Blind date

The Government’s plan to keep everyone guessing about the date of the election seems to be doing its job, with the subject dominating taxi-cab and water-cooler conversation and stopping barbecues around the country. The Poll Bludger has done his bit to keep the speculation informed with this calendar of election date possibilities, which lays out the pros and cons for the Government of each Saturday from August 7 to Christmas. Sharp-eyed and non-colourblind readers will note there are four red-letter days marked out – August 7, September 4 and October 23 and 30. The Poll Bludger is quite sure there are many subtleties of the political and economic cycle that have escaped him, so anyone who is aware of pertinent facts or just has a theory they would like to share is encouraged to drop me a line.

Phoney war dispatches: Newspoll somersault special

In the past week two articles in The Australian – one on Saturday and one on Tuesday – have demolished all of the conventional wisdom regarding the federal election that existed this time last Tuesday. So forget everything you thought you knew about where our nation is headed and adjust to the new reality, which – for the next seven days or so – runs as follows …

• The Coalition has experienced a massive boost in support in a short time-frame for no readily apparent reason, according to Newspoll. Taken over the weekend, at the very height of the Trish Draper affair, the poll had the Liberals up five points to 42 per cent with the Nationals up one to 5 per cent, the highest level of support for the Coalition since 16-18 May 2003 when momentum was building towards Kim Beazley’s June 16 challenge to Simon Crean’s leadership. Labor fell seven points to 37 per cent, their lowest rating since 28-30 November 2003, immediately after Simon Crean’s decision to stand aside. In other good news for the Government, the two-party preferred position switched from 46-54 to 53-47; three points shifted to satisfied with Howard from dissatisfied (57 and 35 per cent respectively); and Howard’s share of the preferred prime minister rating went from 50 to 54 per cent. The safest reading of this dramatic readjustment is that Labor faces too many people toying with the idea of voting for them and too few actually committed to doing so. Latham’s succinctly expessed views on the Bush Administration might be enough to blow out the opinion polls in his favour while Abu Ghraib is all over the news, but when the cycle moves on the hip-pocket nerve kicks in again – and the response to the federal budget was better than has been acknowledged. Most news reports on the post-budget polls focused on the Iraq-related slump in voting intention for the Government while ignoring the apparently contradictory figures on support for the budget, which were better than average in each of the five polls of which the Poll Bludger is aware.

• The Australian’s other surprise this week came when political editor Dennis Shanahan – by all accounts considered a good egg by the Government, as journalists go – emerged from a discussion with the Prime Minister reporting that "John Howard has recast the Coalition election strategy, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars more into a series of 10-year development plans that rule out an early election". This after all and sundry (present company not excepted) had been telling everyone the election would be held as early as possible, namely on August 7. It could be that the Government has been laying red herrings in order to upset Labor’s timetable, or perhaps that the Prime Minister has held off going early because he is (or has been) spooked by the polls.

• A Sun-Herald/Taverner Research poll showed that 18 per cent of voters in Wentworth would back Peter King if he ran as an independent against the man who defeated him in the February Liberal Party preselection, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull himself was on 35 per cent, still clear of Labor’s David Patch on 29 per cent. Despite the hysterical tone of the Sun-Herald report the figures show Turnbull in no danger, as King is well behind the Labor candidate he would need to overhaul to get up on preferences and most of his own preferences would go to Turnbull ahead of Patch.

• The Advertiser chose a splendidly opportune time to survey voting intentions in the South Australian electorate of Makin, held by beleagured Liberal Trish Draper. The poll had Draper on 33 per cent, with Labor’s Tony Zappia on 44 per cent. An Advertiser poll from February had Labor ahead 41 per cent to 39.

• On Saturday the National Party chose chartered accountant Barnaby Joyce to head its Senate ticket in Queensland. The preselection had originally been scheduled for late March but was postponed in a decision blamed by some in the party on president Terry Bolger’s desire to buy time for nominee Pam Stallman, who had unsuccessfully challenged Senator Ron Boswell for his preselection heading into the 2001 election. Joyce is the last piece in the puzzle of the contest for the fifth and sixth places in Queensland, the others being Russell Trood (Liberal), Frank Gilbert (Labor), Drew Hutton (Greens), John Cherry (Democrats), Hetty Johnston (independent) and Len Harris (One Nation, if it still exists).

