Dead wood and bad blood

One swallow does not a summer make, and even the months from December to February don’t count for as much as other seasons on the Australian political calendar (the ones not habitually described as "silly"). Even so, we’re far enough into Labor’s new era to state with confidence that those who predicted a brief honeymoon for Mark Latham followed by a dramatic fall to earth had it precisely wrong. Throughout December and January a sceptical Peter Brent at Mumble persuasively argued that Latham was not in fact enjoying the opinion poll bounce that many were imagining they were seeing simply because they were expecting it, and had in fact done no more than recover the vote that went astray during the weeks of leadership turmoil in late November. So it proved for each Newspoll up to February 20-22, each of which showed Latham’s Labor stuck in the 39 to 41 per cent bracket. However all that changed with the poll of March 5-7, in which Labor broke through to 44 per cent against 41 per cent for the Coalition, translating into a terrifying 10 per cent gap after distribution of Labor-heavy minor party preferences. Not for the first time in recent years, the result has been a wholesale junking of most existing items of conventional wisdom, in particular those relating to the value of incumbency and experience in an unsettled global security climate. All of a sudden "rejuvenation" is the word on the lips of Coalition watchers, and preselection challenges to actual or perceived under-achievers have taken on a new importance.

Enough ink has been spilled on Malcolm Turnbull’s surprisingly clear 88-70 win in the Wentworth preselection the weekend before last that the Poll Bludger will content himself with guiding interested readers towards the post-mortems from Glenn Milne at The Australian and Hillary Bray at Crikey. Suffice to say that the result indeed looked pretty good in Liberal-rejuvenation terms, until one considers firstly that defeated incumbent Peter King had barely two years in which to prove himself, and then the result of the other, less publicised Liberal preselection ballot held in Sydney that weekend. With a margin of 21.4 per cent, the Sydney "bible belt" seat of Mitchell is the Liberals’ second safest, a glittering prize held for the party for no less than 30 years by one Alan Cadman. The aforementioned Glenn Milne article gives some idea why Cadman has been able to go untroubled for so long, recounting that former federal director Andrew Robb’s ambitions for the seat were thwarted when he was informed that only a local candidate would be acceptable, which from this outsider’s perspective seems an unfortunate state of affairs. When local opposition eventually coalesced around former Nick Greiner staffer and AGL executive Ian Woodward, Cadman experienced a sudden burst of energy, failing to impress Peter Costello with a column in The Australian calling for a higher tax-free threshold for families. Costello may have had Cadman in mind when he lamented that there were not two seats available for both Peter King and Malcolm Turnbull, saying "I don’t think we’re so overflowing with talent that we don’t have opportunities elsewhere". However Cadman was obviously doing something right at the local level (and perhaps also reaping the benefits of years of loyalty to Howard), defying gravity and reason to win a narrow 58-55 victory that will certainly see the 66 year old warming a seat on the back bench for three more years.

Three intertwined preselection battles in Queensland, one decided and the other two still in play, reveal the deep faultlines in the Queensland Liberal Party which explain their paltry representation in the state parliament and bode ill for their hopes in this crucial state at the coming federal election. The Brisbane seat of Ryan has been a constant source of fascination in recent years, starting with Labor’s deceptive by-election victory following Liberal minister John Moore’s untimely retirement in early 2001. This was followed by a divisive contest for the right to contest the seat at the November 2001 election in which state party president Bob Tucker was defeated by Michael Johnson, who seems to be creating more than his fair share of enemies as he climbs the greasy pole. Two names came forward as possible challengers – the withdrawal of the more prominent of the two, Brisbane City Councillor Margaret de Wit, was blamed by Graham Young at National Forum on threats to her own preselection for council. This leaves twice-defeated state election candidate Steven Huang opposing Johnson in the ballot to be held this weekend. Huang’s Taiwanese background could at least counter one of Johnson’s greatest strengths in securing the numbers, support from Brisbane’s Chinese community derived from his own half-Chinese background. Young does not fancy Huang’s chances, but such is the aroma surrounding Johnson that a strong conservative independent candidate could potentially make life interesting for him at the coming election, although such things are difficult to pull off in urban federal seats.

