Victorian election: highlights of week one

As John Brumby and Ted Baillieu prepare for tonight’s leaders debate (unlikely to have much impact, being buried on a Friday evening three weeks out from polling day), here are some notable happenings from the first week of the campaign:

Paul Austin of The Age has received a “detailed strategy document” from the ALP in which campaign spending is allocated to electorates according to need, although its veracity is disupted by party state secretary Nick Reece. The document identifies 13 seats as “in danger”, including four held by ministers: Melbourne (Bronwyn Pike), Bendigo East (Jacinta Allan), Mount Waverley (Maxime Morand) and Ripon (Joe Helper). Also on the list are Prahran, Forest Hill, Gembrook, Mordialloc, South Barwon, Seymour, Eltham, Frankston and Bentleigh. Another six are at the apparently lower but still high threat level of “critical”: Richmond, Brunswick, Burwood, Mitcham, Ballarat West and Macedon. Of lesser but still real concern are Monbulk, Narre Warren South, Narre Warren North, Bellarine, Ballarat East and Yan Yean. More broadly, Labor is said to fear a backlash among “white males aged between 30 and 50” who are aggreived over “law and order and so-called ‘nanny state’ issues”.

Stephen McMahon of the Herald-Sun reports Liberal candidates were “summoned to a special meeting last night” on the back of squabbles and resignations which have “threatened to derail Ted Baillieu’s campaign”. McMahon points to a dangerous number of Liberal MPs briefing against Baillieu, and beats the drum of internal “dismay” over a “deal” with the Greens on preferences (which in fact amounts to the party simply doing what it’s always done).

• The Liberals are currently without a candidate in the winnable country seat of Seymour after the withdrawal of Mike Laker on Saturday. Though ostensibly for “personal reasons”, this obviously related to a talk radio caller’s claim that Laker had told him of government plans to house 50 Somali families in the electorate and provide them with free cars. The Weekly Times likes the chances of independent Jan Beer, running on behalf of the Plug the Pipe campaign against the controversial north-south pipeline.

• The Liberal candidate for Richmond, Tom McFeely, is back in the party fold after announcing on Wednesday he would quit and run as an independent. The owner of Collingwood gay pub the Peel Hotel, McFeely had been affonted by a rebuke he received from a Liberal apparatchik for conducting media appearances without party clearance.

• The mayor of Mildura, one Glenn Milne, has announced he will take a leave of absence from council to run for the seat of Mildura as an independent. Mildura was held by independent Russell Savage for three terms from 1996, but he was defeated in 2006 by Nationals candidate Peter Crisp.

• Antony Green has calculated margins in key seats based on results from the federal election – not normally an exercise psephologists have much time for, but more than useful on this occasion in demonstrating Victoria’s electoral stability since the last state election.

UPDATE: Essential Research has published state poll results based on its last six weeks of surveying, and its the first published poll to support Labor concerns raised in Paul Austin’s article: the two parties are tied on two-party preferred, with the Coalition on a clear primary vote lead of 44 per cent to 38 per cent. As usual, Essential shows the Greens more modestly placed than other pollsters on 12 per cent.

Inner city Greens (make me wanna holler)

The Victorian election is living up to its billing as the latest battlefield in new paradigm politics, with the Liberals finding themselves shunted from the front pages by a stoush between Labor and the Greens. At issue are the professional activities of the Greens candidate for Melbourne, Brian Walters, SC, who has been targeted over his legal work for accused war criminal Konrad Kalejs and a company associated with coal mining. After a furious response from the legal fraternity and the liberal end of the Melbourne media (The Age playing a tellingly distinct role in the controversy from the Sunday Herald Sun), most have concluded Labor’s attack has badly misfired, with Andrew Crook of Crikey going so far as to argue it has doomed Melbourne MP Bronwyn Pike to certain defeat. The correctness of this view depends largely on the resolution of the campaign’s other Greens-centric controversy: the split in the Liberal Party over whether to continue placing the Greens ahead of Labor on how-to-vote cards.

