Debnam’s curve

Last Tuesday’s post on Peter Debnam’s pitch for sympathy by portraying himself as something less than an underdog might have been ahead of its time. He was then only going so far as to say the election should be seen as a chance to "send Labor a message". On Friday, he upped the ante by declaring: "the Labor Party is going to win the election in a week. If the polls today are correct, they’re about to win the election and you’re about to get another four years of the same". Compare and contrast this with the 1996 statement from Geoff Gallop, then the WA Opposition Leader, cited in the earlier post: "Information I have seen in the polls throughout this campaign indicates the Court Government will be returned comfortably on Saturday". Brad Norington and Imre Salusinszky of The Australian nonetheless felt able to report that "publicly admitting to likely defeat is unheard of in politics".

Reaction to the manoeuvre was perhaps not as Debnam would have hoped. An unnamed Liberal MP quoted in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph described the decision as "stupid". The ABC’s Quentin Dempster was even less charitable on Friday’s edition of Stateline, putting it to Debnam: "I now ask you, in the interests of restoring some healthy democratic competition to this election, to step aside immediately as leader, to allow Barry O’Farrell to lead the party to the election". Debnam has since been trying to have it both ways, arguing that he did not mean what he appeared to mean when he said that "the Labor Party is going to win the election". Yesterday a Liberal election rally was told: "I’m fighting to win this election. There is not one defeatist bone in my body and never has been".

Debnam can at least take heart from yesterday’s editorial in News Limited’s Sunday Telegraph, which made a torturously qualified call for a change of government. It correctly noted that the Liberals would be much better placed if O’Farrell was leader, but concluded that a Debnam-led Coalition "could hardly do any worse" than the incumbents. However, Fairfax’s Sun-Herald went the other way, with a verdict headlined: "Unfortunately, it has to be Labor".

A few more Campaign Updates for the election guide:

Camden (Labor 8.7%): Today’s Sydney Morning Herald carries an ACNielsen poll from an impressive sample of 952 voters in this seat in outer south-western Sydney. The results are relatively encouraging for the Liberals: a 53-47 two-party split in Labor’s favour, or a swing of nearly 6 per cent. The primary vote figures were Labor 47 per cent, Liberal 41 per cent, Greens 5 per cent, independents 3 per cent and other parties 5 per cent. However, the poll was conducted "last weekend" – before the politically bewildering double whammy of the Liberals’ transport policy failure and Wednesday night’s public transport fiasco. On Saturday, Caitlin O’Toole of the Financial Review reported that "polls" showed the Liberals were in fact ahead here: none had been published, so this presumably referred to party polling.

Pittwater (Independent 5.4% versus Liberal): Alex McTaggart, who won this blue-ribbon seat as an independent when John Brogden quit in late 2005, has obviously not been studying his election campaigning textbook. McTaggart modestly informed the Sydney Morning Herald’s Andrew Clennell that he need not bother coming to see him, as he was "going to win anyway". Clennell made the trip regardless and was told by McTaggart that he did not believe in doorknocking, which he considered "in your face" and unpopular with voters. McTaggart also said his own polling showed "a 2 per cent swing from him to the Liberals on primary votes", a hard statement to read given there was no Labor candidate at the by-election. Last Saturday’s Financial Review reported that Liberal polling had them trailing 57-43 on two-candidate preferred.

Hawkesbury (Liberal 14.6%): It seemed an awful stroke of bad luck for Liberal-turned-independent member Steven Pringle when another candidate bearing his surname drew top spot on the ballot paper. However, Steven Pringle says he smells a rat with respect to Australians Against Further Immigration’s Gregg Pringle, telling the Penrith Press: "I was surprised and somewhat flattered, but then discovered he doesn’t even come from within the electorate. Now you have to be suspicious. Why would anyone with the same surname, from outside the electorate, nominate for Hawkesbury, just two weeks out from an election?" One explanation might be that the AAFI, in its determination to field no fewer than 71 candidates, was relaxed about their connections to the electorates they were running in.

Train kept a rollin’

Today’s Daily Telegraph carries a Galaxy Research poll of 1000 voters in the marginal seats of Camden, Gosford, Kiama, Londonderry and Menai, which suggests Labor will "almost replicate its two-party preferred vote of 2003 with 58 per cent of the vote after preferences". Presumably the hard copy comes with a table breaking all this down; perhaps one of my NSW readers will be kind enough to send me a scan. The poll was conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday, and thus gives no indication how voters in these mostly commuter electorates might have reacted to Wednesday night’s transport chaos.

