Party’s over

The Australian Democrats may well have reached the tipping point with Labor’s decision to put them behind the Greens on preferences for all states in the Senate, Labor having concluded that they now carry too little electoral clout to be worth doing business with. Had this occurred in 2001, Greens candidates would have been elected in place of Lyn Allison in Victoria and Andrew Bartlett in Queensland, Andrew Murray would have prevailed by the narrowest of margins in Western Australia, and only Natasha Stott-Despoja in South Australia would have emerged a clear winner. The Greens now seem all but certain to win seats in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania and may well win one in Queensland, although the picture there is too complex to say for sure. South Australia remains the Democrats’ best hope, due to both their own historic strength there and that of Family First with whom they cut a retaliatory preference deal yesterday. But on the basis of current opinion poll results, even that is looking enormously unlikely.

The Liberals have seen fit to reveal that their internal polling shows them losing enough votes to Labor and the Greens in the blue-ribbon Sydney seats of Warringah and North Sydney to put Government heavyweights Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey at risk. The combined Labor and Greens vote in the latter is reportedly 52 per cent, 11.5 per cent higher than the combined Labor, Greens and Democrats vote from 2001. Although both seats have a history of voting for independents, Ted Mack holding North Sydney from 1990 to 1996 and former state MP Peter McDonald scoring 27.8 per cent in Warringah in 2001, the Poll Bludger finds this a little hard to credit.

News Limited’s Sunday papers are getting unnecessarily excited about an opinion poll conducted by TNS for the Sunday Mail covering a flimsy sample of 300 voters, in which voters were apparently asked nothing more than how likely they were to vote for Pauline Hanson. Eleven per cent said "very likely" and another 11 per cent said "quite likely".

Hold the Mayo

It looks like the Poll Bludger may have been right for a change when he wrote on Thursday that "Brian Deegan, high-profile independent and would-be slayer of Alexander Downer, appeared to abandon any notion of extending his electoral appeal beyond the ideological fringe with his reaction to the Jakarta bombing, suggesting that the Australian Government ‘negotiate’ with Jemaah Islamiah". The Advertiser today carries a poll conducted on Wednesday surveying 530 voters in the seat of Mayo which puts support for Deegan at 13.5 per cent after the undecided vote is distributed, seven points down on a similar poll conducted in May. Downer is safe and sound on 53 per cent. The poll will come as a shock to the Australian Democrats, who came agonisingly close to winning the seat in 1998 but are now recording a miserable 1 per cent.

Half-time report

Roy Morgan conducted a phone poll on Wednesday and Thursday with a sample of 1055 that put Labor at 54.5 per cent on two-party preferred, which is at least more moderate than the face-to-face poll they conducted over the previous two weekends that had them at 56 per cent. But an ACNielsen poll of 1400 voters conducted between Tuesday and Thursday had the Coalition climbing to an impressive 48 per cent of the primary vote compared with 40 per cent for Labor. Somehow this translated into a Coalition two-party preferred lead of just 51-49.

Elsewhere this week, Newspoll released another geographic and demographic analysis that had Labor right on target in South Australia and New South Wales but lagging badly in all-important Queensland (there was also a 2.1 per cent swing to the Coalition in the election’s least interesting state, Victoria, which if uniform would not win them any new seats unless you count McMillan). Outside of election periods, Newspoll normally conducts this exercise on a quarterly basis by combining the results of at least eight separate surveys, but this time they have produced one from two surveys held in the past fortnight. Even so, the sample sizes are larger than those of most state-based polls commissioned by metropolitan newspapers. Interestingly, Newspoll reveals that "individual state sample bases range from 652 to 691", which seems to suggest that Newspoll uses equal samples for each of the five mainland states regardless of their population. This means the results for the smaller states are actually more likely to be accurate than those for the larger ones.

The smallest of the states in question (Tasmania is not covered) is South Australia, where Newspoll predicts an 8.1 per cent swing to Labor which, if uniform, would add Boothby to their more plausible haul of Adelaide, Hindmarsh and Makin. The broad impression in this state was reinforced by an Advertiser poll of the Adelaide seat of Wakefield, which is notionally Labor following the redistribution but the technical margin of 1.5 per cent is reckoned to flatter them. The poll had Labor in the clear with 53 per cent on two-party preferred. The Poll Bludger remains fairly confident in his existing prediction that Labor will pick up the three marginal Liberal seats in Adelaide. Queensland is another matter, such that the slightly generous prediction that Labor would gain the Brisbane seat of Moreton has been withdrawn. Thus does the Runs on the Board calculation in the left column move an extra increment in the Coalition’s favour.

