More on the Brissiemander

What a fascinating post-election wash-up they are having up Brisbane way, with the Courier Mail leading today with talk of Lord Mayor Campbell Newman’s "plumbers" setting to work on election night "plugging leaks" in a potential scandal just begging to be dubbed "Brisbane Water-gate". All way more interesting than hair-splitting over council ward boundaries and preference distributions, but unfortunately such is the Poll Bludger’s brief that he shall have to leave the Woodward and Bernstein-type digging to the hard-heads at the Mail.

Further to earlier excited talk about a council ward "gerrymander", the Poll Bludger is pleased to have received correspondence regarding the matter from Griffith University senior law lecturer and electoral law enthusiast Graeme Orr. Bearing in mind that Orr adds the qualification that his comments are "quick and not fully researched", he has the following points to make:

"Rather than internal (ward) boundaries, the Liberals’ predicament may have more to do with the city’s definition – i.e. the external boundaries … The real problem seems to me to be the Liberals’ support over-concentrating in OUTER wards (by which I mean acreage towards the boundary of the city) – The Gap, Bracken Ridge, Pullenvale, McDowall, Wishart. They have only two concentrations in denser urban areas, ye-olde blue-ribbon Hamilton by the river and the Sylvan suburbs (Toowong and Walter Taylor) … The Liberals’ battle then is against the very definition of the City itself. Labor holds almost all of the traditional wards defining the City – i.e. areas more than sparsely settled until a generation or so ago. The Liberals’ uber-support blends into the Shires (Pine Rivers to the North, and the semi-rural shires to the west) – obvious conservative territory. Redefine the city north and west, and the Liberals then control the city. But one may as well say, redefine it to the south (which is more obvious expansion, in the sense of being a clear urban contiguity with Logan ‘city’) and the BCC is even safer for Labor.

"I doubt anyone supports redefining the city boundaries simply to achieve a more proportional democracy. For the boundaries reflect a sense of ‘Brisbaneness’, both historical, practical and imagined. Labor is in the majority across the major sweep of the city geographically and community-wise (especially south and east, but also the inner north, north east and – the Sylvan suburbs aside – heavier settled parts of the south-west). In a funny way, a significantly more proportional result for the Libs would have been even odder in one sense of representativeness.

"In saying this, I don’t mean to marginalise the well-off ‘fringe dwellers’! Nor do I think as you suggest that one can fault the Libs’ machine for not adopting a ‘marginal ward’ campaign – they outcampaigned the ALP all over, hence the swings across the region. They just don’t appeal enough at present to a majority of ‘city’ dwellers. If it came down to community of interest, the acreages and the older city may be so far apart (from transport to water/waste needs) that a community of interest definition of the city would see the BCC boundaries shrink, and the ALP unassailable. But over time the demographics will keep changing – whether in the Lib or Labor’s favour, who knows?

"Perhaps there is an analogue with the boundaries between states being used as boundaries in Federal elections? But I can’t think of one, as no significant population area but Albury-Wodonga lies close enough to state boundaries".

Brisbane Council gerrymander exposed

The Poll Bludger’s perception that the Liberal Party was stiffed in the Brisbane City Council ward elections has hardened upon closer analysis of the voting figures. Bearing in mind that there is still a quarter of the vote to be counted, Labor currently leads in 17 of the 26 wards despite the cumulative primary vote from the ward elections favouring the Liberals by 46.8 to 43.3 per cent. From these unpromising figures Labor achieved a yield of 65 per cent of the seats. Preferences partly explain the discrepancy, but not much – Crikey reports today that 60 per cent of Greens preferences exhausted, making it unlikely that they would have overhauled the Liberals on the overall two-party preferred figure. Even if they had, it would still have been the kind of result that gave the state electoral system under Joh Bjelke-Petersen such a bad name.

Contested # Won % Won Vote % Mayor %
ALP 26 17 65% 43.3% 40.3%
Liberal 26 9 35% 46.8% 47.6%
Greens 17 0 0% 8.0% 10.0%
Ind 6 0 0% 1.9% 2.1%

Who then is to blame for this piece of electoral villainy? The current boundaries were put in place by the Electoral Commission of Queensland in 1999, a year after the Beattie Government came to power. Liberal state director Graham Jaeschke noted at the time that the redistribution left Labor with no marginal wards while the Liberals had five needing swings of less than 5 per cent to change hands, two of which would do so at the 2000 election. By contrast Jaeschke’s Labor counterpart, Mike Kaiser, spoke volumes by describing them as "a fair set of boundaries". However, such was the Liberal Party’s overall performance in 2000 that if they tried blaming the boundaries for the outcome, nobody was listening.

