Australian Capital Territory election: October 20

Amid a backdrop of deep cuts to the public service by conservative governments elsewhere, the looming Australian Capital Territory election gives Labor a strong chance of ending a two-year run of successive state and territory election defeats.

Voters in the Australian Capital Territory go to the polls on October 20 to determine the fact of an 11-year-old Labor government headed by Katy Gallagher, who took over the reins when Jon Stanhope stepped aside in May last year. The electoral system for the 17-member chamber is the Hare-Clark model of proportional representation familiar from Tasmania, with the territory divided into three regions of which two (Brindabella and Ginninderra) return five members and a third (Molonglo) returns seven. As is the case for Tasmania and the Senate, this system usually delivers a substantial cross-bench, making majority government difficult to achieve. The present government came to office after the 2001 election and secured the chamber’s first and so far only parliamentary majority when it was re-elected in 2004, before reverting to minority status when the Greens achieved an electoral breakthrough in 2008.

Self-government for the ACT was established under the Hawke government in 1989, and the unpopularity of the move locally was indicated by an election result in which over 60% of voters opted for minor groupings who collectively returned eight members, including four who ran on a platform of abolishing self-government. The shifting sympathies of these members produced two changes of government during the first term: Labor’s Rosemary Follett held the reins from May to December 1989 and again after June 1991, with Trevor Kaine leading a Liberal administration in the interim. Three opponents of self-government held the balance of power after the 1992 election, and sustained Follett’s minority government throughout the following term.

The territory had consisted of a single 17-member electorate at the first two elections held under the “modified d’Hondt” system, but an overhaul of the electoral system in 1995 raised the bar for minor party candidates. The territory was broken down into its present three regions, considerably pushing up the quota for election. The introduction of Hare-Clark also entailed the “Robson rotation” system of rotating ballot paper order, which forces party candidates within each region into competition with their colleagues. The first election under the new system delivered seven seats to the Liberals, whose leader Kate Carnell was able to form a government with support from two independents. Carnell retained office after achieving a status quo result in 1998, before resigning in 2000 to head off a no-confidence motion resulting from an unfavourable auditor’s report into the redevelopment of Bruce Stadium. Her successor Gary Humphries led the government to defeat in 2001, and moved to the Senate a year later where he has remained ever since.

Labor came to office at the 2001 election after gaining two seats at the expense of Liberal-leaning independents, leaving them with eight seats to the Liberals’ seven and one each for the Greens and Democrats. New Chief Minister Jon Stanhope introduced four-year terms effective from the 2004 election, which was held one week after the federal election on October 9. The election saw Labor win majority government by gaining the requisite extra seat at the expense of the collapsing Democrats. The 2008 election saw the Greens’ representation grow from one to four on the back of a vote increase from 9.3% to 15.6%, reducing Labor from nine seats to seven and the Liberals from seven seats to six. The four Greens members, all of them new to parliament, declined an offer from the Liberals for a coalition government in which the Greens would take two cabinet positions including the deputy chief ministership, instead agreeing to support a Labor minority government on the basis that more of its agenda would be put into effect. This went against the advice of Bob Brown, who said his “counsel throughout this election was for the Greens to take ministries, to share government”.

Katy Gallagher came to the chief ministership following Jon Stanhope’s unforced departure in May 2011, having been anointed as his preferred successor. Gallagher entered parliament in 2001 after earlier working as an organiser for the Left faction Community and Public Sector Union. She served as Education Minister from December 2002 until April 2006, when she moved to health and assumed the deputy chief ministership in place of the retiring Ted Quinlan. Further indication of her future leader status came when she replaced Stanhope as Treasurer after the 2008 election. Her opposite number, Zed Seselja, has been leader of the Liberals since December 2007, at which time he was 31. Despite a mediocre showing for the Liberals at the 2008 election, he has survived the ensuing term without facing serious leadership speculation.

