Idle speculation: March edition

Conversation starters:

Newspoll. What to make of the widening of the two-party gap from 54-46 to 57-43, in a poll conducted between Friday and Sunday? Lag effects (note the 6 per cent slump in Kevin Rudd’s approval rating and the narrowing preferred PM gap)? A pox on both their houses (note the 3 per cent lift in the "others" vote)? Cynicism about Ian Campbell’s dismissal? Statistical noise? To elucidate the second point, I offer two graphs showing recent leaders’ approval rating performance in their first seven Newspolls (except Rudd, who is only up to number five). The second excludes Crean and the two Beazley leaderships, which began in the aftermath of election defeats when opinion polls follow different rhythms.

• Kevin Rudd’s silly call for an early election. This will dispose me towards negative interpretations of Labor’s next few sets of poll figures, if only because it has exposed his apparent lack of sure-footedness when forced on the defensive. To clarify this point: as Rudd well knows, restrictions on the timing of half-Senate elections mean that a normal House-and-half-Senate poll cannot be called until June 1, for a date no sooner than August 4. With no double dissolution trigger currently available, any election before that would have to be a House-only election to be followed by a separate half-Senate election over the course of the following year. To my knowledge, nobody has yet put it to Rudd that this is what he’s advocating. Glenn Milne went part of the way in his column in yesterday’s Australian, although he was incorrect to state that "if Howard acceded to Rudd’s election demand, we would be going to a double-dissolution election" – no trigger for such an election currently exists.

• The West Australian’s 1975-style call for a state government "rendered dysfunctional by an unprecedented series of ministerial scandals" to do the honourable thing and face the people. One problem though: the supposed alternative government is not even pretending to be ready to step into the breach. With simmering sectarian violence threatening to boil over into full-scale civil war, Liberal leader Paul Omodei has declared the state to be "almost ungovernable" – but not to the extent that his Coalition might be expected to win an election. The West’s Graham Mason reported on Friday that Omodei’s lack of aggression on this front was fomenting discontent with his leadership, which sounds about right: since there is not going to be an election in any case (despite surprising talk from Greens leader Giz Watson about the prospect of blocking supply), the opposition should be taking the opportunity to at least appear as if they’re on the front foot. The aforementioned West editorial called for Colin Barnett to return to the Liberal leadership, which also sounds about right.

In typical style, the paper seized on the government’s troubles by commissioning Patterson Market Research to conduct a poll of 400 voters over the weekend, just as it did when revelations regarding Norm Marlborough’s activities were exposed last November. Polls conducted in such unusual circumstances are of little help in gauging a government’s long-term political fortunes, but they can be of very great value in providing a good headline – providing those surveyed follow the script. On this indication however, the impact of the last fortnight’s events seems to have been fairly modest: Labor down from 44 per cent to 39 per cent on the primary vote and the Coalition up from 37 per cent to 39 per cent, with Labor still ahead 51.2-48.8 on two-party preferred.

Bennelong follies

I appear to be out on a limb here, but the plan for Maxine McKew to run for Labor in Bennelong (apparently confirmed in the Sydney Morning Herald) strikes me as being Kevin Rudd’s first serious misstep. Last week the Prime Minister homed in on what his finely tuned political antennae told him might be Rudd’s Achilles heel: that the smooth-talking former diplomat was a "bit full of himself". Rudd’s apparent focus on rubbing salt into wounds he hasn’t yet inflicted suggests that Howard might have been on to something.

It is indeed probable that McKew’s candidacy will increase the possibility that John Howard will follow Stanley Bruce (defeated in Flinders in 1929) in becoming only the second serving Prime Minister to lose his seat. However, this must be weighed up against the equal or greater likelihood that she will fail. Psephos curator Adam Carr noted the precedent of Billy McMahon (whose Sydney seat of Lowe is now held by Labor) in comments on this site a few weeks ago:

In 1972, 1974 and 1980 he was widely predicted to be facing defeat. His margins at those elections were 4.9%, 3.0% and 6.3%. Each time he hung on, despite the predictions of Mungo McCallum (who wrote a column called “Swing Lowe, sweet chariot”). High-profile sitting members DO have a personal vote, and can also get a sympathy vote if their constituents think they are being hounded in the press.

The national media attention Maxine McKew’s campaign will attract could well have precisely that effect. If Labor wins the election, this might not be such a disaster: in all likelihood, Howard would quit parliament and McKew would win the seat at the ensuing by-election. But if they lose, they will face their next term of opposition with one fewer member of front-bench star quality in the lower house.

Much of the approving comment in the blogosphere is typified by Tim Dunlop‘s observation: "at last a high-profile recruit takes on something other than a safe seat". I’m sure Dunlop’s memory isn’t so short that he has already forgotten Cheryl Kernot, although he would no doubt argue that her self-destruction was a special case. However, there are also similarities between the two that should not be overlooked. Both have been lured to major party politics by the power and influence associated with high ministerial office. McKew seems little more likely than Kernot to thrive on the unglamorous grunt work involved with tending to a marginal seat. If she is going to be fast-tracked to the front bench, she would be better served without such distractions.

