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. Given that there is a by-election tomorrow upon which the Morrisson government’s future hangs; is it appropriate for a royal to be lending his/their popularity to the photo op. on the bridge climb?

  2. Thanks for this, William. This gives us a much better indication of how to read the PV results once we get them on election night. Better than the single seat polling anyway!

    Two points:

    1) If we want a guide to how the PV’s will go before the actual results start hitting our screens, then the single seat polls are all we’ve got, notwithstanding their shortcomings. So, all we can say about PV’s in advance of the actual counting is that we are highly uncertain about them. Sharma could get 30-45; Phelps could get 15-30; Murray could get 12-27.

    2) Winning the primary vote is different to winning the penultimate (3-way) count. Given that Heath/Green voters could strongly preference either or both of Murray and Phelps over Sharma, and Others break even for Sharma at best, Sharma could very well win the primary vote but fall to 2nd (or even 3rd!) on the 3-way. The uncertainty flowing from the relative unreliability of the single seat polling means we cannot predict beforehand how close Murray and Phelps start behind Sharma, when they start catching up to him on preferences.

    So, all we have is speculation when it comes to predicting the result of the Wentworth by-election beforehand. We simply don’t have sufficiently reliable information to make a call. Whether non-quantitative variables like ‘intuition’, ‘history’ or ‘the vibe on the ground’ are sufficient to justify a prediction in the absence of decent information, I’ll leave to others to say.

  3. booleanbach:
    Friday, October 19, 2018 at 7:40 am

    Members of the Morrison Coalition Government, Dave Sharma and John Howard think it’s appropriate, I’m sure. Everyone else, not so much.

  4. The punters continue moving towards Phelps. Sportsbet now:

    Kerryn Phelps (Independent) 1.30 Dave Sharma (Liberal) 3.50 Tim Murray (Labor) 14.00

  5. If it’s close between Dr Phelps and the ALP candidate for 2nd/3rd spot, and if it’s clear from scrutineers’ reports that Dr Phelps’s preferences are favouring Mr Sharma, we could see at the post-election day fresh scrutiny the interesting sight of ALP scrutineers challenging their own votes to try to ensure that their candidate, rather than Dr Phelps, is excluded.

  6. The punters just keep coming for Phelps in Wentworth – in from $1.55 yesterday to $1.40 with Ladbrokes. Sharma out to $2.50. Apparently Sportsbet has her even shorter at $1.30, Sharma at $3.50, which is just extraordinary.

  7. Have enjoyed reading all the Wentworth prognostications on the blog ( thanks, gang) but over it all now. Looking forward to hearing that Labor or Phelps have got up. Hoping the Libs squirm over the next few days- couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of absolute bastards.

  8. “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.”….

    I fully agree, William. Still, the Greens have enough primary support to decide who will be confronting Sharma. Moreover, as a one-off they could even be more crucial than usual if they decide to put either ALP or Phelps first in their ballot paper.

  9. “Hoping the Libs squirm over the next few days- couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of absolute bastards.”…. Yep, a Liberal loss in Wentworth would unleash a high magnitude earthquake within the Liberal party and the ScuMo Government…. and wait for the tsunami afterwards.. 🙂

  10. Personally I think the Greens “threat” has been way overstated. Firstly I doubt their primary vote will be enough to make any difference, and secondly, I am deeply sceptical that green voters will dutifully follow the HTV cards. They are not stupid, and they know what they need to do to fulfil their primary goal of defeating the libs

  11. AEC have just announced that 14,957 pre-polls are in as at COB last night

    With one day of pre-poll to go, this is as compared to the 2016 General Election:

    PPVC 14,373
    PRE_POLL 3,711
    POSTAL 9,392

    (I don’t know what is the difference between the AEC designation of PRE-POLL and PPVC)

  12. “North Sydney is a particularly useful precedent, suggesting Phelps would get about three-quarters of Greens preferences…”

    Who did the Greens’ how-to-vote card preference in North Sydney? Labor or the independent?