• The corridors of power were abuzz following a number of sensational new additions to the Poll Bludger website. Full details in yesterday’s posting …

Green and red

Your correspondent had heretofore enjoyed a monopoly as Poll Bludger content provider, but he is more than happy to surrender it to ABC election analyst Antony Green. Mr Green dropped a line last week looking for a home for his election overview and key seat summaries until ABC Online sees fit to give it one, which will not be until the election is called. I have placed Green’s election overview on a page of its own, while his key seat summaries have been incorporated into my existing skeleton guide to the House of Representatives election, to which my own long-promised federal electorate summaries will be added in coming weeks.

The Poll Bludger is also pleased to announce that he has not succumbed to the temptation to so obsess over the House of Representatives that the Senate election passes unremarked. To this end he proudly unveils his guide to the Senate election, in which the contests in each state and territory are put under the microscope and post-mortems conducted on the many ugly preselection spats. The page has been constructed under the assumption that there will be no double dissolution – the Prime Minister has until August 11 to prove me wrong.

Antony Green’s key seats are as follows, with links provided to the relevant entries.

New South Wales: Cunningham, Dobell, Eden-Monaro, Greenway, Lindsay, Lowe, Macarthur, New England, Page, Parramatta, Paterson, Richmond and Robertson.

Victoria: Ballarat, Bendigo, Chisholm, Corangamite, Deakin, Dunkley, Gippsland, La Trobe, McEwen and McMillan.

Queensland: Bonner, Bowman, Brisbane, Dickson, Herbert, Hinkler, Longman, Moreton, Petrie and Rankin.

Western Australia: Canning, Cowan, Hasluck, Kalgoorlie, Stirling and Swan.

South Australia: Adelaide, Hindmarsh, Kingston, Makin and Wakefield.

Plus Bass and Braddon from Tasmania and Solomon from the Northern Territory.

Phoney war dispatches: calm before the storm edition

With the election appearing even more imminent than was realised, the Poll Bludger has abandoned sleep and meal breaks to complete his guide to the federal election, which when unveiled will be a colossal bonanza of fun facts and figures covering each of the 150 House of Representatives seats, plus a complete state-by-state run-down on all the Senate election action. If the wind blows in the right direction this should be with you within the fortnight. Once that blockage has worked its way through the system postings will proceed on an almost-daily basis, so do stay tuned.

The Daily Telegraph reported on Thursday that "an anonymous person or persons" had booked Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel, scene of the last three Liberal Party election night celebrations, for the evening of Saturday, August 7. However, "whomever made the booking indicated they would confirm or cancel by next Friday, May 28" – it will be clearer then if this was merely a red herring. Then on Channel Nine’s Sunday program, Laurie Oakes got straight down to business in an interview with National Party minister Larry Anthony, telling him "I understand you’ve made a six-week block-booking of highway billboards and advertising space in bus shelters, staring on July the 1st in your electorate". Anthony, who holds the crucial New South Wales marginal seat of Richmond, did not deny the booking but insisted that no significance should be attached it. August 7 is the last Saturday in the relevant six-week period.

• While last week’s Roy Morgan poll offered hope to Liberals wishing to argue that Newspoll had been an aberration and the Government really did get a fillip from the budget, an ACNielsen poll taken over the weekend has undoubtedly tipped the balance the other way. Optimists in the party are now pinning their faith on the notion that the dividend will not be yielded until the tax cuts and benefit payments hit wallets on July 1. In keeping with the general trend of post-budget polling the figures offered a contradictory mix of support for the budget (46 per cent saying it would be good for the country, 29 per cent saying bad) with declining support for the Government. The answer may be found in the 63 per cent of respondents (up 12 per cent) who said they considered the Iraq war unjustified, which strongly suggests the Abu Ghraib scandal to be a factor in all this. The Coalition was down three points to 39 per cent while Labor rose one to 43 per cent, with Labor’s two-party preferred vote reaching a formidable 56 per cent. It is well worth noting that the Greens gained 2 per cent to reach double figures. Howard’s approve-disapprove figures narrowed from 55-37 to 52-41, while Latham’s widened from 54-33 to 58-29. Howard’s lead as preferred prime minister has all but disappeared, from 50-41 last fortnight to 47-43 now.

• Labor received a welcome boost in its campaign for the crucial South Australian marginal seat of Makin with moralistic Liberal member Trish Draper in a spot of bother over revelations she had taken a boyfriend on an overseas trip at taxpayer expense in clear violation of the rules. Typically Labor are too scared about skeletons in their own closet to run with the issue, so its electoral impact is likely to be localised.
Also of potential significance in the Adelaide marginals (which also include Adelaide and Hindmarsh) was Mitsubishi’s decision this week to close its Lonsdale plant at a cost of 650 jobs over the next 18 months.