The notion that high-profile candidates should use their capital to secure the seats needed to win government is better suited to local community figures and sports stars (Steve Waugh, perhaps) than to those selected for leadership potential. Those who would invoke the largely unhappy experience of Mary Delahunty in the safe Victorian seat of Northcote should remember the counter-example of yet another ABC television presenter: Alan Carpenter, who was poached by Labor in 1996 and accommodated in the plum seat of Willagee.

Another point worth making is that the Labor hierarchy should be using every opportunity available to it to clear the forest of dead wood that is the New South Wales chapter of the federal parliamentary party. The Poll Bludger is too kind to name names, but a scan through safe Labor seats on the state’s election pendulum should make my point for me.

UPDATE: The opening sentence was based on the initial frenzy of comment from excited anti-Howard bloggers. Those with sober words and wiser counsel were holding back until the morning. Graham Young at On Line Opinion has rounded on the idea in terms similar to my own. Richard Farmer at Crikey and Peter Brent at Mumble go so far as to say McKew would be less likely to defeat Howard than an unknown. Farmer had this to say:

She and the Party are talking as if this is a serious challenge to John Howard in his own seat. They are armed with the good news of the recent Crikey-Morgan poll and the knowledge that changes to the Bennelong boundaries have brought the electorate into the theoretically winnable category for Labor if the kind of swing which would deliver government is actually on. This is really bravado – the real purpose of the McKew candidacy is to irritate and annoy the Prime Minister to help Labor beat his government throughout Australia rather than to actually defeat him in his own seat. A high profile opponent probably increases the chances of Howard being returned whatever happens nationally. There’s unlikely to be a protest vote against a man who has led the country for a decade in a successful and popular way when the voters realize that there is a real chance of him being defeated. The Labor vote in Bennelong would probably be maximized if Howard was facing an unknown candidate with no apparent chance of victory. Should McKew perform the unlikely and emerge the winner she would naturally become a Labor heroine and be assured a glittering ministerial future. More likely she and her boss Kevin Rudd see this as a training run for the future. How she fares will determine her role in any future Labor administration. If Howard is returned McKew will become the key adviser in opposition for the next three years. If Labor wins without her winning Bennelong she will emerge as the boss of the Labor media apparatus. Any future as a member of parliament will depend on how she handles the rough and tumble of her first campaign.

UPDATE 2 (1/3/07): Missed this outstanding analysis of Bennelong demographics from George Megalogenis in The Australian.

Idle speculation: late February edition

The previous thread was getting on the long side, so here’s a new one. Conversation starter: a Roy Morgan poll commissioned by Crikey shows the Prime Minister trailing Labor in his seat of Bennelong by 41 per cent to 40 per cent on the primary vote, and 55-45 on two-party preferred. The sample was 394, which is pretty good for an electorate-level poll. The fortnightly Newspoll will be published in The Australian tomorrow.

UPDATE: 54-46 to Labor in Newspoll; down from 56-44 last time, but Kevin Rudd has a headline-grabbing lead as preferred PM. Elsewhere, England’s finest blogger, Harry Hutton, has made his debut entry on Australian psephological matters.

Idle speculation about the federal election

Adam Carr asks: "William, could we have a thread dedicated to idle speculation about the federal election, as you have done for the NSW election?" His wish is my command. By way of a conversation starter, I note that the Australian Electoral Commission recently released an extensive list of parties that have been deregistered by virtue of last year’s electoral law "reforms", one of which sought to do away with minor parties taking the name of major parties in vain, principally Liberals for Forests. This was to be achieved by deregistering all parties that had never achieved federal parliamentary representation six months after the passage of the bill, then requiring them to register again under the new rules. I didn’t think this worth mentioning at the time, as I assumed it would be a fairly simple matter for parties other than Liberals for Forests, leaving aside the irritation of some added paperwork. However, those with their noses closer to the grindstone of minor party politics evidently don’t see it that way. Stephen Mayne, until very recently a principal of the People Power party, had this to say in today’s Crikey email:

The Howard government is known for its cynicism but the deregistration of 19 political parties when the nation wasn’t paying attention on December 27 must surely go down as one of its lowest acts. What sort of democracy allows a government to unilaterally and automatically deregister all political parties that don’t have an MP? Talk about abusing control of both houses … If this had happened before the 2004 election there is no way that Family First would have got up in Victoria because it relied on preferences from the likes of liberals for forests. The strangest part of this debacle is that the media has shown no interest whatsoever in reporting this assault on democracy. Imagine if there was some form of business where the regulator could get away with saying all small competitors were automatically deregistered. The big have got bigger in John Howard’s Australia and the corner store competing with Woolworths knows exactly how all these minor parties must feel.

The practical upshot is that most existing minor parties must provide renewed proof that they have at least 500 members. The exceptions are the Greens, other than the Queensland branch; Family First; the Australian Democrats; the Nuclear Disarmament Party; the NSW division of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (curiously, given that One Nation only ever won a seat in Queensland), and the Democratic Labor Party (which evidently persuaded the AEC it was the same party that existed prior to 1978). I personally am unclear as to how often parties are required to do this in the normal course of events; anyone who can enlighten me is invited to do so in comments.