Gippsland by-election preview

June 26: With two days to go, I’ve promoted this post to the top of the website batting order (scroll to the May 5 entry at the bottom of the post for a general overview). Brendan Nelson today engaged in expectations management on a heroic scale when he predicted Labor would win the by-election, which nobody else other than John Black (see below) seems to expect. The Nationals are sounding rather more optimistic. In a boldly detailed prediction at Australian Policy Online, academic Brian Costar tips the Nationals to gain a 1 per cent swing. Courtesy of Andrew Landeryou comes printed campaign material from the Liberals, Nationals and Labor. The Herald-Sun reports that Liberal how-to-vote cards will not feature images of Brendan Nelson. Below are two late-campaign Liberal attack ads, with another hat-tip due to Landeryou.

June 24: John Black, former Labor senator and chief executive of Australian Development Strategies, sets out the case for his belief that Labor will win the by-election, contrary to the conventional wisdom that the Nationals will retain the seat. The future of Australia Post services in Traralgon continues to generate a surprising volume of column inches, with former Australian Railways Union official and current chamber of commerce president Harvey Pynt appearing in a television commercial to back Rohan Fitzgerald’s campaign on the issue.

June 16: A summary of events since I went quiet a few weeks ago:

• A surprisingly modest field of candidates has emerged. In ballot paper order, they are Malcolm McKelvie (Greens); Rohan Fitzgerald (Liberal); Ben Buckley (Liberty and Democracy Party); Darren McCubbin (Labor); Darren Chester (Nationals).

• Antony Green has published the definitive guide to next Saturday’s action.

• The Greens are refusing to direct preferences to Labor, candidate Malcolm McKelvie declaring there is “barely a skerrick of policy daylight between the Australian Labor Party and the Nationals” on “climate change and clean coal, forestry policy, genetically modified foods and social justice issues”.

• According to the Latrobe Valley Express, “concerns” that the two existing Australia Post operations in Traralgon will be rolled into one have “dominated the efforts” of the Nationals and Liberal candidates during the campaign.

• Peter Costello caused a stir last week when he hit the campaign trail in Gippsland, the Herald Sun talking of “fresh speculation of a political revival”.

• Independent Distillers of Australia, representing the makers of pre-mixed drinks, are running local television ads in a bid to turn the by-election into a referendum on the “alcopops” tax hike. Speaking on ABC Radio’s PM program, Brian Costar of Swinburne University said he “couldn’t think of a longer bow to draw to make an association between that ad and the outcome in the by-election”. I’m not so sure: if a flannel-shirted wood-chopping Bundy-and-cola pre-mix swiller isn’t the authentic voice of Gippsland, I’d like to know what is.

Here’s Labor’s ad:

The Nationals have adopted a more positive tone in their two YouTube ads, one of the meet-the-candidate variety and another conveying the endorsement of state Nationals leader Peter Ryan:

Liberal candidate Rohan Fitgerald’s ad focuses on climate change, though it’s not clear whether he’s for or against:

P.S.: Courtesy of Andrew Landeryou, another Nationals ad I missed. Landeryou notes it shows Darren Chester “doing what few candidates are willing to do normally, appear in their own attack ads”.

May 26: Glenn Milne (again) this morning launched a non-story about an “edgy” arts act which Labor candidate Darren McCubbin had OK’d in his capacity as a local festival director. Brendan Nelson joined in, but it then emerged the festival had received funding from the previous federal government. Andrew Landeryou offers a “script in development” based on the episode. Highlights:

Peter Ryan: “Hey young one, nice work leaking that review of the gay play put on at the arty farty festival run by that fairy McCubbin. Brilliant idea giving it to Milne too, he’s so needy these days with Cossie out of the picture.”

Later …

Ryan (incredulous): “You mean we gave these pervs money when we were in government? We gave taxpayer money to a sex show that was celebrating ‘c*ck-stroking’ and ‘neckophilia’ ?

Acting COS: “That’d be right. George Brandis was Arts Minister too. I think he got sucked in by all those arts wankers.”

Other news: Despite Labor’s prodigious efforts to dampen expectations, they are at least running television advertisements, which can be viewed on the ALP site. The negativity is notably directed entirely at the Nationals, rather than the Liberals. The Liberty and Democracy Party have announce a candidate, “well-known local councillor” Ben Buckley, who you can read about in comments.

