Wentworth by-election minus one day

Some account of how preferences might flow between Dave Sharma and Kerryn Phelps, if that’s indeed how it pans out.

Wentworth has clearly evolved into a three-horse race, with independent Licia Heath apparently having failed to gain much traction, despite some high profile backing. Liberal candidate Dave Sharma is all but certainly to lead the primary vote, but a lot depends on who finishes second out of independent Kerryn Phelps and Labor’s Tim Murray. So far as the excitement of election night is concerned, a lot equally depends on which two candidates the Australian Electoral Commission picks for the notional two-candidate preferred count. I would assume they will play it safe, follow tradition and conduct the count between Liberal and Labor, but we won’t actually know until polls close tomorrow. If they get it wrong, we will be relying on word-of-mouth accounts from scrutineers, which are sure to be widely propagated on social media, for even a vague idea of how things are playing out. That’s assuming the result is not so close as to make it unclear who out of Phelps and Murray ends up ahead – and this too will depend in preferences, on which we will likewise have no official guide on the night.

There has been a lot of cultural warfare going on in the left about the Greens’ decision to direct preferences to Labor ahead of Kerryn Phelps, which raises the bar for her to get ahead of Labor, and by extension reduces the chances that Sharma will lose. However, the effects of the Greens how-to-vote card are a lot more modest than some of the party’s enemies are trying to make out. Indeed, the effect of how-to-vote cards across the board is likely to be pretty muted in an electorate as educated and politically engaged as Wentworth. For an inkling as to how preferences are likely to flow, the best bet is to look at the data available from similar by-elections in the past (certainly it is likely to offer a better guide than the respondent-allocated preference flow in this week’s Greenpeace/ReachTEL poll, which implausible had the flow of preferences to Phelps at over 90%). Unfortunately, exact precedents for this particular by-election are hard to identify.

Going back the last three electoral cycles, I count six federal contests in which Liberal candidates squared off against independent or non-Greens minor party candidates at the final count, excluding those in which the situation was complicated by the Nationals. Four involved the Nick Xenophon Team or its successor, the Centre Alliance (that being the Mayo by-election on Super Saturday), which offers a less than exact parallel. The other two were the North Sydney by-election in 2015, which is very useful, and Cathy McGowan’s win over Sophie Mirabella in Indi in 2013. At state level, New South Wales and Queensland precedents have been of limited value due to optional preferential voting, and nothing in recent history quite fits the bill from Victoria.

The flows of preferences between the Liberal and non-Liberal candidates in these electorates is shown in the table above. Xenophon’s share of preferences from Labor was in the seventies, but Cathy McGowan’s approached 90% — presumably the latter is a better guide. For the Greens and “others”, North Sydney is a particularly useful precedent, suggesting Phelps would get about three-quarters of Greens preferences and a little more than half of everybody else’s. However, I would imagine the former figure especially is too low, given the nature of the candidates involved (Trent Zimmerman versus Stephen Ruff, as opposed to Dave Sharma versus Kerryn Phelps). So I could perhaps speculate that Phelps, assuming she finishes second, will get about 85% of Labor preferences, maybe 80% from the Greens, and about half the remainder. On that basis, Dave Sharma wouldn’t want to fall below 40% if he’s squaring off against Phelps.

Subjects I will hopefully probe into later, time permitting: how the minor candidates preferences are likely to flow between Sharma, Phelps and Murray; and how far Sharma’s primary vote would have to fall to put him in jeopardy from Labor.

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.

94 comments on “Wentworth by-election minus one day”

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  1. Michael

    According to the Gibbard-Satterthwaite Theorem, all ordinal (i.e. preferential) electoral systems, including the Condorcet criterion, are susceptible to strategic manipulation.

    It’s lucky that truth is stranger than fiction, because otherwise I would accuse you of making that up… 🙂

  2. “I’m not chopped liver, I’ve been here four times,” Ms Plibersek said.

    Reported in Greg Brown, The Australian.

    The political nuance of this one is beyond me.

