One month later

One month after my last post, and with emails starting to trickle in asking if I’m still in business, a quick update on my activities would seem to be in order. As you have probably guessed, I have spent much of this time working on my guide to the November 25 Victorian election, which will go live on November 1 regardless of what state it’s in. That will mark the beginning of the high-intensity Poll Bludger campaign coverage you have come to know and love. I will also be visiting my erstwhile home town of Melbourne from November 15 to view the latter stages of the campaign first hand.

The f*ckin’ legend of Jeff Kennett

The Jeff Kennett will-o’-the-wisp came and went before I had the opportunity to comment on it. Long-time Kennett antagonist Stephen Mayne surveyed the damage in today’s Crikey email:

Late this morning, after less than a day of frenzied speculation, Jeff Kennett formally withdrew from the Victorian Liberal Party leadership race. Which is the worst possible outcome for the state opposition and leaves them almost certain to go further backwards at the 25 November election. Rather than someone like Ted Baillieu emerging as the consensus great white hope after Robert Doyle’s resignation yesterday, the electorate now knows that most Liberal powerbrokers believe he was a worse alternative than recycling a controversial premier. For the Labor Party of course, he’s a much better alternative – to fend off Jeff, they might have needed to dig into their cash pit with a well-resourced scare campaign. With Baillieu, the Bracks spin machine will hardly need to get out of second gear, let along go into overdraft, to retain office. Imagine the scenario if Jeff had come out yesterday and immediately ruled out a comeback on the basis that Ted Baillieu would make an outstanding Premier. Instead, we had all this frenzied expectation – and now nothing more than deflation.

Crikey also underlined the overwhelming consensus that Kennett’s return would have done little if anything to avert another Coalition disaster at the coming election (to say nothing of the absurdity of the proposal that he lead the party in the meantime from outside parliament). Allow me to add my voice to the throng. The common Liberal complaint that the 1999 election result was a "protest vote that went too far" is revealing more for its arrogance than its insight. The theory should have been laid to rest four weeks later by the Frankston East supplementary election, held because the sitting Liberal member died on the eve of polling day. Voters on the day knew perfectly well that a "protest vote" would sign the death warrant of the Kennett government, but they nevertheless delivered the seat to Labor with a swing of more than 7 per cent.

Kennett’s approach to the election campaign suggested that he saw it as an opportunity to build his Melbourne-centric personality cult, and to rub his enemies’ noses in what he saw as a looming triumph. This manifested itself in a number of ways – in the "Jeff’s a fuckin’ legend" pitch at the demographic of Formula One and Triple M, the latter of which was given regular access to the Premier while the ABC was snubbed; in the energy directed at winning the normally safe Labor seats in Dandenong that had been made temporarily marginal by the 1992 and 1996 elections, while the Coalition’s own marginals were neglected; and worst of all, in Kennett’s petulant performance on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio program three days before the election. Kennett presumably imagined that this would only be heard by un-Victorian basket-weaving leftists, but the footage that appeared on that night’s television news bulletins did incalculable damage to his image, particularly in the country. All the while Labor was making hay with its devastating advertisements on country television depicting two taps, one dripping slowly and marked "country Victoria", the other gushing freely and marked "Melbourne". It is unlikely that country Victoria has forgotten what it perceived to be its neglect at the hands of a Kennett government fixated on bread and circuses in the capital. In failing to recognise this, Kennett’s boosters are showing the same short-sightedness that proved so costly in 1999.

There is no objective reason why the result of the 1999 election should have come as such a shock. The late opinion polls were mostly on the money, with Newspoll and Morgan correctly indicating a dead-heat and only ACNielsen erring in favour of the Coalition. The sense of surprise can be put down to the Melbourne media’s assumption that the election would be won and lost in the traditional battlefield of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Instead, swings in the country of up to 10 per cent delivered wins to Labor that few had seen coming, including Gisborne, Ripon, Seymour, Narracan and Ballarat East. The following table indicates geographic variations in the swing to Labor at the 1999 and 2002 elections using the newly created regions for the upper house. The methodology for the calculations was a bit slapdash, but the results are useful for illustrative purposes.

