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.

The by-election gazette #1

The previous post on the New South Wales by-elections (for which no date has been set, but they are expected for early September) ended with a promise that the follow-up would focus on the two to be held in Queensland on August 20. It also said that there might yet be more by-elections to come in New South Wales. Since the second point was proved correct within 12 hours of posting, the first has been invalidated. For the sake of future simplicity (and to save me the effort of having to think up headlines), the Poll Bludger introduces the first instalment in a regular series of the itemised by-election snippets.

Macquarie Fields (NSW, Labor 22.5%): The latest member of our by-election family is the south-eastern Sydney seat of Macquarie Fields, which includes Campbelltown and Liverpool. Craig Knowles took over the seat from father Stan at a 1990 by-election and in time was groomed for the leadership, handling the health and transport portfolios. Since neither area proved a notable success for the government, his gloss diminished over time and he was not rated as a front-runner when Bob Carr called it quits. Facing demotion under Morris Iemma, Knowles has instead decided to join Carr and Andrew Refshauge in the departure lounge. If he imagined there might be less opprobrium attached to a by-election held simultaneously with two others, he was disabused by today’s front page headline in the Daily Telegraph: "BREACH OF TRUST – Knowles dumps voters and you’ll foot the bill". The Australian reports that Labor "hopes" a preselection vote can be held on August 27, and that Stephen Chaytor and Aaron Rule have already emerged as favourites. Both are Campbelltown councillors and former employees of Gough Whitlam.

Marrickville (NSW, Labor 10.7% vs Greens): Most talk surrounding Labor’s preselection assumed that Carmel Tebbutt would secure the deputy premiership and jump from the upper house into this seat, which corresponds with husband Anthony Albanese’s federal seat of Grayndler. The Sydney Morning Herald today reported that the first was a precondition of the second. Among the virtues of the arrangement was Tebbutt’s association with the Left, which it was hoped would blunt the Greens’ vote. But today Tebbutt withdrew for the contest for deputy premiership to leave the way clear for Transport Minister John Watkins for the deputy premiership, invoking the interests of factional unity. The Poll Bludger has heard nothing of alternative candidates to Tebbutt. An AAP report quoted Malcolm Mackerras giving the Greens had a "one in four chance" of winning.

Maroubra (NSW, Labor 23.5%): The Australian reports today that the Labor preselection field has narrowed to Penny Wright, Chris Bastic and Michael Daley.

Redcliffe (Queensland, Labor 7.1%): The Courier-Mail reported on Saturday that "Labor insiders believe they will hold Chatsworth and lose Redcliffe". Their candidate is school teacher and Redcliffe councillor Lillian van Litsenburg, who saw off council colleague Peter Houston for preselection. There was talk Houston would run as an independent, but he hasn’t. Liberal candidate Terry Rogers, who slashed the margin as candidate in 2004, was nominated unopposed. The highest profile independent is Rob McJannett, who has come good on his threat to run as an independent if not nominated by the Nationals. McJannett polled 14.3 per cent here in 2004 and 18.6 per cent in Murrumba in 2001. Last week he told the Redcliffe and Bayside Herald he had "a little bit of a grudge" against the Liberals over their refusal to accept a preference deal last time. Family First planned to run both here and in Chatsworth if they could register on time, which they evidently couldn’t.

Ballot paper: Terry Shaw; Rob McJannett; Rod McDonough; Terry Rogers (Liberal); Susan Meredith (One Nation); Lillian van Litsenburg (Labor); Pete Johnson (Greens).

Chatsworth (Queensland, Labor 11.4%): Those of a mind to talk up the Liberals’ chances are focusing on the loss of Terry Mackenroth’s personal vote and the high profile of Liberal candidate Michael Caltabiano, state party president and Brisbane City Councillor. A large part of the electorate coincides with Caltabiano’s council ward of Chandler, in which he polled 68 per cent of the vote in last year’s council election. What’s more, he did it against Chris Forrester, who is also Labor’s candidate this time around. That popularity may be under strain now he has abandoned council for a stab at state parliament, thereby forcing Chandler voters to a second by-election (in which he has promised not to run). A surprisingly uncluttered ballot paper is rounded out by Greens candidate Elissa Jenkins and Barry Myatt of One Nation. Both ran for their respective parties in the seat of Bonner at the federal election.

Ballot paper: Barry Myatt (One Nation); Michael Caltabiano (Liberal); Chris Forrester (Labor); Elissa Jenkins (Greens).