The latest weekly Essential Research survey has Labor maintaining a slight 51-49 lead on the two-party vote, down from 52-48 last time, but finds their primary vote at a new low (for Essential) of 35 per cent. The Coalition is up one point to 41 per cent, and the Greens two to 14 per cent. I fancy that Essential has been less favourable to Labor lately than it used to be, so I’ve knocked up a chart showing the monthly deviation between the two.
Which certainly provides some support for the theory, although a tendency for fluctuations in the past means the jury is still out. For good measure, I’ve done the same for Morgan face-to-face polls, which seem to be continuing a long-term trend of favouring Labor by 2 to 3 per cent.
Essential also has some fascinating supplementary questions this week: one on attitudes to political parties on various measures, which finds the Liberals well ahead on immigration (41 per cent to 20 per cent) and Labor well ahead on representing the interests of Australian working people (42 per cent to 27 per cent), which should tell you a lot about what the coming campaign will look like. The Coalition has solid leads on handling the economy, foreign relations (a disappointing one for Rudd) and the vision thing, while Labor is in front on standing up to the big multinational corporations though not by the margin you might expect under the circumstances. An interesting question on whether various groups have too much or too little influence finds concern about the media and the banks and, to a slightly less extent, big business, unions and religious groups. No such problem for environment groups, whose influence is reckoned to be about right. Respondents were found to be evenly divided on the the likely impact on the mining industry of the resources super profits tax.
Essential has also done something I love: ask for retrospective evaluations of past leaders. Absence has made the heart grow fonder in the case of Paul Keating, rated good by 40 per cent and poor by 26 per cent, but his ratings are lower than John Howard, who scores 51 per cent (impressive work for a recently defeated prime minister) and 26 per cent. Mark Latham is regarded with something close to revulsion, Brendan Nelson and Simon Crean seems to be best remembered as duds, while Kim Beazley and Malcolm Turnbull are on a more even keel.
The Liberal National Party could have another brush fire on its hands in Longman, where discontent continues to simmer about the party’s decision to nominate 20-year-old Wyatt Roy for a crucial marginal seat. Tony Abbott has reportedly criticised the LNP over the matter, and former Moreton MP Gary Hardgrave (whose old seat is being contested for the LNP by an even more contentious youngster in the shape of Michael Palmer, son of high-profile mining magnate Clive) has told the ABC’s PM program he has been sounded out as a replacement. However, Hardgrave stresses it is now well past the possibility of it occurring.
Meanwhile, Hajnal Ban has announced she will not again contest the new preselection to be held after she was dumped as Liberal National Party candidate for the new Queensland seat of Wright. The Courier-Mail reports a new entrant to the contest could be former Nationals Senator Bill O’Chee, himself a former child prodigy who entered the Senate in 1990 at the age of 24, before losing his seat to One Nation in 1998. O’Chee later emerged as a Liberal to unsuccessfully contest preselection for Moncrieff. In between, as the Courier-Mail puts it, he successfully sued the Queensland Police for wrongful arrest and was then sued himself for allegedly not paying legal bills. Also thought to be likely starters are Gold Coast councillor Ted Shepherd and former Blair MP Cameron Thompson, an unsuccessful entrant the first time around.
The Liberals have preselected Jassmine Wood, a small business owner specialising in water systems who contested the safe Labor seat of West Torrens at the March state election, to run against Labor’s Steve Georganas in the marginal Adelaide coastal seat of Hindmarsh. Georganas won the seat narrowly in 2004 on the retirement of sitting member Chris Gallus, but a relatively small swing at the 2007 election made it more marginal than the Labor gains of Makin and Wakefield. Another South Australian Liberal candidate who slipped through the net earlier is Liz Davies, chief executive of Storpac Smart Storage at Holden Hill, who was preselected a month ago for Makin.
Finally, I’m doing a weekly series for Crikey in which I survey the lie of the electoral land in different parts of the country. Subscribers can read today’s effort on South Australia here; for the rest of you, here’s last week’s entry on Western Australia.