Queensland Senate election made easy

Most pundits were quick to dismiss Pauline Hanson’s chances when she announced her bid for a Queensland Senate seat on Wednesday, on the eminently reasonable grounds that she failed at the same endeavour in 2001. John Wanna, professor of Politics and Public Administration at Griffith University and the Australian National University, was almost a lone voice in suggesting otherwise in The Australian yesterday:

The Greens are expected to win somewhere close to 6-7 per cent, but to fall short of victory because Labor and the Liberals/Nationals will not allocate them preferences. The Democrats’ vote will plummet – so even if they do receive the preferences of the major parties they may not be able to hold (John) Cherry’s seat. This means Hanson, (One Nation Senator Len) Harris and the Nationals’ Barnaby Joyce will be vying for the final position.

The Poll Bludger would normally defer to the superior wisdom of Wanna, but he believes he can see a few things wrong with this. Firstly, in writing off the Greens and Democrats and including Joyce as one of those fighting it out for the final position, Wanna is predicting that either Labor or Liberal will win three of the other five seats. If he means the latter, he is raising the prospect of the Coalition winning four out of six, a wholly unprecedented achievement. If he means the former, he is predicting a significantly different outcome from 2001, when Labor won only two seats with a mere 31.8 per cent of the vote.

Secondly, Labor may not be allocating preferences to the Greens ahead of the Democrats, but they will surely put them ahead of the other listed contenders. Since it is then argued that the Democrats will do so poorly they will face an early elimination, those Labor preferences will still end up flowing on to the Greens. It also appears certain that the Coalition parties will place the Greens ahead of Hanson and Len Harris, the only other contenders Wanna mentions. The only beneficiary of any Coalition surplus would be the dark horse of the race, independent Hetty Johnston.

Thirdly, Len Harris is not "vying" for anything. He will definitely lose his seat.

The latest polling puts the Coalition on track to again win three seats, the struggle for third place between the Liberals and Nationals being a purely internal matter. If Pauline Hanson is to jeopardise this she will need to either substantially improve her primary vote from 2001 or somehow find a source of preferences, perhaps from Hetty Johnston and Family First (I must confess to ignorance of their attitude to Hanson and One Nation). If the Coalition wins a third seat they will leave few votes surplus to their third quota, so their preferences are unlikely to matter much. Labor are a different matter since they are likely to win only two seats, but with a significant surplus to spare. This surplus would combine with the vote for the Greens and Democrats to form a single voting bloc of which the Greens will be the most likely beneficiary, although the Democrats could conceivably overtake them if Labor’s surplus is greater than the Greens’ lead over them. On the other hand, this bloc could be edged out by a mutually preferencing alternative bloc consisting of Hanson, Johnston and Family First. It’s anyone’s guess who might emerge at the top of the heap out of those three.

Many and varied goings-on

Apologies to those who missed their daily dose of the Poll Bludger’s penetrating psephological insights yesterday, which was my first posting-free day since August 27. I trust the following round-up of recent campaign updates from the federal election guide will demonstrate that I have not been entirely idle:

Brisbane (Qld, Labor 0.9%): For a candidate with no serious chance of winning, the National Party’s Nick Withycombe has been grabbing his fair share of headlines. The Nationals’ insistence on running here and in Rankin, intended to boost their profile in a Senate contest that pits them against the Liberals for the seat certain to be lost by One Nation, has set off one of the Queensland Coalition’s customary episodes of internal friction. Matters were further aggravated when Withycombe suggested the openly lesbian Liberal candidate Ingrid Tall would lose votes because of her sexuality, although some more suspicous folk have noted the convenience to the Coalition of having one candidate appealing to social liberals while the other appeals to conservatives. In the first week of the campaign a controversy erupted over Withycombe’s military record that will sound familiar to those following the American presidential race. The Courier Mail reported "senior Australian Defence Force sources" saying Withycombe’s claims to have been the first Australian soldier in Baghdad were "either untrue or grossly exaggerated". But a week later a "Department of Defence spokesman" was quoted saying "Brigadier Maurie McNairn has said publicly that Major Withycombe was the first Australian soldier to enter Baghdad during last year’s combat operations". Withycombe also claimed to be a victim of email hacking and a bogus phone call telling him a local candidates debate had been postponed. The debate proceeded without him, with Ingrid Tall being repeatedly shouted down by what she described as a "left-wing stacked audience".