• Another ray of light for the Coalition could be Western Australia, home to an unpopular state Labor Government and three seats that could be won from Labor with swings of 2.1 per cent or less. The West Australian’s Westpoll, published today, suggested they may not be too far out of reach. This was despite figures on the budget that were at least as unfavourable as those of the other polls, with 30 per cent saying Labor could do better and only 9 per cent saying they couldn’t. Taken late last week from a rather thin sample of 404, the poll had Labor falling an implausible eight points from the 40 per cent it recorded the previous month, with the Coalition rising from 39 to 44 per cent.

Phoney war dispatches: budget polling bonanza

Budget week has let loose a torrent of opinion poll results from which you can argue whatever you like, depending on which ones you choose. Roy Morgan and Newspoll both reported a positive response to the budget but bounced in opposite directions on the question of voting intention, while the Sunday Age reported its exclusive results under the headline "poll shock for PM as budget misfires". Bearing in mind the wise note of warning sounded in today’s editorial in The Australian – that "it is when people actually see the money in their paypackets and family payments, after July 1, that the budget’s real political impact will be registered" – let us now examine the entrails.

• Today’s Newspoll offered a very strange mix of findings, including solid support for the budget, pronounced scepticism about Labor’s ability to do better, rising popularity for John Howard and a widening of his lead over Mark Latham as preferred prime minister – but with Labor opening up a three point gap on voting intention after being tied with the Coalition last fortnight, and their two-party preferred lead widening from 52-48 to 54-46. The Australian all but apologised for the latter finding, arguing that "historically there seems to be a firewall between what voters initially make of a budget and their voting intention".

• As if to demonstrate the time-honoured adage that you can prove anything with statistics, a Sunday Age-Taverner poll was reported under very different headlines from the others despite results that were not inconsistent with them. Reporter Phillip Hudson spoke of grim tidings for the government with results showing "two-thirds of people believe there was no benefit in the budget for them and 62 per cent of those who will receive tax cuts would be prepared to give the money up for more spending on services". Experienced political operators on both sides of the fence no doubt had a good laugh over the latter finding. The former suggests that 33 per cent of respondents did think there was benefit for them in the budget, compared with 29 per cent from Newspoll and 19 per cent in The Advertiser (see below). On voting intention Labor was put at 44 per cent against 40 per cent for the Coalition, but the 911 respondents were all in New South Wales and Victoria which would tend to distort things in Labor’s favour. The poll was taken on Thursday and Friday evening, before Newspoll (Saturday and Sunday) and after those below (Wednesday evening).

• On Friday the Adelaide Advertiser published results of a poll conducted on budget night from an unreliably small sample of 500 voters. It showed moderate support for the budget (19 per cent said they would be better off, 11 per cent worse) and a big swing to the Coalition since their previous poll on April 14. The ALP was down four points to 37 per cent with the Coalition up three to 41 per cent – presumably these are South Australian voters only.

• On Thursday Roy Morgan issued results from a phone poll gauging immediate reactions to the Treasurer’s budget speech of the previous evening. Twenty-seven per cent of voters thought it good while 12 per cent thought it poor, the accompanying blurb noting that "six in 10 budgets receive more negative than positive responses". The question of voting intention was also raised and produced a remarkably pro-Government result compared with the company’s findings from its fortnightly face-to-face polls, with the Coalition on 52 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. No primary voting intention breakdown was provided.

Budget lockdown

Readers will hardly need the Poll Bludger to inform them that the spending bonanza in Tuesday night’s budget has had pretty much everyone convinced that the federal election will be sooner rather than later. Another item of conventional wisdom is firming by the day: that the poll is unlikely to be held after the US election as a defeat for President Bush would not be a good look for Australia’s own Man of Steel. Melbourne News Limited tabloid the Herald Sun today includes a helpful graphic outlining the most likely nominations, which run as follows:

August 7. The earliest possible date for a normal House of Representatives and half-Senate election, which cannot be called until a year prior to the expiry of the Senators’ terms in mid-2005 and cannot be held until at least 33 days after the issue of the writs. It has been mentioned elsewhere that the Prime Minister might not care to have the election coincide with the Bledisloe Cup.

August 14, 21 or 28. The Herald Sun notes that these days overlap with the Athens Olympics and argues "the expected feel-good Games atmosphere may suit a campaigning PM". Providing nothing goes wrong of course. Touch wood.

September 4. If the Poll Bludger were prime minister this would be his favourite option – close enough after the Olympics for photo ops with medallists, near enough to September 11 to focus the mind on security issues. September 11 itself is considered a bit much. Then come a series of dates with nothing in particular to recommend them, followed by school holidays.

