The trees from the wood

This week’s competing forestry policies have delivered an unambiguous win for the Coalition in terms of the media contest, with Dennis Atkins offering a particularly noteworthy assessment in Wednedsday’s Courier Mail:

It looks like Howard has performed a successful rope-a-dope strategy on Parliament’s most avid Muhammad Ali fan, Mark Latham. Howard let a story run from early on in this election capaign that he was going to come over all green for Tasmanian forests – even to the extent of locking up 290,000ha, as the ABC breathlessly reported three weeks ago. But Howard was always careful to keep his forestry powder dry … Howard’s game plan was for the Labor leader to jump first. A cat-and-mouse game continued for the next few weeks but Howard refused to blink, despite the urging of some of his colleagues who have a strong Greens presence in their electorates. The real political consequence of a Tasmanian forests policy was always going to affect Labor more than Liberal, as we’ve seen by the brawling and splits of the past two days. Howard was able to make three succinct points: this was a sell-out of workers, proof that Labor was in bed with the Greens, and it was financially irresponsible.

However, it’s also possible that the controversy has provided concentrated benefits for the Coalition against diffuse benefits for Labor and that the reason the former have attracted more attention is that angry forestry workers and militant unionists embracing the Prime Minister make for better copy than the deliberations of late-minute deciders in metropolitan seats. But it’s here that Labor will be hoping for its dividend, as they now offer a product differentiation that could prove very appealing to young voters who are over-represented among those who do not engage until late in the campaign. Here it may be worth noting the following assessment on the state of play among young voters from Rod Tiffen at Australian Policy Online:

The polls tend to under-sample the young, not least because they are less often at home. Polling organizations are well aware of this, and weight their findings accordingly, but one suspects there is less reliability in recording the views of younger voters. This is borne out by the greater volatility over time in the findings for polls in this age group. This election also has the greatest age difference between leaders in living memory. Of all recent democratic elections, the coming Australian election is most like the 1992 US election between old, established George Bush senior and the young and relatively unknown Bill Clinton. In that battle between leaders from different generations the American punditocracy, most of whom were older than the Democratic candidate, underestimated Clinton and his appeals to the electorate. Having an older leader against a younger contender also highlights an asymmetry in the way commentators test leadership capabilities. It is considered quite legitimate to question the experience of the younger contender, but courtesy demands that elders be treated with respect. As long as the older leader is not obviously infirm it is considered bad taste to probe whether he is still up to the job. Old age, as such, will never lose votes, but a sense of not being on the current generation’s wavelength will. Although the Liberals think the difference in age and experience counts in their favour, it is not clear that this is so, especially for voters younger than Latham. It is arguable that it may be in Labor’s favour among younger age groups to sharpen the lines of generational difference.

That, at least, will be the Poll Bludger’s rationale if his prediction of a Coalition victory – which is in little danger of being withdrawn before Saturday – does not play out. For the time being the smart money says Labor has been outmanoeuvered and that the Coalition goes into the election with a decisive edge. Today’s lesson ends with some miscellaneous electorate updates:

Richmond (Nationals 1.7%): For reasons best known to herself, Labor challenger Justine Elliot called on John Anderson and Larry Anthony to apologise after the National Party’s Western Australian website was "infiltrated" with "explicit messages about children". Her attempt to get Queensland independent Senate candidate and anti-child abuse campaigner Hetty Johnston to endorse her concerns backfired when Johnston said she had "the utmost respect for Larry Anthony" and felt it was "really cruel and damaging to the cause of child protection to play such trivial games".

Gippsland (Nationals 2.6%): CFMEU-backed independent candidate Peter Kelly – "predicted to receive more than 10 per cent of the local vote", according to Brad Norington of The Australian – has registered his protest against Labor’s forestry policy by directing preferences to National Party incumbent Peter McGauran.

Various seats in Queensland: Michael McKenna of the Courier Mail reports that while Herbert is "still within grasp of Labor", "the Liberals believe it is ‘relatively safe’ given Prime Minister John Howard’s popularity among the high military population". The report also contradicts other intelligence suggesting the Coalition is safe in the Bundaberg/Gladstone seat of Hinkler, which National Party sources are apparently describing as "line-ball", and says that other Brisbane marginals – Longman, Dickson and Bowman for Liberal, Brisbane, Rankin and Bonner for Labor – will stay with the incumbents. Reportedly, Labor has been concentrating its advertising on what it perceives to be its best hopes, Moreton and Petrie – "Liberal strategists concede Moreton is ‘in trouble’, more recent polling shows that Petrie has rebounded in the past week".