Published polling for the election is yet to emerge, but Peter Jean of the Canberra Times reported in August that Liberal internal polling had them hopeful of gains at the expense of a declining Greens, said to be in danger of losing 4% of the vote and as many as three of their four seats. Emma Macdonald of the Canberra Times reported a fortnight ago that a poll of 400 voters conducted by Qdos Research for the Australian Education Union found 28% support for Labor, 27% for the Liberals, and 10% for the Greens, with a full third of the sample undecided – indicating there was no follow-up question as to which way undecided respondents were leaning, as public pollsters conventionally do to shake them off the fence.

Profiles of the three regions will be posted over the coming weeks. If that’s too long to wait, Antony Green does his typically comprehensive job here. The charts below respectively show the parties’ seat and vote shares going back to the inception of self-government.

Newspoll: 54-46 to Coalition; Nielsen: 56-44

The latest Newspoll has produced the 54-46 two-party preferred result the market has come to expect, but with Julia Gillard taking a hammering on her personal ratings: approval down four to 34 per cent, disapproval up six to 55 per cent. However, Tony Abbott is down too, contrary to other polls from recent weeks: his approval is down four points to 38 per cent and disapproval up three to 51 per cent. Julia Gillard’s lead as preferred prime minister is down to just four points: her own rating is down three points to 42 per cent, with and Abbott up two to 38 per cent. Labor’s primary vote is steady on 33 per cent with the Coalition up two to 46 per cent and the Greens down two to 10 per cent.

The poll also finds that the tough-medicine angle on the budget is the one that has gained currency: 37 per cent believe it will be good for the economy against 32 per cent bad, but fully 41 per cent believe it will make them worse off personally against only 11 per cent who think it will make them better off. As it is with so many things these days, opinion as to whether the Coalition would have delivered a better budget is evenly split: 38 per cent say yes, 41 per cent say no. However, the latter number would include those who believe they would have done no better or worse, so this would have to be rated a positive set of numbers for the Coalition. Figures as always courtesy of GhostWhoVotes on Twitter. UPDATE: And now full tables.

UPDATE: The montly Nielsen poll is even worse for the government, though not actually worse than in the previous Nielsen poll a month ago: the results are steady for two-party preferred (56-44) and both major parties’ primary votes, with the Coalition leading Labor 47 per cent to 31 per cent. As in Newspoll, the Greens have dropped two to 10 per cent. Personal ratings are bewilderingly different from Newspoll’s: Julia Gillard is down two on approval and up two on disapproval, but her totals of 43 per cent and 52 per cent. The poll provides further evidence that Tony Abbott’s position has improved over the past month, his approval up three to 45 per cent and disapproval down one to 50 per cent. Gillard’s lead as preferred prime minister has narrowed from 50-42 to 47-44. The budget was rated “fair” by 42 per cent and not fair by 39 per cent. There were also questions on the deal with Malaysia on asylum seekers, the results of which are summarised thus by Michelle Grattan of The Age:

Just over a third (35 per cent) support the Malaysian deal, including a bare majority (51 per cent) of Labor voters. Less than a quarter of Coalition voters (23 per cent) support it, and 45 per cent of Green voters. More than seven in 10 Coalition voters and nearly four in 10 Labor voters are against it. Asked about the policy’s effectiveness, 23 per cent predicted it would increase arrivals by boat, while only 16 per cent said it would reduce them. Of those who support the measure, 57 per cent think it will make no difference and 12 per cent believe it will increase arrivals – just 28 per cent think it will reduce them. Among those opposed, 60 per cent say it will make no difference, 30 per cent believe it will increase arrivals and a mere 8 per cent think it will reduce them. The Malaysia solution has the most support in Western Australia.

