It’s raining by-elections: NSW edition

This site came into existence at the start of a long fallow period for by-elections at both state and federal level, the only interruptions being last year’s Dubbo by-election in New South Wales and the federal Werriwa by-election in February. Recent upheavals in New South Wales and Queensland have brought the drought to a sudden end, with four vacancies needing to be filled in the immediate future and the promise of more to come in New South Wales.

Labor’s Andrew Refshauge today added to the merriment resulting from the retirement of Bob Carr by announcing that he too would pull the plug on New South Wales state politics, after factional argybargy cost him the deputy premiership. This raises the prospect of an interesting contest for his seat of Marrickville, which is one of those traditionally safe inner city Labor electorates in which the party finds itself nervously eyeing the rise of the Greens. The Greens’ vote surged from 11.8 per cent to 28.0 per cent at the 2003 election, with the Liberals finishing a distant third on 12.4 per cent. Refshauge’s 49.1 per cent was close enough to an absolute majority to keep him out of trouble, and his eventual two-party margin over the Greens was 10.7 per cent. This would have much narrower if New South Wales did not have optional preferential voting, which allows Liberal voters who have no time for either Labor or the Greens to let their votes exhaust. The overwhelming majority did just that – upon the exclusion of the Liberal candidate, 12.8 per cent of the votes went to the Greens as preferences, 11.4 per cent went to Labor and 75.8 per cent exhausted. Given the overwhelming tendency of major party voters to follow the party’s how-to-vote card, most of those exhausted votes would have gone to anyone-but-Labor under full preferential voting, making life very interesting if Labor fell more than a point or two below 50 per cent.

The ABC reports that Carmel Tebbutt hopes to use Marrickville as her vehicle to switch from the upper to the lower house, which she will need to do if she is to realise her ambition of becoming Deputy Premier (also in her path is a rival aspirant, Transport Minister John Watkins). The Liberals face an interesting tactical decision in deciding whether to field a candidate, given that they are painting the Government as a sinking ship being deserted by its captain and his deputy. If that’s as true as they say it is, they should feel confident enough to enter the fray. But tactically speaking, they would be better off leaving the field to the Greens in the hope that they might cause Labor an embarrassment to match that suffered by the federal party in Cunningham in 2002. The most likely outcome is that optional preferential will save Labor’s day (the Greens would not have won Cunningham under such a system), but that might change if the doubts being expressed over new Premier Morris Iemma gain traction in the coming weeks.

Bob Carr’s seat of Maroubra is a different matter, as it is a more traditionally working class Labor seat in which the Greens have only modest support (8.0 per cent at the 2003 election, compared with 64.3 per cent for Labor and 24.1 per cent for Liberal). No doubt Labor’s 23.5 per cent two-party majority will take a hit, the relative force of which will be loaded with portent for the future of the Iemma Government. But from the perspective of who actually assumes the seat, the real action lies in the Labor preselection vote to be held on August 27. The Sunday Telegraph reported that the ALP head office would allow such a vote rather than installing a nominee through the party’s contentious N40 rule, as they are eager to "soothe tensions still simmering after Peter Garrett was parachuted into the federal seat of Kingsford-Smith". Front-runners include Chris Bastic, former Randwick mayor and campaign director to Bob Carr; Dominic Sullivan, another former Randwick mayor; Anthony Andrews and Michael Daley, both lawyers and Randwick councillors; and Penny Wright, former government relations officer with the ANZ and current "full-time mother of four". On Friday, Jonathan Pearlman of the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Wright had the edge in part due to the 20 per cent loading for female candidates under the party’s affirmative action rules; a day earlier, AAP cited Labor sources saying Bastic and Daley had emerged as favourites.

The date for these by-elections is yet to be nominated, although they will surely be held concurrently (which brings us to the following fun historical factoid: Bob Carr and Andrew Refshauge entered parliament as the members for Maroubra and Marrickville following by-elections on the very same day, 22 October 1983). The fun may not end there, because the upheavals currently under way in the New South Wales Labor camp have produced a crop of thwarted and demoted party figures who might find better things to do in life between now and the next election, due in March 2007. These include Grant McBride (member for The Entrance, margin 9.5 per cent), Bob Debus (Blue Mountains, 14.7 per cent), Diane Beamer (Mulgoa, 17.9 per cent), David Campbell (Keira, 22.5 per cent versus the Greens) and Craig Knowles (Macquarie Fields, 22.5 per cent).

For a bigger picture view of New South Wales post-Carr, Antony Green has plenty to say at ABC Online. As for Queensland, the by-elections for Chatsworth and Redcliffe have been set for August 20, three Saturdays from now, and will be dealt with in a post to follow shortly.

