Pittwater dispatches

Those with a particular interest in Saturday’s Pittwater by-election are encouraged to drop by to this site after 6pm EST, from which time the numbers will be crunched booth-by-booth within seconds of their appearance on the State Electoral Office site (for some idea of how this will look, see the coverage of the triple M by-elections of September 17).

The by-election is being taken a lot more seriously than I had earlier anticipated, particularly after last week’s reports of internal polling showing the Liberals headed for defeat at the hands of independent candidate Alex McTaggart. This would not normally have been taken so seriously, but the figures came attached to a narrative widely favoured among the media: that the religious right has subverted the NSW Liberal Party in the wake of the Federal election outcome, and is about to get its come-uppance courtesy of environmentally conscious small-l Liberals of Sydney’s northern beaches. This sounds very much like a reprise of the unsuccessful "doctors’ wives" theory at the Federal election, which posited that affluent and educated voters were so disaffected over Iraq, Kyoto and asylum seekers that senior figures in the Government were in danger of losing their seats.

If the leak of internal polling was a tactical manoeuvre by a Liberal Party genuinely concerned for its hold on the seat, it might well have backfired by giving McTaggart a monopoly of media attention at the expense of a field that includes two other former mayors. It now seems certain that McTaggart will indeed harvest most of the purely negative anti-Liberal vote, whereas the Liberals would have been better served if this had split amongst as wide a range of rival contenders as possible. That at least will be my excuse for getting it wrong if McTaggart wins, but my prediction remains nonetheless.

A summary of noteworthy campaign shenanigans in the final week:

  • Alex McTaggart has lately been promoting himself as a man who can do business with the Government, and the Premier helped him demonstrate the point with an hour-long meeting followed by promises on "Mona Vale Hospital, the Currawong site and Careel Bay Marina". Many have questioned McTaggart’s judgement here, given the Liberals’ efforts to paint him as a Labor stalking horse. Christian Kerr of Crikey was particularly appalled by McTaggart’s decision to indulge in a photo opportunity with Roads Minister Joe Tripodi, almost going as far as to say it had single-handedly cost him the election. Tripodi’s popularity is such that Nationals MP Andrew Fraser received a sympathetic response following their recent confrontation on the floor of parliament, which most interstate obervers assumed would end his career.
  • Piers Akerman has weighted into the campaign for a second time in today’s Daily Telegraph, taking an ideological cudgel to those who would paint the NSW Liberal Party’s recent upheavals as a coup by right-wing extremists. After arguing that Brogden was responsible for his own demise, Akerman dismisses Alex McTaggart as "a political one-trick pony who was elected to the council after blocking Baywatch’s plans to film at Avalon, where he surfs".
  • Last week, Alex McTaggart reckoned leaked Liberal polling showing him ahead of their candidate was "a plot to scare the little old ladies into voting Liberal". Now, he says polling that he himself has done "anecdotally" shows he will "outpoll the Libs, we don’t even need preferences". McTaggart shocked readers of Saturday’s Manly Daily with the revelation that "if this was not a by-election and John Brogden was still the member, I would not be running".
  • Antony Green concurred with this site’s assessment when he told The Australian that the Liberals would "take a big hit with their vote", but would "probably win".
  • All minor players are specifically recommending a preference to McTaggart over Nicolaou.
  • The Poll Bludger’s form guide tip of the week: Paul Nicolaou. Centrebet is offering $2.20 for a Liberal win against $1.61 for McTaggart.
  • UPDATE (25/11/05): The Daily Telegraph’s Liberal sources say their position has "improved slightly since it became clear Mr McTaggart was ‘cuddling up to the Premier’"; the Sydney Morning Herald’s Liberal sources say they fear their primary vote will drop below 40 per cent; Centrebet’s Gerard Duffy says there has been "renewed interest in the Liberal candidate", and they are now offering $2.oo for a Liberal win against $1.72 for McTaggart.

    UPDATE (26/11/05): The flurry of late money for Nicolaou (including a $25 punt from the Poll Bludger) has continued, with Centrebet now offering $1.85 for both Nicolaou and McTaggart.