  3. Just in regards media, I note that The Drum tonight lists Hewson (a former Liberal leader), a former State Liberal Minister plus Maiden who is a former Murdoch Liberal storm trooper plus one other unknown to me – and on the eve of a by election

    Now, if their Panel was 2 former Labor Party identities and a pro Labor journalist (if they exist) plus one other what would the outcry be?

    Not mentioned in the discussion on here is that Wentworth is a blue ribbon Liberal seat – with a margin of 18% so one of the safest in the land

    So how can the Liberals ever be seen as losing such a seat?

    It just will not happen – or should never happen

  4. One reason I feel the Liberals will loose Wentworth, is the Longman result.
    Different electorates, a larger margin, but more reasons to not vote for the government candidate

  5. Tactical Lib voting… alp first preference but lib 2nd preference. If this gets murray ahead of phelps then count on phelps preferences to get sharma up, and if it doesnt then it becomes a lib vote against phelps.

    As someone said, if enough do this then sharma can lose enough primary vote to fall behind both murray and phelps. This would probably elect Phelps.

    If the gap between sharma and phelps is bigger than that between phelps and murray then this conceivably could work if the right number of people do it.

    Any lib rational enough to consider this would also i think rationally conclude that its so unlikely to work out that the best rational option is to just vote 1 Sharma?

    But its a heck of an idea tho!!!

    Unf the alp voter cant do sneaky stuff to get murray elected, its just a simple choice to vote phelps to abet sharma losing and be rational enough to know that voting murray only increases the odds of sharma winning off phelps preferences

  6. {Since there are no centres outside the division at a by-election, there will be very few “PRE-POLL” votes in Wentworth (but lots and lots of PPVC votes).}

    The AEC website says that a Wentworth voter can vote any AEC division office anywhere in the country. Not sure how many would – but it is possible.
    There are several booths that differ from the 2016 election – mainly around Darlinghurst and Kings X. Some turnout might be lost by people turning up and there being no booth.

  7. Thanks Blackburnpseph, I had actually wondered that there were any “pre-poll” votes listed at all at by-elections (there were 198 in Batman), and assumed they must have included provisional votes cast at PPVCs.

  8. Tactical Lib voting… alp first preference but lib 2nd preference.

    I see this a a bridge too far.
    I found out today (at prepoll) is it is psychologically hard to vote strategically.
    It is one thing to vote for an independent, but not a ‘class enemy’.

    What about the CFMEU?

  9. blackburnpseph/William

    Looking at the AEC spreadsheet, looks like there were 85 such pre-poll votes in various places, as at COB yesterday

  10. Expat follower anyone advocating tactical voting at the moment needs to go and take a cold shower. Tactical voting may make sense if you have a very good idea of the relative votes for the candidates. At the moment we are all guessing, and there isn’t enough factual info to be confident that a ‘tactical vote’ won’t be counterproductive. Any one of Sharma, Phelps or Murray could win.

  11. Canberra Boy im not advocating that lib tactical vote idea at all, was just playing it out. It was a bloody interesting idea!

    Putting a tactical vote for phelps by an alp voter in the same bracket of uncertainty because “any of Sharma, Phelps or Murray could win” is with greatest respect just plain wrong.

    i would like to hear one pathway for murray winning that has >10% probability. There isnt one.

    There are only pathways that tilt a ~50-50 Sharma Phelps probability one way or the other. Voting 1 Murray does not get him past 10%, it raises Sharma’s likelihood against Phelps. Its not even tactical, its bleedingly obvious (well it is to the alp themselves… which ought to be of some guidance value to anyone sharing their aims)

  12. Does anyone have an idea what rate of informal voting in Wentworth might be expected, given the large number of candidates?

    If the result is close, having a high number of informal votes might make a difference.

    As I get older, my confidence in accurately completing a large ballot paper is diminishing.

  13. Bradfield 2009 with 22 candidates and nothing riding on the result (ALP not contesting) had 9% informal.
    Perth 2016 with 15 candidates and also a no-contest (Lib not contesting) had 10.1% informal.
    Wills 1992 with 22 candidates but both majors contesting had 6.4% informal.

