Whither Werriwa #2

Crikey‘s mole in the New South Wales ALP, "Boilermaker Bill McKell", shines some light on internal goings-on ahead of the Werriwa preselection:

For (Bob) Carr, an imminent by-election in Werriwa comes at the worst possible time and in the worst possible location. Just about every crisis and fiasco facing the NSW Government has its proxy in Liverpool and Campbelltown – the anchors at either end of the Werriwa electorate. The shambles that is the commuter rail system. The crisis in public health delivery with bed shortages, ‘code reds’ where ambulances have been turned away from the emergency ward at Liverpool, and the shortcomings in patient care exampled at Campbelltown Hospital. And, perhaps most dangerously for Carr, Orange Grove isn’t just a fiasco – it’s local.

And if all that were not enough, Latham’s sudden exit means that there is no likely successor for Werriwa waiting in the wings. This promises a factional free for all – where the ranks of the local branches have been left swollen and bloated by years of stacking. Fairfield and Liverpool are basically made up of a series of rotten boroughs, created in the interests of local MPs like the Left?s Paul Lynch and the Right’s Joe Tripodi. Who knows how that lot will react if the NSW Branch pulls the preselection in to Head Office for an N40 preselection.

Amanda Hodge and Nick Leys of The Australian reckon that this will indeed be the outcome, reporting today that "ALP sources said yesterday a new Werriwa candidate would be chosen not by ALP rank and file but by NSW head office to avoid further problems". "Boilermaker Bill McKell" fears that "with promises of federal funds for health, roads and transport", the Liberals "might just have a chance". However, Antony Green concurs with the Poll Bludger’s assessment that Labor is unlikely to face a disaster of sufficient scale to cost them seat – at least not to the Liberals. The Cunningham precedent suggests that the Greens might be the bigger threat, but Sydney’s south-west is much less fertile ground for them than the coast and this prospect can probably be discounted. That just leaves the possibility of a high-profile independent taking the moral high ground over an appointee imposed by state office. Perhaps Sam Bargshoon might have another go.

Western front communiqué #6

• One aspect of the Mark Latham descendancy that cannot pass unremarked is its impact on the Western Australian election, not to mention the Western Australian election’s impact on it. While the Queensland Labor leadership’s public interventions got the most press, the Western Australians’ were the most frantic. With a Friday announcement of a February 19 election the only logical course for them to follow, Geoff Gallop’s government faced two possible scenarios going into the campaign – ongoing collateral damage from instability at the federal level if Latham stayed, or a morale-boosting return to prominence for local boy Kim Beazley if he went. It fell to Jim McGinty, Health Minister, Attorney-General and Left faction power-broker, to go one better than Peter Beattie and Bob Carr had yet done with a public demand on Sunday that Latham quit. That achieved, an election announcement is all but certain to follow no later than Friday.

• In other illness-related retirement news, the Albany Advertiser reported yesterday that Cyril Rodoreda has withdrawn as the Liberal candidate for Stirling, which had been looming as one of a large number of interesting contests between the Liberals and the Nationals in the south-west. Nationals member Monty House is retiring after 19 years in parliament, and the party has nominated WA College of Agriculture principal Terry Redman in his place. In keeping with the usual fluidity of conservative politics in the south-west, former Nationals vice-president Vicki Brown, who had been spoken of earlier as the party’s likely candidate, is instead running as an independent.

• For us serious psephologists, the biggest sensation of the week is that Antony Green has made minor adjustments to three of his post-redistribution seat margin estimates. Of these the most exciting is the extra 0.1 per cent breathing space afforded to the Liberals in finely poised Darling Range.

Whither Werriwa

The Poll Bludger does not make it his business to commentate on the political state of play outside of election season, so here at least the "whither Labor?" stuff will remain on ice until 2007. As far as this corner of cyberspace is concerned, the big story to emerge from today’s retirement announcement by Mark Latham is that a by-election looms for his south-western Sydney seat of Werriwa. Whoever ends up winning will become the fourth successive member for Werriwa to take their seat after a by-election, a tradition going back to 1952 when young Sydney barrister Edward Gough Whitlam added 12.4 per cent to Labor’s margin after the death of member Hubert Lazzarini. Werriwa remained Whitlam’s home until he quit politics after leading Labor to a second successive electoral disaster in 1977. John Kerin, who held the seat of Macarthur for Labor at the 1972 and 1974 elections before being swept away in 1975, won a by-election on 23 September 1978 with a swing of 12.1 per cent, similar to that achieved by Whitlam 26 years earlier. Kerin would go on to serve successfully as Primary Industry Minister in the Hawke Government and unsuccessfully as Treasurer in the period when Paul Keating sat on the back-bench after his failed first challenge in 1991. For some reason he saw fit to re-contest the seat at the 1993 federal election but moved to the back-bench immediately afterwards and bowed out from politics before the year was through. Then came the turn of Mark Latham, who easily survived a 6.3 per cent swing to the Liberals at a by-election held on 29 January 1994.

The Constitution and the Electoral Act are silent on the timing of by-elections, such that the government could theoretically not hold one at all if that were of any advantage to them. Since this is never the case, there seems no reason to doubt that what the Australian Electoral Commission describes as the "guiding principle" regarding such matters will be observed, namely "to hold the election as early as possible so that the electors are not left without representation any longer than is necessary". Since Latham has yet to hand his resignation to the Speaker, and in view of the wide discretion allowed to the government in setting the date, it is still hard to say when that might be exactly.

While a great deal has been written on the subject of who might replace Latham as Labor leader, the Poll Bludger has heard nothing about who might be in contention to replace him as member for Werriwa, but does not doubt that intensive manoeuvering is already under way. Presumably the Carr-for-Canberra idea is dead and buried, as the possibility of him filling the vacancy is nowhere being canvassed. Whoever gets Labor’s nomination, the precedent of Cunningham in 2002 suggests there is no certainty they will carry the seat. Thus will the new Labor leader arrive in the job facing a potentially dangerous early test of electoral strength, although it is likely their honeymoon effect will prevent a replay of Cunningham where Labor lost a safe seat to the Greens a year after the struggling Simon Crean took over.