"Number’s up and Labor is worried", declared the headline in Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph. Their cause for concern: Newspoll and ACNielsen figures which respectively showed them leading 59-41 and 57-43. As the paper’s Simon Benson noted, this is not as "counter-intuitive" as it might sound. For a government carrying so much baggage, support at this level must inevitably be extremely soft. Should the polls generate a perception of inevitable Labor victory, the prospect emerges of an unpleasantly surprising protest vote on polling day.
That said, it’s a much happier problem to be facing than those that have lately confronted Morris Iemma’s Liberal counterpart. For Peter Debnam, the current week has panned out as follows.
Monday. The week starts optimistically in the wake of Sunday’s sort-of-campaign launch in Cronulla, not far from the proposed site of the government’s contentious Kurnell desalination plant. Some good press is forthcoming: Joe Hilderbrand of the Daily Telegraph writes of green groups’ applause for Coalition water policies, which unlike Labor’s feature the politically dicey prospect of recycled drinking water. Elsewhere, the paper reports that the launch has found Debnam "finally hitting his stride". Then in the afternoon, the Sydney Morning Herald unveils those ACNielsen poll results.
Tuesday. Assuming he got to bed at a sensible hour, Debnam would have woken to the even worse figures from Newspoll. He would then have steeled himself for the day’s big media event, in which he fronted the media with the Banning family in the key seat of Penrith. The Bannings are presented as a typical "mum and dad" couple speaking of the opposition’s "exciting" plan to lift the land tax threshold from $368,000 to $415,000. Come the evening, the Sydney Morning Herald reveals the Bannings run a real estate business and own eight rather than four investment properties, if those managed by an independent superannuation fund are included.
Wednesday. Debnam’s accusation that the government is "hiding" the rising cost of its Rail Clearways project comes at least partially unstuck when the government points to a press release from November identifying some of the increase cited by Debnam cited as missing.
Thursday. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Anne Davies reports that Liberals are expressing "open concern about Peter Debnam’s leadership style for the first time since he took the reins" specifically that he "behaves as a one-man band despite talking about the team, is too aloof and relies too much on stunts that distract from policy messages". In The Australian, Ean Higgins and Brad Norington bring news that "party insiders" are describing Debnam as "privately depressed at his prospects", and showing signs of "desperation".
Friday. Andrew Clennell of the Sydney Morning Herald reports that Debnam is "still unable to confirm when the Liberals will start their television advertisements". His report also says the Liberals’ financial struggles mean candidates in "key marginal seats" are "mostly having to raise money without help from head office", with party state director Graham Jaeschke conceding key seat funding will be restricted to 15 target seats. Similarly, The Australian notes Debnam’s failure to gain support from business, "as firms fear Labor would ‘crucify’ them for advocating a change of government". It is also reported that "senior business figures" feel Debnam "lacks personal appeal and his front bench is weak". Wary as one should be of anecdotal evidence, there is plenty of it in this comments thread to support the idea that the Coalition is failing to make its present felt in important seats.
Still, it’s not all bad news: the Daily Telegraph’s "virtual voting" feature has "Liberal" (meaning the Coalition) on track for a 12-seat absolute majority, with "Labour" (meaning Labor) reduced to 25 seats after losing a further five to the Greens. Back on planet Earth, Labor’s campaign has not gone entirely without incident. On Tuesday, Michael Costa was told by Morris Iemma to go sit in the corner after claiming that he, Joe Tripodi and Frank Sartor had been victims of a "racist" opposition campaign against members with "Italian-sounding names" (Costa did not suggest that this extended to Iemma himself). The government has also been fending off accusations it influenced Connector Motorways’ decision to schedule the opening of the Lane Cove Tunnel which it is feared will cause a repeat of the chaos that accompanied the August 2005 opening of the Cross City Tunnel for the day after the election. The government has been keen to point out that Connector’s chairman is former Liberal Premier John Fahey.