    Wentworth had over 5% informal last time with only 8 candidates.

  14. the rules to determine formality of votes should be a vote is formal to the extent a voters intention can be identified

  15. canberra boy:
    Friday, October 19, 2018 at 6:46 pm

    You make a very good point about the uncertainty of this race, but there is a possibility you are missing the forest for the trees.

    Murray missing out on capturing this seat is no great loss for the ALP, since it is in the range of seats Labor doesn’t need to even compete for to win an election.

    However, Sharma losing this seat is a catastrophe for the Liberals. Practically no scenario in which they win an election includes them not winning this seat.

    Plus, Phelps may prove as effective a thorn in the side of the Morrison Coalition Government in the coming months as a Labor MP would be.

    There is no downside for Labor in Phelps winning, given the opportunity cost of missing out on winning it themselves is so slight. And there is a ton of upside for Labor in Sharma losing. So, what is wrong with a tactical vote in this instance?

  16. A person who votes Labor, to get the Liberal candidate elected, is obviously strategically voting. They will be really unhappy if their number 1 gets in; their goal is quashed.

    A Green voter who would like Murray more than Phelps based solely on their opinions, but given the electorate’s presumed opinion ranks Phelps number 2 and Murray number 3, I’m not sure that’s a strategic vote. It’s a person who’s opinion was determined in the presence of more information. They will be satisfied if their number 2 gets in; their subgoal is attained.

    Otherwise every election is determined by strategic voters, since people always say “I would like it if a minor party/independent candidate got in, but they don’t have a chance so I don’t want to waste my vote”. And they know the preference system exists, because they get annoyed if I bring it up and say it’s wasted anyway. I guess it’s the opportunity to side with a winner that is wasted, so I guess ordinary voting behavior considers other voters’ opinions. It’s not strategic just because it takes into account what others will do.

    Greens, Heath and other voters should consider what they really want, all things considered, and vote accordingly. They should not only consider the team the candidates play for; nor should they treat our ballot paper as a condorcet ballot. Once they take into account all available information their opinion may change.

    And then they can vote honestly and get the Liberals defeated.

  17. Yes, Bbpseph, Laocoon, Will and others – at byelections they set up a voting booth at all AEC offices. When the Longman election was on, I went and checked the Brisbane office at 488 Queen, and sure nuff there was a little booth set up on level 7. Woman in charge said they got 1 voter a day most days, occasionally 2 or 3. On the Longman count at https://results.aec.gov.au/22692/Website/HouseDivisionPage-22694-302.htm they list votes from all the PrePoll Voting centres (PPVCs) in and bordering Longman by name and then down near the end there are 388 other “PRE_POLL” votes (216 of which went to Susan Lamb on a 2PP basis). I guess that was the ones from the various State and Divisional Offices.

    It’s all set up again for Wentworth – see https://electorate.aec.gov.au/DivisionDetailsByName.aspx?divisionName=brisbane As the old hoax emails used to say “Not many people know about this, so pass this on to all your friends”. But you don’t need to check this one on Snopes – it’s fer real.

  18. “Sportsbet has Dr Phelps at $1.40 odds to step into former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s seat, with Liberal candidate Dave Sharma at $2.88.”

    Further in from 1.36 and 3.00 a little earlier, which in turn was narrower than the 1.32 and 3.50 this morning.

  19. PARENTS at an eastern suburbs school say they were “disgusted” when Liberal Party volunteers “glad-wrapped” the perimeter of the building in plastic sheeting promoting Wentworth candidate Dave Sharma.

    It’s understood the blue and purple sheeting, spanning the entire length of the fence out the front of Double Bay Public School, was put up by Liberal Party volunteers before the bell had sounded signalling the end of the school day.
    Double Bay mother Colette Potter at Double Bay Primary School. Picture: Monique Harmer

    One roll of sheeting encourages voters to support Mr Sharma while the other attacks federal Labor leader Bill Shorten and Independent frontrunner Kerryn Phelps.

