A bunch of dickheads

The idea for a post on Graham Elmes, the colourful National Party candidate for the Cape York electorate of Cook, had been brewing for a while, but the last day’s events have prompted an article by Michael Madigan in the Courier Mail which said a large amount of what needed to be said. For those who have just joined us, Elmes is the former Cooktown mayor who sent chills down the spine of his party by loudly countenancing the possibility of a One Nation preference deal after Springborg had unequivocally declared that no such deals would occur. Elmes hit the news again today when he described his own party’s hierarchy as "a bunch of dickheads" for reasons which from this distance are difficult to discern.

All of which should be of purely academic interest, because the Mackerras pendulum has Cook as Labor’s ninth safest seat. The results in a three-horse race in 2001 were Labor 63.8 per cent, One Nation 20.6 per cent and National Party 15.5 per cent. The story behind this outcome is most intriguing for those of us who enjoy spending our spare time poring through election results. Madigan notes that "about 8000 of the 21,000 votes in Cook are rock-solid Labor, coming straight out of indigenous communities". Furthermore, Elmes today was heard to complain about the remarkably low number of informal votes recorded in these areas. The Poll Bludger went through the ECQ results for Cook from 2001 and looked at the kind of booth results to which they seemed to be referring. After paring it back in a maliciously selective fashion, 14 booths were isolated that accounted for a total of 1616 votes. Of these 1477 (91.4 per cent) were cast for Labor and not a single one was informal.

The Poll Bludger wouldn’t care to speculate why this might be, but the phenomenon would appear to knock Elmes out of contention from the beginning. There are a few reasons to think again on this count. Within the indigenous communities, Labor’s monopoly may be dented, however marginally, by respected indigenous independent candidate Bruce Gibson, who had seemed to many deserving of National Party preselection. Beyond them (and we’re talking about 60 per cent of the electorate here) there are Elmes’ fellow graziers in the north, certain to fall in behind him, and the much-vaunted nervous sugar growers in the south. Although One Nation are running again, most of their vote from last time will come home to Elmes. A Greens candidate is unlikely to have too much joy, but such effect as he has will be to Labor’s detriment.

Most important of all is the departure of Labor member Steve Bredhauer, a popular and energetic cabinet minister whose decision to retire while still in his forties has come as a great surprise. The personal following of an incumbent member is an enormous electoral asset in a regional electorate like Cook, and its disappearance is always keenly felt. This seems likely to be pronounced in view of his replacement, James O’Brien, a young staffer to Bredhauer with a political science degree, no dirt under his fingernails and no public profile of any kind. While Elmes scores headlines with his tough talking and independent outlook, O’Brien has barely been mentioned in the regional media, never mind nationally.

At the very least, a dramatic correction may be expected on election night. At the most, the seat may even provide the Nationals with a welcome surprise – providing they wouldn’t prefer it remain with Labor rather than have a cannon as loose as Elmes among their fragile ranks.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.