May 12: Glenn Milne reports on the National Party’s by-election focus group research in The Australian:

Down in rural Victoria with an industrial back end that picks up the La Trobe Valley, the good burghers of Gippsland now apparently rank the cost of living as the No1 issue at the impending by-election, according to National Party research. Based on Utting’s work and the Nationals’ own focus groups the battle that is now looming in Gippsland is one about perception. Labor will seek to convince voters that inflation and the cost of living are things largely outside their influence, especially given the context of the US sub-prime mortgage meltdown. The Nationals for their part, will be seeking to drive home the message that the prices buck stops with Rudd. Expect to see ads that feature a laughing image of the Prime Minister with text along the lines of: “To get elected, Labor promised to ease the pressure on working families,” followed by a list of increased prices including petrol, milk, cheese, bread, poultry, fruit, vegetables along with rents, electricity and house prices. Increases in interest rates, and declining consumer and business confidence indices will rightly get a guernsey as well.

May 6: The Nationals have filed a complaint with police after a photographer hired by Labor was caught taking pictures of Darren Chester from a parked car. Rick Wallace of The Australian reports the Nationals “believe the photographer was assigned in an attempt to catch out Mr Chester in an inadvertently unflattering pose – such as stumbling or scratching himself – with the images to be used to ridicule him in campaign ads or brochures” (in which case they would presumably have been in a position to file a complaint even if the photographer hadn’t been caught). Labor state secretary Stephen Newnham says the photographer was acting on his own initiative while in the area to take shots of Darren McCubbin, and that his actions were not condoned by the party. Peter Ryan is “expected to complain about the incident in state parliament this week”.

Map below shows booth results from the 2007 election: click on the image to toggle between vote and swing results. A green number indicates a majority or swing for the Nationals, a red number for Labor. The size of the number indicates the total number of votes cast, ranging from less than 250 for the smallest to over 3000 for the largest.

May 5: The Gippsland federal by-election has been officially set for June 28, the first of what is likely to be a series of unwelcome electoral tests for the opposition. This one follows the departure of the seat’s member since 1983, Howard government Science Minister and (later) Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran, who has quit to take a position as chief executive of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia. The by-election offers the exciting prospect of a three-way contest between the incumbent Nationals, Liberals who hope the seat might go the way of Farrer and Murray in shifting their way on the retirement of a long-serving Nationals member, and an ALP enjoying massive honeymoon leads in all published opinion polls.

The electorate of Gippsland has covered the far east of Victoria since federation, and has been in National/Country Party hands since the party was founded in 1922. Gippsland currently covers the Princes Highway towns of Morwell, Traralgon, Bairnsdale and Orbost, extending north to Maffra and Omeo. The Nationals’ hold appeared to be in serious jeopardy for the first time when the redistribution ahead of the 2004 election added Traralgon and strongly Labor-voting Morwell, a symptom of the region’s relative population decline. This cut the margin from 8.0 per cent to 2.6 per cent, but McGauran was returned in 2004 with a 5.1 per cent swing and suffered a correction of just 1.8 per cent last November.

McGauran’s retirement announcement gave impetus to scheming by Liberal operatives to impose a merger on reluctant state branches of both Coalition parties. This prompted NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan to approach the state independent member for Gippsland East, Craig Ingram, to spur things along by running as a “joint Liberal-Nationals candidate”. It was concurrently suggested that a similar scheme might involve Rob Oakeshott, ex-Nationals independent member for Port Macquarie in the New South Wales parliament, if Mark Vaile called it a day in Lyne. Ingram admitted to being “interested” in Heffernan’s proposal, but the state Nationals argued Ingram had demonstrated his unsuitability by helping scuttle the Kennett government in 1999.

In any case, the Nationals were determined that the seat should go to Darren Chester (right), chief-of-staff to state party leader Peter Ryan, who was raised in Sale and lives in Lakes Entrance. Chester was opposed for preselection by 63-year-old former army officer Russell Smith, who reportedly had little support. The by-election marks Chester’s second run for parliament, his first being an unsuccessful run against Craig Ingram at the 2002 state election. He also contested Senate preselection against Peter McGauran’s brother Julian ahead of the 2004 election, but was defeated by 34 votes to 21. Senator McGauran went on to defect to the Liberal Party in January 2006.

