New and improved

The Poll Bludger’s Victorian election guide is now twice as fact-filled, fun-packed and good-looking as it was before, if you can possibly imagine such a thing. For starters, there are now candidate photos, if looking at politicians is what excites you. Even better is the return of the "Parish Pump" feature that was introduced for the South Australian election in March, but which went missing at the Queensland election because I had too much on my plate. Here you will find, for selected entries, outlines of important local issues with the potential to swing the result.

Highlights of week one

The first week of the official Victorian campaign period ended with the one and only televised leaders’ debate, which Labor staged in textbook fashion for a modern election front-runner: it was held as early in the campaign as possible, with no offer of a re-match on the table. It was precisely thus for John Howard at the 2004 federal election, except that Steve Bracks went one better by holding it on a Friday night, which minimised the size of the potential audience. The Poll Bludger caught bits and pieces of the audio webcast through a faltering internet connection, and agreed with the consensus that an initially shaky Ted Baillieu improved as the debate progressed, while Bracks performed with sufficient competence to ensure the occasion would be forgotten within a week. "A dull nil-all draw", reckoned Monash University’s Nick Economou, which is the usual verdict on these occasions. Accordingly, Bracks got what he wanted: he avoids the charge of cowardice levelled at Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke when they refused to face their opponents in 1983 and 1987, while still depriving his opponent of meaningful campaign oxygen.

Beyond that, the main theme to emerge in the first week was the negativity of both sides’ advertising, prompting much tut-tutting about Americanised campaign tactics. Another feature was the localised nature of early election promises, which provided grist for the mill of the first round of election guide Campaign Updates:

Cranbourne (Labor 10.8%): The Coalition took advantage of a local sore point with Thursday’s promise to spend $10 million extending the Cranbourne rail line 1.5 kilometres to a new station at Cranbourne East, which Labor promised at the 1999 election but has so far failed to deliver. Also on Thursday, Environment Minister John Thwaites promised $21 million would be spent on an extension to Cranbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens.

Yan Yean (Labor 9.5%): and Mill Park (Labor 26.8%): Here too the Coalition has promised to come good on an unfulfilled Labor rail line extension promise from 1999, extending the Epping line (which until 1959 extended a further 15 kilometres to Whittlesea) to South Morang at a cost of $12 million. Labor claims this costing ignores the factor which has prevented the government from proceeding with the project: the resulting need for track duplication further down the line, which it claims would cost as much as $300 million. Local residents have received letters from Transport Minister Peter Batchelor apologising for the decision to delay the project.

Ivanhoe (Labor 12.5%): The $1.7 billion health package announced by Steve Bracks on Thursday included creation of an elective surgery centre at the Austin Hospital in Heidelberg.

Bellarine (Labor 8.3%): A poll in the Geelong Advertiser last Saturday showed Labor member Lisa Neville trailing Liberal candidate Don Gibson on the primary vote. The paper provided results from its survey of 352 respondents to within one decimal place, from which it can be inferred that the raw figures were Liberal 119, Labor 101, Greens 42, Family First 6 and others 15, with 69 undecided. The size of the latter figure suggests that undecided respondents were not given a follow-up question asking who they were leaning towards, a common failing of polls run by local newspapers. After distribution of the undecided, the results are Liberal 42 per cent, Labor 36 per cent, Greens 15 per cent, Family First 2 per cent, others 5 per cent.

Upper house part one: Northern Metropolitan

Welcome to the first in an eight-part series covering the five-member upper house regions in the newly reformed Victorian Legislative Council (background detail available here). And what better place to start than with the part of Victoria that was lucky enough to have the Poll Bludger living in it from 1997 to 2005: the Northern Metropolitan region. Except in its outer reaches, this region covers some of the safest Labor territory in the state: from the city at its southern extremity, it passes through a thin band of north-eastern suburbs extending beyond the city limits, to Whittlesea in the north and along the Yarra Valley to Watsons Creek in the east.

The replacement of single-member elections with proportional representation in this electorally one-sided area has meant a squeeze for Labor and a new opportunity for the Liberals. The region covers all of the old province of Jika Jika and half of Melbourne and Melbourne North, each of which was a Labor stronghold. The only two Liberals representing any part of this region in either house are Bill Forwood and Graeme Stoney – and only one quarter of their old provinces coincide with the new region. Even so, Labor has found room in Northern Metropolitan for one newcomer along with the two members for Jika Jika. All other members from the area have being accommodated elsewhere – with safe seats in the case of Gavin Jennings, Candy Broad and Marsha Thomson, and highly unsafe ones for Glennys Romanes, Lidia Argondizzo and Robert Mitchell. By contrast, the Liberals are guaranteed to have at least one member in what had formerly been a dead zone. Even more significantly, the region looks sure to provide a safe seat for the Greens, who have never previously had a Victorian MP at either state or federal level. Barring an unforeseen electoral convulsion, all evidence indicates the result will be three seats for Labor and one each for the Liberals and Greens.

Of Labor’s three seats, the first and third have gone to the Right and the second to the Left. At the top of the pile is Theo Theophanous, factional chieftain and member for Jika Jika since 1988. Originally associated with the Socialist Left, Theophanous shifted his numbers to Labor Unity via a tumultuous Left split in 1996 that initially put him in the front seat of a new group called the Labor Renewal Alliance. Colleagues in this group included his brother Andrew, the former federal MP who was jailed in 2002 for immigration fraud, and the other Right faction nominee for Northern Metropolitan (more on whom shortly). Along the way, Theophanous found time to serve as Consumer Affairs and Small Business Minister in the Kirner government, Leader of the Opposition in the upper house throughout the Kennett government, and Energy Industries and Resources Minister in the second term of the Bracks government.