We also had on Saturday a Galaxy poll which found the budget to be deemed good by 28 per cent and bad by 39 per cent, comparing with respective figures of 43 per cent and 28 per cent last year. Only 11 per cent of respondents deemed Labor “sound managers” of the economy, down six points on last year, with “poor managers” up eight points to 33 per cent. In a gobsmacking repudiation of reality, fully 47 per cent of respondents were ready to nominate a family income of $150,000 as “about average” – as of 2007-08, the planet Earth figure for median household income was $66,820. Only 44 per cent acknowledged such an income as “very rich” or “quite rich”. It was also found 51 per cent were opposed to the government’s plan to provide free digital set-top boxes for pensioners, with 45 per cent supportive. Full results from GhostWhoVotes.

Notable local happenings:

• Jon Stanhope has resigned as Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory after 10 years in the job, and will formally quit parliament next week. His deputy, Katy Gallagher, was chosen by caucus to succeed Stanhope without opposition. Stanhope’s vacancy in the Legislative Assembly will be filled by a re-count of the votes that elected him to his Ginninderra electorate seat at the 2008 election. In practice this means it will go to whichever of the unsuccessful Labor candidates from the election chooses to nominate. These included Adina Cirson, a staffer to Gallagher who polled 5.0 per cent of the ttoal vote at the election; David Peebles, who holds a senior position at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and polled 4.9 per cent; and Chris Bourke, a dentist of Aboriginal background. Noel Towell of the Canberra Times reports that Peebles “has been offered and accepted a job as Australia’s Deputy High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands and is thought to be unlikely to accept an Assembly seat”, which would appear to make the position available for Cirson should she choose to accept it.

• Four months after resigning as Tasmanian Premier, David Bartlett has announced his resignation from parliament. This will activate a recount similar to the one outlined above. The three unsuccessful candidates from Bartlett’s division of Denison included two incumbents – Lisa Singh, who had been a minister, and the accident-prone Graeme Sturges – both of whom lost out to Labor newcomer Scott Bacon. The other candidate on the ticket was Madeleine Ogilvie, a barrister. Singh has since been elected to the Senate, where she will assume her seat on July 1, and is hence not a starter. Ogilvie has confirmed she will seek the position, while Sturges has been reported saying he is “considering his options”.

UPDATE 2: Essential Research has turned in a bit of a surprise, with the Coalition lead narrowing from 54-46 to 52-48. This comes from a one point drop on the Coalition primary vote to 46 per cent, a one point rise for Labor to 36 per cent and a one point rise for the Greens to 11 per cent. The poll nonetheless finds a generally negative response to the budget: 29 per cent believe it will be bad for them personally against 11 per cent bad; 25 per cent think bad for business against 20 per cent good; and 29 per cent say bad for the economy overall against 27 per cent good. Despite that, a question on whether the economy is headed in the right or wrong direction produces near identical results to last year’s post-budget poll, with 46 per cent saying it is and 29 per cent saying it isn’t. On the question of which party “would be best at handling the Australian economy in the interests of you and people like you”, 40 per cent say Liberal and 30 per cent say Labor.

There ia also a question on asylum seekers which to my mind mostly demonstrates how much trouble pollsters can get into when their questions seek to explain things to respondents. The question in this case being: “Do you support or oppose the Government’s plan to send asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia to PNG and Malaysia if it means it will cost taxpayers substantially more than it would if we just processed asylum seekers on the mainland in Australia.” And since they put it like that: 60 per cent say oppose, 24 per cent say support. Which sounds like good news of a kind for supporters of a liberal stand on the issue, but only because tougher approaches were left off the menu.

UPDATE 3 (17/5/11): JWS Research has polled 2141 people in the 10 most marginal Labor and Coalition seats, finding an aggregate 58-42 result in the Coalition’s favour on voting intention. Fully 50 per cent of respondents rated the Howard government the best of Australia’s last five – though it should be noted here that “government” was defined in terms of who the prime minister was, so that the Labor vote was split four ways. Very similar personal ratings were recorded for Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott – 33 per cent approval and 44 per cent disapproval for the former, against 33 per cent and 46 per cent for the latter. Findings on the budget were broadly in line with other recent polling, with a slight majority deeming it good for the economy and a larger one deeming it bad for them personally.