East meets west

Peter Debnam has been offered a glimmer of hope by today’s Newspoll, which finds a considerable narrowing in Labor’s primary vote. Labor support is down from 45 per cent to 42 per cent, while the Coalition is up from 33 per cent to 37 per cent; on two-party preferred, the gap has closed from 59-41 to 56-44. Unfortunately, Debnam’s early morning equilibrium will be upset when his attention turns to the local papers, which both lead their election coverage with reports on the abnormally low profile Debnam has assumed in the Liberals’ election material. The Sydney Morning Herald rates this as "a sign that the Liberals’ poor showing in the polls is starting to give campaign organisers the jitters", while the Daily Telegraph calls it "a bizarre break with tradition", "confirming that poor polling and Labor’s negative campaign have all but destroyed his chances of becoming premier".

Another unorthodox tactic has been the pitch by Debnam that voters should at least "send Labor a message" at the election, a tacit admission that he does not expect to win. Given my Perth-centric perspective on things, such talk sent my mind scurrying back to Labor’s two defeats in the Western Australian elections of 1993 and 1996. Two days before the former election, then-Premier Carmen Lawrence told the West Australian: "I am smart enough to know I have done everything I could possibly have done. I don’t feel as if victory rides on my shoulders. People do like me but that’s not going to be enough to change their votes". Sure enough, Labor’s tumultous 10 years in power come to an end the following Saturday, though in less bruising terms than might have been expected under the circumstances.

Labor’s surrender in 1996 was even more explicit. The party had lost its main electoral asset with Lawrence’s entry into federal politics in 1994, and subsequently went through two leaders in quick succession. Three days out from the poll, leader Geoff Gallop made a deliberate bid for the sympathy vote when he told reporters: "Information I have seen in the polls throughout this campaign indicates the Court Government will be returned comfortably on Saturday". According to that day’s West Australian, "Labor sources said the party’s final television advertisement – urging voters not to give the Court Government a blank cheque – broke with the strategy laid out at the start of the campaign. The new tactic was devised by (state party secretary Mark) Nolan and Perth MHR Stephen Smith". Court meanwhile was making the eerily familiar claim that "our polling shows that in our marginal seats it is a 50-50 situation".

Opinion on the effectiveness of Gallop’s pre-emptive concession was dramatically divided. It was believed to have gone down badly in traditional Labor mining areas, and was widely blamed for unexpectedly poor performances in the north-western seats of Burrup and Ningaloo. Defeated Ningaloo MP Kevin Leahy complained that the party hierarchy had "destroyed us with the decision to say they did not think they could win", which had "poleaxed the campaign team". Fred Riebeling, who narrowly held on in Burrup (and is now member for the successor seat of North-West Coastal), thought it a "stupid act" that "cost me dearly": "I had half my people working in the booths ring me asking why should they bother turning up".

However, it appeared to be a different story in the metropolitan area, where a number of feared defeats failed to materialise. Most significantly, star candidate Alan Carpenter defied concerns that he might fail to carry his seat of Willagee, where he picked up a 6.5 per cent swing. Miserable as Labor’s statewide primary vote of 35.8 per cent might have been, it was still higher than the support recorded in four previous Newspoll surveys, including a final week poll that had their vote at 33 per cent. Two years on, Anne Burns of the West Australian was able to report that the move was "credited in Labor folklore with minimising the carnage". Another two years, and Gallop had led Labor back to power with the first of his two election victories. Few would consider Peter Debnam likely to be as lucky.

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.

37 comments on “East meets west”

  1. Too little, too late.

    This morning’s poll drops the predicted result at the election by only 0.2% points, still leaving a swing TO the Government of some 2.5%. There must be a Morgan Poll in the wind somewhere. In January their numbers came out on the 19th; in Feb on the 10th of the month. They poll monthly. Friday is usually their day.

  2. The poll really highlights the point thats existed throughout the whole campaign; Debnam has failed to capture the electorate. I do believe that thee are some sound policies there that create a viable alternative, however the person promoting those policies has not made any impact upon the average elector.

    On a side note, why is there such an emhpasis and regularity in realtion to opinion polls these days? I personally believe that they don’t effectively reflect the seat structure of the electoral system, and inadvertently contain inherent flaws..