By-election bonanza

Unexpected turns of events in state politics have brought welcome relief from the election drought, with by-elections looming for one seat in New South Wales and two in Queensland. The former of course is Maroubra, the seat that will be vacated with the unheralded retirement of Premier Bob Carr. The Poll Bludger has never "done" a New South Wales election before, but this is how Antony Green characterised the seat prior to the 2003 election:

South-eastern suburbs along Anzac Parade from Kingsford to La Perouse. Includes NSW University, South Coogee, Maroubra Beach, Maroubra Junction, Matraville, Malabar, Chifley and La Perouse. Created in 1950, Maroubra has always been Labor held, with only three MPs, Bob Heffron 1950-68 (Premier 1959-64), former Wran government Minister Bill Haigh 1968-84, and Bob Carr since 1984. It had always been thought that Carr was holding Maroubra until he could take over the Federal seat of Kingsford-Smith from Lionel Bowen. Instead, as the only senior minister remaining after the 1988 election disaster, Carr became Labor leader, and the man who it had always been claimed wanted to be Premier, Laurie Brereton, took over Kingsford-Smith in 1990. The electorate has the state’s third highest proportion of public housing dwellings (13.8%).

The electorate corresponds with the northern coastal part of Kingsford-Smith, which has since passed on to Peter Garrett. Labor’s 23.5 per cent two-party majority in 2003 (3.6 per cent higher than 1999) is wildly out of proportion with the equivalent federal booths, suggesting it is heavily inflated by Carr’s personal vote. Channel Seven News reports that Liberal leader John Brogden deems it "likely" that the party will field a candidate, as you would hope from a party claiming that Carr is exiting a sinking ship. The Poll Bludger has searched in vain for speculation as to who Labor’s candidate might be.

The Queensland by-elections are for the seats of Chatsworth, being vacated by Treasurer Terry Mackenroth, and Redcliffe, home of retiring former Speaker Ray Hollis. These two are particularly intriguing, as they offer a crucial test for the Queensland Liberal Party. The Liberals currently hold five of the Coalition’s 20 seats, which means they offer Brisbane voters the prospect of a government in which their representatives become subordinate to their agrarian coalition partners. No wonder then that the Brisbane voters entrusted them with one seat out of 40 at the last election. The by-elections are an entirely different prospect, since a vote for the Liberals means not only a free swing at a third-term government going through a rough patch, but also a chance to give Brisbane greater leverage within the Opposition. If they can’t make hay with the sun shining that brightly, the Poll Bludger will despair of them forever.

The Courier-Mail has published results of a TNS poll of 300 voters showing the Coalition leading Labor in Redcliffe 35 per cent (including 5 per cent for the Nationals) to 29 per cent on the primary vote, with Liberal ahead 51-49 on two-party preferred. The Liberals are expected to again nominate Terry Rogers, the candidate who cut their margin from 17.6 per cent to 7.1 per cent at last year’s election. Redcliffe has form for the Liberals, having been held by one-time party leader Terry White until 1989. White’s defiance of Joh Bjelke-Petersen in 1983 led to the collapse of the Coalition and an election that allowed Joh’s Nationals to form a majority in their own right. He was unseated by Hollis at the 1989 election that brought Wayne Goss to power, and came within 0.4 per cent of defeat at the 1995 election which ultimately led to Goss’s demise. The only fly in their ointment this time around is that the Nationals are considering fielding a candidate, which one sincerely hopes is a deliberate attempt to sabotage the Liberals since it could otherwise be described only as an act of monstrous stupidity. Monorail booster Rob Mcjannett, who polled 14.3 per cent here as an independent last year, was reportedly saying he would again run as an independent if not give Nationals preselection.

With an existing margin of 11.4 per cent, Chatsworth looks a bigger ask. Labor has held the seat since 1972 and their smallest margin in recent memory was in 1995, when Mackenroth won by 4.2 per cent. Nevertheless, the Liberals have an exceedingly high profile candidate in the form of Michael Caltabiano, state party president and a former party leader on Brisbane City Council. Labor’s preselection hopefuls are Peter Houston, a lively figure on Redcliffe City Council, and ministerial adviser Stella Rey.