UPDATE: No table breakdown – I have been widely mocked by those more familiar with the Telegraph than myself for expecting such a thing.

Beginners’ guide to the NSW upper house

This was intended to be the first of a three-part series covering the forgotten war of the New South Wales election – the contest for the upper house. It was to consist of a general introductory overview to the state’s upper house system, combined with a form guide covering Labor candidates whose ticket positions were winnable or better. However, it appears that the not inconsiderable notes I gathered earlier this week on the Labor candidates failed to save properly. Fiddle-de-dee. So instead, I bring you the first of a four-part series covering the upper house, which will be limited to the introductory overview.

Created in 1824 as an appointed body advising the Governor, the New South Wales Legislative Council is Australia’s oldest parliamentary chamber. It was also perhaps the slowest to modernise; members continued to be appointed by the Governor until 1934, and were henceforth elected indirectly by members of both houses under a system of proportional representation. Direct election was finally introduced transitionally starting with the 1978 election, when 32 of the existing 60 members were retired and 15 new members directly elected. The 1981 and 1984 elections each saw the retirement of a further 14 appointed members and the direct election of 15 new ones, bringing the total number up to 45. The intention was that a third of the 45 members would then rotate at every third election, for a maximum nine-year term.

These term lengths were inevitably criticised as excessive, and further changes were made under a package of reforms endorsed at a referendum held in conjunction with the 1991 election. The reforms included fixed terms of four years for lower house members and eight years for upper house members, along with a cut in upper house members from 45 to 42. The cut in numbers took effect immediately, cutting short the careers of three existing members who were entering the final third of their terms (one Labor, one Nationals and an independent who had originally been elected as a member of Fred Nile’s Call to Australia). Henceforth, elections have been for 21 members, reducing the quota for election from 6.25 to 4.55.

The most recent round of reforms followed the celebrated fiasco of the 1999 election, at which voters were presented with a "tablecloth" ballot paper sized 100 by 70 centimetres. Even worse, from the perspective of those with the power to do something about it, was the election of no fewer than seven candidates from minor and micro parties. The two phenomena were linked – many of the 81 groups that bloated the ballot paper (one possible example being the brilliantly appealing Three Day Weekend Party) were set up to gather preferences for the benefit of electoral entrepreneurs, who cut mutually supporting deals to take advantage of each others’ "preference harvesting". The major parties were thus able to claim they were acting in good conscience when they took corrective measures.

Whatever the motivation, the changes have produced the best upper house voting system in Australia, and it is a great shame the federal, Victorian, Western Australian and South Australian systems have not followed its example. Firstly and most importantly, the above-the-line voting option was changed to do away with the monstrosity where voters number one party’s box and have that party determine a full preference distribution for them. This was replaced with an optional preferential system in which voters number as many above-the-line boxes as they wish, with preferences flowing down these parties’ lists and then exhausting. The 2003 election demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of voters will continue to number one box above-the-line; in effect, a party gets a seat for each quota it receives, and leftovers are apportioned to those with the highest remainders. Preferences will only affect the outcome when the result is very close – most importantly, they will then do so as a result of the conscious intention of voters who choose to number more than one box.

The new system resulted in an increase in the number of seats won by the major parties (from 14 to 17, although this was assisted by an increase in their share of the vote from 64.7 per cent to 76.8 per cent), and there are those who criticise it on this basis alone. However, the Poll Bludger has never understood how a system that gives the Coalition six seats from 28.6 per cent and the Outdoor Recreation Party one seat from 0.2 per cent could be described as "proportional representation". The new system penalises micro parties not because it is flawed, but because they don’t get enough votes. It is still among the country’s friendliest systems for minor parties, with a low quota for election and little chance of one party gaining a majority.

The following charts show the number of seats won by the parties at each election since 1978, and their total numbers after the election (i.e. including members who were not up for re-election).

The following phases should be noted:

1978. Fifteen new members are directly elected, joining 28 of the 60 existing indirectly elected members, for a total of 43.

1981. A further 14 indirectly elected members retire and 15 new members are elected, for a total of 44.

1984. The final 14 indirectly elected members retire and 15 new members are elected, completing the transition to 45 members.