  3. 56-44 would be a status quo result: the ALP retains a 17 seat majority.
    This latest Newspoll: nothing really to get very excited about, probably just a necessary correction on the last poll’s rather unlikely 18% 2PP Labor majority.
    The Libs won’t even refer to Debnam in any of their so far meagre TV & radio advertising, proof that he is a liability.

  4. Stewart said: On a side note, why is there such an emhpasis and regularity in relation to opinion polls these days?

    Nothing has changed really. Pollsters have been polling at fortnightly or monthly or two-montly (Newspoll, State) for years. Nielsen (or at least Fairfax who commission them) lose interest in the months after an election.

  5. I notice on the latest Newspoll figures that the projected Liberal primary vote is 31 compared to 24.7 at the 2003 election. The projected National primary vote is also well down on the actual 2003 figure (6 compared to 9.7) in circumstances where the projected “Others” primary vote is up 0.3% only on the 2003 vote. Labor might be cruising to victory but it will be interesting to see if any lift in the Liberal primary vote on election night is restricted to safe Liberal seats (there are only so many extra Liberal votes Barry O’Farrell and Jonathan O’Dea can collect). Today’s Newspoll may be good news for Liberal candidates like Greg Smith and Pru Goward.

  6. William, you may never have seen the 1995 Queensland Coalition campaign ads, but they were very clever and they won the election (after byelection) by conceding defeat but asking for a protest vote.

    “If you don’t like — protest!”
    “Wayne Goss did — protest!”

    And they did.

  7. Does anyone remember Bob Carr’s first shot at the job? The Friday poll before the Saturday and the result? Never underestimate the very late swing in NSW elections. It’s like a council election. The voters won’t engage until a day or two out. That is why, I suspect, the Libs arre conserving their meagre resources. I also expect the media will give Debnam some nice stuff in the last couple of days.

  8. No, the Libs can’t win from here but Jim seems to think so. I hope you haven’t put your hard earned on the result Jim.

  9. What do people consider would be a ‘par’ result for the Coalition at this election (from this position)?

    2 seats? 5 seats? Winning back a couple of the indy seats?

  10. I can’t see how the Libs can win – it’s too much ground to make up, and a dud campaign hasn’t helped. Even though it hasn’t featured that prominently during the campaign, I wouldn’t discount IR and also the Rudd factor here. It appears that Labor is getting a bounce from their Federal colleagues, while the Libs are being pulled down by the electoral poison that is WorkChoices. Why they committed themselves to handing over IR powers to Canberra is beyond me – it’s a gift for the ALP.

  11. Hugo, regardless of who governs, private sector IR will be handed over to the Federal System; hence the purpose of the Commonwealth’s reforms. The only power that the State Government has is in respect of public sector employees and their relevant awards, who will remain under the state IR System whether Iemma or Debnam wins (As per the Victorian System before Workchoices).

    This is where Labor has targetted their campaign, attempting to suggest that the Coalition will hand over Public Sector IR to the Commonwealth which is ac complete untruth; it was bipartisan when the legislation went through state parliament, and the Coalition to this date, has committed itself to maintain the powers at the state level. It would be unfeasable and unworkable to do otherwise. That is where the ALP has fooled (or rather scared) much of the electorate.

  12. ‘Hugo, regardless of who governs, private sector IR will be handed over to the Federal System;’

    In Australia we have this little thingy called the Constitution. Remember those who think if the Queen of England is plucked from it civilisation will end? Same document.

    Didn’t the HC rule quite recently in a bizzarre decision that shows they have no grasp of history at all that the Constitutuion gave all the power to the Commonwealth? There will be no ‘hand over’ the PM put his hand in the cookie jar and the HC said he could have the cookie … the power has been stolen. Still a few crumbs to deal with but all over red rover.

  13. Jasmine_Anadyr, The HC decision was not “bizarre” or wanting in “grasp of history”, given the Court’s earlier judgements on the scope of the corporations power. However, if you are engaging in hyperbole to express an opinion about the politics of the IR laws, then I can understand where you are coming from.