Last but not least

The Poll Bludger’s series on the various Senate contests today brings us to Tasmania. For those unfamiliar with the rules, we begin with an easy-to-follow guide to how your preferences will trickle down if you vote above the line.

Liberal: Family First; Christian Democratic; Democrats; Shayne Murphy; Greens; Labor.

Labor: Shayne Murphy; Family First; Greens; Democrats; Christian Democratic; Liberal.

Greens: Democrats; Shayne Murphy; Labor; Liberal; Christian Democratic; Family First.

Democrats: Shayne Murphy; Family First; Greens; Labor; Liberal; Christian Democratic.

Family First: Christian Democratic; Shayne Murphy; Labor; Democrats; Liberal; Greens.

Christian Democratic: Family First; Shayne Murphy; Liberal; Labor; Democrats; Greens.

Shayne Murphy: Family First; Labor; Liberal; Democrats; Christian Democratic; Greens.

Citizens Electoral Council: Greens; Shayne Murphy; Democrats; Christian Democratic; Labor; Family First; Liberal.

In 2001, Bob Brown got very near to a full quota with 13.8 per cent of the primary vote and minor party preferences did the rest. The Democrats and One Nation fell well short of both the Labor and Liberal surplus over the second quota, leaving the major parties competing for the final seat. The Liberals went into this contest with a slightly superior primary vote (38.8 per cent compared with 36.8 per cent for Labor) and were ahead of Labor on One Nation’s ticket. But Labor would still have won, narrowly, if the Democrats had given them full preferences instead of splitting them between the two major parties. Interestingly, Tasmania is the only state where they are not doing so again this time, instead favouring Labor.

The Greens should do at least as they did in 2001, leaving Labor, Liberal and another minor party candidate competing for sixth place, which will most likely be Family First. It is clear that Tasmania has been excepted from a number of mainland preference deals, as the Democrats have been frozen out by Family First as well as the CDP. The Democrats can retain a faint hope that the Greens might do well enough to deliver them their surplus, providing they stay in the hunt long enough to collect it. Shayne Murphy, who was elected as a Labor Senator in 1998 and made an indulgent decision to switch to the cross-benches, will need to outperform both the Democrats and the combined Family First-CDP vote, which doesn’t seem likely. However, his preferences should ensure that the CDP ends up behind Family First, who will end up absorbing the votes of all three. Should that account for the Democrats, they will then get their preferences as well. If that puts them ahead of one of the remaining major party candidates, their preferences will put them ahead of the other and into the Senate.

As for the major parties, the Liberals will need a much higher vote than they achieved in 2001 if they are to again win the last seat. On that occasion they ended up with the 3.3 per cent One Nation vote and half of the Democrats’ 4.6 per cent – this time they will have to make do with the CDP. That’s at least a 5 per cent handicap straight off the bat, so the recent controversies over forestry policy had better kick in hard if they’re going to make it up. The Poll Bludger’s tip: Liberal 2, Labor 2, Greens 1, Family First 1.

Here’s what the others think. Charles Richardson at Crikey notes that "what makes Tasmania difficult is that its voters do not necessarily follow the tickets. In every other state, well over 90% of voters vote ‘above the line’, so their preferences are distributed automatically. In Tasmania last time it was only 80%, and much less for the minor parties – for the Greens, an extraordinarily low 57%". Richardson says Shayne Murphy can win if he can poll "something over 3 per cent" and concludes that he will, if only because he has been "itching to say something controversial". Malcolm Mackerras doesn’t seem interested in the idea of a second seat being won by a minor party or independent, saying the last seat is 60 per cent likely to go to Labor and 40 per cent to Liberal. As for Antony Green, the ABC website is "temporarily unavailable" due to "high traffic". I’ll get back to you later with that one.

Intelligence briefing

Some late indications on what’s happening on the ground, including a number of polls conducted for small newspapers which may or may not be reliable, but all power to them for having a go.

Hinkler (Qld, Nationals 2.3%): Alan Ramsey of the Sydney Morning Herald reports that this is "the only Liberal (sic) marginal in the entire country Labor has written off, for internal reasons". Those reasons presumably relate to their twice-unsuccessful candidate Cheryl Dorron, installed by an affirmative action ruling after losing the preselection ballot. Ramsey also reports that "the Government is optimistic it has regained ground in Adelaide but remain concerned about Queensland, both around Brisbane and on the north coast".