Welcome to the first in a nine-part series examining the lie of the land ahead of the looming federal election, one geographic unit at a time. Grim news for the government being the flavour of the month, I thought I’d start in Labor’s obvious trouble spot of Western Australia.
The State of Excitement (as its licence plates once proclaimed it, to the condescending amusement of visitors) is home to exactly one-tenth of the House of Representatives’ 150 seats, a mere four of which are currently held by Labor. Remarkably, they managed to go backwards at the 2007 election in terms of seats, losing two (Cowan and Swan) and gaining one (Hasluck).
This was despite a 2.1% swing to Labor in two-party vote terms, which was actually slightly higher than in Tasmania (2.0%) and the Australian Capital Territory (1.9%).
However, it came off a low base of 44.6% of the two-party preferred vote in 2004, when the state led the nation in swinging to the Coalition (3.8% against a national result of 1.8%). That result was no doubt fuelled by the loss of local hero Kim Beazley, who had led the party to defeat at the two previous elections.
In theory, that should have given a resurgent Labor all the more opportunity to take up extra slack, as it did so spectacularly in Queensland. In practice, the resources boom took the sting out of the hostility the Howard government was encountering elsewhere.
Perth’s mortgage payers were probably no more pleased than any others that John Howard proved unable to fulfil his promise of keeping interest rates at record lows — and there was indeed a strong correlation between electorates’ shares of mortgage payers and swings to Labor (with one conspicuous exception, to be discussed shortly).
But while many Sydney mortgage payers had been dealt the double blow of higher monthly payments and capital loss, housing prices in Perth nearly doubled during the Howard government’s final term.
The other lightning rod for disaffection with Howard, industrial relations, also took on an unusual flavour in the land of the resources boom. Australian Workplace Agreements were actively popular among mining workers, who feared a more regimented industrial relations regime might threaten the astronomical pay packets they had been able to command in a seller’s labour market.
A related aspect of the industrial relations issue involved controversies surrounding local Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union heavyweights (in every sense of the word) Kevin Reynolds and Joe McDonald, whose star roles in anti-union Coalition advertisements prompted the Labor hierarchy to force them from the party during the course of the campaign.
So it was that the West provided the Liberals with their only two gains of the election — a curious echo of 1972, when Gough Whitlam’s triumph was tempered by the loss of Stirling and Forrest.
One of the two was the northern suburbs seat of Cowan, covering exactly the type of mortgage belt area that provided Labor with happy hunting grounds in other states.
But here the effect was more than cancelled out by the retirement of sitting Graham Edwards, a veteran state and federal member who had lost both of his legs to a landmine while serving in Vietnam. Edwards had done well to hold back the tide in 2004, and the loss of his personal vote was enough to deliver a narrow victory to Liberal candidate Luke Simpkins in his second run at the seat.
The other Liberal gain was in the established inner southern suburbs electorate of Swan, which essentially produced a status quo result by going down to the wire for the second election in a row. But whereas the electoral gods favoured Labor’s Kim Wilkie by 104 votes in 2004, the decision went 164 votes in favour of the Liberals’ Steve Irons in 2007.
For much of its first term, it seemed Western Australia would provide the Rudd government with abundant opportunities to fatten its majority, thanks to the departure of the locally popular John Howard, ongoing prosperity and perhaps also the defeat of the state Labor government in September 2008, upsetting though that may have been to the party at the time.
A mortgage belt seat like Cowan looked particularly promising, while the Liberal margin in Swan seemed too thin to defend in any case. A redistribution proved to Labor’s advantage in both cases, cutting the Liberal margin in the former by 0.5 per cent and turning the latter into a notional Labor seat.
Liberal front-bencher Michael Keenan’s 1.2 per cent margin of Stirling also looked tough to defend, although the seat’s established middle-suburban status and older demographic profile has generally made it resistant to big swings.
Most enticingly for Labor was a decision by perhaps the most capable and certainly the most charismatic minister in the Carpenter government, Alannah MacTiernan, to contest the southern urban fringe seat of Canning, where the redistribution had cut Liberal member Don Randall’s margin from 5.6 per cent to 4.3 per cent.