    Purported Pittwater party polling

    Reports of "leaked" internal Liberal polling for next Saturday’s Pittwater by-election have provoked a frisson of excitement among those with an interest in talking up the contest. The poll reportedly has Liberal candidate Paul Nicolaou trailing his most fancied independent rival, local mayor Alex McTaggart, with a 46.5-53.5 split on two-candidate preferred. The results were a gift from "a senior Liberal who did not want to be named" to Lisa Muxworthy of the Manly Times, who smartly cultivated her source by reporting it exactly the way he or she would have wanted – a close race with the outcome to be determined by the undecided, and no luxury of a protest vote for those who normally support the Liberals. Anne Davies of the Sydney Morning Herald spruiked the contest by telling us "the parochial peninsula electorate has shown in the past that it can record large swings when a new candidate is endorsed, particularly if they are not a local". This was presumably a reference to surfer Nat Young’s strong performance against Jim Longley at a by-election way back in 1986, when sewage pollution on local beaches was a national news story. Christian Kerr of Crikey has also invoked the spectre of Nat Young while making plenty of space available for those predicting a Liberal humiliation, citing word-of-mouth evidence to suggest a swing not far shy of 20 per cent.

    The Poll Bludger is not persuaded. It is axiomatic that leaked party polls are to be taken with a grain of salt, for reasons which hardly need explaining. Most of those reporting the Liberal figures seem to be conscious of this, with the Sydney Morning Herald providing a nice quote from Alex McTaggart about "a plot to scare the little old ladies into voting Liberal". I have a very particular theory on this occasion, which rests on two pillars – firstly, that the best lies are based on a foundation of truth; secondly, that political parties know this (and much else about the art of deception) better than anyone. On this basis, I suggest that the Liberals have indeed conducted polling that has them on 46.5 per cent, but that this is on the primary rather than the two-party preferred vote. This sounds about right – a sobering 12.9 per cent primary vote slump that would give the Liberals no cause for optimism about the 2007 election, but not enough to threaten their hold on so safe a seat. It would not be too hard to persuade an inquisitive journalist that all minor candidate votes should indeed be added to McTaggart’s two-candidate preferred score, since they will all "give" him their preferences. But in reality, 46.5 per cent would be enough for Nicolaou to win quite easily.

    This brings us back to the Nat Young precedent. Leaving aside the fact that some who will vote next Saturday were not even born in 1986, it is worth noting that Young actually fell some way short with 46.9 per cent of the two-candidate vote – an excellent result, but still a clear victory for the Liberals. More importantly, this was in the days when the opportunities of optional preferential voting had yet to catch on. Young gathered 72 per cent of preferences from the 33 per cent who voted for other candidates, with an exhaustion rate of just 4.1 per cent. These days, a third of that vote can be expected to disappear courtesy of those who "just vote one". Even assuming the Liberal poll results are not completely fictitious, it would be quite astonishing if they honestly accounted for this.

    Pittwater form guide

    The campaign for Saturday week’s Pittwater by-election limps on uneventfully, although some observers remain excited at the prospect of John Brogden’s demise causing a backlash sufficient to endanger the Liberal candidate, former party fund raiser Paul Nicolaou. Local ratepayers association types have been penning letters to the editor and badgering suburban newspaper journalists to vent their outrage that Nicolaou was until recently a resident of Lane Cove, scoring particularly well with last week’s revelation that he moved into his new Mona Vale address too late to get on the roll for the by-election. However, history suggests suburban voters don’t get terribly excited about this kind of thing and that a messy preselection outcome was the real prerequisite for a Liberal defeat, and this the party has managed to avoid. They are also boosted by a field of rival contenders that includes the mayor, two former mayors and another councillor besides. Since New South Wales has optional preferential voting, preference exhaustion from the scattered anti-Liberal vote will make it very difficult for any of the independents to cause Nicolaou real trouble.

    The candidates in ballot paper order:

    Alex McTaggart (Independent). Widely perceived as the main threat to the Liberal Party due to his current status as Pittwater Mayor. Despite his forceful denials, McTaggart has been subject to repeated suggestions that he is receiving help from the Labor Party. The most interesting was a small item in the Sun-Herald noting that postal vote applications sent out by McTaggart suggested access to the electronic electoral rolls, which are apparently available "only to the major parties". For what it’s worth, Piers Akerman reckons Pittwater Council is "significantly on the nose with ratepayers and is perceived as arrogant and uncaring", and that McTaggart is "seen as a councillor elected on a single NIMBY (not in my back yard) issue – a ban on television crews at his local beach, Avalon".

    Paul Nicolaou (Liberal). The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Nicolaou would shed as little as 5 per cent of the Liberal vote, according to "Labor polling" – though why they would bother to conduct any was not made clear.

    Patricia Giles (Christian Democratic). The former Pittwater mayor’s electoral record is better than incumbent Alex McTaggart’s, but she would surely be better off without the Fred Nile brand.