The Poll Bludger has no reason to doubt that the ECQ discharged their responsibilities conscientiously in drawing the council map, which reveals no wards shaped like salamanders and no apparent rhyme or reason to the location of the seven wards which the Liberals won by margins greater than any achieved by Labor. One could perhaps generalise that most of these are on the outer limits of the municipal boundaries, while wards closer to the city and the bay swung heavily back to the Liberals without eliminating the huge margins that Labor secured in 2000. It could be that the Liberals have nobody to blame but themselves for failing to translate shifting public sentiment into support where it mattered – in short, that they suffered from a flawed marginal seats strategy.

Even so, Crikey’s take on the discrepancy – that Newman’s success marks a stinging rebuff for "the ruling Queensland Liberal Party cabal" at party HQ, who ran the wards campaign independently of Newman’s operation – needs to be treated with care. It is indeed true that the Liberals did marginally less well in the wards than the mayoralty as far as the primary vote goes, while the opposite is true of Labor. It is also true that all voters had the option of independents and the Greens for the mayoralty while many ward contests were two-horse Labor versus Liberal contests. But with Labor clinging on to six wards by margins of 5 per cent or less, a good deal of the imbalance can only be put down to bad luck.

As for the implications of the stand-off between a Liberal Lord Mayor and a Labor-dominated council, an article in today’s Sunday Mail suggests that the 1975 parallel invoked partly in jest in the post below may not be too far off the mark. It notes that the Lord Mayor "also acts as the council’s chief executive" and is "able to run council affairs between council meetings and prepare the annual budget". Best of all, "if the hostile council blocked the budget, Premier Peter Beattie could be forced to appoint an administrator". One wonders how impartially Beattie can be expected to behave in the event that he is required to assume the role of John Kerr.

Council elections wash-up

Well, shut my mouth. In his earlier posting on the Brisbane City Council election your correspondent declared that "three weeks after an election which saw the Liberal Party win a solitary seat out of the 40 on offer in the Brisbane area, it would be a very brave Poll Bludger who would tip anything other than a victory for Quinn and another clear Labor majority on council". Only half correct. While the Liberals appear to have gained only one ward at Labor’s expense, their candidate Campbell Newman has swept to victory in the lord mayoral vote, seeing off Labor’s Tim Quinn after just under a year in the chair with over 47 per cent of the primary vote (9 per cent more than Gail Austen managed in 2000). The Poll Bludger wouldn’t care to second guess what motivated the voters of Brisbane when they entered the booths to do their bit for democracy, but he would suggest that an understandable desire to check and balance a triumphant state government played its part.

One might argue that the stark discrepancy between the mayoral result and the ward outcomes suggests that Brisbane voters take a sophisticated view of how political responsibilities should be spread, but it should also be noted that the Liberals were desperately unlucky not to have done better. After the state election, the Coalition’s story was that while they only picked up a pitifully small number of seats, they had at least made many others dangerously marginal – a clear case of wishful thinking on that occasion but a perfect description of yesterday’s outcome in Brisbane, as even a cursory glance of the revised pendulum below makes clear. One might even go so far as to talk of a gerrymander, as the Liberals no doubt will.

Depending on when you read this, the following is based on either final results or those at the end of election night (I don’t plan on correcting the post if anything changes so if something here doesn’t gel, that’s the reason):

Labor wards Liberal wards
PULLENVALE (26%)
CHANDLER (18%)
BRACKEN RIDGE (17%)
WALTER TAYLOR (16%)
WISHART (15%)
HAMILTON (14%)
THE GAP (14%)
* (13%) CENTRAL
* (13%) DEAGON
* (13%) RICHLANDS
* (11%) DUTTON PARK
(9%) ENOGGERA TOOWONG (9%)
(7%) JAMBOREE
(6%) GRANGE
(6%) MARCHANT
(6%) MOOROOKA
(6%) NORTHGATE
* (6%) WYNNUM-MANLY
(5%) HOLLAND PARK
* (5%) DOBOY LORD MAYORALTY (5%)
* (4%) MORNINGSIDE
(3%) ACACIA RIDGE McDOWALL (3%)
(2%) RUNCORN
(1%) EAST BRISBANE

As before, I have had to indulge in a few dodges to arrive at two-party preferred figures here. Two-thirds of Greens’ preferences have been distributed to Labor and independents have been written out of the equation – wards where independents were running are marked with an asterisk.

