Morgan, McNair and Westpoll

Roy Morgan appears to have marked the arrival of election season by moving its schedule from fortnightly to weekly federal polling. Unfortunately their sample sizes have suffered as a result, the polls from the last two weeks surveying fewer than 1100 respondents compared with more than 2000 for most Morgan polls from the first half of the year. For this reason the latest finding of a shift to Labor should be treated with caution. The poll shows Labor widening the two-party preferred gap in its favour from 51.5-48.5 (still a winnable position for the Coalition, as Peter Brent of Mumble explains) to 54-46, the Labor primary vote up from 43.5 to 46 per cent with the Coalition down a point to 41.5 per cent. As usual, judgement would best be left reserved until Tuesday’s Newspoll.

Of more specific interest, last weekend various News Limited papers carried a McNair Ingenuity Research poll of just over 200 respondents from each of the Coalition’s five most marginal New South Wales seats. The results would have been disappointing from Labor’s perspective, showing the Coalition well ahead in Paterson (50 per cent to 40, Greens 6 per cent) and with their nose in front in Richmond (47 per cent to 37, Greens 11 per cent), with Labor holding modest leads in Eden-Monaro (45 per cent to 44, Greens 7 per cent), Dobell (47 per cent to 43, Greens 4 per cent) and Parramatta (46 per cent to 42, Greens 6 per cent).

The West Australian’s monthly Westpoll, conducted two weekends ago and published on Monday, was still more encouraging for the Coalition. The poll of 407 respondents produced a 12 per cent "don’t know" figure that was not distributed, but had they gone to the trouble of doing so the results would have been 49 per cent for the Coalition against 40 per cent for Labor. Due to the near-disappearance of One Nation this represents a substantial improvement for both parties on the 2001 election, at which the Coalition polled 42.4 per cent in Western Australia and Labor 37.1. In two-party preferred terms however, it may be roughly calculated as a swing to the Coalition of 1.5 per cent, once again raising concerns about Labor’s hold on Stirling (Jann McFarlane, 1.6 per cent), Hasluck (Sharryn Jackson, 1.8 per cent) and Swan (Kim Wilkie, 2.1 per cent).

As usual, these low-sample polls had the newspapers that commissioned or conducted them reading ludicrous significance into their findings. Interestingly, though probably coincidentally, the tone of the misreporting was uniformly pro-Labor. Perth’s Sunday Times ran the McNair Ingenuity Research polling under the plainly incorrect headline, "Labor up in five key seats" (since their aggregate vote across the five seats was higher than the Coalition’s). Other News Limited reporting gave undue emphasis to rather pointless questions included in the survey regarding the allegations then circulating about the Opposition Leader, which predictably found most respondents affecting not to care. The West Australian’s reporting of its Westpoll findings struck a similar note, the headline reading "Emotional Latham plea wins support", the basis for which was that Labor had improved on the previous month’s poll at which they slumped eight points for no readily apparent reason. The only plausible explanation for this was a dud sample. Labor’s real hope for better things in the West came after the poll was published, with the return to the front-bench of local hero Kim Beazley on Wednesday.

House of cards

Yesterday’s surprise reshuffle marked a departure from the earlier practice of the Howard Government, which entered the last two elections with no changes to the ministry in the preceding year. In particular, the Prime Minister was happy to enter the 2001 campaign carrying three prominent Cabinet "lame ducks", Peter Reith, Michael Wooldridge and John Fahey, and he also neglected to jettison Ian McLachlan from the Defence portfolio (a happily lesser concern at that time) when he announced his impending retirement in the months before the 1998 election. This time he is reacting to a somewhat different set of circumstances – Peter Garrett’s nomination as Labor candidate for Kingsford-Smith has added urgency to the need for new blood in the Environment portfolio, and the return of Kim Beazley has narrowed if not closed the front-bench talent gap and demanded an assertive Government response.

From an electoral perspective, the most intriguing aspect of the reshuffle is the Prime Minister’s move to generate positive publicity for key marginal seat holders through happily timed promotions. Mal Brough, member for Longman (Queensland, 2.5 per cent), rose within the junior ministry to assume the Assistant Treasurer and Revenue portfolio vacated by the new Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan; his earlier position of Employment Services Minister went to Fran Bailey, member for McEwen (Victoria, 2.2 per cent), entering the junior ministry for the first time; and Bailey’s earlier position of parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister in turn went to Teresa Gambaro, member for Petrie (Queensland, 3.5 per cent). There seems no reason to doubt the initial announcement will generate useful goodwill in these three crucial seats, but this needs to be traded off against the preference of many voters for a local member free to tend to electorate matters. There are also concerns held by Government MPs, according to Mark Metherell in the Sydney Morning Herald, "about the risks facing new ministers grappling with new briefs during an election campaign".