However, as the election year began, it seemed Western Australia’s traditional hostility to federal Labor was beginning to reassert itself. The initially cordial relationship between the Prime Minister and Liberal Premier Colin Barnett began to sour, first over the state’s share of GST payments, which a Commonwealth Grants Commission determination cut from 8.1% to 7.1% with further reductions to follow in future years, and then over the federal government’s health reforms, on which Barnett remains the only hold-out.
Whatever the merits in either case, a perception began to harden that the state was being milked for electoral objectives elsewhere. Even before the resource super profits tax was announced, talk was emerging of “disastrous” Labor internal polling in the most marginal of its four seats, the eastern suburbs electorate of Hasluck, which former LHMWU official Sharryn Jackson had won in 2001, lost in 2004 and recovered in 2007.
Once the planned new tax was unveiled, it was clear that all bets were off: writing off Western Australia was evidently part of the government’s electoral strategy, and it was now simply a question of defending the seats it already held. This point was recognised a fortnight ago by The West Australian when it chose the second most marginal of the four, Brand, as the subject for an opinion poll by Patterson Market Research, having identified that Hasluck was likely to fall in any case.
Brand had provided Kim Beazley with a home after 1996, when he jumped ship from his existing seat of Swan as the tide went out on the Keating government. Beazley suffered a scare on the first occasion, when Labor spent the week after its crushing defeat contemplating the nightmare of Gareth Evans as leader before Beazley ultimately pulled through by 387 votes.
In suggesting Labor’s position was comparable to the dog days of the Keating defeat, Westpoll’s headline figure of 50-50 in Brand powerfully illustrated the extent of its woes. However, the two-party result did not sit well with primary vote figures that had Labor one point in the clear, a more plausible reading of which would be a lead to Labor of about 51.5-48.5.
The Liberals’ attack has been extended deeper still into enemy territory, with even the Labor strongholds of Perth (held by Foreign Minister Stephen Smith on a margin of 8.1%) and Fremantle (where Melissa Parke replaced Carmen Lawrence in 2007, on a margin of 9.1%) currently being targeted by Liberal leaflet campaigns.
While such moves might achieve tactical benefit in diverting Labor resources, it seems likely the seats to watch in WA will be Brand and, if Labor are lucky, Hasluck. However, a new and unfamiliar dimension has been added to the state landscape by the local resurgence of the Nationals.
The WA Nationals have not held a seat in the House of Representatives since 1974, and last won a seat in the Senate at the 1975 double dissolution. The party has nonetheless remained a constant presence in state parliament, and achieved a breakthrough success at the 2008 state election on the back of its campaign to have 25 per cent of mining royalties set aside for regional projects — which it was able to realise when the indecisive election result left it holding the balance of power.
Significantly, the Nationals proved the option of first resort for country voters abandoning the ALP, scoring big in mining towns and regional cities where they had not had a presence in the past.
Six months after the election, the ever-entrepreneurial Clive Palmer announced at the party’s state conference that his financial muscle would be put to the service of the party’s ambitious campaign for a Senate seat.
The Nationals have since been able to fund an extended campaign of advertising on regional television similar in tone to that which powered their success at the state election, and in doing so have also boosted their prospects for the lower house.
The most obvious possibility is O’Connor, home to most of the party’s Wheatbelt heartland, where they have loomed as a vague threat to Wilson Tuckey in the past despite consistently unable to beat Labor to second place.
The redistribution has done the Nationals a disservice in this regard by hiving off the northern Wheatbelt to the new seat of Durack, the balance of which consists of the vast Kimberley and Pilbara areas, and compensating it with Kalgoorlie (the seat of that name having been abolished after a career going back to federation).
However, a glass-half-full Nationals observer might well view the changes as a chance to be competitive in two seats rather than one, particularly in light of their success in scoring 21.4 per cent of the vote in the Mining and Pastoral upper house region in 2008, where they had not even bothered to field candidates in 2005.
If state results were transposed on to the federal boundaries (which it must be said is an unreliable exercise, given the importance of incumbent members in state country seats), the primary votes for the Liberal, the Nationals and Labor would have been about equal, giving Liberal member Barry Haase almost as much to think about as Tuckey.