The short man in history

With three consecutive election wins under his belt including one that delivered him one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in Australian history, it would seem safe to assume that the Prime Minister is a reasonably effective election campaigner. But for political commentators being contrary goes with the territory, and the safer an assumption appears the more certain it is that a counter-argument will emerge. Peter Brent at Mumble has long been a Howard naysayer, citing the Government’s brush with death in 1998 and a victory in November 2001 that could be reckoned quite modest under the circumstances. The notion was given wider circulation today by Laura Tingle of the Australian Financial Review, who opened an article that featured prominently in today’s election wraparound thus:

John Howard’s utter dominance of federal politics for most of the past eight years has tended to overshadow something that will prove crucial to the outcome of the 2004 election: that he is a poor campaigner … (in 1996) Newspoll recorded the coalition’s primary vote falling from about 50 per cent in mid-January to 47 per cent on election day, March 2 … (in 1998) the government’s standing with voters deteriorated from a high of 44 per cent in mid-August to 39.5 per cent on election day on October 3. Even in 2001 in an election remembered for its focus on border security, the coalition’s primary vote fell from 50 per cent in late September to 43.1 per cent on polling day, November 10.

Tingle is being a little cute here. The 50 per cent result she chooses as her reference point for the 1996 election showed a spike in the Coalition vote for that fortnight, comparing with 47 per cent in the previous poll and 48 per cent subsequently. These results indicate that Howard maintained the status quo during the 1996 campaign, which would normally be considered a good effort from an Opposition Leader facing an entrenched and (normally) skilful incumbent. The poll chosen to represent the state of play going into the 1998 election was quirkier still, the quoted figure of 44 per cent comparing with 39 per cent from the previous fortnight and 40 per cent from the next. Following the logic of her 1996 comparison Tingle should have gone with the latter poll, that being the one taken immediately before the election announcement, but this would have required conceding that Howard held his ground during the campaign period. And if Tingle wanted to gauge the effect of a "focus on border security" in 2001 she could hardly have chosen a worse starting point than the poll taken immediately after September 11. It was inevitable that the Coalition vote would cool a little from this result, although the 43.1 per cent they ultimately recorded indeed represented a drop on their scores in Newspoll throughout the campaign – although it could just be that the maligned Roy Morgan was recording Coalition support more accurately.

The Government indeed has the fight of its life on its hands, but it may at least be said that any Labor partisans who are factoring pro-Labor bonuses into current polling based on Howard’s supposed campaigning incompetence are likely to be disappointed. Due to the inexperience of the Opposition Leader, for which the only modern precedent is John Hewson in 1993, and the proven capacity of governments to squeeze out one last term through election period scare campaigns, the Poll Bludger will continue to lean the other way and assume that the Coalition will claw back at least 2 per cent on two-party preferred over the next six weeks.

UPDATE (31/8/04): This post originally contained the outrageous claim that Howard’s 1996 majority was the biggest in Australia’s history. Thanks to Peter Brent at Mumble for alerting me to the fact that I had "taken the Howard truth serum" – it was in fact equal third.

Crystal ball gazing

The Poll Bludger has meticulously sifted through his House of Representatives election guide to determine the likely outcome in each of the 150 seats, which will no doubt be revised many times between now and October 9. It is certainly to be hoped so, because the current assessment is for the nightmare scenario of a hung parliament in the true sense of the word, with the Labor and non-Labor forces gridlocked on 75 seats each.

In New South Wales, Dobell, Parramatta and Richmond are nominated as Labor gains. Despite margins of just 1.5 and 1.7 per cent, Paterson and Eden-Monaro are tipped to hold against the tide due to the advantages of incumbency and popular local members, although most would say these were bold calls at this stage. Labor will recover Cunningham, lost to the Greens at a 2002 by-election.

A status quo result is predicted for Victoria, except that Christian Zahra is tipped to hold McMillan which became notionally Liberal with a margin of 2.9 per cent in the recent redistribution. Here the advantages of incumbency will work in Labor’s favour, but in three seats on narrower margins I am tipping the Coalition to get over the line. The bravest of these judgements is Dunkley, an outer suburban mortgage belt seat where Coalition scaremongering over interest rates, combined with the local issue of the Bracks Government’s tolls for the Scoresby Freeway, will bite as the campaign develops.

Queensland is universally reckoned to be the danger zone for the Coalition, and so it appears on this assessment – Labor will even up the ledger in this state by winning Herbert, Hinkler, Moreton, Longman, Bowman, Petrie and Dickson.

Three seats are there to be won for Labor in South Australia – Adelaide, Hindmarsh and Makin – and the current tip is that all of them will be, the first two by natural correction, the second with help from a retiring Liberal member, and the second with help from a sitting Liberal member (Trish Draper).

Labor will win a third successive clean sweep of Tasmania, win both seats as usual in the Australian Capital Territory and gain the Darwin seat of Solomon.

So on the current hypothetical election night, that will leave all eyes on Western Australia which would need to deliver three seats to the Liberals late in the evening to keep John Howard in the Lodge – or two to confuse the situation. The latter seems the most likely outcome at this stage, a projected 2 per cent swing to the Coalition in Perth delivering them Stirling and Hasluck with Swan to remain out of reach due to a slightly bigger margin and a comical pre-election performance from Liberal candidate Andrew Murfin.