New Dawn for Dubbo

The voters of Dubbo defied the Poll Bludger’s predictions to deliver a comfortable victory to independent candidate and Dubbo deputy mayor Dawn Fardell at Saturday’s by-election. The assessment of a likely National Party victory was based on the precedent of the Tamworth by-election of 8 December 2001 (held after Tony Windsor made his move for the federal seat of New England at the federal election held a month earlier), given the similarities between the electorates and the fact that the by-elections came at roughly similar points in the electoral cycle. On the earlier occasion the National Party recovered the seat that Windsor took from them in 1991, John Cull picking up an extra 24.7 per cent from a very low base of 11.6 per cent at the 1999 election and then winning a surprisingly high proportion of Labor and independent preferences (54.6 per cent) relative to the independent front-runner, Tamworth mayor James Treloar (Cull would go on to lose the seat to independent Peter Draper at the 2003 election). Saturday’s result could hardly have been more different, with Dawn Fardell’s 50.1 per cent being much higher than Tony McGrane’s 41.6 per cent at the 2003 state election and 22.7 per cent in 1999. The small field of candidates meant the National Party were still able to manage a small improvement on the primary vote, to 42.8 per cent from 38.2 per cent last year. Greens candidate Terrance Loughlin scored a meagre 3.7 per cent, not surprisingly for this electorate, while little-known independent Makere Rangihaeata did about the same.

The outstanding statistic here is the respective improvement in the Nationals’ vote compared with the Tamworth result – 4.6 per cent against 24.7 per cent. This is a sobering outcome both for the state Coalition and more broadly for the National Party, whose exasperation with their own failure to defend heartland seats has been the focus of considerable attention recently.

Dubbo by-election preview

Tomorrow sees the end of an Australia-wide by-election drought going back to the Katherine by-election in the Northern Territory in October last year. Voters in Dubbo will go to the polls to choose a replacement for independent state MP Tony McGrane, who passed away on September 15. The state Labor Party, who have recently been taking a hammering in the opinion polls, have sensibly decided they have little to gain from fielding a candidate in a safe conservative seat where they would certainly suffer an embarrassing result as well as unnecessary expense. The real point of interest is whether the electorate will give the resurgent John Brogden-led Coalition a vote of confidence by returning the seat to the National Party.

Dubbo was held for the Coalition from 1959, Gerry Peacocke winning it for the Nationals in 1981 after the retirement of recently deposed Liberal leader John Mason. Peacocke, described by Antony Green as "an old-style irascible National Party MP", is perhaps best remembered for describing then-premier John Fahey as "a gutless little wimp" after he failed to tell him personally that he had been dumped from cabinet. When Peacocke retired at the 1999 election the Nationals preselected local talkback radio host Richard Mutton, but long-serving Dubbo mayor Tony McGrane ran against him as an independent and won by a mere 14 votes. His foothold established, McGrane had a less nervous time of it at the March 2003 election, leading the Nationals candidate 41.6 per cent to 38.2 per cent on the primary vote and prevailing by 5.5 per cent after preferences.

This time around the Nationals have nominated Jan Cowley, the party’s Parkes Electoral Council secretary, whose preselection opponents included Sam Peacocke, son of Gerry, and former mayor Greg Matthews. The Daily Liberal quoted a "key supporter" of McGrane saying his backers would endorse a new candidate if the nomination went to Matthews, who they linked to Richard Mutton; presumably the candidate they had in mind was Parkes mayor Robert Wilson, widely mentioned as a likely starter and described by the Daily Liberal as a friend of McGrane’s. Wilson indeed declined to run, but Dubbo deputy mayor Dawn Fardell has taken the field and should give Cowley a run for her money, having won public backing from state indepedents Richard Torbay and Peter Draper and federal independents Peter Andren and Tony Windsor. Ben Shields – who is on Dubbo City Council, along with Fardell, Matthews, Mutton and Sam Peacocke – was reportedly keen to run as a Liberal candidate but the party hierarchy thought better than to enter the contest. Rounding out the field of four are two candidates who contested the corresponding federal seat of Parkes at the October 9 election – Terrance Loughlin, of the Greens, and Makere Rangihaeata, a Citizens Electoral Council candidate at the federal election who is now running as an independent.

The final element that warrants a mention is New England MP Tony Windsor’s allegations of bribery against Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Senator Sandy Macdonald, with some suspicious folk linking the timing of Windsor’s announcement earlier this week with tomorrow’s poll. The suggestion is that Windsor, who also gave strong backing to Tony McGrane at the 1999 election, was seeking to give Fardell a boost over Cowley. If so, the impassioned rejection of his claims by businessman and supposed go-between Greg Maguire might mean the move has backfired, although many will continue to accept Windsor’s version of events. The episode has called attention to the long-standing debate in these parts about the relative merits of independent and major party representation; although the Poll Bludger cannot claim any connection with this particular part of Australia, and has no opinion polling to go on, his gut feeling is that the mood has swung in favour of the latter and that Jay Cowley will prevail. The impact of this on the numbers in the lower house will be barely measurable – from 55-6-32 to 55-5-33 – but it will provide a shot in the arm for an opposition that already has good cause to feel confident about its future prospects.