In the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, Liberal almost-veteran and Johnson factional colleague Peter Slipper comfortably won a three-way contest with 168 votes against barrister Glen Garrick (75 votes) and accountant Kerrie Cook (9 votes) (result courtesy of Peter Slipper’s office via Crikey’s newsletter). Graham Young claims these challenges to members of the "Sicilian" faction (so-called on account of power brokers Michael Caltabiano and Santo Santoro) have provoked a revenge attack on Peter Lindsay in Herbert through the agency of Townsville oncologist Peter Fon, the outcome of which will be decided on April 24. Young’s assessment has gained currency in light of the suspension of the entire Townsville branch of the Young Liberals by the Santoro/Caltabiano-dominated state executive (as reported on March 1 in the Courier-Mail) whose accusations of branch-stacking against Lindsay supporters have struck many Queensland Liberal Party observers as somewhat audacious.

Similarly, the demotion of Senators Judith Troeth and Tsebin Tchen on the Victorian Liberal Senate ticket has a lot more to do with rivalry than renewal, with the beneficiary being former Ballarat MHR Michael Ronaldson, whose retirement on health grounds had a lot to do with his seat being the only one lost by the Coalition at the 2001 election. He is evidently feeling better now, with his success in securing the top position on the Coalition list giving the Kroger-Costello forces revenge for Karen Synon’s demotion at the expense of Kennett-backed Tchen at the 1998 election. With second spot reserved for the National Party’s Julian McGauran, Troeth faces an uphill battle winning from third position while Tchen is gone for all money, the net result being a small but potentially significant increase in the Costello camp’s representation on the party room floor. Readers of a sensitive disposition may well have been pleased to hear talk that New South Wales Senator Bill Heffernan’s position was also under threat, but The Australian reported on March 2 (no link available) that Heffernan was likely to retain top position at the vote to be held next Saturday (March 20). However the right are gunning for a conservative clean sweep with their candidate Connie Fierravanti-Wells hoping to turf moderate incumbent John Tierney out of second place, with third reserved for the National Party.

Far be it from the Poll Bludger to suggest that a party with Wilson Tuckey and Bronwyn Bishop among its ranks might have hoped for a better harvest of dead wood than just Peter King and Tsebin Tchen (and perhaps also Peter Lindsay, Michael Johnson and John Tierney), but he would be far from the only observer now suspecting that the electorate could end up doing the job for them.

UPDATE (15/3/04): Crikey reports Michael Johnson defeated Steven Huang in Ryan by 328 votes to 68.

Awakenings

The Poll Bludger has stirred from his week-long post-election coma and is hard at work (honest) putting his Queensland election guide to bed now that something resembling final results are available. Once done each electorate entry will be appended with a wrap-up noting the outcome, swings and any last minute shenanigans the campaign updates may have missed. After that the Poll Bludger’s beady eye will turn to preselection fun and games now gathering steam both at the federal level and also in Western Australia, where a factious opposition may yet deliver Geoff Gallop a second term at the election due early next year.

Call of the board

At the close of last night’s count Labor were ahead in 64 seats, the Nationals in 14, Liberal in six, One Nation in one and independents in four. It is universally anticipated that postal votes and the remaining undeclared booth will see off Labor’s eight vote lead in Charters Towers. The National Party have also won Burdekin (4.7 per cent) and Burnett (2.9 per cent) from Labor and Lockyer (12.3 per cent) from One Nation. However, Keppel has been lost to the Labor Party (4.2 per cent).

The Liberal Party has won two seats on the Gold Coast, Currumbin (3.4 per cent) from Labor and Surfers Paradise (15.0 per cent) from an independent. Doubt still remains over Labor’s hold on the Brisbane seats of Clayfield and Indooroopilly, although their 549-vote (1.6 per cent) lead in the latter will presumably be enough. In Clayfield however just 233 votes (0.6 per cent) separate incumbent member and former Play School presenter Liddy Clark from Liberal challenger Sally Hannah. The Liberals may yet lose their Sunshine Coast seat of Caloundra, where they lead by 370 votes (0.9 per cent).

Labor then will emerge with between 62 and 64 seats, a respectable distance from the Poll Bludger’s final projection of 65. The Nationals have done one better than I expected in winning 15 seats while the Liberals have won between four and six (I tipped five). Independents Elisa Roberts (Gympie), Peter Wellington (Nicklin), Liz Cunningham (Gladstone) and Chris Foley (Maryborough) were re-elected but Lex Bell lost Surfers Paradise, while One Nation held Tablelands but lost Lockyer – all of which was as I had anticipated.