  13. Scotty from the Shire is one reason the Liberal vote is tanking in Wentworth. Appearing with a junior royal on the Harbour Bridge might remind voters what an unpleasant unelected addition to our polity he is.

    Also, my poll of 1 Mrs Sprocket indicates a vote for Kerryn Phelps, as “she is showing herself to be a good role model for older women”

  14. This in the Oz

    Scott Morrison says the Liberal Party’s candidate is heading for a probable defeat in Saturday’s Wentworth by-election.

    The Prime Minister this morning escalated the government’s “underdog” claim in the eastern Sydney seat by saying he expects independent candidate Kerryn Phelps to defeat Liberal Party’s Dave Sharma.

    When asked if he expected Mr Sharma to lose, Mr Morrison said: “the expectations are clearly set in that direction, absolutely”.

    Mr Morrison warned angry Liberal voters against backing Dr Phelps to punish the party for rolling Malcolm Turnbull.

    “The electoral maths here are pretty simple: whoever finishes second as an independent, doesn’t matter if they are 10 or 15 points or anything like that behind, the way the preferential voting system works is that they can come over the top and actually win the by-election,” he said.

    “There has been high expectations that this is a seat that cannot be lost by the Liberal Party, I have never thought that.

  15. “There has been high expectations that this is a seat that cannot be lost by the Liberal Party, I have never thought that.”…

    Is that the reason why Morrison got that idea of moving the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem?… Because he didn’t have “high expectations that this is a seat that cannot be lost by the Liberal Party”, and so some desperate strategy needed to be found, urgently?

    Oh, and btw, could Morrison please explain how can a party expect to lose a seat that it holds with a 2PP vote of 67.75%?

  16. “by saying he expects independent candidate Kerryn Phelps to defeat Liberal Party’s Dave Sharma.”… and how is Morrison going to “justify” a potential win by the ALP Tim Murray?…. as an “act of god”?

  17. “Also, my poll of 1 Mrs Sprocket indicates a vote for Kerryn Phelps, as “she is showing herself to be a good role model for older women””… You could easily double the sample size by telling us your preference… 🙂

  18. A further observation on the two-candidate versus three-candidate distribution of notional preferrences at polling booths on election night. The AEC web page for the by-election counting process refers to “counting the first preferences marked on the ballot papers and conducting the two-candidate preferred (TCP) count”. Perhaps this is just standard wording, but it does seem to point to the likelihood that the AEC will start with a two-candidate count.

  19. Can someone who has a better idea that me explain what the likely parliamentary scenarios are if (a) Phelps or (b) Labor actually win Wentworth?

  20. Just been out shopping – lots of popcorn still on the shelves; perhaps because it is not Wentworth territory. I expect all over Wentworth to be very short of choc-tops & popcorn; maybe even Jaffas (if they still exist).

  21. Somebody has put money on Sharma at Sportsbet since this morning:

    Kerryn Phelps (Independent) 1.36 Dave Sharma (Liberal) 3.00 Tim Murray (Labor) 14.00

    (was Phelps 1.30; Sharma 3.50)

    Is betting a legitimate use of parliamentary entitlements – on the basis you could possibly return more to the government than you spent {smily emoticon}?

  22. The cracks were showing in Morrison’s messaging this morning. For those who missed it, when asked about Wentworth he said Sharma has an uphill battle, knows the electorate is angry about shafting Turnbull, that he (Morrison) was there when it happened and Kerryn Phelps has the potential to be very powerful. Plus it’s all her fault, etc. These are odd things for the Ad Man to reinforce when some people wouldn’t actually mind the current government being brought down. Also, Morrison totally missed the risk warning that comes with wheeling-out Howard. It totally backfired for Downer Jr at the recent Mayo by-election and before that, Jamie Briggs, the previous Liberal Member. Looking forward to a very interesting weekend.

  23. From the Guardian – “The Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, has urged supporters in Wentworth to “take note” of Kerryn Phelps’ progressive positions on climate change and refugees when they cast their ballots on Saturday, in a clear signal to preference the high-profile independent ahead of Labor.