  14. Whether the power is voluntarily handed over, or taken away, the point remains the same; the State IR System will be the same under both Iemma and Debnam.

  15. Stewart, perhaps I didn’t explain my point well enough. The fact is that at the moment, WorkChoices is associated with the Liberal Party – most people won’t be differentiating to any great degree between State and Federal. Despite what its supporters like to think, this stuff is electoral poison, and any party that promises to oppose it will get a commensurate boost in polling.

    Having said that, there ARE policy differences between the State parties. The Libs have promised to hand over the remaining IR powers (ie for State employees and those who worked for non-incorporated small business), whereas the ALP has pledged to keep those employees within the State IR system. Granted, it’s highly likely that within a decade the Commonwealth will have complete control of IR in all states, but for this election, there is a clear point of difference between the parties.

  16. Also Stewart, you misrepresent the Victorian system. All employees have been under Fderal jurisdiction since 1997, when Kennett handed over IR powers to Canberra. This was after he abolished the Awards system for that State.

  17. Yeah I’m guilty it is a bit of hyperbole and yes the corps power should have set alarm bells ringing … but didn’t they effectively use the corps power to override the explicit treatment of IR in the Constitution? That is pretty extreme, it is pretty adventerous.

    In relation to one vote one value in WA the HC wrote an omitted word into an 100 year old (or so) Statute to give effect to their guess of the Parliaments intent at the time – contrary to any spirit of progress. Which is fine except in this decision they are prepared to ignore that it is obvious that the founding fathers didn’t intend this. Begins to look a bit more like a political agenda than it looks like law. But that would hardly be new ground for the High Court. Just no-one seems to complain about this Court.

  18. I never discounted the harm that Workchoices has done to the Coalition prospects.

    I am aware that the Victorian System has been operating in that manner since the reforms of the previous government, however, the situation in NSW will become very similar regardless of which party is in office.

    State employees? Could you please elaborate? As far as I’m aware the Coalition will not be handing over any awards covering public service personnel to the Federal system due to the obvious impracticalities. The Coalition supported the very legislation that protected these workers in early 2006 which contradicts everything the ALP has been propagating.

  19. Victorian state employees (eg nurses, teachers) have been employed under Federal Awards for about 5 years now, and my understanding of NSW State Liberal policy is that they would hand over all IR regulation for State employees except for the police and the PIC.

    The reason the Coalition supported the 2006 legislation (which converted State employees back to being agents of the Crown, as opposed to State-owned corporations) because they know in their hearts (and heads) that WorkChoices is bad news for them. They supported it even though such a stand directly contradicts their own stated IR policy.

  20. ” We will refer the majority of IR powers to the Commonwealth but we will retain some IR powers, including those covering state employees,” Peter Debnam – 10 – 3- 2006

    He restated this point on radio the other week, in fact, the audio used in the latest ALP advertisement is from a radio interview last year on 2gb where he reitterated the point that state employees will be retained under the Coalition.

  21. At least it wasn’t like the state Liberals in QLD last year who wanted to hand it all over… but staying the same under both Lab and Lib? Lib would probably break this promise anyway. Have noticed more Greg Smith posters up. They really do stand out unlike the Labor posters (see beecroft community hall for comparison)… I’d say Greg Smith is home and dry. As for Pru, it’ll be close and I think the local mayor will get in just. I’ve spoken to some local people around Goulbourn and none are too impressed with Pru nor the Liberal Party.

  22. Remember that Goulburn (city) is not a strong Liberal area. The residents of other towns like Bowral and Mittagong still have to vote in that electorate too.

  23. When I was in Goulburn a week ago locals were thinking that Goward would not do so well in Goulburn (and Stephenson would do well), but that Southern Highlands would swing it for Goward. Places like Bowral voted 60% primary for Seaton last time around, so would need a big swing (and solid preference flows) to be overcome. McManus (ALP) in Goulburn city received just over 50% on primary, but this vote will now be split between Parker and Stephenson, so will be subject to diminished flows after exhausts. Stephenson is not nearly so well know in the Southern Highlands end of electorate, which is more likely to vote in a Liberal than Independent. That said, I know that Stephenson and Dorman (the Greens candidate) have been travelling up to the Highlands recently.