1991. The passage of the referendum results in an immediate cut in numbers to 42, with three long-term members having their terms cut short.

1995. First election under the new system of eight-year fixed terms, with 21 rotating at each election.

1999. "Others" includes Liberal and Democrats members who had quit to sit as independents in the previous term.

2003. First election with optional preferential above-the-line voting.

Highlights of week whatever

Yet another bad day at the office for the hapless Peter Debnam. Perhaps these Campaign Updates will cheer him up.

Balmain (Labor 7.1% versus Greens) and Marrickville (Labor 10.0% versus Greens): As usual, the Greens’ preference deliberations have eaten up a lot of column inches, despite the notorious indirectability of the party’s supporters. Of greater interest is the free kick the Liberals have given Labor by recommending an exhausted vote in Balmain and Marrickville – the two seats the Greens could potentially win. Since major party voters really do follow the how-to-vote card, this will surely end the Greens’ hopes for a lower house seat, giving Labor two fewer things to worry about. This step has presumably been taken to give the Coalition ammunition in a late-campaign offensive over supposed deals between Labor and the Greens, perhaps involving secret protocols on crime and drugs policy.

Pittwater (Independent 5.4% versus Liberal) and Manly (Independent 0.6% versus Liberal): On Saturday, Steven Scott of the Financial Review reported that the Liberal Party’s polling showed it was unlikely to recover John Brogden’s old seat of Pittwater, which it lost to independent Alex McTaggart at a by-election in November 2005. Liberal candidate Rob Stokes, a former staffer to Brogden, reportedly trailed 57-43 on two-candidate preferred. The party was said to have a "better chance" in Manly, which former HSBC executive Mike Baird is seeking to win from independent member David Barr.

Goulburn (Liberal 4.5%): The aforementioned Financial Review article also reported that the Liberals were "worried" their star candidate, Pru Goward, would lose to former mayor and independent candidate Paul Stephenson. The government has given Stephenson a fillip by announcing plans for a 77 kilometre pipeline from the Wingecarribee River to Goulburn’s storages, which are so low the town has been on level five restrictions since 2003. John Breusch of the Financial Review notes that the "Iemma government may be in caretaker mode, but the decision to build the pipeline was taken by state cabinet last month following consultation with Stephenson in his role as mayor". Stephenson was also invited to a "private briefing" on the drought plan with Morris Iemma last week. The Sydney Morning Herald reports he was "a bit surprised" that Labor candidate Robert Parker was not invited.

South Coast (Liberal 1.6%) and Bega (Liberal 4.7%): The Coalition has promised to spend $200 million over four years improving safety on the notorious Princes Highway south of Kiama. There has been talk from the Labor camp that the Liberals might not be safe in South Coast, one of their few gains from 2003, although the Liberals dispute this. Campaign director Graham Jaeschke told the Financial Review he had not seen any Labor activity in South Coast or any other Liberal marginal.

East meets west

Peter Debnam has been offered a glimmer of hope by today’s Newspoll, which finds a considerable narrowing in Labor’s primary vote. Labor support is down from 45 per cent to 42 per cent, while the Coalition is up from 33 per cent to 37 per cent; on two-party preferred, the gap has closed from 59-41 to 56-44. Unfortunately, Debnam’s early morning equilibrium will be upset when his attention turns to the local papers, which both lead their election coverage with reports on the abnormally low profile Debnam has assumed in the Liberals’ election material. The Sydney Morning Herald rates this as "a sign that the Liberals’ poor showing in the polls is starting to give campaign organisers the jitters", while the Daily Telegraph calls it "a bizarre break with tradition", "confirming that poor polling and Labor’s negative campaign have all but destroyed his chances of becoming premier".

Another unorthodox tactic has been the pitch by Debnam that voters should at least "send Labor a message" at the election, a tacit admission that he does not expect to win. Given my Perth-centric perspective on things, such talk sent my mind scurrying back to Labor’s two defeats in the Western Australian elections of 1993 and 1996. Two days before the former election, then-Premier Carmen Lawrence told the West Australian: "I am smart enough to know I have done everything I could possibly have done. I don’t feel as if victory rides on my shoulders. People do like me but that’s not going to be enough to change their votes". Sure enough, Labor’s tumultous 10 years in power come to an end the following Saturday, though in less bruising terms than might have been expected under the circumstances.