While promotions in the Howard Government have not previously occurred this close to an election, its past history offers two precedents that do not augur well in this regard. At the reshuffle closest to the 1998 election, Tasmanian MP Warwick Smith was entrusted with the Family Services portfolio which then included responsibility for aged care. This area had already proved the undoing of Judi Moylan and would later destroy Bronwyn Bishop. Smith fared little better – in one of his first experiences in the job, angry pensioners shouted at him as he defended Government plans for nursing home fees during an appearance on the Nine Network’s Midday program. Although thought to have performed well in the job by most objective observers, he suffered a 4.7 per cent swing at the October 1998 election and lost his seat of Bass to Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne.

The reshuffle closest to the 2001 election, announced in December 2000, saw the promotion to the Employment Services junior ministry of Mal Brough, who once again benefited in yesterday’s reshuffle. Brough’s subsequent swearing-in was delayed as the Federal Police investigated untimely vote rorting allegations involving his electorate office, and he later hit trouble when reports emerged of widespread rorting of the Job Network program. Brough picked up a 1.8 per cent swing at the 2001 election, but this compared unfavourably with swings in the neighbouring seats of Fairfax (4.8 per cent), Petrie (2.7 per cent) and Dickson (a Cheryl Kernot-boosted 6.1 per cent).

Presumably none of this has been lost on the Prime Minister, who has certainly not gone overboard with this particular aspect of his strategy. Both the new Cabinet appointments are Senators, and three other recipients of promotions hold reasonably safe seats. With further rearrangements not being ruled out in the event that the Government is re-elected, Brough, Bailey and Gambaro have presumably been given a brief to enjoy the photo opportunities and stay out of trouble.

One-way ticket

On Friday the last piece in the Senate election puzzle fell into place when the National Party held its preselection for the second position on the joint Coalition ticket in Victoria. Incumbent Julian McGauran prevailed in a field of four including Scott Mitchell, a former Young Nationals president who pursued his challenge at the cost of his job as staffer for Trade Minister Mark Vaile. It is little wonder that the position was keenly sought, as McGauran is the beneficiary of an agreement which effectively reserves for the National Party one of the four to six Victorian Senate seats the Coalition can reasonably expect to hold, giving them the unloseable second position at alternating elections and the unwinnable fourth in between. On the strength of its own electoral merits the National Party has only been able to win two out of the 37 lower house seats in Victoria at the last three elections; of these, Mallee could well be lost when the Liberal Party is next able to contest it upon the retirement of member John Forrest, as the neighbouring seat of Murray was lost when Bruce Lloyd retired in 1996, while in Gippsland McGauran’s brother Peter faces an imminent threat from Labor.

For a party in such a position to be granted an automatic Senate seat it could never win from a separate ticket is an obvious bone of contention for ambitious Liberals. Part of the explanation involves a relic from a bygone era of Australian politics, the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP ceased to be a political force at the 1974 double dissolution election but has since managed to retain a loyal core of 1 to 2 per cent of the primary vote in the state of its origin. At the 1987 double dissolution election these votes were instrumental in delivering a sixth seat to the Coalition, and in ensuring that one of them went to McGauran who headed a separate National Party ticket. More recently, DLP preferences helped put Coalition third place-holder Kay Patterson over the line at Labor’s expense in both 1996 and 2001.

When the Australian Electoral Commission moved to de-register the DLP in 2002 after it refused to provide names and details for the 2000 members it claimed, the McGauran family’s help in funding legal action that prevented the deregistration from proceeding was widely seen as an astute political insurance policy. The wisdom of this appeared to be demonstrated on Thursday when Michael Harvey of the Herald Sun reported that "Liberal heavyweights including Treasurer Peter Costello and party state president Helen Kroger are believed to be behind a blunt ultimatum to the junior Coalition partner" whereby the Liberal Party would abandon the joint ticket arrangement if McGauran was not endorsed. The McGaurans’ support for the DLP may have been made with a view to maintaining the seat even if compelled to run from a separate National Party ticket, but it appears to have earned them enough gratitude that McGauran was able to bring to the table the promise of a straightforward allocation of DLP preferences to the Coalition ahead of Labor, in contrast to 1998 when Labor’s Jacinta Collins was rewarded for her opposition to euthanasia and stem cell research by being placed ahead of her third-place opposite number on the Coalition ticket, Tsebin Tchen.