    Robert Dunn (Independent). A former mayor and Liberal Party member, Dunn told Lisa Muxworthy of the Manly Daily that he was running because he was "appalled" by the "contempt" the Liberal Party had shown Pittwater by nominating a Lane Cove resident. He is apparently no more pleased with the member for the corresponding Federal seat of Mackellar, Bronwyn Bishop, having scored a reasonable 7.7 per cent in his run against her at last year’s Federal election.

    Natalie Stevens (Greens). Stevens became the first Greens member on Pittwater Council at last year’s election, winning a seat in the five-member Northern Ward with 18.6 per cent of the vote.

    Mario Nicotra (Democrats). Nicotra was also the Democrats candidate for Mackellar at the Federal election. He tells the Manly Daily that Mona Vale Hospital "should be rebuilt as a showcase healing centre" incorporating, among other things, "complementary medicines, natural healing, homoeopathy, acupuncture and other services".

    Pittwater preselection puts Paul in pole position

    The New South Wales Liberal Party has followed the Poll Bludger’s orders and chosen Paul Nicolaou as its candidate for the November 26 Pittwater by-election. Former state and federal MP Stephen Mutch withdrew from the race late last week, presumably after concluding that he didn’t have the numbers, and Nicolaou prevailed over John Brogden staffer Rob Stokes with a healthy margin of 49 votes to 28. Nicolaou goes into the by-election with a 20.1 per cent Liberal margin and no challenge from Labor, although much is being made of Pittwater Mayor Alex McTaggart’s decision to run as an independent. McTaggart enjoys the happy circumstance of effectively identical electorate and municipal boundaries, but he has only been Mayor for a year and his council electoral record suggests he would have limited voter recognition. The group he led in Northern Ward last year won 25.7 per cent of the vote, a good deal less than the 49.2 per cent vote for Patricia Giles’s group in Central Ward. Giles’s claim that she was approached by Labor with an offer of assistance if she ran as an independent has a ring of truth about it, although Labor has vehemently denied it. She has instead entered the field as the candidate of Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, effectively denying herself broad-based support. The other confirmed candidate is another Pittwater Councillor, Natalie Stevens, who will run for the Greens.

    Mutch ado about something

    The Liberal Party’s preselection for the Pittwater by-election has taken an interesting turn with the nomination of former Federal MP Stephen Mutch, who if successful could conjure an interesting election from what ought to be a straightforward Liberal walkover. Mutch threw his hat into the ring last week at a time when the preselection was looking increasingly like a lay down misere for Paul Nicolaou, favoured candidate of the "small-‘l’ liberal" faction known as "The Group" who nonetheless had cross-factional support. Other prominent figures who had been mentioned were progressively falling by the wayside, including Paul Ritchie ("close to the hard right and Christian fundamentalists", according to the Sun Herald), Robert Webster, Jason Falinksi and Adrienne Ryan, more than one of whom said they were withdrawing to give Nicolaou a clean run. Had he been given one, it seems clear the Liberals would have defused the threat of a rival independent getting enough traction to threaten the party’s hold on the seat.

    Mutch threatens to make life interesting because he is an identifiable figure of the Right, having lost his Federal seat of Cook in 1998 when a coup by moderates delivered preselection to former Greiner-Fahey Government minister Bruce Baird. This was a major controversy at the time partly because it went against the wishes of the Prime Minister, who is now making it clear that he wants Nicolaou in Pittwater. It would not be hard to sell a Mutch preselection win as both an act of factional revenge and the coup de grace of a power grab that ended the career – and very nearly the life – of the popular former member. Whether this perception is fair or not is neither here nor there.

    Community groups and writers of letters to the editor have been vociferous in their demands not only for a locally based candidate, which is predictable enough, but also for an ideological moderate, which is more telling. Saturday’s Manly Daily publicised a call by Harvey Rose and Jim Revitt, present and past holders of the title "Pittwater Citizen of the Year", for the election of an independent candidate in defiance of the "hard Liberal right", who stood "clearly against the widespread view of moderate Liberals throughout Pittwater". Rose said he was considering taking on the job himself. Another candidate who might have been of interest was Patricia Giles, a former Pittwater mayor who told Rebecca Woolley of the Manly Daily she had been approached by Labor with an offer of campaign assistance if she ran as an independent (which was denied by state general secretary Mark Arbib). She will instead run as the endorsed candidate of Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party, forestalling any possibility that she might harvest support from those who see the Brogden episode in terms of a takeover of the Liberal Party by the "religious right".