Labor’s surrender in 1996 was even more explicit. The party had lost its main electoral asset with Lawrence’s entry into federal politics in 1994, and subsequently went through two leaders in quick succession. Three days out from the poll, leader Geoff Gallop made a deliberate bid for the sympathy vote when he told reporters: "Information I have seen in the polls throughout this campaign indicates the Court Government will be returned comfortably on Saturday". According to that day’s West Australian, "Labor sources said the party’s final television advertisement – urging voters not to give the Court Government a blank cheque – broke with the strategy laid out at the start of the campaign. The new tactic was devised by (state party secretary Mark) Nolan and Perth MHR Stephen Smith". Court meanwhile was making the eerily familiar claim that "our polling shows that in our marginal seats it is a 50-50 situation".

Opinion on the effectiveness of Gallop’s pre-emptive concession was dramatically divided. It was believed to have gone down badly in traditional Labor mining areas, and was widely blamed for unexpectedly poor performances in the north-western seats of Burrup and Ningaloo. Defeated Ningaloo MP Kevin Leahy complained that the party hierarchy had "destroyed us with the decision to say they did not think they could win", which had "poleaxed the campaign team". Fred Riebeling, who narrowly held on in Burrup (and is now member for the successor seat of North-West Coastal), thought it a "stupid act" that "cost me dearly": "I had half my people working in the booths ring me asking why should they bother turning up".

However, it appeared to be a different story in the metropolitan area, where a number of feared defeats failed to materialise. Most significantly, star candidate Alan Carpenter defied concerns that he might fail to carry his seat of Willagee, where he picked up a 6.5 per cent swing. Miserable as Labor’s statewide primary vote of 35.8 per cent might have been, it was still higher than the support recorded in four previous Newspoll surveys, including a final week poll that had their vote at 33 per cent. Two years on, Anne Burns of the West Australian was able to report that the move was "credited in Labor folklore with minimising the carnage". Another two years, and Gallop had led Labor back to power with the first of his two election victories. Few would consider Peter Debnam likely to be as lucky.

Paperwork in order

With New South Wales election nominations closed and ballot paper positions drawn, I have now added full candidate lists to my election guide – always one of my favourite things to do. A couple of noteworthy details:

Antony Green has tallied up 537 candidates for the lower house, down from 661 in 2003, and a record 333 for the upper house. However, this will not lead to a repeat of the notorious 1999 "tablecloth" ballot paper, which featured 81 different groups with above-the-line voting options. The implementation of optional preferential above-the-line voting at the 2003 election removed the incentive for establishing dummy parties to harvest preferences, and also required that parties with group voting tickets have 15 candidates. The first change reduced the size of the ballot paper, while the second resulted in a smaller number of parties running a greater number of candidates.

• Independent candidates whose nominations were news to me include Debra Wales in Gosford and Ron Page in Murray-Darling. Wales was the Liberal candidate in 1999 and 2003 but was defeated for preselection this time; Page was mayor of Broken Hill until the government dismissed the council in January. Candidates in Keira include the persistent Marcus Aussie-Stone, whose electoral adventures go back to his run against then-Prime Minister Billy McMahon in Lowe in 1972.

• Swimming legend Dawn Fraser, who held the seat of Balmain from 1988 to 1991, is a surprise late entry in the upper house. However, she will be running as an ungrouped candidate, so that anyone wishing to vote for her will be required to number 15 boxes below the line. Of the seven ungrouped candidates in 2003, none polled so much as 1000 votes.

• One Nation is not contesting the election. There is however a remarkably large field of 56 Australians Against Further Immigration candidates for the lower house. The party fielded 62 candidates in 1999 and did not contest in 2003 (UPDATE: Turns out I’m wrong on the latter count – thanks to Charles Richardson for pointing this out). By‘s count, there are 57 lower house candidates for the Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group). The Greens are contesting every seat.