McGauran’s brother faces an uncertain future, but for himself another term in the Senate is assured. However, the long-term decline of both the National Party and the Democratic Labor Party suggests that between now and 2010, the logic of a separate Liberal Party ticket will become irresistible.

August 7 – the God that failed

So, no August 7 election then. The next hypothesis to face the test is the one involving an August 14 election announced after a cabinet meeting next Tuesday, but this is not where The Poll Bludger is putting his money. In the midst of uncertainty, the best we can do is continue our usual game of wildly exaggerating the significance of fractional shifts in meaningless opinion polls.

Yesterday the least meaningless opinion poll of them all, Newspoll, added a further increment of evidence to the general picture of a gradual Coalition improvement, though perhaps too gradual to soothe the frayed nerves of Government back-benchers. Labor’s vote was down two points from 43 to 41 per cent, with the Coalition steady on 43 per cent. On two-party preferred the Coalition has cut the gap from 48-52 to 49-51. The headlines instead focused on a fall in Mark Latham’s satisfaction rating from 54 to 49 per cent, with dissatisfaction up 29 to 35 per cent. The poll was taken immediately after reports emerged of Latham’s altercation with a disgruntled constituent and with over-heated rumours circulating regarding the content of Channel Nine’s Sunday report.

Other intelligence has come to light courtesy of the Courier Mail, which has run a poll conducted by TNS of 937 respondents in three key Queensland electorates. In Dickson, held by Liberal Peter Dutton with a margin of 6 per cent, Labor led 54 to 46 per cent on two-party preferred. While this seems a bit much, it may at least be counted as further evidence that this seat is more marginal than it looks, owing to the fact that Cheryl Kernot held it going into the 2001 election. There was better news for the Government from the other two seats. In Hinkler National Party member Paul Neville held 50.5 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, despite trailing 36 to 37 per cent on the primary vote (figures suggesting that undecided voters had not been assigned, as was the case with TNS’s polls during the Queensland state election). This is not plausible, but it may at least be taken as a broad indication that Neville is still the hunt, and that the Coalition may be able to contain the damage in Queensland. Further evidence to that effect came with the results for Longman, held by Employment Services Minister Mal Brough on a margin of 2.5 per cent. Brough was found to have widened the margin to 4 per cent.

The weekend before last the Canberra Sunday Times ran a poll of about 200 local voters which had Labor on 43.5 per cent, the Coalition 31.5 per cent, the Greens 6 per cent, Democrats 4 per cent and a remarkable 15 per cent for “others”. While the outcome in the lower house seats of Canberra and Fraser is not in doubt, the poll has led to further speculation that one of the two Australian Capital Territory Senate seats could be won by Greens candidate Kerrie Tucker at the expense of Liberal incumbent and former Chief Minister Gary Humphries. To prevent this Humphries needs a third of the primary vote or very close to it (and it should be remembered that the Liberal vote for the Senate is usually 1 to 2 per cent lower than for the House), since he will receive few minor party preferences.

Since the ACT was first granted its two Senate representatives in 1975 there have been 11 elections, each of which has produced a result of one seat each for Labor and Liberal. While Labor have never had any trouble scoring a third of the primary vote, there have been three occasions when the Liberals needed preferences to make it over the line. In 1998 former Senator Margaret Reid survived with 30.9 per cent, but that was under a preference regime more favourable for the Liberals than what they can expect now, due to a 4.7 per cent One Nation vote that split evenly between Reid and the minor parties. In 1984 the Liberal vote was 31.9 per cent and Reid just made it to a quota by picking up half of independent candidate Allan Nelson’s 4.1 per cent share of the vote. Had her vote been much lower, Democrats preferences could well have delivered the seat to the Nuclear Disarmament Party. The only time Labor came within range of winning the second seat was in 1983, but back then the Australian Democrats dominated the minor party vote and returned a reasonable proportion of it to the Liberals. Although the idea is not being entirely ruled out, Labor would need a substantial primary vote improvement to be in contention for the second seat on this occasion.