    Di Natale told Guardian Australia the government was clearly at risk of losing Malcolm Turnbull’s former seat, and Labor was “running dead” in the contest, so in that context “people can vote Green and choose Kerryn over yet another Liberal backbencher”.The Wentworth byelection has become a referendum on climate change and refugees and is a unique opportunity to send a message to the Liberals who don’t deserve to govern,” he said.

    The Greens preferenced Labor above Phelps on their how-to-vote card for the contest, but now both the current federal leader and a former leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, have suggested supporters ignore those instructions and instead rank Phelps ahead of Labor’s Tim Murray.

    The Greens leader urged rusted-on supporters to vote for the party’s candidate, Dominic WY Kanak, and then “take note of Kerryn’s progressive views on refugees and climate change, which are a welcome change from both the major parties”.

  24. I’m still waiting for my postal ballot from the AEC. Given the haphazard postmarking (either no date or illegible mark) of mail these days how does the AEC know that my ballot was posted before the close of the polls? When do they stop counting postals?

  25. Doug
    It is good to see that the Greens leaders and ex leaders have finally twigged on the preference ideal. Doubtless we will have the usual suspects on Bludger telling Brown and Di Natale that they are as wrong as Boerwar.

  26. Phelps that short-priced a favourite… must mean that there is high confidence that Sharma primary vote has collapsed towards 30% and that Phelps is clearly ahead of Murray. I’m surprised at confidence in the first, but the more important is the latter factor.

    As long as Phelps is ahead of Murray, i can see Phelps in with a chance of winning even if Sharma primaries up to maybe 42%. Greens preferencing ALP over Phelps is really annoying even if they poll at 5% and many of their voters ignore them or this instruction… it still means too many will follow the htv, which means Phelps needs 85-90% of the remaining pref flow. Much more comfortable if Sharma primaries 5% lower – as long as that shift doesnt jump Murray over Phelps.

    Murray at 14-1, or 6% probability, is about right. It feels tenable that there are enough disaffected Libs protesting towards Phelps, and enough sensible ALP voters tactically voting Phelps above Murray… but to a degree that she is that kind of short-priced favourite surprises me.

    A lib-lab 2pp count on the night would be dumb – will show a comfortable Sharma victory. Its all about Sharma v Phelps.

  27. No doubt the AEC will be doing absolutely everything by the book this weekend.
    If they have an established procedure for 3 party contests they will be following that.
    I still remember how Joyce’s result was announced in record time and he was back in parliament within 3 days.

  28. Yesterday I was watching Speers on SKY from 5-5:30 pm. The coverage was from Double Bay, Wentworth.
    He was shown interviewing 3 sets of voters, 1 female, 1 male and 2 females. All of them said although they did not like what happened to MT, they are voting for Libs. He was also shown interviewing Howard amd Sharma. I cannot remember correctly, he might have interviewed Phelps. No other candidates were interviewed. SKY did not even showed other candidates.
    Even today, ABC breakfast only showed Morrison & Sharma presser and nothing from other candidates.
    But Speers and ABC said that the contest will be close.
    My point is if the contest is so close, why is there no coverage of other candidates.

  29. Quite interesting article about the SWIFT payments system and it’s geopolitical role, and some moves to bypass it:
    Popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic conventionally portrays SWIFT as a long arm of the American security state. Tellingly, when Amazon recently revived Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan for an age of anti-terrorism and binge watching, Ryan had left Wall Street for the CIA in order to monitor SWIFT transactions in the Middle East.


    It was only after September 11th that the organization, suddenly facing subpoenas from the US itself, caved. The new rationale of anti-terrorism paved the way for unprecedented American access to SWIFT data, and a memorandum of understanding between the Belgian society and the Americans gave the US Treasury Department the ability to track financial flows in real time far beyond its borders.