    “With a one-seat majority … don’t risk it,” the message reads in bold type next to their head-shots.
    Parents say the school was “glad-wrapped”. Picture: Monique Harmer

    Double Bay mum-of-four Colette Potter, 49, said she watched Liberal volunteers arrive at the school just before 3pm and begin wrapping it with the material.

    “I think it’s disgraceful,” she said.

    “The school wasn’t even closed and the kids were streaming out and there they were putting up their propaganda.
    The posters promoted the Liberal candidate and attacked the alternatives. Picture: Monique Harmer

    “All of the parents were appalled and everyone is disillusioned by the whole fiasco.

    “He’s (Sharma) really searching now — the feeling among most people is he’s done himself a real disservice by doing this.”

    One Double Bay mum, who asked not to be identified, said parents were “irate” about the incident, adding that it’s “not fair” to other candidates.

    “According to the Young Liberal man out there, he said that in his opinion it was first in best dressed,” he said.
    Parents say the behaviour is “disgraceful”. Picture: Monique Harmer

    “It’s this attitude of we can do what we like because we got here first — I think that’s disgraceful.

    “The fellow from electoral commission has come out and spoken to us and apparently they are supposed to wait until the school is vacant — the school is not vacant because there are after-school activities happening.”

    The Australian Electoral Commission has been contacted for comment.

  20. @ Michael

    First saw (and used) it in the 1993 GST Election (Jobs not GST) – blew the Tories away who never saw it either. Now its everywhere.

  21. @Michael
    Agree with your analysis about everyone’s interests.

    There is no downside for Labor in Phelps winning, given the opportunity cost of missing out on winning it themselves is so slight. And there is a ton of upside for Labor in Sharma losing. So, what is wrong with a tactical vote in this instance?

    The problem with a ‘tactical vote’ is that there is insufficient data to be certain it is tactical and not a mistake. Have a look at William’s last Wentworth post with the graph of ReachTEL results. That doesn’t tell us Phelps has a better chance of winning than Murray. That idea is speculation and groupthink. There is very little data. I agree with the theory that Phelps has a better chance of knocking off Sharma than Murray, but I don’t have any evidence. And I am not betting my house on it. Would you care to give me your life savings if you are wrong?

  22. The Daily Telegraph report says Liberal internal polling has them on 39% of the primary vote. And this:

    Earlier this week, polling conducted by the Liberal Party collapsed to as low as 41 to 59 two party-preferred. However, tracking polling has improved since then.

    The thing with tracking polling is that it consists of small daily samples — typically around 200. You can, but shouldn’t, look at individual daily samples in isolation. I suspect that’s what’s been going on here, both in the Telegraph’s and The Australian’s reporting.

  23. canberra boy:

    [The problem with a ‘tactical vote’ is that there is insufficient data to be certain it is tactical and not a mistake. Have a look at William’s last Wentworth post with the graph of ReachTEL results. That doesn’t tell us Phelps has a better chance of winning than Murray. That idea is speculation and groupthink. There is very little data. I agree with the theory that Phelps has a better chance of knocking off Sharma than Murray, but I don’t have any evidence. And I am not betting my house on it. Would you care to give me your life savings if you are wrong?]

    The issue isn’t who has the better chance of winning or even the better chance of being second. For a person who doesn’t really care which of Phelps and Murray wins so long as someone beats Sharma, the issue is: if one’s vote decides which one is second, which one of the two has the better chance of winning from that point. That means they’re climbing the same mountain, only in Phelps’ case it is on Murray’s preferences (plenty of which will be coming from the Greens), while in Murray’s case it is on Phelps’ preferences.

    Phelps is the more ambiguously placed candidate, she’s the one who has preferenced the Liberal (albeit less than wholeheartedly) and she’s the independent in a seat that has never elected a Labor MP in its history. For the voter considering a tactical vote, the question isn’t whether the evidence is strong enough to justify betting their house to nothing but bragging rights on Poll Bludger on the flow from Phelps being stronger than the flow from Murray. The question is whether it is simply more likely than not based on what evidence is available. That’s a very low bar to get over and there are past contests with similar scenarios to look at for precedents. You don’t have to be certain you’re not making a mistake, especially when you also can’t be certain you’re not making a mistake by not voting tactically. Indeed, this is a case where not voting tactically looks quite likely to be a mistake if all you care about is stopping the Liberals from holding.

