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”

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  1. These figures, rendered to great effect on the map above, have left me totally mystified.
    Someone, somewhere, in Morwell and Traralgon is voting Tory. Astonishing.

  2. In the future you might find it useful to make the maps as Google Maps and embed them into the post. I’ve used it with some local booth maps in my area.

  3. It is odd that whereas it is common at the state level for govts to win seats from the opposition this hasn’t occurred federally since the Kalgoorlie by-election of 1920. Is this simply luck? Rural seats can be resistant to swings in every state there are some that have not followed the tides to Labor at the state level. Nationals hold.

  4. THR @ 3 – Every village is entitled to have one idiot! 😉

    Sadly, in my area they’ve been voting ours into parliament.

  5. #3

    It’s really only Morwell that’s the rock-solid Labor town. Traralgon is more like other provincial cities, and is generally about 50/50. Perhaps in the past the Labor vote around here was inflated by the popular Christian Zhara when part of McMillian.

    Even so, the Morwell booths were not overwhelmingly Labor in 2007, and there does seem to have been a decline in the Labor vote around the Latrobe Valley. Has there been much demographic change, such as decline of the blue-collar workforce and an increase in Melbourne-based professionals commuting from the Valley??

  6. The Valley seems a much more wealthy place than it was ten years ago. Still barely at the national average, but much improved – you can see it through the retail sector developments and even anecdotally the type of cars you see around – more new cars and more prestige cars etc.

  7. Giippsland has a long term tendancy for the non labor vote to decline even if
    the boundaries without any of the Latrobe valley had remained
    The impacts of the last redistribution shifting non labor areas into Mcmillan
    and part of the Latrobe valley into this seat have made it marginal.
    But ironically the ALP has internal problems in the Latrobe valley
    and their vote has been very bad in that area
    The key to this seat is the Labor vote in the Traralgon subdivisions which at the last election would have averaged in the low 50s……. but a 66% vote is possible in this area for Labor.
    I would be very suprised if labor could win…… but if the honeymoon stays past the budget this is possible
    In the long term all of the Latrobe valley will end up in this seat and Mcmillan will
    become more of an outer suburban seat

  8. George (comment 7), there is no use in using The Australian as a reliable news source, because they have a pro-Coalition bias.

  9. Labor has run some fairly average candidates in past Federal elections in Gippsland, but has made a canny choice going for Darren Mc Cubbin (despite the public spat with local ALP branches). He topped the poll at the last Wellington Shire election and has a very strong profile in the Sale area, which has always been a National Party strong hold. Despite some off the mark observations by external commentators that he is a lightweight professional entertainer, he has done well as a Councillor and community activist across the central Gippsland region. That being said, he’s not particularly well known in Morwell/Traralgon and will have to work hard at gaining the increasingly affluent Traralgon vote – the largest population centre in Gippsland that embraced the Nats Russell Northe at the last State election, dislodging Brendan Jenkins.
    As far as the National Party is concerned, Darren Chester’s profile is far more East Gippsland centric although he has worked in the Latrobe Valley. He seems to be one of the new generation of Nats – youngish, well presented but not appearing to have any particular vision or a grip of the big issues facing the region.
    The Liberal candidate is also amiable but even less ready to address real policy issues, preferring to go after the folksy stuff.
    At this early stage, after allowing for a couple of percent of votes from Peter McGauran’s personal vote, some anger at having to vote twice in a few months and a dose of Rudd honeymoon support, there will only be a couple of points in it. Darren Chester is probably going to fall over the line unless the ALP has some rabbits to pull out of the hat.

  10. I remember back in autumn in 1996, when John Howard made an appearance in Gippsland in the town of Sale, to speak about gun control after Port Arthur. Howard had to wear a bullet-proof vest. I don’t think the Liberals will win Gippsland but they will help the National Party vote. Anyone agree?

  11. I agree with both Balook and Ted.
    As a Traralgon voter I don’t believe we particularly ’embraced’ anyone rather than show Brendon Jenkins that his apparent lack of interest in Traralgon (in favour of other Gippsland places) hadn’t gone unnoticed.
    By-elections are notorious for allowing voters to vent their anger if a Government/Representative is not addressing the problems in the environs of their electorate.
    In a population of some 70,000 people, half of whom are on some form of welfare payment, there have been little or no signs that the Government of the day are preparing any remedial solutions to our problems.
    Couple this with the fact that there are a good percentage of aged pensioners in this area and the governemnts total lack of interest to their plight, I would predict that Darren Chester would indeed be in the box seat as no amount of ‘rabbits pulled out of the hats’ will swing me.

  12. The former PM had to wear a bullet proof vest in Sale but that didn’t stop the locals from comfortably returning Peter McGauran in successive elections.
    In the past the ALP has never seriously resourced campaigns and the Nats have had a fairly one-sided run.

    In answer to Ted’s query, the Liberals have no chance of winning Gippsland unless something truly spectacular happened with the preferences – the Nats will benefit from the preference distribution from them and should win reasonably comfortably.
    Labor is yet to show its powder in the campaign – local reaction to the Budget has been neutral although Darren McCubbin has had to do some fast talking to cover the non-funding of the Princes Hwy duplication between Traralgon & Sale.
    The Government provided 500k for planning work in the Budget wheras the Coalition had previously committed the actual infrastructure cost of several hundred million.

    Petrol pricing is also sensitive in the electorate, particularly in the Latrobe Valley, where for unknown reasons, the locals always pay a premium of 5-10c a litre above surrounding towns.