    An interesting seat, but not one I would necessarily pick to leave the Lib fold.

  24. Hugo,

    Victorian teachers have been under federal awards and agreements since 1992, when they fled the truly nasty and dishonourable Kennett government for AIRC protection. Des Moore, then of the IPA, revealed before the election that the Liberals should get rid of 5,500 teachers. They denied they would do any such thing, and then got rid of 9,000. To get away with this, they had to break legally enforceable industrial agreements which set teaching loads, class sizes and so forth. Luckily for them, they weren’t ordinary employers who – prior to the current federal IR laws – were bound by the law of contract, but a government which gets to make laws, and they had no interest in the old-fashioned principle of sovereign risk. They passed retrospective legislation in the form of the Public Sector Management Act, which was used to increase teaching loads and class sizes and thus reduce the number of teachers required. While teachers won an interim order, the AIRC in the end ruled in favour of the government, and despite seven years of Labor, teachers have not got back their stolen conditions.

  25. I can tell you that Greg Smith is doing a lot of campaigning in Epping, far more than the Liberals have ever done for this seat in previous years.
    I received a lot of mail from the Liberals recently, all of which gets chucked in the recycling bin!
    Peter Debnam’s less than stellar performance on tonight’s Channel 9 Sydney news: he looked well out of his depth! Oh well, at least he has Alan Jones and his radio station providing 24 hour a day anti-Labor party propoganda.

  26. Gary, I’m not suggesting the Libs will win. My assessment is they will pick up seats. Based on the poll they would not pick up any seats. I think they’ll pick up four or five. It could get close.

  27. I keep reading that Kennett’s defeat occurred because the voters had a last minute protest vote, this I reject for the voters just like with Keating and now it seems with Howard were sitting there waiting for the other lot to give them a reason to change, Voters had it in for Kennett well before September 1999.

  28. I agree bmwofoz. Bracks was good, the tactic to try and take the rural area was the difference between minority gov and just losing. Pity he hasn’t deliviered, which is why he is on the nose. But again, there is no credible opposition.

    This is why Rudd will win. He has made the ALP credible and so now there is a real alternative.

  29. Dave C,

    The line that Steve Bracks “hasn’t delivered” was one of the standard anti-Labor lines trotted out to stop it winning in 2006 and is now being trotted out to stop Labor winning federally, but the line doesn’t work because there is so obviously so much that has been delivered – extra police, extra nurses, 5,193 extra teachers, schools funded to cap prep to grade 2 classes at 21 pupils each, the Victorian Institute of Teaching to uphold professional standards and ethics, academic subjects like history and geography back in the curriculum instead of the Liberal government’s SOSE mess, $1.4 billion already invested in capital expenditure on schools, the auditor-general as a constitutionally protected parliamentary officer, a reformed and democratically representative Legislative Council. In the area I come from and will return to, there is a brand new CFA/police/ambulance station at Diamond Creek, and a brand new police station and a brand new CFA station at Hurstbridge.

    Those who want to strike an effective blow against the Victorian Labor government need to be specific. The “do-nothing” tag which some apply is just nonsense.

  30. I hadn’t thought of it before Chris because it was overshadowed by the Canal of Colin and the stuff up with adding up numbers.

    But the Libs had exactly the same line against Labor in WA in 2005. Colin was to be a man of action not inaction. Would be about delivering not about thinking about reports. I guess Labor had an accidental win and certainly wasn’t ready to hit the ground running, but as you observe it was still a stupid accusation.

  31. Chris I was refering more to not acting on the particular things he promised the rural communities. He did some stuff there but not anywhere near what was promised to the rural communities.

    And I come from Lower Plenty, so I know about the stuff in DC and Hurstbridge. I atribute that more to Steve Herbert and Danielle Green working as a team then directly to Steve Bracks.

  32. Dave C,

    I agree that the Labor Party ought to be criticised for specific promises it has not kept. I am sorry: I misinterpreted your comment as a more general claim. I said seven years ago that Labor had to, not just meet its specific promises, but also give country people a better life.

    I accept that the local MPs played a part in the Diamond Creek and Hurstbridge emergency services stations, but I think they were promises by the whole government earlier.

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