. 2002 1999
Northern Metropolitan 8.7 1.9
Eastern Metropolitan 9.5 3.3
South-Eastern Metropolitan 11.5 3.6
Southern Metropolitan 8.1 1.4
Western Metropolitan 8.7 3.8
Northern Victoria 5.2 8.0
Western Victoria 7.2 4.3
Eastern Victoria 6.1 4.9

It can clearly be seen that the country gave the Coalition its worst results in 1999 and its best results (relatively speaking) in 2002. This has left a fair bit of low-hanging fruit for them in the country, specifically Evelyn, Hastings and Gembrook (all held by margins of less than 2 per cent) (UPDATE: and all arguably outer urban, as noted by commenter Geoff R) along with Morwell (4.9 per cent) and South Barwon (5.0 per cent). The recovery of these seats is essential to any kind of respectable performance, and would most likely be jeopardised in the event of a Kennett comeback. If the Coalition is to go further and actually put the Bracks government in jeopardy, there are a further eight country seats it must win that are held by margins of between 6.8 per cent and 9.5 per cent, and these would surely be beyond Kennett’s powers.

On the other hand, Kennett might have strengthened the Liberals’ position in 11 Melbourne seats with margins of between 2.1 per cent and 5.8 per cent, all of which are located east or south-east of the city. If Kennett had inspired a swing of 5 per cent to 6 per cent in these areas that was not reciprocated elsewhere, he could have added a respectability to the scoreboard out of proportion with the overall statewide swing. Such a result would have reflected the outcome of the 1996 election, when Labor failed to yield dividends from a 2.8 per cent swing due to another poor performance in the eastern suburbs. This concealed the Coalition’s weakened position and contributed to an exaggerated perception of Kennett’s electoral record.

An unrelated point on the Liberal leadership: earlier this week I received an email from an ABC reporter in Melbourne looking to pick my brain regarding Tuesday’s Newspoll, which showed Steve Bracks leading Robert Doyle 60 per cent to 15 per cent as preferred Premier. In particular, he wanted to know what became of other leaders who had polled this badly. One encouraging precedent for Doyle came to mind, namely Queensland Nationals Leader Rob Borbidge. Going into the 1995 election, Morgan had Labor Premier Wayne Goss leading Borbidge 70 per cent to 17 per cent (in February), 72 per cent to 15 per cent (April) and 74 per cent to 16 per cent (June). Then came the election on July 15, at which the Coalition outpolled Labor 53.3 per cent to 46.7 per cent on two-party preferred. Six months and one by-election later, Borbidge was Premier. The most widely credited factor in this surprise outcome? The Goss government’s insistence on proceeding with a hugely unpopular toll road. Perhaps Doyle should have hung in there after all.

In other news, the elections for the Tasmanian Legislative Council districts of Rowallan and Wellington will be held tomorrow, though neither is likely to be of much interest unless the Greens or Hobart alderman Marti Zucco can pull a rabbit out of the hat in Wellington. This site will provide some sort of live coverage, although it remains to be seen whether my trade-mark results tables and swing calculations will prove feasible.

Welcome to the house of fun

Foreword: Most of the following was written before I noticed that pretty much everything in it had already been said by Antony Green.

The Victorian Electoral Commission has released its proposed boundaries for the reformed Legislative Council, the political implications of which are discussed by Paul Austin in The Age. Austin reckons it "one of the most remarkable own goals in Victoria’s political history", for two reasons. Firstly, Steve Bracks does not appear to appreciate the likely impact on his party’s fractious state branch of sending 25 sitting members chasing after 20 or so winnable seats. Secondly, he has ensured that Labor "will almost certainly never again have the Legislative Council". The first point is political which makes it Austin’s turn rather than mine, and I do not doubt for a moment that he is correct. But the second is psephological and here I flatter myself to imagine that my assessment might be worth something.