Wentworth (NSW, Liberal 7.9%): As Antony Green points out, the key to the battle for Wentworth is not who wins first place or even second, but third. Should Malcolm Turnbull crash so badly enough that he ends up with the bronze, his preferences will give Peter King the edge over David Patch. If David Patch loses enough votes to Peter King that it’s him who comes third, his preferences will put King ahead of Turnbull. If Peter King takes third, the way his preferences divide will decide the issue between Turnbull and Patch. The polls suggest that Greens preferences will decide the contest between Patch and King, hence King’s newly discovered enthusiasm for the Tasmanian wilderness which led one wag at a door-stop to ask exactly how many old growth forests there were in his electorate (King may be confronting a contradiction with his efforts to stitch together a local coalition of pot-smoking tree-huggers and blue-rinse monarchist tories). Although most Greens voters ignore the how-to-vote card their preference recommendation will be very interesting. If Labor’s assessment is that King has a better chance of winning the seat than Patch, it’s arguably in their interest if the Greens favour King ahead of Patch as this will maximise the chances of keeping the seat out of Turnbull’s hands.

Kalgoorlie (WA, Liberal 4.4%): The death of Labor candidate Kevin Richards on Sunday left Labor with only four days to find a replacement. Among those who put their names forward were Megan Anwyl, who lost the state seat of Kalgoorlie against the trend of the February 2001 election that brought the Gallop Government to power; and, most interestingly, Labor-turned-independent state MP Larry Graham. Graham, who will retire from state politics at the coming election, held his seat of Pilbara at the 2001 election after losing preselection to an unpopular candidate backed by Left unions who again thwarted his bid on this occasion. Instead a deal has been brokered in which the nomination has gone to state upper house MP Tom Stephens, who will abandon his existing position on the understanding that he will be nominated for Graham’s seat of Pilbara for the imminent state election if unsuccessful on October 9. Stephens first entered parliament in 1982 and served in minor portfolios in the last months of the Lawrence Government, and major ones (including Housing and Local Government) since the Gallop Government came to power in February 2001.

Kennedy (Qld, Independent 8.3%): Last Thursday, Ian Gerard and Patricia Karvelas of The Australian reported that National Party polling showed "support for Mr Katter has dropped 15 per cent and, for the first time, he is coming second to the ALP’s Alan Nenilan (sic), followed by the Nationals’ Mr Doyle". The report cited concerns that Katter "represents only the fringe elements of Kennedy and does more harm than good for industries in the electorate", noting that "the north Queensland beef industry, a previously rich source of rural angst, is booming and One Nation has all but collapsed as a political force". One who thinks differently is Martin Tenni, north Queensland party executive member and former Bjelke-Petersen Government minister, whose letter to state president Terry Bolger reporting "one thing is definite, we cannot win Kennedy" was leaked to The Australian.

Stirling (WA, Labor 1.6%): In a crucial Perth suburban seat widely tipped as a Liberal gain, Labor member Jann McFarlane received unwelcome publicity when a talkback caller described by Michael Brissenden of the ABC as "a stay-at-home mum who just happened to have been conducting some timely internet research" asked a curly question about the impact of Labor’s tax policy on people like herself. McFarlane’s response – that Labor was "looking for where the disadvantage is and what we can do to adjust the policy" – was seized on by the Prime Minister who responded with his now-celebrated Hilton sisters impersonation. The following day Mark Latham had to concede that the caller would indeed be worse off; it was little comfort to Labor when she was revealed to be a Liberal Party activist.

Moreton (Qld, Liberal 2.5%): The prevailing local issue in this crucial Brisbane seat has been the Ipswich Motorway, a federally funded road which the Queensland Government wants widened, while the Federal Government’s preferred option has been to construct a "missing link" between Ipswich and Goodna to relieve pressure on the existing road. Few of the interested parties have been impressed by the Federal Government’s stance, and Roads Minister Jim Lloyd raised the possiblity early in the campaign that they might change their mind. The road also runs through the less marginal electorates of Oxley and Blair.

Bennelong (NSW, Liberal 7.8%): The contest for the Prime Minister’s seat has garnered more interest than it normally would due to the efforts of various "small-l" liberals aggrieved by the Howard Government’s eight years of accumulated political incorrectness. Chief among these has been John Valder, the former Liberal Party president who branded him a "war criminal" over Australia’s involvement in Iraq. To this end Valder has forged an alliance with left-wing journalist Margo Kingston that has co-opted the name of her best-selling tome of anti-Howard ramblings, Not Happy John.

Calare (NSW, Independent 25.0%): National Party candidate Robert Griffith appeared to ruffle a few feathers last week when he said independent incumbent Peter Andren’s electoral success was due to "ignorance with respect to the voters". He apparently meant that the voters were ignorant of what to his mind are Andren’s pro-Labor sympathies, saying locals "vote for a local guy that they like but still want the Government returned".

Mayo (SA, Liberal 14.3%): Brian Deegan, high-profile independent and would-be slayer of Alexander Downer, appeared to abandon any notion of extending his electoral appeal beyond the ideological fringe with his reaction to the Jakarta bombing, suggesting that the Australian Government "negotiate" with Jemaah Islamiah.