Labor at first looked set to re-endorse their candidate from the 2007 election, East Gippsland councillor and two-time mayor Jane Rowe. However, shortly before the preselection was due to be decided by the party’s administrative committee (without reference to locals), Rowe stood aside in favour of Wellington Shire mayor Darren McCubbin (left), who had not previously been a party member. Rick Wallace of The Australian reported that some in the ALP had feared Rowe’s status as a single mother ”would prove a detriment in the deeply conservative Victorian electorate”, although Rowe insisted she had withdrawn so she could devote more time to her daughters. McCubbin’s caused friction with local branch members who backed alternative candidate David Wilson, deputy mayor of Latrobe City, with Duncan Hughes of the Financial Review writing of members being urged by dissidents not to contribute funds to the campaign. There had earlier been talk that Labor had been rebuffed in an approach to Christian Zahra, who held the neighbouring electorate of McMillan from 1998 until 2004 when he fell victim to an unfavourable redistribution and a statewide anti-Labor swing.

The Liberal candidate is 36-year-old Central Gippsland Health Service bureaucrat Rohan Fitzgerald (right), who appears to have been preselected without opposition. There were earlier suggestions that Julian McGauran might seek the nod, but few took them seriously. The Greens have nominated Yarragon doctor Malcolm McKelvie.

Further reading: Possum Comitatus at Crikey charts historical trends in Gippsland and other Coalition seats likely to face by-elections soon, concluding it to be Labor’s best shot out of the bunch (although a poor performance locally at the 2006 state election and a relatively weak swing at the federal election might suggest otherwise). Nick Economou of Monash University concurs the seat is winnable for Labor in an extensive overview of the contest on the 7.30 Report. Malcolm Mackerras argues otherwise, observing that there is no historical support for the notion that federal governments can expect favourable by-election swings during their honeymoon periods (no link located). Peter Brent weighed in at Mumble on April 27. Gerard McManus of the Herald Sun reports Labor internal polling has them on 36 per cent to the Nationals’ 32 per cent and the Liberals’ 19 per cent, which after preferences would mean a comfortable win for the Nationals.

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.

87 comments on “Gippsland by-election preview”

  1. Balook

    Having just read the thread, is there much talk about the future of any new industries in Gippsland apart from coal? They are going to need one. It isn’t just emissions trading – the existing power stations are very old, inefficient and the coal really is low quality. An efficient national grid would just about kill them in terms of cheaper suppliers interstate. (There are losses in transmission but only about 5% to get across NSW.) No private generator would dream of building a new station there. Emissions trading will just hasten the inevitable. So if they go, what other job sources are there in Gippsland? Are there any government industries that can be located there?

  2. Having had some discussions with people in the area recently here are a couple of observations. Perhaps surprisingly, McGauran was very well regarded as someone who understood the issues of the local community. Which suggest a personal vote component. Secondly, that even the town people were most concerned about farming/rural issues. Which suggests that a candidate who closely identifies with these issues will pick up votes. It doesn’t seem that any party has chosen a candidate who can tap into the very localised concerns. So by default it’s probably a win for the Farmers Party, but I wouldn’t write off Labor.

  3. As an outsider, it seems to me to be highly unlikely that Labor can even go close to winning Gippsland. Governments do not do well in by-elections. Prediction Nats 53%, ALP 47%. More interesting to me is the fate of McEwen and Fran Bailey, how soon do we see the back of her?

  4. “Governments do not do well in by elections” is more a mantra than a rule.
    Last year, can I remind you, the mantras were:
    “Winning 16 seats is impossible.”
    “A government does not lose an election in good economic times.”
    (The likes of Dennis Shannahahan believe in these mantras still and thus believe the Libs are still in power).
    Governments usually go into by elections when someone has dropped dead unexpectedly or retired. They are usually mid term. This means the Government is right in the middle of its ‘nasty’ phase and hasn’t geared up for pre election mode.
    Interestingly, I recall the mantra last year being that the party which forces the by election doesn’t do well in them, with Jackie Kelly (running for the Liberals, who were new in government) winning Lindsay with an increased vote being used as the example.
    Two by elections within months of Steve Bracks’ win in Victoria, both sparked by the retirement of former ministers, one in a ‘safe’ National seat held by a margin of above 6%, were won by Labor, the government of the time.
    The retirement of long term sitting members ‘frees up’ their personal vote (which is often built purely on name recognition). There will be ‘National’ voters in Gippsland who have always voted for Peter McGauran because they know who he is, rather than because of the party he represents.
    So:
    – governments have done well in by elections such as Lindsay, which were held early in the term and forced on the electorate by the Opposition;-
    – governments do well in by elections early in their term, where these by elections have been sparked by the retirement of a well known, long term sitting member.