Hasluck (WA, Labor 1.8%), Stirling (WA, Labor 1.6%) and Swan (WA, Labor 2.1%): Paul Everingham, director of the WA Liberal Party, told Amanda Banks of The Australian on Monday that "we are right in there in Hasluck, but it is going to be difficult for us in Stirling and Swan". Perth academics Harry Phillips and David Black are quoted saying Labor had "gained ground" during the campaign in these seats. The Poll Bludger will take their word for it, and has accordingly returned Stirling to the Labor side of the ledger, cancelling out his recent change of heart in Bass.

Herbert (Qld, Liberal 1.5%): The Townsville Bulletin ran a poll from a sample of 472 on Saturday which found Liberal member Peter Lindsay and Labor candidate Anita Phillips tied on 38 per cent of the primary vote, or a bit over 41 per cent after distribution of the 8 per cent undecided. With the Greens on about 8 per cent this would give Phillips a fairly comfortable win.

La Trobe (Vic, Liberal 3.7%): Newspapers in the suburban Leader group have run a poll conducted by Oz Info of 300 voters which shows Liberal candidate Jason Wood leading Labor’s Susan Davies 52-48 on two-party preferred. The pollsters could only get an answer from three-quarters of respondents, which can usually be taken as a sign of inexperience.

Farrer (NSW, Liberal 13.1%) and Indi (Vic, Liberal 10.7%): The Border Mail carried pointless but well-meaning polls of 600 voters from each of these two seats that showed Liberal members Sussan Ley (56 per cent of the primary vote) and Sophie Panopoulos (59 per cent) with predictably little to worry about.

The wood from the trees

Appearances in the media suggest that Labor’s qualified plan to end old growth logging in Tasmania has misfired, having created uncertainty among those employed by the timber industry without offering assurances solid enough to convince environmental groups. I’ll take these on one at a time, so look forward to a sequel to this posting later today or tomorrow.
For now it’s time for a late-campaign visit to Tasmania, home to five seats that have all been held by Labor since 1998. Two of these, Denison and Franklin, are too urban, green and pro-Labor to enter our calculations. Patricia Karvelas and Brad Norington of The Australian reported yesterday that "most of the timber workers are in the northern and north-western seats of Lyons and Braddon ("central" would be nearer the mark than "northern" in Lyons’ case – PB). The most marginal of Tasmania’s seats is Bass, held by 2.1 per cent, where most timber workers are employed in softwood plantations and two softwood mills, unaffected by any stop to old-growth logging".

There is an obvious precedent for Tasmanian voters punishing Labor for perceived pandering to mainland environmentalists, that being the 1983 election that brought the Hawke Government to power. On that occasion Hawke Labor’s opposition to the Franklin Dam helped the Liberals retain all five seats with increased majorities even as their mainland colleagues were dropping like flies. But a lot has changed in Tasmania since then, and there is now a burgeoning environmental constituency that hardly appeared to exist in 1983. The Greens now threaten to poll over 20 per cent in Denison where the Liberals these days are nowhere in sight (notwithstanding the bizarre delusions of Tasmanian Opposition Leader Rene Hidding). They are also a factor in Bass, where they managed well over 10 per cent in the main booths of Launceston at the 2001 election. The backlash will hit much harder in Braddon and Lyons, and the question is whether Labor’s margins of 6.0 and 8.2 per cent are enough to absorb the shock. Normally it would be unthinkable for an opposition to lose seats held by margins of this order, but there are historical reasons to think these two are different. Labor built its strength here on the back of big swings in the GST elections of 1998 (10 per cent in Braddon and 9.3 per cent in Lyons) and 1993 (5.4 per cent in Braddon and 5.6 per cent in Lyons), which largely stuck the next time round. This suggests that Labor has had a lot of soft support in these seats from voters with very sensitive hip-pocket nerves.

Despite everything he has just said, the Poll Bludger has withdrawn only Bass as a Labor retain in the election guide, since it was teetering on the brink already. With the Liberals yet to launch their own Tasmanian forests policy, Braddon is still on notice. Taking a step back, it appears the response to Medicare Gold has not justified any wholesale shift in Labor’s favour, but there are still a number of seats on both sides of the ledger that warrant careful monitoring in the coming days.