    When the secret agreement was revealed in a New York Times story in 2006, the Belgian Data Privacy Commission immediately began to investigate and found SWIFT in violation of both European and Belgian data protection laws.

  30. @Kevin Bonham:

    In your article you say:

    Secondly in rare cases there isn’t a Condorcet winner, so some form of consensus would have to be reached on the most appropriate tie-breaking method (and whether that created a risk of strategic voting too).

    Doesn’t Arrow’s Theorem imply that any such tie-breaking method would necessarily create an opportunity for strategic voting?

  31. @Ven … what’s your point?

    I think the way the parties are acting tells you this is close, regardless of what Murdoch express and the terrified ABC are doing?

  32. caf, I suspect that is right. I was aware that some of the tiebreaks (such as using IRV as a fallback) obviously had the property of being susceptible to strategic voting but had not considered whether they all would. I’ve reworded it slightly.

  33. would it be possible for a liberal voter to vote labor to ensure labor is in second place to try and ensure Phelps is in third place so the liberal wins?

  34. mick: Yes, that is the case. Kevin Bonham’s article linked above covers this.

    (The risk is that if too many Liberals did that, they’d then end up losing to Labor!).

  35. J341983@3:48pm
    My point is other candidates especially Murray are blanked out from any coverage. Shouldn’t he be given equal coverage in news to that given to Sharma and Phelps. Murray and Phelps are running close 2nd and 3rd in opinion polls. Even William Bowe concurs that it is3-way contest.

  36. Murray has actively withdrawn from things like interviews as they’re trying to avoid a three-way contest.

    I think the only way the Libs lose, and Labor knows this, is if it comes down to Sharma v Phelps.

  37. On to interpreting the result. This seat is not one which Labor would need to win, or even be competitive, in order to win 76+ seats in the House and form government.

    If, for each seat in NSW, you average the ALP TPP at the 2016 general election with the AEC’s notional ALP TPP going into that election, then rank them in order of those averages, you can divide those seats into a ‘Labor third’, a ‘Coalition third’ and a ‘middle third’. Wentworth lies within the ‘Coalition third’.

    The ‘middle third’ is what should properly be considered the ‘battleground’ between the two major parties in their quest to win a majority of seats in NSW. To ‘win’ NSW, Labor needs to sweep the seats in its ‘third’ and win a majority of seats in the ‘middle third’. They have no need to go chasing seats in the ‘Coalition third’. So, a failure to win or even come close to winning Wentworth reflects basically nothing on Labor’s ability to win seats in the ‘battleground’.

    In fact, if a seat in the ‘Coalition third’ is at risk of falling to Labor (or a not-entirely-reliably-Coalition Independent), that is a really bad sign for the Coalition. To be competitive in an election, they need to bank the seats in their own ‘third’.

    So, if the Coalition loses Wentworth to Kerryn Phelps, take that as a very bad sign for the Morrison Coalition Government. If Phelps or Murray come close, same thing.

  38. Ven:
    Friday, October 19, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    The media’s coverage of a candidate isn’t just a matter for the media. The candidate and their party have something to do with it as well.

  39. J341983 @ #44 Friday, October 19th, 2018 – 4:33 pm

    Murray has actively withdrawn from things like interviews as they’re trying to avoid a three-way contest.

    I think the only way the Libs lose, and Labor knows this, is if it comes down to Sharma v Phelps.

    Spot on!

    Murray has performed well. There must be plenty of winnable seats in the up-coming State Election that he could be considered as a good candidate.

  40. beguiledagain, the postal voting requirements involve the voter and a witness signing and dating a declaration that the vote has been completed on or before by-election day. The date of posting doesn’t seem to matter, so long as the vote is received by the AEC within 13 days of the election date. See the postal voting guide and if you are really brave s194 of the Electoral Act.

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

  42. I don’t know what is the difference between the AEC designation of PRE-POLL and PPVC

    The non-PPVC type of pre-poll is a declaration rather than an ordinary vote, which usually means one cast at a centre outside the division – an “absent” pre-poll vote, if you will. 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).

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