Previously, the Council consisted of 22 provinces each made up of four lower house districts, which were represented by two members elected at alternating elections and serving eight-year terms. Under the reforms, the chamber will consist of eight five-member regions covering 11 lower house districts each, elected by much the same method as the Senate and other mainland state upper houses. The quota for election will be 16.7 per cent, in common with five-seat regions for the Legislative Council in Western Australian and the Legislative Assembly in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory. Conveniently, no redistribution has been conducted for the lower house, so it can easily be inferred what outcome would have been produced by the results from the last election.

In carving up the pie, the commissioners have predictably aspired to create distinctly metropolitan and rural regions, for which there is room for five and three respectively (despite what the Nationals think – they proposed two non-metropolitan regions in the hope of concentrating their support). Two of the rural electorates largely draw themselves – Western Victoria, from the outskirts between Melbourne and Geelong out to the South Australian border, and Northern Victoria, from Mildura in the west to the line of the Yarra and Great Dividing Range in the east. Eastern Victoria untangles itself from Melbourne a little more messily, sneaking into the southern part of the Mornington Peninsula and absorbing two electorates (Monbulk and Evelyn) that the sprawl is beginning to catch up with.

Moving into the city, the Yarra is an obvious dividing line since it contains 23 districts to the north and 32 to the south, allowing for a neat division after one northern district (Eltham) is conceded to the south. The division of the two northern regions leaves the inner city seats of Melbourne and Richmond at the south-western extremity of the Northern Metropolitan region. South of the river, Southern Metropolitan consists of the Liberal-leaning areas nearest the city, South Eastern Metropolitan covers a more distant stretch of the bayside inland to Narre Warren, and Eastern Metropolitan takes in the electorally volatile mortgage belt from Box Hill west to Kilsyth and Eltham south to Ferntree Gully.

The voting system will be the same as that introduced for the New South Wales Legislative Council for the 2003 election, with voters able to number either a single box above-the-line (as per the Senate and the upper houses of Western Australia and South Australia) or a number of boxes below the line equal to the number of vacancies up for election (also the case for the Tasmanian lower house). One difference in relation to the below-the-line option is that New South Wales elects 15 members from a single statewide electorate whereas Victoria’s regions have five members, meaning below-the-line voters will need to number only a third as many boxes. Even so, the rate of above-the-line voting is unlikely to be dramatically lower than the 98 per cent recorded at the 2003 election in New South Wales. This leaves open the prospect of results determined by the parties’ registered preference tickets, such as that in the five-member Western Australian region of South Metropolitan where the Fremantle Hospital Support Group came within an ace of winning a seat at the recent state election from 1.3 per cent of the vote.

The following table presents the votes in each region based on the results of the 2002 election. Obviously this election was atypical, so I have massaged the data to produce a second set of results in which both parties score an equal share of the statewide major party vote. Another point to consider is that the adjusted figures on the right greatly underestimate the likely "others" vote, which ran at 2.7 per cent at the 2002 state election compared with 11.0 per cent in the Senate last year. The latter might be thought a more reliable guide as there will now be many more candidates, due to the bigger electorates and better prospects for success.

. 2002 RESULT 50/50 OUTCOME
Northern Metropolitan 56.8 23.3 17.0 2.9 53.1 27.0 17.0 2.9
Eastern Metropolitan 43.4 44.1 10.7 1.8 38.8 48.7 10.7 1.8
Southern Metropolitan 39.5 43.6 15.0 1.9 35.5 47.6 15.0 1.9
Western Metropolitan 62.3 25.3 9.8 2.6 58.3 29.3 9.8 2.6
South Eastern Metropolitan 54.4 34.7 8.9 2.0 50.2 38.9 8.9 2.0
Northern Victoria 38.8 48.9 8.9 3.4 34.3 53.5 8.9 3.4
Western Victoria 47.2 42.4 8.3 2.1 42.8 46.8 8.3 2.1
Eastern Victoria 41.1 47.5 10.1 1.3 36.8 51.8 10.1 1.3
Total 48.7 39.0 10.1 2.2 43.9 43.9 10.1 2.2

Northern Metropolitan. All parties’ submissions except Labor’s agreed that this region should contain the Greens’ two strongest divisions, Melbourne and Richmond, boosting their vote above 16.7 per cent quota and assuring them of a seat. Labor can be equally sure of three seats since its vote is above 50 per cent on every measure, with the leftover going to the Liberals.