October 23 or 30. The last pre-US election windows of opportunity.

Like I said, the budget has shortened the odds on the earlier options. For this reason the Poll Bludger will be frantically getting his comprehensive guide to the federal election in order in the coming months and will thus be forced to restrict his overt activity to the weekly Phoney War Dispatches. Since the fortnightly release of Newspoll is the be-all and end-all of everything, these will be moved from Sundays to Tuesdays.

Phoney war dispatches: episode three

Welcome to the Poll Bludger’s Mothers’ Day Edition of Phoney War Dispatches.

• Tuesday’s Newspoll had the Coalition and Labor even on 42 per cent, with the Coalition down 1 per cent. The head-scratching that greeted Newspoll’s two-party preferred calculation last time had evidently led them to do something differently, because the Coalition increased 1 per cent on this measure to trail 48 to 52 per cent. The rebound in Mark Latham’s approval rating from last fortnight was all but reversed, his rating having bounced from 66 to 52 to 59 to 53 per cent over the last four polls. Newspoll also released figures showing the number of respondents who felt it worth going to war in Iraq dropping to 40 per cent from 46 per cent in February, with the percentage disagreeing increasing from 45 to 50. Perhaps most significantly, 47 per cent supported the assertion the troops should be home by Christmas.

Roy Morgan might be doing something differently as well, as Friday’s poll was their most Newspoll-like result in recent memory. It had the Coalition gaining 1 per cent directly at Labor’s expense to reach 42 per cent with Labor on 44 per cent. It is not unusual for Roy Morgan to record Labor 2 per cent higher than Newspoll but usually the Coalition are a point or two lower as well. Labor’s two-party preferred rating of 53 per cent was their lowest since the poll conducted on December 6/7, the first week of Latham’s leadership.

• A long-simmering Queensland Liberal Party preselection feud over the marginal Queensland seat of Herbert ended on Tuesday with the withdrawal of Peter Fon, challenger to incumbent Peter Lindsay. As related in this earlier posting the challenge was seen as a counter-attack by the party’s Santoro-Caltabiano faction following a challenge by moderates to Peter Slipper in Fisher. Several months after declaring his intention to run and one night before the vote, Fon suddenly decided he did not wish to jeopardise the return of the Howard Government.

Phoney war dispatches: episode two

Despite an eventful week in federal politics, things were somewhat quieter on the electoral front.

• ACNielsen turned in a near replica of last week’s Newspoll with the release of its monthly figures on Wednesday. The poll had Labor and the Coalition each on 42 per cent with Labor’s two-party preferred rating on 53 per cent, which differs from Newspoll only in that the Coalition are 1 per cent lower on the primary vote. Prime Minister John Howard’s approval and disapproval ratings were both steady on 55 and 37 per cent, while the impact of Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s rough month was measured as a 3 per cent drop in approval to 54 per cent and a 5 per cent increase in disapproval to 33 per cent. Howard gained 2 per cent as preferred prime minister directly at Latham’s expense, and now leads 50 per cent to 41. The table as published in The Age is available at Mumble.

• Brian Deegan, Adelaide magistrate, father of Bali bombing victim Josh Deegan and vocal critic of the Federal Government, announced he would run as an independent against Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in his South Australian seat of Mayo. Deegan’s move was no doubt partly inspired by John Schumann’s surprise near-success as Australian Democrats candidate for the seat in 1998. However the latest redistribution has made the electorate more rural and presumably less subversise, with a poll published today in the Sunday Mail putting Downer on 48 per cent against 18 per cent for Deegan with no allocation of the 12 per cent undecided. In Bennelong Prime Minister John Howard faces a similar irritant from former Office of National Assessments analyst turned leftist crusader Andrew Wilkie.

• Reports emerged this week that proposals for Senate reform raised in a government discussion paper in October last year died unnoticed in their sleep last month. Brendan Nicholson of The Age reported that an announcement was mistakenly placed on the website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet calling attention to a non-existent prime ministerial response to the consultative group from March 24 announcing that "the Government would not be pursuing constitutional change at this time". As Nicholson puts it, "it appears the announcement was planned for March 24, but when it was postponed someone forgot to tell those in charge of the website", although the government is maintaining the line that it has yet to decide if it will proceed. Given the near-impossibility of any new model gaining acceptance at a referendum, the move always looked like a gambit designed to scare minor party Senators into believing that a hostile attitude towards the government could put their futures in jeopardy.