And they’re off

A bleary-eyed and hungover Poll Bludger awoke mid-afternoon to face the big news, that October 9 will indeed be the big day. The Senate however will sit as scheduled on Monday and Tuesday, the Prime Minister saying he "didn’t want anybody to suggest that I was trying to prevent the Senate doing any pointless political business that it might want to do". Time now to take a Tylenol and a step back – individual seat predictions and a survey of the battlefield will be added later this evening, or maybe tomorrow (more likely tomorrow).

Election date entrails examined

As anyone who has heard a news report in the last 24 hours will be aware, speculation is rife that John Howard will call an election tomorrow for October 9. While this would mean an unusually long election campaign, the theory is that he will be willing to risk it out of desperation to head off an aimless two week session of parliament with the legislative decks already cleared and the Senate waiting to rake through the children overboard affair. The rumblings began on Wednesday when Liam Bartlett of ABC Radio in Perth pressed Howard on the question of whether parliament would resume on Monday, to which he would only reply that it was "scheduled to". Yesterday he told an ABC interviewer in Tasmania he would be leaving for Canberra rather than his usual destination of Sydney, perhaps suggesting he was planning a visit to Yarralumla.

More cutely, the Launceston Examiner reported on Wednesday that Liberal candidate for Bass Michael Ferguson had campaign posters up around the electorate – which, under Launceston City Council’s rather strange rules governing such things, will see him fined if an election is not held within two months. At The Age, Olympics reporter Geoff McLure read great significance into a request to the Australian Olympic Committee from the Prime Minister’s office for a pronunciation guide for the names of all Australian gold medallists, to be provided no later than Sunday morning.

For all the weight of evidence, the Poll Bludger is not so sure. Rational alternative explanations are available for each of the substantial matters raised above. Howard’s unilluminating remarks are wholly consistent with his established straight bat approach in which he sticks to factual statements that leave all his options open. The plane flight to Canberra rather than Sydney also leaves his options open, while sparing him another journey to attend parliament on Monday. As for a new session of parliament, Laura Tingle and Sophie Morris of the Australian Financial Review said yesterday that the "decks" were less "cleared" than most imagined, reporting "the government has set an ambitious agenda for legislation in federal parliament next week", which "will be dominated by issues on which the government still believes it can ‘wedge’ Labor, from school funding to the additional private health insurance rebate for seniors announced earlier this week". Howard might also be tempted by the notion that Labor will end up chasing its tail on the children overboard issue, perhaps associating themselves too closely with indignant histrionics from the Greens and Democrats in the Senate. Most likely he will go over internal polling today and baulk at going early, instead hoping to somehow swing momentum back in the Government’s favour during the coming session of parliament.

If he needed another reason to hold off, Roy Morgan today provided it – their fortnightly face-to-face poll of 2000-odd respondents showed Labor headed for a landslide victory. The Coalition’s primary vote was down to 39 per cent, their worst showing since the peak of Mark Latham’s honeymoon period in February, although Labor’s rating of 43.5 per cent was no better than their average over the past six months. The two-party preferred split had Labor on a commanding 55.5 per cent, although this gives them 70 per cent of the preferences from minor parties and independents, an unreasonable figure despite the Greens recording their best performance since March with 9 per cent.

Sugaring the poll

Throughout the life of the Howard Government, the threat of a rural revolt has been the dog that never quite barked. It was widely predicted that One Nation would sweep all before them in National Party heartland in 2001 as well as 1998, and when the Government’s failure to have sugar included as a component of the United States Free Trade Agreement became apparent in February it was feared there might be a localised backlash in the key electoral battleground of Queensland. The sugar-growing areas of this state mostly have a history as Coalition strongholds but have become dangerously unpredictable over recent state and federal elections, and National-turned-independent member for Kennedy Bob Katter has made little secret of his desire to exploit the situation. As a trial run he promoted five independent candidates at the February 2004 state election with extremely limited success, the only candidate to score 20 per cent having done almost as well without Katter’s help at the previous election. By May, Katter was taking a slightly different tack, threatening to form his own party to damage the Coalition not by winning seats on its own account, but by cutting a deal where his candidates would direct preferences to Labor provided they blocked the FTA. This could well have delivered Labor the marginal seats of Herbert and Hinkler, and at least raised the possibility of upsets in Dawson, Leichhardt and Wide Bay.

Labor of course did not block the FTA (or at least it does not appear that this is what it has done), and in any case Katter says he has had to limit his ambitions due to "lack of finances". Another reason might be fear of losing his own seat, it being quite common for voters to drift back to their natural major party after flirting with independents. Paul Daley of The Australian reported last week that internal polling showed Kennedy "again within the Nationals’ grasp"; one person who thinks differently is Martin Tenni, north Queensland party executive member and former Bjelke-Petersen Government minister, whose letter to state president Terry Bolger reporting "one thing is definite, we cannot win Kennedy" was leaked to The Australian. Whatever the reason, Katter is not forming a new party and will endorse only four independents, one of whom will run in the far-away Victorian seat of Murray where Liberal member Sharman Stone is unlikely to face sleepless nights.