Corangamite (Vic, Liberal 5.4%): The Bracks Government’s announcement of $12 million in funding for safety upgrades on the Great Ocean Road last week was widely seen to indicate Labor’s high hopes for this seat, which covers the Victorian coast west of Melbourne.

Riverina (NSW, Nationals 19.9%): On Sunday morning two home-made bombs, apparently made of firecrackers and petrol, exploded in the garage of Victoria Brooks’ home in Wagga Wagga, destroying her car.

Many opinion polls

A closer look at the Newspoll shows the Coalition’s primary vote up one point to a very healthy 46 per cent, while the Greens have faded two points from last week’s spike to record a more typical 6 per cent.

The following table provides recent results from four sources. On Saturday the Gold Coast Weekend Bulletin produced surveys of the outer Brisbane seat of Rankin, held by Labor front-bencher Craig Emerson, and the New South Wales north coast seat of Richmond, held by National Party minister Larry Anthony. The surveys were conducted on Wednesday, after Labor’s tax announcement and before the Jakarta bombing, from a sample in each case was about 450. Then follows results from all five Tasmanian seats from the EMRS poll in Sunday’s Launceston Examiner, which were conducted before the tax announcement and have less impressive samples of around 200. The results from Adelaide and Boothby come from polls of 419 and 425 respondents conducted simultaneously on Wednesday, the day after the tax announcement and before the Jakarta bombing, which the The Advertiser respectively published on Saturday and Tuesday (results for Boothby not available online – many thanks to Phil Robins for passing on the results).

Rankin (Qld, ALP 2.4%) 51 49 41 42 6
Richmond (NSW, Nat 1.7%) 52 48 38 41 15
Bass (Tas, ALP 2.1%) 46 54 37 51 11
Braddon (Tas, ALP 6.0%) 46 54 37 50 8
Denison (Tas, ALP 14.3%) 64 36 44 30 22
Franklin (Tas, ALP 8.1%) 53 47 39 41 15
Lyons (Tas, ALP 8.2%) 59 41 51 39 10
Adelaide (SA, Lib 0.6%) 49 51 39 47 6
Boothby (SA, Lib 7.4%) 44 56 27 52 12

Stuck in the middle with you

For the second week in a row, Newspoll has the Coalition and Labor tied on 50 per cent. Those searching for John Howard’s Jakarta dividend will have to look to the preferred prime minister question, on which his lead has widened by five points. They can also argue that Labor’s tax policy launch cancelled out its impact on voting intention. The poll was conducted over the weekend, before last night’s debate. More on polling tomorrow, including some regional surveys the others have missed. And Tasmanian readers are invited to keep an ear out tomorrow morning for one of the Poll Bludger’s occasional appearances on Tim Cox’s program on ABC Radio.

Head to head

Two-thirds of Channel Nine’s studio audience of "undecided voters" gave the debate to Mark Latham who indeed did all that an Opposition Leader need do to gain the advantage in such circumstances, and perhaps even a little more. John Howard’s shortcomings in the debate environment have been widely remarked upon, perhaps excessively so, but it does appear that he has never won one as Prime Minister and it is with good reason that he will resist calls throughout the campaign for a re-match.

The outcome provides further support for the conventional wisdom that debates have little to offer for the incumbent, a perception that goes back a long way in Australia. No prime minister would agree to a televised debate until 1984, when Bob Hawke could hardly say no as Labor had made such an issue out of Malcolm Fraser’s refusal to play ball in 1983, going so far as to run a television advertisement featuring an empty chair and a challenge to Fraser.

A brief journey through the historical record since:

1984, November 26: Peacock 50 def. Hawke 37 (Spectrum poll).

1987: Once bitten, Bob Hawke chickens out, leaving John Howard’s supposed debating shortcomings unexposed for another decade.

1990, February 25: Hawke 46 def. Peacock 36 (Newspoll).

1993, February 14: Hewson 45 def. Keating 31 (Newspoll).

1993, March 7: Keating 44 def. Hewson 38 (Newspoll).

1996, February 11: Howard 50 def. Keating 36 (Newspoll).

1996, February 25: Howard 54 def. Keating 36 (Newspoll).

1998, September 13: Beazley def. Howard, narrowly, according to reports on how the worm played out – no poll located.

2001, October 14: Beazley 55 def. Howard 35 (Newspoll).

Including yesterday’s outcome as a win for Latham, that leaves two wins for incumbents out of nine starts. In only half of the eight case studies did the winner of the debate go on to win the election – however, Andrew Peacock’s better-than-expected performance in the 1984 election was widely credited to his strong performance in the debate, and the impact of John Hewson’s win in the first debate in 1993 was diminished since it took place early in the campaign. Certainly John Howard and his advisers would concur on this point.