    The Manly Daily names four confirmed candidates for Liberal preselection besides Nicolaou and Mutch – Robert Stokes, Stephen Choularton and Julie Hegarty, who were all covered in my earlier post, plus local businessman Mike Musgrave. The Sun Herald reports that the decision will be made by "a conference of 48 members from local branches and 48 from the state executive and the state council", of which the latter groups are often claimed to be under the control of the David Clarke/Opus Dei religious right. As much as the election buff in me wants them to pick Mutch, it will be Nicolaou if they have any sense at all.

    UPDATE (19/10/05): Via Crikey, the Manly Daily reports that Pittwater Mayor Alex McTaggart is considering running as an independent.

    The by-election gazette #4

    Queensland Labor’s deadline for state election preselection nominations closed this week, requiring MPs to lay their cards on the table with respect to their plans for next term. The harvest of retirees (Nita Cunningham in Bundaberg, Terry Sullivan in Stafford, Jim Fouras in Ashgrove and Lesley Clark in Barron River) would not normally have been regarded as remarkable, but in the environment of dual by-election campaigns there were numerous reports referring to an "exodus" of Labor MPs. However, the perception could become reality if we are to believe reports from Christian Kerr in Crikey, who tells us two prospective retirees do not propose to wait until the election.

    The party would presumably go to some length to prevent such an outcome, given that the conventional wisdom now holds that Labor will go down in both this weekend’s Queensland by-elections. This is largely on account of quarterly opinion poll results thoughtfully brought forward a month ahead of schedule by Newspoll, which show Labor slumping to 40 per cent (down 7 per cent from both the last poll and the February 2004 election) and the conservative parties on 42 per cent combined. Reports in today’s Courier Mail variously say that "Labor polling shows the party is unlikely to hold Redcliffe and Chatsworth", and that "conservative forces grow more confident of victory".

    Also in Crikey, Charles Richardson reports that the Poll Bludger has not "yet" made a prediction on the outcome. Thus pressured, I am compelled to take a punt on a contest I would have preferred to have sat out. Deep breath: Labor to hold narrowly in both.

    The by-election gazette #3

    With campaigning for the two Queensland by-elections entering the final week, it’s high time they were promoted up the By-Election Gazette’s batting order.

    Redcliffe (Queensland, Labor 7.1%): The Courier Mail reported on Saturday that both major parties believe Labor has the edge in Redcliffe but is "struggling" in Chatsworth, in contrast to impressions at the start of the campaign. The paper’s Malcolm Cole reported that "scandals surrounding the Government – particularly the (Ray) Hollis issue and the hospitals crisis – do not seem to have bitten" in Redcliffe, and that if Labor faces danger it is due to the "head office decision to shoehorn (Lillian) Van Litsenberg into the party’s candidacy". Liberal sources are quoted saying a Labor win would have been certain had the nomination gone to Redcliffe councillor Peter Houston, who had to be talked out of running as an independent after failing to win preselection.

    Chatsworth (Queensland, Labor 11.4%): The aforementioned major party polling mentioned in Saturday’s Courier Mail had Labor "struggling to retain" Chatsworth, but today the paper quoted a Labor source saying they "might have clawed back some ground". Labor’s strategy in both seats is to encourage a protest vote against Federal Government workplace relations reforms, and there are "indications" that this is "starting to bite".

    Still no word on the date for the "triple M" by-elections in New South Wales, which are now likely to be held in October rather than September.

    Maroubra (NSW, Labor 23.5%): Local paper Southern Courier (follow the link and try to make your way to page four of the current issue) profiles four front-runners for the Labor nomination and tells us the Greens candidate is Anne Gardiner, a former nurse at Prince Henry Hospital. Over the page we get all the dirt on the Labor preselection stoush, including candidate Penny Wright’s eye-catching assessment that the affirmative action loading might do her more harm than good. Hats off to all concerned at the Courier.

    Marrickville (NSW, Labor 10.7% vs Greens): The Sydney Morning Herald confirms that Marrickville deputy mayor Sam Byrne will be the Greens candidate. His council colleagues Colin Hesse and Saeed Khan had earlier been mentioned as contenders.

    Macquarie Fields (NSW, Labor 22.5%): The Macarthur Chronicle tells us that Campbelltown councillor Aaron Rule has declined to run, leaving the field clear for council colleague Steven Chaytor. Chaytor was senior adviser to Gough Whitlam from 1999 to 2005 (perhaps the pasta sauce ads were his idea) and was reportedly Mark Latham’s preferred candidate for the Werriwa by-election. Before the preselection vote, the Sydney Morning Herald spoke of a dirty tricks campaign in which Chaytor supporters suggested rival Brenton Banfield was an unsuitable candidate due to his legal work for a client on child pornography charges, making him susceptible to Liberal smears. Mike Steketee of The Australian reported that the suggestion was enough to prompt state party secretary Mark Arbib to pull the plug on Banfield, and all concerned were persuaded to step aside for little-known compromise candidate Chris Hayes. In other news, Christian Kerr offers this in today’s Crikey email:

    The Libs might be leaving Labor and the Greens to fight it out in Marrickville, but stand by for a surprise candidate in Macquarie Fields. Liberal leader John Brogden is wooing the whistle blower nurses from the Camden/Campbelltown hospital scandals. One may well be succumbing to his charms. If he woos her, it will be a huge coup.

