Makin whoopee

Opinion poll watchers are currently trying to work out how Newspoll was able to conclude this week that although Labor’s 4 per cent primary vote lead from a fortnight before had turned into a 1 per cent deficit, they had maintained their 53-47 lead on two-party preferred. The Poll Bludger will leave the number-crunching to others (Peter Brent at Mumble is always a good place start) as the broad lessons from recent polls are clear – Labor’s apparently election-winning momentum of a month ago has stalled, and the prospects of Mark Latham sweeping all before him are substanially diminished. Thus does our attention return to the seats that could have swung either way from last time, and in which a small nudge towards Labor will be enough for a change of government.

The consensus is that those located in Queensland and South Australia are the most important, and with good reason. In Victoria, Labor polled well enough last time that they have less room for improvement than elsewhere, even if they did emerge with only one new seat to show for it. Newspoll’s geographical voting analysis for the January-March period showed Labor’s primary vote had improved 5 per cent in New South Wales and 7.3 per cent in Queensland since the 2001 election, but only 1.4 per cent in Victoria. Furthermore the Victorian redistribution has tended to boost Liberal margins, such that the state has only one of the 11 most marginal seats that would give Labor victory. Combine that with the fact that the state Labor administration is a great deal less popular today than it was in November 2001 and it may be concluded that Victoria will be less instrumental in deciding the outcome than it is used to.

New South Wales may also present Labor with some collateral damage from a state government for which the love has long since died, but the Coalition’s historically strong performances in the last three elections mean that for them the only way is down, and there are plenty of seats in the firing line should the local boy come good. However it’s in Queensland and South Australia that Labor has serious room for improvement, and here the state governments are respectively still popular and basking in the peak of their honeymoon phase. Today the Poll Bludger will focus his attention on South Australia, where the last election saw the Liberal Party win nine seats out of 12 from a primary vote of 45.9 per cent (against 43.1 per cent nationally for the Coalition) with Labor winning the remaining three from 33.7 per cent (against 37.8 per cent nationally).

The first complication to be noted is that those 12 seats are now 11, this being the second occasion that the state has had its representation cut through relative population decline since the House of Representatives assumed its current size in 1984. Essentially the existing electorates of Bonython and Wakefield – respectively held safely for Labor by Martyn Evans and Liberal by Neil Andrew, who circumvented a post-redistribution preselection brawl by choosing to retire – have been abolished. Wakefield lives on in name, but bears little resemblance to the existing seat in its new form. Where it once awkwardly took in the Yorke Peninsula before stretching up the Murray Valley all the way to the Victorian border, Wakefield now retains a sliver of its former territory around Gawler as the base for a move into the suburbs taking in more than half of the electors formerly in Bonython. The AEC chose to stick with the name Wakefield for essentially sentimental reasons, Edward Gibbon Wakefield having been a fascinating and much underrated figure (of Sir John Langdon Bonython, the Poll Bludger knows very little). The new seat, with which Martyn Evans will have to make do, has a notional Labor majority of 1.5 per cent, although this was in the context of a historically poor performance for Labor in South Australia at the last election.

The three most marginal Liberal seats in the state, Adelaide, Hindmarsh and Makin, have also undergone small but potentially significant changes which represent a mixed bag for the incumbents. Adelaide and Hindmarsh, held by the Liberals in 2001 with respective margins of 0.2 and 1.9 per cent, have both lost territory from the northward expansion of the safe Liberal southern suburbs seat of Boothby. Adelaide has been compensated with extra territory in the east from safe Liberal Sturt, improving Trish Worth’s margin from 0.2 to 0.6 per cent, while Hindmarsh has moved north along the coast to take a chunk out of safe Labor Port Adelaide, cutting the Liberal margin from 1.9 to 1.1 per cent. Makin, located to the immediate north-east of Adelaide, has gained Salisbury East and Salisbury Heights with the abolition of Bonython, but its margin remains unaltered on 3.8 per cent.