Last Friday Katter unveiled Lars Hedberg as his candidate for Wide Bay, held by Warren Truss for the National Party. Much of the coverage focused on the response of Katter’s sparring partner, National Party Senator Ron Boswell, who ridiculed Hedberg for owning a McDonald’s franchise. Pretending not to have noticed the difference between the agrarian socialism and the campus left, Boswell said it was "hypocrisy" for such a person to run on a "platform of anti-globalisation". It is hard to imagine Hedberg seriously troubling Truss on his own account, but his candidacy could complicate things in a seat that is less secure than its 9.9 per cent margin makes it appear, having swung 10 per cent to the Nationals in 1996, 15 per cent to Labor in 1998 and 8 per cent back to the Nationals in 2001. Only one of the two other Queensland seats targeted by Katter has been identified, that being De-Anne Kelly’s seat of Dawson. Here it is expected that his seal of approval will go to Margaret Menzel, wife of former state National Party MP Max Menzel and co-ordinator of the Sugar Industry Reform Committee.

Some opinion polls

The Fairfax papers yesterday published a state-by-state voting breakdown from the past three monthly polls conducted by ACNielsen, a similar exercise to Newspoll’s quarterly geographic and demographic surveys but with smaller samples. Labor’s two-party preferred vote in the ACNielsen results for June to August compares with Newspoll’s results for April to June as follows:

Election ’01 Newspoll ACNielsen
National 49.0 51 53
NSW 47.9 50 53
Vic 52.2 55 53
Qld 45.3 50 52
WA 48.4 50 49.5
SA 45.9 49 49.5
Capitals 51.4 53 55.5
Regions 45.5 49 47

Newcomer Galaxy Research has today redeemed itself slightly with a new federal poll after its roguish-looking effort of a fortnight ago, though its results continue to favour the Coalition by about 3 per cent compared with its more established rivals. Last fortnight it found that despite Mark Latham’s FTA coup the Coalition primary vote lead had blown out to 47 to 36 per cent, putting them ahead 54-46 on two-party preferred. This time the Coalition are on 43 per cent against Labor’s 39 with a two-party preferred dead heat.

Steve Lewis of The Australian reported yesterday that polling conducted by Irving Saulwick for the Australian Democrats had their Senate support at a surprisingly high 10 per cent, although it appears respondents were first reminded of the party’s existence with a series of questions about them (very few being able to identify Andrew Bartlett as the current leader, despite the unfortunate incident on the floor of the Senate in December). Perhaps for this reason, Lewis reported it was "hard to find anyone within the Democrats who actually believe Saulwick’s polling is an accurate gauge of the public mood". Also hard to credit was a reported Greens vote of 12 per cent; unfortunately no other figures were provided.

Also worth noting is a McNair Ingenuity poll of 516 voters in the electorate of Parramatta published in the Sunday Telegraph, conducted in the immediate aftermath of Liberal member Ross Cameron’s self-inflicted wounding. The poll had Labor’s Julie Owens ahead, by 47 to 43 per cent on the primary vote and with 52.5 per cent of two-party preferred, but not by the margin that might have been expected after reports that Liberal internal polling showed Cameron’s support slumping by 10 per cent.

People get ready

While nobody is taking seriously the Prime Minister’s recent assertion that the election could be held as late as March or April, this being typical of the school-masterly statements of fact he likes to offer when pressed on the subject, he has at least succeeded in giving currency to the idea that it might be delayed until November. But the Government has nothing to gain from either protracted uncertainty nor the prospect of being caught in the backwash of the historic demise of the Bush Administration. September 25, October 2 and October 30 have been explicitly ruled out, which leaves October 9, 16 and 23. October 9 would coincide with school holidays in New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia and would also require dissolving the House before the end of the coming session of parliament, although this might not be a discouragement. October 30 has been ruled out because a poll four days before a US election would "not make sense"; 11 days before is not that much better, so October 23 seems the less likely of the remaining prospects. A complicating factor for the entire period is that October 16 is reserved for an election for the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, which will be postponed until December 4 if a federal election is called for the same date. Such a postponement could be the best outcome, since the two campaigns will clash if the federal election is held a week on either side. If this is to occur painlessly the writs for the federal election will need to be issued before the ACT pre-election period begins with the opening of nominations on September 10. The announcement may therefore be expected immediately upon the conclusion of the coming parliamentary session, on September 9.

Act local

Roy Morgan has been keeping its profile up recently with a series of low-sample phone polls addressing questions of marginal interest at best. Today’s installment at least provides a two-party preferred voting intention, with Labor on 54.5 per cent, but phone polls with samples of 578 are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Of more interest is an article by John Warhurst of the Australian National University in today’s Canberra Times, which may be read as a rebuke to those of us obsessing over local electorate contests. The counsel for the defence presents as evidence Parramatta and Swan, where Liberal Party candidates are going to extraordinary lengths to make an impact on the national outcome.