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.

Vale Kevin Richards

Labor’s candidate for Kalgoorlie, Kevin Richards, has died of a heart attack at the age of 65. The Poll Bludger’s election guide entry noted that one reason the seat was less secure for the Liberals than the 4.4 per cent margin made it appear was the high esteem in which Richards was held in his role as Mayor of Roebourne. Labor now has four days to find a new candidate to take the field against incumbent Barry Haase and independent challenger Graeme Campbell, who held the seat for Labor from 1980 to 1996 and as an independent until his defeat by Haase in 1998. On Friday, Roger Martin of The Australian reported that "if you believe those in the Liberal headquarters in Perth and Canberra, internal polling early this year showed it is a seat the party is in grave danger of losing". The Poll Bludger also heard talk of polling "without any Aboriginal respondents" showing the two major parties at line-ball on two-party preferred. This should not be quite so surprising considering that Kalgoorlie has traditionally been a Labor seat, with results since 1996 being complicated firstly by Campbell and then by strong performances from One Nation. Campbell’s re-emergence did appear to complicate matters because his preferences are likely to favour the Liberals, but his campaign has been struggling for oxygen in an electorate where a young population and high emigration rate have eroded much of his old support base. A lot could depend on Labor’s capacity to rebound here after this latest sad and untimely setback.

Back in the EMRS

Another weekend has brought another round of sobering opinion polls for Labor. Polling conducted for the Launceston Examiner by EMRS suggests Labor is in danger of dropping two seats in Tasmania. The survey covered 200 voters from each of Tasmania’s five electorates and the results apparently show the Liberals ahead 54-46 in Bass and Braddon. A similar poll published on June 29 had Labor comfortably ahead in all five seats.

Taverner is conducting qualitative research of the New South Wales seats of Greenway (Labor 3.1%) and Dobell (Liberal 0.4%) with "a panel of 222 people in the two electorates being consulted every week during the campaign for The Sun-Herald". Limited though the sample may be, the results had the Coalition ahead 54-46 in Greenway and 51-49 in Dobell. The report notes that "the poll in the first week revealed that in Dobell voters were thinking about deserting the Government, with a slight move Labor’s way" but "that move changed in the second week", while "Greenway started swinging to the Government in the first week and continued to sharply move away from Labor in the second".

For what it’s Worth

The Adelaide Advertiser today brings us a survey from the Coalition’s fourth most marginal electorate, Adelaide, taken from a substantial sample of 419. Conducted the day after the announcement of Labor’s tax policy, the poll shows Liberal member Trish Worth leading Labor’s Kate Ellis 42 per cent to 35 on the primary vote and by 51 to 49 on two-party preferred.

Two Bob watch

Fending off a thorny question about the role One Nation preferences played in putting Kerry Nettle into the Senate at the 2001 election, Bob Brown has recycled the canard that Bob Menzies won the 1961 election on Communist Party preferences. This is a great story for those unready to forgive Pig Iron Bob for his crimes against the working class, but the truth is more complicated. The election in question saw Menzies returned with a one-seat majority, the Coalition’s narrowest victory being Jim Killen’s 130-vote win in the Brisbane seat of Moreton which is still with us today. Electoral historian Adam Carr, curator of the indispensible Psephos election results archive, explains it thus:

There are several myths about this famous contest. The first is that Menzies sent a message saying "Killen, you’re magnificent" (he didn’t). The second is that Killen, a fierce anti-Communist, received Communist preferences (he did not: he did benefit from the small drift of Julius’s preferences, but this was cancelled out by the bigger drift of QLP preferences to the ALP). The third is that the ALP would have won the election if it had won Moreton (it would not have: the state of the parties would then have been 61-all. There would probably have been a minority Menzies government followed by a fresh election).

The element of truth within the story is that Labor would indeed have won the seat if about 70 fewer of the 676 Communist Party voters had put Liberal ahead of Labor, but as only about 100 voters had actually done so this would have been a rather unlikely outcome. There was indeed a view among some Marxists that conservative governments were preferable as they would hasten the revolution, but Communist Party preferences were not "directed" to the Liberals on this occasion and the majority of them did in fact go to Labor. And as Carr says, even if the result had gone the other way Labor could not be said to have won the election.