The behaviour of major party preferences has been little studied, as in the normal course of events they are not distributed. Of much greater interest has been minor party and independent preferences and their bearing on major party outcomes. The only substantial interruption to this picture in recent times came with the emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, who Labor and eventually the Coalition parties both saw fit to put last. Hanson herself topped the primary vote when she contested the new seat of Blair at the 1998 federal election, but was thwarted when about three-quarters of Labor preferences went to Liberal candidate Cameron Thompson. When state Labor advised voters to simplify matters with a “just vote one” strategy in 2001, made possible by Queensland’s optional preferential voting system, the rate of exhausted Labor votes shot from a third to three-quarters. These episodes confirmed what scrutineers had long known about major party voters’ observance of how-to-vote cards.

Even more helpfully, a ballot paper study conducted by the Victorian Electoral Commission after the 2006 election (thanks to Peter Brent of Mumble for alerting me to this) encompassed all four of the electorates under consideration, and found the rate of obedience among Liberal voters ranging from 30 per cent in Richmond to 45 per cent in Brunswick. With those Liberal voters who didn’t follow the card favouring the Greens over Labor about 60-40, the total rate of preferences to the Greens was consistently around 75 per cent, or slightly below the 80 per cent recorded in Melbourne and Batman at the federal election. As a rough guide, it can be inferred that a change in the Liberals’ how-to-vote policy would cut their preference flow to the Greens from the high 70s to around 40 per cent.

The likely impact of this is best considered in light of recent voting patterns. The table below shows how the state electorates voted both at the 2006 state election and the recent federal election (results from the latter being derived from booth results with slight adjustments made to account for declaration votes). While the latter figures have the advantage of being more current, they are unavoidably contaminated by specifically federal factors.

2006 STATE
Melbourne 45% 27% 22% 48% 40%
Richmond 46% 25% 20% 46% 39%
Brunswick 48% 30% 17% 45% 40%
Northcote 53% 27% 15% 42% 37%
Melbourne 36% 37% 22% 57% 49%
Richmond 39% 37% 20% 55% 48%
Brunswick 46% 31% 19% 48% 41%
Northcote 46% 33% 17% 49% 42%

On the basis of the 2006 state election, the order of dominoes would look to be Melbourne, Richmond, Brunswick and Northcote, with some distance separating the last two. The federal election results tell a slightly different story, with the Greens in a substantially stronger position in Melbourne and Richmond than in Brunswick and Northcote – remembering that the former two constitute most of federal Melbourne, where Labor suffered the loss of Lindsay Tanner’s personal vote. By the same token, it should be remembered that Labor is losing incumbent Carlo Carli in Brunswick, where the contest could be further complicated if former federal independent Phil Cleary runs as an independent. The last two columns in the table project the Greens’ two-party vote in scenarios where they do and don’t receive Liberal preferences, and herein lies the rub. With Liberal preferences, they look to have Melbourne and Richmond in the bag, as well as being highly competitive in Northcote and Brunswick. Without them, they could yet emerge entirely empty-handed.

Personally, I would be very surprised if a party in a system as adversarial as our own saw fit to grant such a huge free kick to their real enemy. But at the very least, it will be interesting to see if the Liberals can do better this time in Greens preference negotiations which have traditionally been entirely fruitless for them.

UPDATE: Sam Bauers in comments makes the good point that the VEC study shows how Liberal voters behave when the how-to-vote card reflects their expectations: a change in policy might increase the rate of rebellion.

Nielsen: 53-47 to Labor in Victoria

GhostWhoVotes reports tomorrow’s Age will feature a Nielsen poll showing state Labor with a handsome 53-47 two-party lead, with both parties’ primary votes believed to be in the high thirties. More to follow.

UPDATE: The primary votes are 38 per cent for both Labor and the Coalition and 16 per cent for the Greens. John Brumby’s approval rating is 51 per cent, down a point on the last Nielsen state poll in January, and his disapproval is up four to 41 per cent. Ted Baillieu is up on both approval (three points to 43 per cent) and disapproval (one point to 46 per cent). Brumby holds a 52-37 lead as preferred premier.