The Left’s candidate is Jenny Mikakos, an old rival of Theophanous going back to the memorable Batman preselection ahead of the 1996 federal election. Then a Northcote councillor and taxation lawyer, Mikakos had won support from the hard left Pledge faction to replace the retiring Brian Howe, and was also backed by Labor Unity as part of a complicated deal that froze out the candidate of the Socialist Left – Theo Theophanous. The complicated factional manoeuvres were ultimately trumped when the national executive intervened to install ACTU president Martin Ferguson. The Unity-Pledge alliance ultimately bore fruit for Mikakos at the 1999 state election, when she defeated incumbent Pat Power for the Jika Jika preselection. Mikakos has since rejoined the Socialist Left, and was promoted to a parliamentary secretary position following the 2002 election. She created a stir in May when she compared the mass exile of Pontic Greeks by Turkey during and after World War I to the Jewish holocaust, angering the Turkish and Jewish communities.

Third on the ticket is Nazih Elasmar, a figurehead of the Lebanese Christian community who in January received the Order of Australia for "service to the Lebanese community of Victoria through cultural, charitable and welfare organisations". Elasmar is also a former mayor of Darebin, a position he held at the time the council was sacked by the Kennett government in 1998. He has worked for many years as an electorate officer to Theo Theophanous, and followed him along the path through the Labor Renewal Alliance to Labor Unity. A report on Channel Nine’s Sunday program in 1998 accused Elasmar of stacking branches for the Right in Northcote ahead of Mary Delahunty’s preselection in 1997.

Topping the Liberal ticket is ASIC manager Matthew Guy, who ran for the lower house seat of Yan Yean in 2002. He is probably best known as the subejct of then Police Minister Andre Haermeyer’s attack on him under parliamentary privilege before the 2002 election, in which he was labelled a "liar and a thief". Guy was accused of telling the media "political opponents" had vandalised his car without making any such claim in his police complaint, and of having been picked up by police for stealing election signs. When parliament next sat 12 days later, Haermeyer was compelled to make a personal explanation in which he accepted only that Guy had not been charged over the signs incident. The Liberals complained to the Ombudsman who eventually found there had been unauthorised access to Guy’s police files three days before Haermeyer made his claims, and that the person responsible was the husband of Attorney-General Rob Hulls’ personal assistant – although the Ombudsman accepted the latter’s insistence he had not contacted Haermeyer’s office about the matter.

The Greens preselection inevitably attracted considerable interest from party activists, candidates including Gemma Pinnell (who ran for the lower house seat of Richmond in 2002, and the federal lower house seat of Melbourne in 2004), Yarra councillor Jenny Farrar and former Yarra mayor Greg Barber. Barber and Pinnell were reckoned by all to be the front-runners, and the former prevailed by what was described in the press as "a couple of handfuls of voters". As well as his council credentials (he was the first member of the Greens ever to become a mayor in Australia), Barber has a Masters in Business Administration and works as a "corporate campaigner" for the Wilderness Society.

NB: This entry will be spiced up with tables and statistics at a later time, but this will do for the moment.

Victorian election guide

As promised, the Poll Bludger’s Victorian election guide is now open for business. Candidate photos and further embellishments will be added in due course, but this no-frills edition should keep you going for now. Politely worded emails calling attention to errors and omissions will be very gratefully received; death threats and defamation actions, somewhat less so.

Spring carnival form guide

With Victorian Premier Steve Bracks having visited the Governor this morning to observe the formality of issuing the election writs, the campaign period is now officially under way. As promised earlier, the Poll Bludger election guide will definitely be in business from tomorrow. In the meantime, I have knocked together the following graphs indicating the progress of the two-party contest in the past term, as recorded by the two major polling agencies. First up, Newspoll:

The numbers indicate the timing of the following events. 1. The government’s Scoresby Freeway tolls backflip; 2. The Royal Children’s Hospital consultancy tendering controversy; 3. Opposition calls for a royal commission into police corruption; 4. Refunds announced for speeding fines due to faulty cameras; 5. Federal election campaign and Coalition freeway funding promise; 6. Police Minister Andre Haermeyer dumped in reshuffle; 7. New Police Minister Tim Holding admits he didn’t read a memo regarding the police files issue; 8. Robert Doyle’s backflip on freeway tolls; 9. Commonwealth Games; 10. Ted Baillieu replaces Robert Doyle as Liberal leader.

Next up, Roy Morgan:

There have also been four ACNielsen/AgePoll surveys conducted since late last year, which have produced impressively consistent results.

24 Oct ’06 42 40 13 56 44
21 Aug ’06 43 41 11 55 45
25 May ’06 43 41 10 55 45
25 Nov ’05 43 39 11 56 44

Victorian election reading

Galaxy Research has created a buzz by showing a lower-than-expected Labor lead of 52-48 in its poll in today’s Herald-Sun. However, it comes on the same day as an ACNielsen poll in The Age showing a Labor lead of 56-44, in line with general expectations. A discussion on the upper house contest at Larvatus Prodeo brings my attention to this analysis by Russell Degnan from June last year, which seems to paint a rosier picture for Labor than my own assessment.

UPDATE (25/10/06): Newspoll says 54-46.

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.

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