Hindmarsh has been held since 1993 by Chris Gallus, whose success in winning first the now-abolished Hawker and then Hindmarsh – each for the first time in the Liberal party’s history – has earned her a reputation as something of a vote-winner. Samantha Maiden of The Australian reports that it "is understood" that the Prime Minister "hit the roof" when Gallus made her unexpected decision to retire at the coming election, since party polling showed her to be worth an extra 6 to 7 per cent to the Liberal vote. "Political observers" cited by Craig Bildstien of The Advertiser were more conservative, putting it at 3 or 4 per cent, but both sets of figures are easily the difference between victory and defeat. Significantly replacement candidates were reluctant to step forward, with Adelaide Crows player Nigel Smart among those declining to take the field in order to hold out for a safer seat. The preselection instead became a contest between Gallus-backed Simon Birmingham and the right faction’s Stavroula Raptis, with Crikey reporting that Birmingham won on the second ballot with "50 per cent plus three votes". For the third election running, Labor’s candidate is Steve Georganas, a former taxi driver who got the gig as the "soft left" faction’s nominee in a deal that saw the right’s Kate Ellis take Adelaide (more on that below). Georganas did extremely well to almost unseat Gallus with a 6.9 per cent swing in 1998, but in 2001 he performed no better or worse than the state average in dropping 1 per cent. He has been keeping off the streets lately thanks to a job as adviser to SA Urban Development Minister Jay Weatherill.

Ellis, an adviser to state Industry Minister Rory McEwen, will attempt to break a humiliating 11-year Liberal grip on what ought to be another safe Labor inner-city seat. Between World War II and 1988, Labor only ever lost Adelaide with the 1966 Harold Holt landslide. An embarrassing by-election defeat for the Hawke Government was corrected at the 1990 election (Andrew Peacock having since taken over as Liberal leader from John Howard), but a strong statewide swing against the national trend helped Trish Worth pick the seat up in 1993. Since then she has had a nervous but remarkably stable time of it, her closest shave coming with a 343-vote victory in 2001. Worth’s political future appeared in doubt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, but she apparently remains in good health and is again taking the field. The redistribution has tripled her margin, but most observers will be surprised if it’s enough.

Labor are in big trouble if they don’t reel in Adelaide and Hindmarsh, but Makin could be the one that decides the outcome if the result comes down to the wire. Member Trish Draper was named by the Prime Minister in 1998 as one of three Liberal "heroes" (along with Jackie Kelly in Lindsay and Danna Vale in Hughes) whose success in maintaining their seats in traditional enemy territory had helped the government cling to power at that year’s election. Draper had just limited her Labor opponent to a flimsy 0.2 per cent swing against a statewide average of 4.8 per cent, and her performance in 2001 was scarcely less impressive, her 3 per cent swing comparing with a state average of 1 per cent.

However, Draper’s Labor opponent at this election is a strong candidate in more ways than one. Tony Zappia is the only Australian weightlifter ever to win 10 national titles, and has managed to hold the mayoralty of Salisbury aloft for seven hamstring-straining years, with a further 20 years on council before that. He was widely seen to have been hard done by in losing the 2001 nomination to Gail Gago, former nursing union leader and current MLC, essentially due to his factional non-alignment. A repeat performance appeared to be on the cards when the deal over Adelaide and Hindmarsh referred to earlier reserved Makin for Dana Wortley, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance state secretary and nominee for a faction described by Paul Starick of The Advertiser as a "coalition of the Hard Left and remnants of the Centre". The deal was of use to the major left faction centred around Nick Bolkus as the preselection of a female candidate would have allowed the party to achieve its affirmative action quota without costing Bolkus his spot in the Senate. Local party members however were not pleased, which led state member Frances Bedford to throw her hat into the ring in what Rebecca DiGirolamo of The Australian described a "tactical move to get Mr Zappia up", despite Bedford being a factional colleague of Wortley. In the event Premier Mike Rann managed to persuade Wortley’s key union backers to shift their support to Zappia, in what would appear to have been an electorally sensible decision.

On top of Liberal Party internal polling reportedly showing Labor ahead in Hindmarsh, the Sunday Mail helpfully shed light on the matter with an impressive opinion poll sampling 500 voters from each of the three electorates currently under our microscope. The poll found Labor ahead 42 per cent to 35 in Hindmarsh (compared with 38.3-46.0 in 2001), 40-37 in Adelaide (37.1-44.2 in 2001) and 41-39 in Makin (36.7-45.9). This however was published on February 22, at the very peak of pendulum’s swing towards Labor. The correction that has followed in a very short time frame since suggests that none of these seats is about to get any less interesting between now and polling day.

UPDATE: By a chilling concidence Peter Brent at Mumble has chosen today to publish extensive ruminations on the situation in South Australia submitted to him by one-time Labor candidate for Sturt Phil Robins. It draws attention to one conspicuous omission from above – the possibility that the very popular Karlene Maywald, the only National Party MP in state parliament and thus effectively an independent, will run against the no-profile Liberal member for Barker, Patrick Secker. The Riverland is Barker’s focal point now that it has gained the area following Wakefield’s reconstruction (see above), and this is Maywald’s home territory. The smart money would be on her to prevail if this were to eventuate.

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.