Green growths

Here’s a little something I wrote for today’s Crikey email but failed to get finished in time for the deadline …

The main lessons from Saturday’s ACT election and NSW by-elections can be heard loud and clear from the news headlines, and could indeed have been ascertained even before the figures came in. After suffering the two worst by-election swings in NSW history in Ryde and Cabramatta, there is no coming back for the fourth-term Labor government. The ACT election further emphasised that Labor’s state and territory governments are marching in lock-step towards the wrong end of the electoral cycle. While Jon Stanhope is likely to continue in government with the support of the Greens, Labor’s vote was down a numbing 9.3 per cent to 37.6 per cent. There were also intimations over the weekend that South Australia’s government is becoming conscious of its mortality, with talk of Treasurer Kevin Foley plotting a move against Premier Mike Rann.

The ACT election provided further support for the other recurring theme of recent state and territory elections: the growing strength of the Greens. The party is certain to hold the balance of power for the first time after its vote went up 6.6 per cent to 15.8 per cent, securing a definite three seats out of 17 and perhaps even a fourth. While the Greens’ more excitable partisans might interpret this as the tide of history leading the party on to fortune, past experience suggests a more mundane explanation. After a few terms in office, Labor governments often find themselves facing disaffection among voters of an idealistic persuasion, resulting in loss of support to minor parties and independents. The hard-edged economic reforms of the 1980s produced a bonanza for independents when Labor lost office in NSW in 1988, and compelled the Hawke government to make its famous pitch for Greens and Democrats preferences as its primary vote sank in 1990.

Now that there’s a monopoly trader in the market for disaffected left-wing votes, the Greens are presenting Labor with a perfect storm at the next round of state elections. They thus stand poised to fulfil long-cherished but never quite realised ambitions for lower house seats. Since the threat to Labor is in their traditional inner-city strongholds, the victims could include some very senior figures. In NSW, the Greens need to gain only 3.2 per cent on Labor to claim the scalp of Education Minister Verity Firth in Balmain, which Dawn Fraser won as an independent the last time Labor lost office. On current form, that would seem to be an absolute certainty. Marrickville could also go if the fall in Labor’s vote approaches double figures, which would put Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt out of a job. While things aren’t looking quite so grim for Labor south of the border, it’s clear the Victorian party’s vote in 2010 will not reach the landslide proportions of 2002 and 2006. That means big trouble for another Education Minister in Bronwyn Pike, who needed a feverish last-week campaigning effort in 2006 to retain a 2.0 per cent margin in her seat of Melbourne. Also at risk are Housing and Local Government Minister Richard Wynne in Richmond (margin 3.6 per cent), along with back-benchers Carlo Carli (Brunswick, 4.6 per cent) and Fiona Richardson (Northcote, 8.5 per cent).

Then there’s the risk that the phenomenon might go federal, as suggested by the recent Newspoll showing Greens support at 13 per cent. Such figures would be viewed nervously by Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, who last November watched a Greens candidate take second place for the first time at a general election in his seat of Melbourne. This continued a trend of ominously mounting Greens support in Melbourne going back three elections: 6.1 per cent in 1998, 15.7 per cent in 2001, 19.0 per cent in 2004, 22.8 per cent in 2007. Tanner’s primary vote of 49.5 per cent kept him out of danger, but this was achieved at the peak of Labor’s electoral cycle. It’s not hard to conceive a scenario where the Rudd government pursues votes in the electorally decisive outer suburbs at the expense of the values held dear in the inner-city, which could place Tanner in serious jeopardy.

NSW by-elections live

7.51pm. The NSWEC has all but a few booths in from Port Macquarie, and you can now clearly call it for Peter Besseling, who leads the Nationals candidate 36.8 per cent to 31.9 per cent. Elsewhere it’s clear the results are as expected: a big win for the Liberals in Ryde, and narrower wins for Labor in Cabramatta and Lakemba following swings of over 20 per cent.

7.30pm. With 22.4 per cent counted, Besseling 37.6 per cent and Nationals 31.9 per cent, so Besseling home and hosed unless these are very good Nationals booths outstanding.

7.26pm. Labor’s lead now up to 5.7 per cent in Cabramatta according to the ABC. Still no actual prefernece counts in yet.

7.24pm. Seven booths out of 21 counted on the primary vote in Ryde, and that Taverner poll is looking good: Liberal on 62 per cent of the two-party vote.