When I eventually get round to updating the election guide, the following Campaign Updates will note electorate-level developments from the past week or so:
Lakemba (Labor 28.8%): Six weeks after the prospect was floated of radical Islamic cleric Sheik Taj el-Din al Hilaly running against Morris Iemma, there was a brief flurry of talk on Wednesday that the boxer Anthony Mundine would run at his behest. By Thursday, Mundine was declaring that he still hoped to enter politics "maybe some time in the near future". Last August, it was reported that Mundine was planning on running against Education Minister Carmel Tebbutt in Marrickville. An earlier foray into politics came with the following declaration on Channel Nine’s Today program in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks: "if you understand the religion and our way of life it’s not about terrorism, it’s about fighting for God’s laws, and America’s brought it upon themselves (for) what they’ve done in history and so on". Channel Nine’s line to Mundine was then cut by an unfortunately timed technical glitch.
Tweed (Labor 4.0%): On Monday, Morris Iemma scored some good photo ops in Labor’s most marginal seat by meeting with Peter Beattie at the Queensland border, where measures to make life easier for cross-border taxi operators were unveiled. There was also talk of integration of rail and health services. However, Financial Review reporter Steven Scott thought Beattie a "curious choice of campaign partner, because many Tweed residents are jealous of the lower taxes, cheaper cost of living and better infrastructure north of the border". According to Cosima Marriner of the Sydney Morning Herald, Labor incumbent Neville Newell has "the air of a man who suspects he is already beaten", as he suffers a "perceived inability to get things done (which) has earned him some unflattering nicknames Nodding Nevvie, Last Sleeper on the Tweed, and Chauncey Gardener (after the accidental politician played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 movie Being There)".
Bathurst (Labor 13.1%), Londonderry (Labor 10.9%) and Riverstone (Labor 13.4%): The opposition has pledged to begin construction of the Bells Line Expressway M2 Extension, to run from Quakers Hill in north-western Sydney to just north of Lithgow. This puts it at odds with the federal government, which according to a spokesperson for Roads Minister Jim Lloyd (quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald) believes the project to be "not viable, economically or socially". Such a road would provide a safer route through the Blue Mountains than the existing Great Western Highway and Bells Line of Road, allowing B-double trucks a direct route west of Sydney.
Wyong (Labor 12.3%): Brenton Pavier, the Liberal candidate dumped for forwarding a naughty joke text message to his fellow Wyong councillors, has abandoned plans to run as an independent. According to the Daily Telegraph, Pavier "said he had thrown his support behind new Liberal candidate for Wyong and personal friend Ben Morton". Still in the field as an independent is Greg Best, one of the recipients of the aforementioned text message. Best continues to deny Pavier’s claim that it was he who alerted the media to Pavier’s unstatesmanlike sense of humour.
Shellharbour (Labor 26.8%): Planning Minister Frank Sartor announced on Wednesday that tenders would be called for a long-delayed road link establishing flood-free access between Dapto and Horsley. Mario Christodoulou of the Illawarra Mercury reports that the road will cater both for existing residents and "more than 19,000 new residents expected to move into West Dapto". Lord mayor Alex Darling, who is mounting a strong independent challenge in the seat, told the Mercury he expected the project to "just disappear after the election, and they will not put any money in it".
Willoughby (Liberal 0.2% versus Independent): The North Side Courier reports that local mayor Pat Reilly will again run as an independent, after coming within 144 votes of winning the seat at the 2003 election. The seat was then being vacated by former Liberal leader Peter Collins; his successor was Gladys Berejiklian, who has since emerged as one of the opposition’s few political assets.
Maitland (Labor 10.3%): Last Friday, the Newcastle Herald reported that a Liberal Party poll conducted "late last year" showed Peter Blackmore, local mayor, former Liberal member and current independent candidate, was polling 36 per cent to Labor’s 30 per cent and the Liberals’ 20 per cent.