In terms of Labor’s majority I would appear not to have done quite as well as Peter Brent at Mumble or Charles Richardson at Crikey (not available online), who tipped Labor to win 63 and 64 seats respectively. The content of our judgement is another matter, as indicated by the fact that I got one seat closer to the mark by wrongly (so it would seem) deciding on Friday that Labor would not hold Clayfield after all. This was one of six seats I got wrong, the others being Burdekin, Burnett, Charters Towers, Currumbin and Toowoomba North. The latter was my worst call, with Labor 7.6 per cent ahead at the close of polls. My Burdekin judgement marked a grave under-estimation of the sugar industry effect (in this electorate at least), with the Nationals leading by 4.7 per cent. Of the remainder, Currumbin surprised everybody, while Clayfield and Charters Towers were close enough that I can forgive myself. Burnett could have been better judged, but the Nationals’ 2.9 per cent lead is almost within an acceptable margin for error for state election predictions (not federal though).

Peter Brent may be given latitude as he made his prediction early in the campaign and wasn’t taking it as seriously, offering no comment on the fate of One Nation or independents. He wrongly picked Noosa, Burleigh and Kawana as Coalition gains, missing Burdekin, Burnett and Currumbin, but correctly picked Charters Towers as a Nationals gain (unlike the Poll Bludger) and Labor’s win in Keppel.

Charles Richardson was cleverer than me in that he reached his conclusion by picking six seats as possible Labor losses and calculating they would lose half of them – Burdekin, Burnett, Charters Towers, Burleigh and Thuringowa to the Nationals, and Mount Coot-tha to the Greens. As far as it goes this was perfectly correct, but the seats Labor retained here were held by margins of 5.1, 8.3 and 11.2 per cent. He also tipped the Liberals to win the same three seats as last time, thereby missing Currumbin and their easy win in Surfers Paradise, and wrongly predicted a One Nation wipeout, which proved 16.9 per cent off the mark in Tablelands. This makes for three full errors and three half-errors, so while I might claim to be ahead on percentage, I have to concede it to Richardson on points.

To the Poll Bludger’s knowledge, Malcolm Mackerras made no effort to retract his prediction of January 14 that Labor would win by 15 seats, though he would surely have known many of his calls were untenable before yesterday.

I take it all back

Just kidding. Two hours out from the closure of polls I thought it worth noting that the Sunshine Coast Daily today carries "pre-poll booth exit polls" of 100 respondents each for five electorates on its turf, suggesting Labor-held Kawana and Liberal-held Caloundra will change hands assuming preferences do the job in the former (Labor’s Chris Cummins led Liberal Harry Burnett 43 per cent to 42). In Caloundra Labor supposedly leads 49-35. Other figures had Labor ahead in Noosa and an impressive 61 per cent supporting National Party MP Fiona Simpson in Maroochydore.

Poll that matters

Newspoll hath spoken. Lest we forget, this organisation showed what it was worth at the last Queensland election with a final survey that nailed Labor’s score to within 0.1 per cent and was only 1 per cent out for each of the Coalition parties. With this record any sensible observer would do well to regard the following as holy writ: Labor on 50 per cent, up 1 per cent on last election, versus the Coalition on 33 per cent, up 5 per cent. Labor are down from 58 per cent to 55 per cent in Brisbane but up from 42 to 46 per cent in the rest of Queensland.

The Australian’s Greg Roberts notes that the latter figure "contradicts private party polling, which indicated issues such as sugar industry reform were hurting Labor in the regions". To this I would point out that "Brisbane" presumably does not include the Gold and Sunshine coasts and that the "regional" figure has been weighted upward by what is likely to be a very strong Labor performance in these areas. If this is so the Nationals will have reason to be nervous about Maroochydore and Beaudesert, and the Liberals will be looking dicey in Caloundra.

Against that, the regional figure could be hiding pockets of weaker Labor performance in seats including Burnett, Charters Towers, Toowoomba North, Thuringowa and Burdekin. To the latter list can be added Barron River if for no other reason than that Greg Roberts in the Courier Mail and Charles Richardson (see below) would have it there – again, they must know something I don’t. Against that is the finding, again consistent with trends in other polls, that Labor faces a 3 per cent dip in Brisbane. This makes things very interesting for Clayfield and Indooroopilly (maybe even Aspley), and has inspired the Poll Bludger to reverse his judgement that Labor will hold the former.