South Australian Senate overview

Today the Poll Bludger will wrap up his Senate coverage and devote the remaining precious few days to the real action. What follows is South Australia, with Tasmania and the territories to come this evening. First, the grouped ticket preferences:

Labor: Liberals for Forests; Greens; Democrats; Family First; Liberal; One Nation.

Liberal: Family First; Liberal for Forests; Democrats; Greens; Labor; One Nation.

Nationals: Liberal; Family First; Greens; Democrats; Liberals for Forests; Labor; One Nation.

Greens: Liberals for Forests; Democrats; Labor; Liberal; Family First; One Nation.

Democrats: Liberals for Forests; Family First; Greens; half-Labor, half-Liberal; One Nation.

One Nation: Liberals for Forests; Labor; Liberal; Family First; Democrats; Greens.

Family First: Democrats; Liberals for Forests; Liberal; One Nation; Labor; Greens.

Australian Progressive Alliance: Democrats; Liberals for Forests; Family First; One Nation; Greens; half-Liberal, half-Labor.

Socialist Alliance: Greens; Labor; Democrats; Liberals for Forests; Liberal; Family First; One Nation.

Ex-Service, Service and Veterans Party: Liberals for Forests; Democrats; Liberal; Labor; Greens; Family First; One Nation.

Liberals for Forests (ticket one): Labor; Democrats; One Nation; Greens; Family First; Liberal.

Liberals for Forests (ticket two): Greens; One Nation; Democrats; Family First; Liberal; Labor.

The Liberals scored an easy three quotas in 2001 and only if they lose a substantial proportion of the vote to Family First will they be in danger of failing to do so this time. Labor didn’t come close and it will take a very fortuitous arrangement of preferences to put them in contention for a third seat. An interesting contest looms between Family First and the Democrats to see who picks up the preferences of the other, this being the strongest state for both parties. If it’s the Democrats they will then need to overtake the Greens and make it home on their preferences. The Greens will get a boost in that they are very likely to do better than Labor’s surplus over their second quota, in which case they will receive these preferences and then also those of the Democrats if they can outperform the Democrats/Family First. It’s not altogether out of the question that Democrats or Family First can deprive the Liberals of a third quota while the Greens do the same for Labor, but a more likely result is three Liberal and two Labor. In this case the other place would go to either the Greens or the winner out of Family First and the Democrats – bearing in mind that the latter two would get an extra boost from the Liberals surplus to their third quota in this scenario. If Labor’s vote can lift enough that they are still in the hunt at this point, they could hold a vague hope that Family First preferences might put them over the Greens. Pressed for a decision, the Poll Bludger’s money is on the Democrats.

Here’s what others think. Malcolm Mackerras: "My prediction is that the Liberal Party will win three seats, Labor two and Family First one". Charles Richardson at Crikey says "ironically, the backlash against the Democrats from their preference deal with the fundamentalists (i.e. Family First) may be the very thing that drags down their vote and allows their preferences to put Family First within reach of a seat", and he countenances a range of possibilities including Family First winning a seat at the Liberals’ expense, and even an unprecedented outcome where both the Democrats and the Greens win seats. But he ultimately favours a more "boring" outcome of three Liberal, two Labor and one Green. Antony Green alone considers Meg Lees worth a mention, but sees a contest of two halves in which the Liberals and Family First compete for a third seat, while on "the other side of the ledger" are Labor, Greens, Democats and also Family First if the Liberals win their third seat. He notes that "the lower the Labor vote, the more likely that Labor preferences will elect the Greens. The higher the Labor vote, the more likely the Democrats can stay ahead of the Greens".

Newspoll, Morgan and Galaxy

Tomorrow’s Newspoll has the Coalition leading on two-party preferred for the first time year, not counting the ridiculously quirky result of May 28-30. That lead however is as narrow as they come, being 50.5-49.5. The 2.5 per cent shift to the Coalition from last week is in contrast to the other weekly polls which showed a boost to Labor from their campaign launch, but in ACNielsen’s case this was coming off what was clearly a rogue result. Morgan today released its weekly face-to-face poll which returned Labor to its customary position lead, although 51.5-48.5 is still less than what they’re used to from this organisation. Also today the News Limited tabloids carried the third fortnightly poll of the campaign from Galaxy Research, who have turned in remarkably consistent results. This poll has the Coalition ahead 52-48, an identical result to ACNielsen, but they seem to have done inordinately well out of minor preferences – at 45 per cent, their primary vote is at the lower end of what would be considered a winnable position for them.