Eastern Metropolitan. The various proposals for this region did not differ dramatically. Labor and Liberal can expect to win two seats each with the fifth going either to the Liberals or the Greens, or possibly Labor if there is a repeat of the 2002 landslide. For reasons explained in the conclusion below, this region looms as the one to watch if Labor is doing particularly well.

Southern Metropolitan. A similar story to Eastern Metropolitan, except that Labor’s chances of a third seat are non-existent rather than slight.

Western Metropolitan. Labor would have the latte left divisions of Melbourne and Richmond located here rather than Northern Metropolitan, although they clearly share a closer community of interest with Northcote and Brunswick than Footscray and Essendon. Labor would presumably like a thinner spread of the Greens vote, although if they had their way they might well win seats in both regions. Significantly, the Liberals wanted to be stronger in this region by having it extend far beyond Labor’s western suburbs heartland to Geelong. This would have given them a much better chance of winning a second seat, which would have loomed large in their scenarios for a potential upper houes majority. As things stand, it’s a certain three seats to Labor and one to Liberal, with Liberal and the Greens battling it out for fifth spot. P.S.: Antony Green wisely notes "the odd chance of a minor party winning Labor’s third seat on Liberal preferences". The Greens’ vote is low enough that a fringe player could conceivably get ahead of them, while Labor have easily enough votes for three seats but not enough for four. If Glenn Druery’s out there, he might care to give this one a bash.

South Eastern Metropolitan. All proposals had this as the least Greens-friendly region in the metropolitan area. Labor would usually win three seats and the Liberals two, although this would sometimes be reversed.

Northern Victoria. The quirkiest aspect of the Liberals’ submission was their recommendation that this region encroach upon the metropolitan area to take in Broadmeadows, this being a necessary consequence of their scheme for Western Metropolitan outlined above. This would have come at the expense of a certain third Coalition seat here, the victims of which have been the Nationals rather than the Liberals. As it stands, it’s hard to conceive of an outcome here other than two Labor, two Liberal and one Nationals. P.S.: Antony Green reckons the Liberals and Nationals would compete for the final seat, correctly calculating that a normal result would give the Liberals a substantial surplus over their second quota.

Western Victoria. The Liberals wanted this region to be stronger for the Coalition by including the locality of Bendigo rather than Geelong. Instead, the Coalition will have a fight on their hands to win a third seat. The Greens are not without a chance, but it will usually be a race to see if Labor can get enough preferences from them to pip the Coalition. The urban territory means that a third Coalition seat would be unlikely to go to the Nationals. P.S.: Antony Green says the Nationals are an outside chance if Labor polls poorly and gives them preferences ahead of the Liberals.

Eastern Victoria. The VEC’s proposal for this region is the same as Labor’s submission, while the Liberals’ differs by two seats. The Liberals’ proposal would have increased the chance of a third Coalition seat going to to the Nationals rather than the Liberals, although a Nationals win would still have been more likely. In any case, an outcome of three Coalition and two Labor is almost guaranteed.

Tally all that together, and a landslide could see Labor win an absolute majority of 21 seats, especially if they get the wind in their sails in Eastern Metropolitan. The Coalition faces a bigger challenge in that there are two regions where they can normally expect to win only one seat. Any scenario for 21 seats requires that they win two in either Northern Metropolitan or Western Metropolitan, the latter looking more likely. The Nationals can expect only two seats rather than their current four – as Paul Austin notes, this gives them little hope of maintaining the 10 seats required for party status, unless they can dislodge those pesky lower house independents (it should be noted that one-vote one-value legislation has left their Western Australian counterparts similarly placed). The Greens are likely to secure a permanent home in Northern Metropolitan, but beyond that their prospects are hard to call. They could conceivably win as many as five seats, but two would be more typical. Along with the odd independent or micro-party member, there is little doubt that they will hold the balance of power more often than not.