hell hath no fury like minor players scorned”.

However, if you think that I’m talking about this year’s Federal election, and in particular the minor players in the Senate, of whom there were many before the election and then more after it, you’d be wrong.

I refer in fact to an instance, nearly two decades ago, when the major parties actually colluded to knock minor players out of the parliamentary arena, in Tasmania.

Back in 1996, twenty years ago, the Tasmanian Parliament was in a balance-of-power situation, with governments needing crossbench support to pass laws, for the second time in just a few years.  Previously the Labor Party had governed with crossbench support from 1989 to 1992, after which the Liberal Party governed in its own right for four years.  But the Liberal Government lost its majority at an election in 1996, and ended up governing with crossbench support.

In those days the Greens held the balance of power in Tasmania.  They’d emerged from debates about environmental issues, such as damming rivers and logging forests, over previous years.  And they’d later become the most powerful of minor players in Australian politics for a period of time.

In the wake of that 1996 election, the notion of needing the support of crossbenchers to govern must’ve made both the Labor and Liberal parties frustrated, or possibly scared.

A few years later, the major parties voted to reduce the size of State Parliament, with the number of seats in the House of Assembly, where governments are formed, dropping from thirty-five seats to twenty-five.  This number came into effect at an election in 1998.

The major parties presumably decided that reducing the size of Parliament was the only way to get rid of the Greens.  And at the time, their apparent act of collusion succeeded, with the Greens reduced to a single seat in the House of Assembly.  Labor ended up winning the election with fourteen seats, but one might suspect that the Liberals, who won ten seats, would’ve preferred to lose the election than end up having to get support from the Greens to govern again.  At a footnote, the new Premier of Tasmania was Jim Bacon, who’d entered Parliament only two years earlier and become Labor leader not long before that 1998 election.

But the Greens gradually came back from this 1998 setback.  At the next election, in 2002, they increased their number from one seat to four seats.  They held their four seats when Tasmanians next voted, in 2006.  And in 2010, they gained a fifth seat and ended up with the balance of power once more.

Although the Liberals went on to comfortably win the next election, in 2010, the ability of the Greens to come back after being ganged on shouldn’t be forgotten.  They clearly embody issues that many Tasmanians want addressed, even if the major parties don’t want to talk about them.

Minor players can be regarded as embodying issues that major parties want to ignore, as long as enough voters care.  Major parties may try to freeze them out, but they do so at their own peril, as history has shown.

 

Ghosts from 1998 with Hanson’s return

19 December 2016

 

The rise of Pauline Hanson really shook Australian politics in the 1990s.  Although merely one newly-elected Federal MP at a time when the Liberal-National Coalition had a huge parliamentary majority, she said things that drew both support and criticism from all over the country – to the point where she seemed to setting the political agenda.  The Coalition was somewhat split over how to respond to her, but the Labor Party absolutely refused to tolerate her, even she shared the old-fashioned beliefs of some Labor people in protecting jobs in manufacturing from cheaper imports, among other things.

Hanson was in Federal Parliament for only one term before losing her seat, and over the next two decades she tried, time and again, to win seats at numerous elections.  People stopped taking her seriously after a while, but she never gave up, and this year she made it back, shocking the political establishment – again.

But going back to her first period in Parliament, her high point might well have been June 1998.  By then she’d set up her own political party, and had candidates running in a state election in her home state of Queensland.  Although not a candidate herself, she had quite an influence on that Queensland election.  Candidates from her party ended up winning eleven seats, out of eighty-nine, in State Parliament.

I’m inclined to argue that ghosts from that election in 1998 surround the fortunes of not just Hanson but the major political parties as well.  Hanson’s party effectively imploded in the following years, and those eleven MPs in Queensland ended up leaving, with two of them making it back as Independents.  But Hanson effectively split the Coalition, and she caused some problems from Labor, because many traditional Labor voters actually liked Hanson, even though Labor MPs wouldn’t tolerate her.

The troubles for the Coalition, which in Queensland had the Nationals dominating the Liberals while the Liberals dominated the Nationals elsewhere in Australia, stemmed from a divide between urban voters who couldn’t abide her and rural voters who were largely attracted to her.  Indeed in that 1998 election in Queensland, the Coalition chose to direct preferences to Hanson’s candidates ahead of Labor, and this was partly to blame for the Coalition’s troubles in relation to her.  Labor declared that Hanson’s candidates would be put last at election time, but countless Labor voters ignored this and either voted for them or directed preferences to them.

The Hansonites won six seats from Labor, and five from the Nationals.  To offset the losses to the Hansonites, Labor won six seats from the Liberals, one of which was a seat lost in a by-election two years earlier.  The Nationals also lost a seat to an Independent, namely Peter Wellington.  With neither Labor nor the Coalition having the numbers to govern alone, Labor managed to take office with the support of Wellington, which was enough because Labor had forty-four seats – one seat less than needed for a majority.

It was argued that Labor won seats from the Liberals because urban voters were angry with the Coalition’s decision to direct preferences to the Hansonites.  But I’m not convinced that this was the case, at least considering which seats Labor won from the Liberals.