Macro and micro

Those who were hoping yesterday’s national accounts figures might breathe some life into a moribund New South Wales election campaign have again been disappointed. This had been looming as a red-letter event because the previous quarter’s state final demand figure had been in the negative, which if repeated would have left New South Wales in a technical state of recession. The government has dodged this bullet in fine style with a growth rate of 1.4 per cent, enough for Westpac’s Matthew Hassan to tell the Sydney Morning Herald that the state "finally looks to be shaking off its malaise". Such interest as the election has to offer thus remains at the local electorate level:

Maitland (Labor 10.3%): A poll of 300 Maitland voters in Monday’s Newcastle Herald suggests Labor is in danger of losing the seat to independent candidate Peter Blackmore. After distribution of the 11.3 per cent undecided, Blackmore was in second place with 26.7 per cent to Liberal candidate Bob Geoghegan’s 22.2 per cent, with Labor’s Frank Terenzini on 37.2 per cent. Under full preferential voting, such figures could be expected to see Blackmore overrun Labor on Liberal preferences; New South Wales’ optional preferential system makes it a closer call, because many Liberal votes will exhaust. Blackmore was the seat’s Liberal member from 1991 until 1999, when a punishing redistribution combined with a small swing to deliver it to Labor’s John Price, who is now retiring. Damien Murphy of the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Tuesday that voters were being "bombarded with testimonies", "not the least by the Liberal stalwart Milton Morris, Maitland’s longest-serving state member, who has risked party expulsion by publicly declaring support for Blackmore".

Manly (Independent 0.6% versus Liberal): Manly’s "goat lady", Penelope Wynne, has announced she will run as an independent. Damien Murphy of the Sydney Morning Herald informs us she is so called because "two goats starred in a stunt she used to draw attention to a development fight with Manly Council last year". Wynne’s disputes with council have been the subject of considerable coverage in the Manly Daily; the Herald’s Anne Davies tells us this is "often the only newspaper people read" in an area "sometimes disparaged as the insular peninsula" (a distinction it shares with Pittwater, and probably every other outcrop of land in the English-speaking world). She could thereby muddy the waters for sitting independent David Barr, who faces a stiff challenge from a strong Liberal candidate in Michael Baird.

Newcastle (Labor 15.4%): Forty members of the ALP’s Carrington branch resigned en masse on Monday, announcing their support for Bryce Gaudry’s campaign to hold the seat as an independent. The media delighted in noting that those resigning included Arthur Wade, a member of 72 years. Gaudry was turfed aside for preselection last year in favour of former newsreader Jodi McKay, at the behest of Morris Iemma and the party’s head office. Also running as an independent is the highly fancied lord mayor of Newcastle, John Tate.

Monaro (Labor 4.4%): Steven Scott of the Australian Financial Review yesterday reported that Labor strategists were "confident of retaining Monaro, particularly after the scuttling of the planned Snowy Hydro sale, which was unpopular with local communities" – and also with Labor member Steve Whan, who had been a vociferous critic. Iemma visited the electorate’s main centre of Queanbeyan on Monday for the so-called "Country Labor election campaign launch".

Spin cycle

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that Labor’s marginal seat polling indicated it was only one seat away from losing its grip on its parliamentary majority. Today’s follow-up article serves up the extra seat: Newcastle, where Labor has "all but written off its star candidate Jodi McKay". Dumped Labor member Bryce Gaudry is credited with "cutting into the Labor vote", leaving "the way open for popular independent and Lord Mayor John Tate to snatch victory". Skepticism about Labor’s figures has spilled over from Crikey, Tim Dunlop and this site and into the news pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, which reports suggestions from a "senior Liberal source" that ALP state secretary Mark Arbib was "making it up". The surveys reportedly had samples of 150 (which the Telegraph has thus far neglected to reveal), so the margin for error wouldn’t have been much different if he had been. Nonetheless, the Liberals went to some effort to debunk the alleged Labor findings, providing the Herald with a progress report of their own.

Curiously, this mostly backed up what Labor was saying: the Liberals were "leading" in Menai, Miranda, Port Stephens and Camden ("set to fall" in the Telegraph article), with "a chance of winning Penrith and Tweed" (which the Tele said were "line-ball"). The only specific point of contention was that the Liberals had "ridiculed" suggestions they were ahead 53-47 in John Aquilina’s seat of Riverstone. The SMH also reports that Arbib has since said the Labor vote was 50 per cent in Wollondilly and 52 per cent in Londonderry (apparently on the primary vote), and suggests the Greens were found to be posing little threat in Balmain and Marrickville. However, the Wollondilly figure is directly contradicted in the Telegraph, which says the seat is "on a knife edge, leaning just 51 to 49 per cent the Government’s way".