  13. Let’s look outside the “three cornered” square of Liberal/National/Labor. The LDP Candidate, Ben Buckley is really gaining some ground. Ben is a well known local councillor, an active supporter of local issues and will appeal to the shooters in the region, as he was a professional deer hunter and still supports better access to the bush for hunters, 4WD access and other recreational users. Ben believes that there is a backlash among National Party voters who have seen their member (McGauran) quit his post. The Liberals are in disarray, (Brenden Nelson photographed in front of the “Reject” shop wasn’t a good look!) while Labor have pushed out Jane Rowe, who was their candidate in November ’07.

  14. Peter,

    Wouldn’t be unhappy to see the LDP win but it ain’t gonna happen…..

    BTW who are LDP preferencing?

  15. Reply to MDMConnell: Preferences are up to the voters. There are no “deals”. Maybe with the big three parties fighting each other, Ben can do a Steven Bradbury and cross the finish line in front!

  16. Bill Heffernans plot to have a joint coalition candidate for Gippsland was telling with the Liberals trying to force the Nationals in states other than Queensland into a merger. The situation in Queensland is different as the local National Party branch is keen on a merger at their state level. So Gippsland will be important for the National Party to hold they don’t want a repeat of Indi and Murray when a long serving member retired and the Liberals won. A strong victory for the Nationals will help kill off also the push for a merger at the federal level.

  17. Gippsland voters who want to see our aged pensioners given at least a $30 per week increase in their single pension rate should vote for the Greens candidate Malcolm McKelvie. The Greens have been advocating such an increase for more than a year – but the two major parties are simply not interested in addressing this social inequity in Australia.

  18. As an historical footnote, I heard definitely third-hand (so take with a grain of salt) that Jo McCubbin was set to run for the Democrats in the seat (as she has done in the past) but apparently at the request of her extended family has stood aside to let her cousin have a clear run for the ALP.

  19. Interesting that McCubbin keeps running and preferencing Labor when its the state Labor Government that made sure the local hospital board don’t want to employ her and her other medical colleague

  20. Has there been any other polling done in recent times? Even a 300 people non-adjusted straw poll in the Gabo Island Gazette or something?

  21. Not sure the national impact will be as great as the article suggests. If the Nats win, it would probably be due as much to (state leader) Peter Ryan than Nelson or Truss. Although distancing themselves from the Libs- as Ryan has done- could be a pointer to the direction the federal Nationals will take.

  22. I stand by my earlier post….. a Labor win is possible but probably unlikely
    I do not accept John Black’s analysis as being spot on … his record is uneven
    The Gippsland byelection is a little like Wentworth at the Last Federal election
    I cannot see a 66% 2pp alp vote in Traralgon which is probably necessary for a
    Labor win

  23. Black was a hoot before the last Queensland election, writing Beattie off in a very vitriolic article in the ‘Queensland Country Life’ as I recall. Don’t know if I would describe Black’s record as uneven, more like unbelievable.

  24. Something that external commentators don’t seem to pick up on is that Gippsland is a very different place to what it was 20 or even 10 years ago.
    William Bowe’s comment that “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” seems off the mark. In the case of Traralgon (largest centre in the electorate and the entire region), the economy is no longer dominated by the power generation industry. In fact, although there is still a lot of employment in the traditional sectors, the largest single provider of jobs is in the services area.
    Traralgon now has a very affluent middle class as do the other big centres of Sale and Bairnsdale. Morwell, however, remains well and truly a working class town.

    Therefore, if the conservative parties hold their ground outside Traralgon, the battle ground will actually be that town -where the ‘Save the PO’ seems to be generally regarded as a side issue. The real issue for the Latrobe Valley is what the Rudd government does in terms of emission trading and the flow on effects to the brown coal industry, which still directly employs 3000 people in the Latrobe City municipality of 70000 people.

    Just as a matter of interest, the coalition parties are throwing serious $ on election advertising and promotion, while Labor seems to be seriously underdone.
    Their last pitch was a crack at the Government sector cutbacks of the Kennett era State Government – all this happened a over a decade ago, and as the
    Nats pointed out, “not Federal issues, last century matters”.

    I think the Nationals are set to win this one quite easily.

  25. The blue-collar provincial seats, Capricornia, Dawson etc., swung strongly in 2007, the fact that Gippsland did not suggests it doesn’t fall into this category any more (whereas in would have in 1998 and 2001 on the current boundaries). You have rural conservative areas that will be resistant to any swing and Labor’s strong areas are weakening; Labor went backwards in the valley in 2007 (9% in Morwell). I can’t see Labor winning. It is like SW Coast down here.

  26. Has anyone else seen the LaTrobe Valley Express coverage of this? Not that I’m complaining, I want to see McKelvie do really well, but that the Greens are getting a great amount of airtime, even outstripping the main/big/old party (take your pick :D) candidates and getting a good sweep of articles solely on them.

    It’s something that is so far from the usual that I thought it worth mentioning. I’d say a little lift in Green primaries, with a Nationals win and a slightly reduced margin on the seat. Would be surprised but not unhappy to see the ALP take it.

  27. William and Antony,

    Firstly may I just compliment you both on the clarity, thoroughness and impartiality of your analysis of this by-election. I know very little about Gippsland and found it most helpfull. If only the MSM could match this quality.

    As for the outcome, and thinking about Antony’s description of the seat history, it really will be a litmus test for the Nationals. They need all the seats they can hold and if they lose another heartland seat like Gippsland it will continue their slide. Once lost, they will probably never get it back, as if the Liberals get their leadership sorted out they presumably would beat them in a 3 corner contest. While Nelson will be hoping for a better Liberal vote, they’re not the party who “owns” the seat. To have a former cabinet minister dump a safe seat straight after the loss of government isn’t a good look and doesn’t say much to the faithfull. A Labor win seems unlikely, despite Nelson’s “positioning” statement.

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