Labor’s gains from the Liberals were Barron River, Greenslopes, Mansfield, Mount Ommaney, Mundingburra, and Springwood.  Barron River was near Cairns, Mundingburra was in the Townsville region, and the others seats were in Brisbane.

But the Liberals hadn’t held these seats for long.  Apart from Mundingburra, these were seats which Labor lost to the Liberals at the previous election, in 1995.  A year later, Labor lost Mundingburra to the Liberals in a by-election.  In other words, Labor’s gains from the Liberals in 1998 amounted to little more than a reversal of seats lost to the Liberals one election earlier.  If Labor in 1998 had won seats which the Liberals had held prior to the 1995 election, I’d believe the idea of Labor gaining from urban Liberal voters’ anger over Hanson – but that didn’t happen.

Mind you, it was in later years when Queensland’s urban voters revolted against the Coalition’s directing of preferences to Hanson’s candidates.  While the Liberals were against doing so, the Nationals were divided over it, and Labor went on to score a massive election win in 2001.

These ghosts from 1998 come into my mind when considering the prospect for the next Queensland election, especially with Hanson’s return to the political stage.  The next Queensland election might happen next year.  The power of Hanson will go under the spotlight once more.

 

Close call for Oakeshott raises eyebrows

16 December 2016

 

Lots of people probably breathed a sigh of relief on the first Saturday night of July this year, as results came in for a Federal election that day.  Although the election was too close to call on the night, and took a number of days to produce a clear result, albeit a narrow one, many people were worried about results in two particular seats during the election campaign, and only when the results became clear did they settle down.

One seat making people uneasy was New England, in northern New South Wales, where Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce faced a challenge from a former Independent MP of some repute.  The former Independent, Tony Windsor, had held New England for about a decade before retiring in 2013, and had previously sat in State Parliament for years before then, but decided to come out of retirement because of local concerns about mining on prime farmland, among other things.  As an observer, I didn’t believe that Windsor would win, because he’d upset many people when he chose to support the Labor Party while holding the balance of power in Federal Parliament from 2010 to 2013 – being in a rural seat, he’d have been expected to support the Liberal-National Coalition in a balance-of-power situation, where neither Labor nor the Coalition had a parliamentary majority and the ability to govern alone.  When he retired, he looked like he was running away to escape the anger of voters.  It also looked to me that, for this year’s election, there was more support for him outside New England than inside it, with that support probably coming from people who admired him for opting against supporting the Coalition in 2010, when the polarising Tony Abbott led the Coalition.  These were my reasons for doubting that Windsor would beat Joyce.  And indeed Joyce won pretty comfortably.

But the other seat worrying people in that Federal election in July was Cowper, on the northern NSW coast.  Standing in that seat was another former Independent MP who came out of retirement to run for the seat.  This Independent sat with Windsor on the crossbench during those balance-of-power years in Federal Parliament, and had also upset many people in choosing to support Labor instead of the Coalition in 2010, before retiring in 2013, supposedly to escape the anger of voters.  With those things in mind, this Independent, who didn’t choose to run until the last possible moment, shouldn’t have been in with a chance of coming back – but the election results came uncomfortably close to proving this assumption wrong.  The name of this Independent was Rob Oakeshott.

How could this happen?  Oakeshott copped much flak for supporting Labor instead of the Coalition while holding the balance of power from 2010 to 2013, just as Windsor did.  He looked like something of a coward when he retired, just as Windsor did.  And his last-minute decision to contest this year’s election looked a lot like the action of a person trying to make mischief.  Nobody would’ve given him a chance.  Yet he came within striking distance of winning the seat of Cowper – in fact, he came closer to beating the sitting MP, Luke Hartsuyker, than Windsor came to beating Joyce.  He mightn’t have won, but he certainly left many people unsettled.

I’ve lost count of the number of times in politics when the unexpected has happened.  To be fair, long-time political junkies should be used to expecting the unexpected.  But even they witness or hear things from time to time which raise more than a few eyebrows.  And if I had to pick eyebrow-raising moments from this year, the close call for Oakeshott was one of them.

Oakeshott had held the seat of Lyne, next to Cowper, before retiring in 2013.  When he decided to contest this year’s election, he ran for Cowper, because his support base in Port Macquarie was moved into Cowper in electoral redistributions.  People in Port Macquarie probably knew him better than elsewhere.

Given his reputation, and the anger stemming from his decision to support Labor in 2010, as well as his last-minute decision to run, he shouldn’t have been in with a chance of winning Cowper.  Yet despite winning just over a quarter of the primary vote in Cowper, he pushed Hartsuyker more than Labor could have done.  Hartsuyker ended up holding his seat by a margin of about 4.6 per cent after preferences.  If Oakeshott hadn’t run, official election results suggest a margin of about 12.9 per cent over Labor for Hartsuyker.

The close call for Oakeshott suggests greater anger with the Coalition among voters on the northern NSW coast than otherwise thought.  It’s a region where voters traditionally support the Coalition, and non-Coalition voters end up supporting Labor because they have nowhere else to go.  Oakeshott clearly won lots of those non-Coalition voters, and probably won over many who stick with the Coalition because of disliking Labor.  I doubt that Oakeshott would win if he runs again.  But the closeness of his run this year would’ve raised eyebrows and made the critics think hard about why it happened.