The marginal seats in Adelaide continue to be polled to within an inch of their lives, and many thanks to Phil Robins for calling my attention to two recent Advertiser polls that had previously escaped notice. On June 26 a poll was published from an impressive sample of 691 showing Labor behind 51 to 49 per cent in the seat of Wakefield, which it notionally holds with a margin of 1.5 per cent. Wakefield has been altered so dramatically by the redistribution that it does not bear comparison with the existing seat, retained by Neil Andrew for the Liberals at the last election on a margin of 14.6 per cent. The formerly rural seat is now largely urban and will be contested for Labor by Martyn Evans, member for the abolished seat of Bonython, with Neil Andrew to retire. Robins notes that "the working class area around Elizabeth may not be as reliable for Evans as the country towns are for the Libs. Many of the Poms who are strongly represented in Elizabeth don’t like the republic (which Latham is pushing). The Greens and Democrats are weak in Wakefield, too. And it seems the Budget has been more favourably received in Wakefield than in other marginal SA seats".

The other marginal Labor Adelaide seat, Kingston, was the subject of a poll a week earlier. It showed a slight strengthening in Labor’s position, with David Cox recording 53 per cent of the two-party preferred compared with his post-redistribution majority of 1.3 per cent. Together the polls point to a very uncertain picture in Adelaide, given the results that have been coming out of the Liberal-held seats showing sitting members like Trish Draper in Makin under threat.

New stuff, and lots of it

The Poll Bludger’s long promised and much-delayed seat-by-seat guide to the House of Representatives election is finally available for public edification and enlightenment. Click here for the federal pendulum and all-purpose entry point. The summaries are grouped on to six separate pages covering New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania and the Territories. With my own content now available to replace it, Antony Green’s material gracefully retires from the site – it may now be found at ABC Elections.

Phoney war dispatches: final edition

In order to mark the end of the financial year, the handover of sovereignty in Iraq and the arrival of the period in which the Prime Minister may call a half-Senate election, the Poll Bludger proudly presents the Final Edition of Phoney War Dispatches. His massive House of Representatives election guide WILL be up by the end of the week and with that labour of love out of the way, PWD will be rendered redundant by near-daily blogging.

• Those of you who followed the Poll Bludger’s advice from last week to "mark an extra red circle around the date for the next Newspoll a fortnight hence" may remove it, as the survey did in fact come out last Friday. Aggregating polling from April to June to produce state-by-state figures, the results suggest an improving Coalition performance in New South Wales (Coalition 42 per cent, Labor 40 per cent – in the first quarter it was the other way round) and, in particular, in South Australia (where they trailed 42 to 43 last time, but now lead 45 to 38). Labor however has improved its showing in Victoria, lifting two points to 45 per cent with the Coalition steady on 40 per cent, and in Western Australia, up three points to 41 per cent with the Coalition down one to 44 per cent.

• Tasmania suffers a cavalier dismissal at the hands of Newspoll, but the Hobart Mercury stepped into the breach today publishing an EMRS poll individually covering the five Tasmanian electorates. The results suggest that Labor’s stranglehold in Tasmania is secure. In the most marginal, the Launceston-based seat of Bass, Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne led Liberal challenger Michael Ferguson 49 to 41 per cent, compared with 42.8 and 41.4 per cent at the 2001 election. The poll coincides with a visit to Bass by the Prime Minister, who was notably unenthusiastic about Ferguson during the preselection campaign. The survey had the Liberals on 37 per cent in Braddon and Lyons (compared with 39.2 and 35.8 per cent in 2001) and 31 per cent in Franklin and Denison (37.6 and 31.6 per cent).

• Continuing with Tasmania, Brian Harradine announced on Monday that after 29 years as an independent Senator he would not be contesting the next election. Labor and the Liberals claim they are both hopeful of winning his seat, but by the Poll Bludger’s reckoning Greens candidate Christine Milne, who led the party in the state parliament from 1993 to 1998, would be doing very badly to lose. Indeed some party optimists suggest they could win two Tasmanian Senate seats instead of one.

• A rare Saturday sitting of parliament to push through deck-clearing legislation prompted a further outbreak of head-scratching over the election date. Crikey reported that "Sky News is pushing August 14 with the election to be called straight after a Cabinet meeting scheduled for two weeks’ time", a possibility which has been nowhere else countenanced to the best of the Poll Bludger’s knowledge.