    The nurses in question were Nola Fraser, Sheree Martin and Giselle Simmons, who complained that the seat’s outgoing member Craig Knowles – then the Health Minister – threatened and intimidated them after they raised concerns about unnecessary deaths at the hospital. An inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption cleared Knowles of corrupt conduct in relation to the incident.

    The by-election gazette #2

    For background on the New South Wales by-elections, Antony Green’s assessment in Crikey cannot be recommended highly enough. The foreground looks as follows:

    Marrickville (NSW, Labor 10.7% vs Greens): After earlier ruling out a switch to the lower house when she failed to win her own faction’s support for the deputy premiership, Carmel Tebbutt has been prevailed upon to stand as Labor’s candidate for Marrickville. Labor are obviously concerned that the seat might fall to the Greens (whose likely candidate, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, is Marrickville deputy mayor Sam Byrne), and hope Tebbutt’s status as a former deputy mayor and figure of the party’s left might shore up their position. Greens MLC Lee Rhiannon offers the interesting view that this "continues the ALP tradition of bringing in a woman when the party is on the nose with the electorate". David Fisher of the Daily Telegraph suggests two factors influenced Tebbutt to take the bait: an ongoing ambition to assume the deputy’s position, which she conceded to John Watkins last Thursday, and a desire to "bank favours" that can be cashed after the 2007 election. "Former NSW Labor Party powerbroker" Graham Richardson told today’s Financial Review that Tebbutt would "win it for them. If it was anyone else standing, I’d be worried. But not with her." Antony Green notes that the Greens vote in local booths in the federal election was well down on their support at the 2003 state election, from 28.5 per cent to 23.7 per cent. He also says too much is being made of the Greens’ success in winning five wards to Labor’s four at the council election, since Labor led on the aggregate vote 39.7 per cent to 29.2 per cent. Even so, the Premier is leaving oven the possibility that Tebbutt’s upper house vacancy will remain unfilled, in which case Tebbutt could resume it if she lost the by-election.

    Macquarie Fields (NSW, Labor 22.5%): The Sydney Morning Herald today reports that this seat is likely to be the only one of the three that the Liberals will contest.

    North of the border, Queensland’s conservative parties have been busily breaking the first rule of campaigning from opposition by making themselves the issue. Further reading: Ambit Gambit, the blog of former Queensland Liberal Party vice-president Graham Young.

    Redcliffe (Queensland, Labor 7.1%): The media has been making a big deal out of the Greens’ refusal to direct preferences to Labor in either by-election, although it is well established that this has only a fractional effect on the outcome. The Liberals are greasing the wheels in Redcliffe with a promise to build a rail link from Petrie to Kippa-Ring, which is easy for them to say. This issue is the bugbear of independent candidate Terry Shaw, who heads a group called Where’s Our Railway. The Courier Mail reports today that "Nationals leader Lawrence Springborg emerged as the Liberal Party’s secret weapon yesterday as he accepted a request to campaign in the bayside seat and appear in the party’s by-election material". The Poll Bludger has his doubts about the firepower of this "secret weapon", and thinks Liberal MP Bruce Flegg may have spoken the painful truth when he dismissed Springborg as a "farmer from Darling Downs" with little appeal to the urban south-east. Writing in the Courier Mail, Paul Williams of Griffith University also notes "the absurdity of Lawrence Springborg as the National Party leader campaigning for Liberal candidates when the parties are so publicly at odds with each other". On which subject …

    Chatsworth (Queensland, Labor 11.4%): The tenor of relations between the conservative parties is indicated by this unhelpful press release from the Nationals, which sets Michael Caltabiano up for a fall and sternly insists that the party will continue to field candidates in seats Labor can lose only if the Liberals get a clear run. Caltabiano has also been copping heat from Labor opponents on Brisbane City Council for indulging in council-funded self-publicity initiatives ahead of his imminent departure. Meanwhile, the Beattie Government reportedly hopes its announcement that work on the $1.6 billion Gateway Bridge duplication will start next year will have an impact here.