Newspoll: 52-48 to Labor in Victoria

The Australian reports the latest Victorian state Newspoll has Labor with a two-party lead of 52-48, a return to reality after the 55-45 lead they recorded in the July-August survey. However, the headline-grabber is the 19 per cent Greens vote (up two), dragging Labor down three points to 35 per cent with the Coalition up four to 40 per cent. John Brumby’s personal ratings are 45 per cent approval and 42 per cent disapproval, down three and up one on last time, while Ted Baillieu is on 39 per cent (steady) and 42 per cent (up one). Brumby’s preferred premier lead has narrowed from 52-27 to 49-31.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, we can now draw seat projections from Antony Green’s state election calculator, which asks of us two-party scores for both Labor-Coalition, which Newspoll gives us, and Labor-Greens, which it doesn’t. However, Newspoll does paint a beautifully straightforward picture of the Greens gaining 9 per cent on the primary vote since the 2006 election and Labor losing 8 per cent, with the Coalition treading water – making it a fairly simple matter of crediting the Greens with a two-party swing of 8 to 9 per cent. This puts Labor on 47 seats out of 88 and has the Greens right on the cusp of winning Northcote, to add to the lower hanging fruit of Melbourne, Richmond and Brunswick (and pushing them into second place in a brace of Melbourne Liberal seats). Assuming three seats as a more realistic scenario, and taking the re-election of independent Craig Ingram in Gippsland East as a given, hung parliament scenarios begin to occupy a big chunk of the two-party bandwidth: from 50.8 per cent for Labor at the top end (where the calculator gives Labor 44 seats out of 88 in scenarios where the Greens win three) to 48.0 per cent at the bottom. And that’s leaving aside the possibility of major party applecarts being further upset by the emergence of new independents.

However, all of this rests upon the assumption that the Greens will continue to receive Liberal preferences, and a growing chorus of voices can be heard within conservatism urging them not to. This was joined yesterday by John Howard, who said his party had “nothing to gain” from assisting a party that was “worse than Labor” – not that he was ever observably squeamish about the practice in his own time. Mixed with any genuine concern about a Greens threat to the fabric of society is frustration that the Liberals get nothing in return for their generosity, either in the form of preference deals or a realistic prospect of parliamentary support in the event of a hung parliament. Exercising their preference muscle, the Liberals would hope, would help keep Greens minds focused during such negotiations in future.

The threat certainly gives the Greens a lot to think about, providing Bob Brown with further cause for distaste about the preference negotiation merry-go-round. Adam Bandt’s victory in Melbourne rested heavily on the Liberals playing their normal preference game: Labor’s Cath Bowtell had a narrow lead when their candidate was excluded at the second last count, but obedient Liberal voters then proceeded to break 80-20 Bandt’s way on preferences. Without these preferences flows, seats in the lower house would become a distant prospect indeed – and they would also find life that little bit harder when competing with Labor for final seats on their more familiar upper house turf.

UPDATE: Now we have a small sample Morgan phone poll which concurs with Newspoll’s 52-48, but gets there from very different primary vote figures: 40 per cent for Labor, 42.5 per cent for the Coalition and 13 per cent for the Greens. Preferred premier is similar to Newspoll, with Brumby leading 47.5-32.5, but both leaders’ personal ratings are much worse: Brumby is on 36.5 per cent approval and 49 per cent disapproval, with Baillieu on 33 per cent and 46 per cent. The poll was conducted in two stages over the previous fortnight with a sample of 415 and a margin of error of about 5 per cent.

Victorian election stuff

Past time for a new thread for discussion of the looming Victorian state election. The campaign period will officially begin with the issue of the writs on Melbourne cup day (November 2), but thanks to fixed terms we all know the date will be November 27. Morgan has released some qualitative research findings, the upshot of which is that John Brumby is less unpopular than Ted Baillieu. The Victorian Electoral Commission has a state election page in action (including, praise be, polling booth locations on Google Maps), Antony Green’s election guide is open for business and Ben Raue at The Tally Room so far has entries for 47 electorates out of 88 completed for his election guide. My own effort has been hampered by post-federal election fatigue and will probably have to wait to mid-campaign.