    If a voter really doesn’t care who beats Sharma so long as somebody does, then putting an even vaguely centrist independent ahead of the other major party is a no-brainer. It’s a no-brainer even if the independent actually looks uncompetitive. It only gets tricky if the voter actually does value a Murray win significantly higher than a Phelps win. Then they have very good reason to look suspiciously at the strength of the evidence that Phelps would be so much more likely to win from second. But there’s plenty of voters who just want a Liberal defeat. If they want to maximise the chance of that, they should all preference Phelps above Murray and Sharma.

  24. canberra boy, the only way a ‘tactical vote’ for Phelps by a Labor voter, aimed primarily at defeating Sharma above other considerations, could be a “mistake” is if it backfired: ie, if such votes caused Phelps to beat Murray into the final TCP count, and Sharma beat Phelps in that TCP, but Murray beats Sharma in the ALP-Lib TPP that the AEC will ultimately release. This could only happen if Labor voters prefer Liberal relatively more than Phelps voters do. But WB’s table above shows this would be unprecedented in relevant recent by-elections. Surely, this is some evidence for the belief that Phelps would receive a higher TCP against Sharma than Murray would. Given this, along with the complete absence of any indication that Murray would do better than Phelps in a TCP against Sharma, makes it rational to choose Phelps as your candidate to be pitted against Sharma, if your aim is the defeat of the Liberals in a seat they’ve never before failed to hold.

  25. From the Oz – Murdoch press still pushing strong Anti Phelps stuff

    “Dr Phelps could also face referral to the High Court under section 44 of the Constitution — the same section Labor attempted to refer Mr Dutton under — because of her work as a general practitioner and her position as a City of Sydney councillor.

    Section 44 of the Constitution prohibits candidates who have an “office of profit under the crown”.

    Labor claims Mr Dutton has a section 44 case to answer because he is the beneficiary of a family trust that operates a childcare centre that receives money in the form of the Child Care Subsidy.

    Dr Phelps said she had legal ­advice from Geoffrey Kennett SC and Perry Herzfeld, and was confident she had “no s. 44 issue whatsoever”.

  26. Shamahan in the Oz

    “It has to be remembered that the Liberals hold Wentworth with a margin of 17 per cent. Even ­allowing for anger about Turnbull’s removal, that is well beyond what can normally be considered a “personal” vote. Labor expects a Liberal win.

    But the way the expectations have been managed, a swing of 15 or 16 per cent against the Liberals while retaining the seat will be seen as a Morrison victory.

    As well, in the final 48 hours of polling, Phelps, under pressure as the frontrunner, made an error in moving away from her earlier pledge on guaranteeing Morrison confidence in the house.

    Morrison pounced: “In the last 24 hours, we have heard that the leading independent candidate has said she could not guarantee not bringing down the government on a vote of confidence in the government. That is serious stuff. She has not ruled out bringing down the government if she is elected on Saturday. Now, that is the definition of instability.”

    Any win will be a godsend to Morrison and a loss will be the first step into the wilderness.”

  27. Gawd i hope after all this, doesnt turn out to be a Bennelong disappointment where hopes for an upset were high but never really came all that close to fruition in the end. I know it matters little in the grand nxt fed election context, but it would be so good to see the shitshow that would follow the libs losing this seat….

  28. Even if the result is a fairly early call of Lib retain, I don’t see any scenario where the Lib PV doesn’t tank. Negative headlines will still be written about what the same drop would do in less safe electorates and yet the complacency from winning will ratchet up to 11.

  29. The Liberals seem to have given up trying to hold onto one of their safest seats and are just trying to manage expectations. So I will do the same.

    The average bi election swing is -8%. Wentworth is on a 16% margin – 66/34. Therefore I will predict Sharma will win Wentworth by 58/42 2pp. Anything worse than that will be a worse than average result, and a good night for Labor.

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