7.23pm. ABC computer has Besseling leading by 1.2 per cent in Port Macquarie, but with no notional preference counts in yet this is based on assumptions about preferences.

7.21pm. The ABC computer is now up to speed on the Cabramatta count: Labor is facing a 24 per cent swing, but that leaves them with 5 per cent to spare.

7.14pm. No real trouble for Labor in Lakemba, with 59.2 per cent after a third of the booths counted.

7.11pm. NSWEC has eight booths counted in Cabramatta, Labor leading 48.0 per cent to 40.4 per cent, so Nick Lalich is not actually in trouble. Liberals on 54.9 per cent in Ryde with over a third of the booths counted, so an obvious win for them there.

7.08pm. Comments tells me Cabramatta “tightening”, but ABC computer still only has one booth. NSWEC website most unwieldy (PDFs? Come on …).

7.00pm. Nine booths in and 6 per cent counted in Port Macquarie, and looking ominous for the Nationals, who trail Besseling 35.0 per cent to 32.9 per cent on the primary vote. Still nothing from Ryde.

6.55pm. Labor looking at an ugly swing in Cabramatta of over 20 per cent, but not enough to cost them the seat.

6.50pm. Commenter Oakeshott Country, who knows his Port Macquarie onions backwards, says the three small booths in so far suggest a very close result between the Nationals candidate Leslie Williams and independent Peter Besseling.

6.42pm. Riverwood booth in from Lakemba. Labor vote on 55.3 per cent, which suggests a 20 per cent drop.

6.20pm. Booths closed 20 minutes ago. First results should be in shortly.

NSW by-elections minus one day

The Labor government in New South Wales is bracing itself for a fearsome backlash at three of tomorrow’s four state by-elections, in the Labor held seats of Ryde, Cabramatta and Lakemba. It will be spared such embarrassment in Port Macquarie only by virtue of the fact that it is not running a candidate. Here it is the Nationals who face a potentially awkward result, with independent Peter Besseling threatening their chances of recovering a traditionally safe seat following Rob Oakeshott’s move to Canberra at the September 6 Lyne by-election. Labor seems gone for all money in Ryde, but its margins in Cabramatta and Lakemba are surely impregnable. It thus looks likely to have its majority reduced from 52 to 51 seats out of 93. The Liberals will be up from 22 to 23, while the Nationals can hope to increase from 13 to 14. If they fail, the number of independents will remain at five.

Lots and lots of splendid analysis from Antony Green at ABC Elections. Tune in here for live coverage tomorrow evening.

Ryde (Labor 9.9%): Deputy Premier John Watkins’ resignation announcement on September 3 marked the commencement of Labor’s present period of turmoil, prompting the attempted reshuffle that cost Morris Iemma the leadership and led Reba Meagher to quit politics. Watkins has held Ryde since it was re-created in 1999 out of abolished Gladesville, which Watkins won from the Liberals in 1995, and Ermington, which had been held for the Liberals by Michael Photios. Iemma might not have been exaggerating when he proclaimed Watkins “one of the greatest marginal seat campaigners in Labor history”: his win over Photios in 1999 was achieved in the face of a 4.1 per cent Liberal margin with a 10.7 per cent swing, and he picked up a further 8.9 per cent swing in 2003. The current margin of 9.9 per cent would thus be exaggerating Labor’s strength here even under happier circumstances. This point was forcefully driven home by the recent Taverner poll pointing to a gigantic 24 per cent swing and a landslide victory for the Liberals. Their candidate is solicitor and former Ryde councillor Victor Dominello, who won Liberal preselection over Hunters Hill councillor Richard Quinn by 22 votes to 17 in the final round. Labor’s candidate is Nicole Campbell, a Ryde councillor who works at the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Campbell stood against John Howard in the corresponding federal seat of Bennelong in 2001 and 2004, and was prevailed upon to stand aside in favour Maxine McKew last year. She also ran unsuccessfully in Epping at the March 2007 state election. Campbell won the poisoned chalice of the Ryde preselection ahead of council colleague Michael Butterworth, a former staffer to John Faulkner and McKew’s campaign manager.