    My tip therefore is a Gippsland win to Labor, but it’s unlikely to hold the seat in the long term.

  5. Has Mr Rudd been seen much in the electorate lately? If not, then it certainly points to the fact that it’s unlikely Labor think they have a good chance at winning the seat.

  6. #59

    My thoughts exactly. You’d imagine Rudd would be all over Gippsland if he thought they had a chance (although to be fair other senior ministers have been visiting).

  7. Zoom, there were also plenty here insisting that Labor was going to win Kooyong, Goldstein, North Sydney and other such unlikely seats.

    You would do well to read Antony Green’s analysis. Were Billy Snedden, Malcolm Fraser, Jim Killen, Tony Street and Doug Anthony not popular sitting members?

    Labor aren’t without a chance here, but no more than a slim one. I give the ALP no more chance of winning Gippsland than I do Twentyman winning Kororoit.

  8. If Rudd visits Gippsland today, that’ll be an indication Labor thinks they have a chance, if not, they’ve conceded it already!

  9. For the record – my tip is a 2% 2PP swing to the Nationals, which will be written up as a disaster for Labor because so many people thought it would go the other way.

    Greens 7%.

  10. I will be of interest to see how the votes of Family First and WWW voters go this time around.

    They recieved 6.38% of the primary vote last election (higher than The Greens 5.54%).

    Will they go to Buckley? A pox on the lot of you vote?

    How strongly will preferences flow between Nats and Libs will there also be a leakage to Buckley?

    Will the young doctor Greens candidate be more appealing than Wrathall?

    If Labor can pick up 2-3% on primaries it will be very interesting.

  11. 69 Honest John – I’m looking forward to still having the Rudd government on Monday. Who cares about Gippsland? Oh, I suppose Nelson does but that’s about all.

  12. I doubt Labor could win in the proverbial landslide election much less a by-election. Brendan Nelson likes to cover all bets which helps to explain his dismal, no disgusting, reply to Kevin Rudd’s sorry speech. A slight drop in primary vote since Nov.25 would be an excellent result for the ALP.

  13. Surely if you lived in Gippsland, it’d make more sense to vote in a Labor MP so more money got spent on your seat? People don’t think like that, I guess it’ll be a protest vote over petrol prices.

  14. MSM represenative, Mr. Green, concudes and I concur:

    “Barring a massive swing against Labor, or an upset Labor victory, or even an upset Liberal victory, the result of the Gippsland by-election will tell us little about the state of national politics.”
    http://www.abc.net.au/elections/federal/2008/gippsland/

    Meanwhile, Gippsland punters are now giving expression to “the miracle of Democray at work in the greatest nation on Earth”, an exercise presently and tragically denied the citizens of Zimbabwe.

  15. Thanks William for the detailed Gippy by-election preview,

    While I’m tipping a National Party win if the ALP can win the five Traralgon booths compared to just two booths at last election and improve in some of the larger towns of Sale, Orbost, Bairnsdale and Lake Entrenece then the result could be close.

  16. re post 77
    to win all the booths in Traralgon is not enough they need to win them about 66%
    the rest of the electorate besides the remaining la trobe valley votes 60/40 anti labor approximately
    the most likely result is a NP win

  17. As a result of the stunning national party victory as reported by Honest John the Liberal Party of Australia has announced its immediate winding up. All sitting members will join The National Party.

    Leader of the opposition Warren Truss has called on his Qld Senator Barnaby Joyce to contest the imminent Mayo by-election.

    The casual Senate vacancy in Qld will be filled by The Borg and Can Do Cambell will become the head pineapple. 😛

    Sorry William a bit of silliness waiting for results to come in 🙂

  18. 79 – Mick Quinlivan

    I agree that is why I’m tipping a National win and Honest John you are but a poor troll thanks for the laugh

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