Only one more day o’ pollin’, one more day-o …

Crikey today provided an assessment from Melbourne-based election watcher Charles Richardson, whose reading of the Queensland situation is broadly in line with the Poll Bludger’s except that he takes an ever dimmer view of the Liberal Party’s prospects. Only Clayfield and Barron River are nominated as potential Liberal gains, so no Noosa, Kawana or Indooroopilly. Richardson may know something the Poll Bludger doesn’t with regard to Barron River, but the Liberal candidate ran a distant third in 2001 and most observers would be surprised if this fell before the others. More importantly, Richardson does not share what may be a lazy assumption of the Poll Bludger’s that the Liberals can’t possibly lose any of their existing three seats, and rightly notes that anything could happen in light of Joan Sheldon’s departure from Caloundra.

He does not however consider Surfers Paradise worth a mention, which brings me to the excellent series of electorate-level polls conducted throughout the campaign by the Gold Coast Bulletin. Earlier posts related results for Gaven (click here) and Broadwater (click here) and the Poll Bludger has today been able to hunt down the other three. The Surfers Paradise results are even worse for incumbent independent Lex Bell than I had realised, having him a distant third (on 17 per cent) behind Liberal John-Paul Langbroek (38 per cent) and Labor’s David Parrish (35 per cent). In Burleigh, Labor’s Christine Smith, elected on a margin of 1.8 per cent, was sitting pretty on 41 per cent against 25 per cent for the Nationals’ Max Duncan, with Greens and One Nation on 7 and 3 per cent respectively. And in long-forgotten Currumbin, Merri Rose led her Liberal challenger 41 to 30 per cent. By the way, these high primary vote figures were not achieved by distributing the undecided vote – this was recorded in the results at an impressively low 6, 21 and 16 per cent respectively, in stark contrast to the efforts of other regional newspapers during the campaign.

How-to-vote cards will count for less than ever at this election, but the small number of exceptions the major parties have made to their just-one-vote strategy are potentially of interest. The Coalition are recommending a second preference to independents Liz Cunningham (incumbent) in Gladstone and David Moyle (challenger) in Thuringowa, both of which make sound tactical sense in terms of thwarting Labor. Labor are recommending second preferences only to Nicklin MP Peter Wellington and, curiously, independent candidate Ruth Spencer in Warrego.

Fourth thoughts, roughies, more polls

The Courier Mail today provides the final TNS Global poll for the campaign (Newspoll presumably to follow tomorrow) and it has fortified the Poll Bludger in most of his earlier convictions. Once again the results are frustratingly incomplete – we are given a statewide two-party preferred split of 58-42 and told that on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts, Labor’s vote has risen during the campaign by 8 per cent to 45 while the Liberals have fallen 7 per cent to 14. Thus have Labor’s odds firmed in Noosa, Burleigh, Broadwater and Kawana. Liberal factional warlords apparently agree with this assessment as they are reportedly preparing to heap all the blame for the outcome on poor old Bob Quinn. In fact the results are bad enough to bring into contention the Gold Coast hinterland seat of Beaudesert, held by National Party stalwart Kev Lingard with a margin of 2 per cent.

There are a couple of other seats being mentioned which didn’t enter the Poll Bludger’s earlier calculations. The Courier Mail yesterday reported that Labor is "creating a scare" in the outback seat of Warrego, but given that their 16.3 per cent vote last time was presumably a career-best performance it’s hard to see how this is possible. Also out of left field, there is some talk that the gap in quality between the candidates on offer in Ipswich West may make this a freak Liberal gain from Labor.

On firmer ground, Peter Krumins (see the post below) has made the Poll Bludger see reason with regard to a third seat, the conclusion being that One Nation’s Rosa Lee Long will indeed be re-elected in Tablelands. Here the combined 2001 vote for One Nation and their former MP-turned-independent Shaun Nelson was 51 per cent compared with 25 per cent for Labor and only 16 per cent for the Nationals. With only three candidates in the field this time, it’s very difficult to distribute the available votes in a way that has a major party candidate winning. So with one day to go, the Poll Bludger’s projected outcome is as follows: Labor 66, Nationals 14, Liberal 4, independents 4, One Nation 1.