Cabramatta (Labor 29.2%): Health Minister Reba Meagher was one of five cabinet ministers designated for the chop under the proposed reshuffle that prompted Morris Iemma’s Right faction to pull the plug on his leadership. However, Iemma’s demise didn’t save her, and she declined to nominate for a position in Nathan Rees’s new cabinet when it became clear she would not succeed. A week later she announced she was joining the exodus from parliament, initiating a by-election in the seat she had held since the by-election that followed the murder of her precesessor John Newman in 1995. Labor’s candidate is Nick Lalich, who has been mayor of Fairfield since the position became popularly elected in 2006 and was re-elected on September 13 with 61 per cent of the vote. Lalich is of Serbian heritage but was born in Egypt, his parents having escaped the German occuption during World War II. Liberal candidate Dai Le fits the profile of the electorate in that she is of Vietnamese descent, but unlike Lalich she lives outside the electorate, in Dulwich Hill. Le works as a producer for ABC Radio National, and once produced a television documentary on Phuong Ngo, the man convicted of the murder of John Newman. According to Linda Silmalis of the Sunday Telegraph, Labor polling conducted by UMR Research a week after Morris Iemma’s resignation showed Labor on 44 per cent of the primary vote (down 25 per cent on the 2007 election) and the Liberals on 33 per cent (up 17 per cent). However, more recent polling showed Labor’s position had improved slightly.

Lakemba (Labor 34.0%): Morris Iemma’s old seat has always been safe for Labor since its creation in 1927, particulary so since it acquired its current identity as a Lebanese enclave from the 1970s. Labor’s candidate is Rob Furolo, who has been the popularly elected mayor of Canterbury since 2004, having recently been re-elected with 55 per cent of the vote. He appears not to have faced serious opposition in his bid for preselection. The Liberal candidate is Michael Hawatt, who is also on Canterbury council. According to Linda Silmalis of the Sunday Telegraph, UMR Research polling conducted for Labor a week after Iemma’s resignation showed Labor’s primary vote on 44 per cent (down 30 per cent from 2007) and the Liberals on 30 per cent (up 17 per cent).

Port Macquarie (Independent 28.2% versus Nationals): Rob Oakeshott was elected in Port Macquarie as the Nationals candidate in 1996, and the seat was previously in Nationals hands since its creation in 1988. Oakeshott quit the Nationals to sit as an independent in March 2002, complaining of the influence of property developers in local branches and questioning whether the party was still relevant to an electorate transformed by tourism and demographic change. Such questions have frequently been asked by local Liberals, many of whom were angered when their party chose not to contest the by-election. This has added impetus to the independent candidacy of Peter Besseling, president of the Port Macquarie Pirates rugby union club and a press secretary to Oakeshott of 12 years’ standing. Among those backing Besseling are Ken Dodds, president of the Port Macquarie branch of the Liberal Party. The Nationals candidate have again nominated their candidate from last year’s state election, Leslie Williams, described at the time as a “teacher, student nurse and small business owner”. Complicating matters for Besseling are the entry of four members from the sacked Port Macquarie Hastings Council (Lisa Intemann, Bob Sharpham, Jamie Harrison and Cameron Price) and the likely high rate of preference exhausting under the state’s optional preferential voting system.

UPDATE (18/10/08): Daily Telegraph reports: “Labor is on the knife edge in Cabramatta following the resignation of former education minister Reba Meagher, with internal party polling having its candidate, former Fairfield mayor Nick Lalich, just one percentage point ahead of the Liberal’s Dai Le.”

Taverner: 64-36 to Liberal in Ryde

Today’s Sun Herald brings us a poll of 500 respondents in Ryde, one of four New South Wales state seats which face a by-election next Saturday. It points to a 24 per cent two-party swing against Labor and an easy win for Liberal candidate Victor Dominello – a barely believable result in normal circumstances, but one that sounds entirely plausible in the current environment. The other Labor-held seats which go to the polls are Lakemba (margin 34.0 per cent, being vacated by Morris Iemma) and Cabramatta (29.2 per cent, vacated by Reba Meagher). The fourth seat is Port Macquarie, which is vacant as a result of independent Rob Oakeshott’s move to federal politics at last month’s Lyne by-election. This looms as a contest between Nationals candidate Leslie Williams and independent Peter Besseling. More on all this at some point in the next few days.

UPDATE: Crazy large overview of the Ryde by-election from Antony Green at ABC Elections.

Newspoll: 52-48 to Coalition in NSW

The latest bi-monthly New South Wales state Newspoll shows the Coalition maintaining its 52-48 lead, although Labor has recovered a point on the primary vote. Barry O’Farrell’s lead over Morris Iemma as preferred Premier is steady at 39-32, and his satisfaction rating is up three points to 40 per cent. Morris Iemma’s approval rating remains at a disastrous 26 per cent, although his disapproval is down three points to 60 per cent.