The Liberals then have picked up McDowall, which they never should have lost, and may yet gain East Brisbane, Runcorn and Acacia Ridge depending on how the postal and absentee votes go. So while the Liberals might end up doing as well as 12-14, a much less flattering outcome of 9-17 is most likely. This means that for the first time Brisbane will have a Liberal Lord Mayor facing a hostile council. The Poll Bludger will not pretend to have any idea what the implications of this might be – some sort of 1975-style supply deadlock, perhaps. A few features of the result are worth noting however. Greens mayoral candidate Drew Hutton topped 10 per cent, a pretty fair effort and one that would have him confident of success in his run for the Senate later this year. The Greens also did notably well in one of Labor’s safest wards, Dutton Park, where their candidate Ben Pennings topped 25 per cent. The other notable non-major party performer was Paul Brooks, who polled 18 per cent as an independent in Wynnum-Manly. Council opposition leader Margaret de Wit can take satisfaction in comparing her 9 per cent swing in Pullenvale with the 3 per cent achieved by her factional nemesis Michael Caltabiano in Chandler. De Wit unseated Caltabiano from the leadership position during the last term and was reportedly persuaded to step down from a preselection challenge to federal Ryan MHR Michael Johnson after a threatened counter-attack against her own preselection for council. Labor suffered a major swing in Richlands, presumably because independent George Pugh’s 21.5 per cent vote from 2000 was made up of disgruntled Liberals who have now returned to the fold. Pugh ran again but could only manage 9 per cent this time.

Brisbane of course was by no means the only scene of council election action on the weekend, with other noteworthy results in Queensland including Gold Coast Mayor Gary Baildon’s defeat by sporting legend Ron Clarke and a predictably humiliating outcome for the wildly controversial Alison Grosse in her quixotic tilt for re-election as Mayor of Maroochy (she polled 3.6 per cent). In Sydney Clover Moore, the independent MLA for Bligh, succeeded as expected in overcoming former Keating Government minister Michael Lee to be elected Lord Mayor of Sydney. Unfortunately this does not require her to abandon her seat in the Legislative Assembly, as the Poll Bludger is gagging for a by-election and Bligh is a most interesting electorate. Information from elsewhere in New South Wales is sketchy at this stage, but Labor has apparently done well in the western Sydney councils of Blacktown, Parramatta, Penrith and Campbelltown. See the post on Parramatta directly below for the likely significance (or otherwise) of a Labor resurgence in this area. This comes despite a backlash against Labor over the council mergers issue reported elsewhere, translating into strong showings for the Greens in the inner-city councils of Marrickville, Leichhardt and Ashfield. The Poll Bludger will also keep a lazy eye on the knife-edge battle for the Byron Bay mayoralty, with the Greens’ Jan Barham going down to the wire against independent Ross Tucker.

The truth of the ‘matta

The Poll Bludger is currently beavering away at his seat-by-seat federal election guide, to be launched in its full glory whenever the campaign commences. To maximise my visibility in the meantime I will exhibit the fruits of my labours with occasional postings on key seats, starting here with Parramatta. It’s arguably an unfortunate place to begin, as it has been paid too much attention in recent years due to a perception that John Howard’s success in holding it since 1996 has been a paradigm for his government’s electoral achievement. In particular it has contributed to a perception that Howard owes much of his success to a durable turnaround in Labor’s former heartland in western Sydney. Peter Brent at Mumble has much to say about this particular item of conventional wisdom, pointing out that Labor still holds 13 of the 16 western Sydney seats and that while Parramatta the suburb may fit this Labor-friendly mould, the electorate as a whole does not. Nevertheless, the seat has maintained a conspicuous place at the rounded end of the Mackerras pendulum since 1998 and if Labor don’t pick it up they are unlikely to win government.

A quick look at the history of the electorate makes it hard understand why such a fuss is being made of Labor’s failure to carry the seat. Prior to 1977 Labor’s only win here was at the 1929 election that brought Jim Scullin to power. At other times the seat was held by a non-Labor Prime Minister (Joseph Cook, member from federation until 1922 and PM from 1913-14) and by two members who had served as both Attorney-General and External Affairs Minister (Garfield Barwick, 1958-1964, and Nigel Bowen, 1964-1973). When Bowen opted to resume his legal career six months after the Coalition’s defeat in 1972, a young Philip Ruddock inflicted an early humiliation on the Whitlam Government by holding the seat with a 7 per cent swing at the ensuing by-election. All that changed with the redistribution that preceded the 1977 election, when the electorate moved so far to the west that Ruddock’s 9.2 per cent buffer from 1975 became a notional Labor majority of 2.5 per cent. Ruddock jumped ship to since-abolished Dundas, made up in large part of what had been the Liberal-leaning eastern end of Parramatta, which can now be found in John Howard’s electorate of Bennelong. The seat was won for Labor in 1977 by John Brown, who would later become one of the more colourful members of Bob Hawke’s cabinet. Further boundary changes over the years favoured the Liberals, with areas being lost to the prize Labor western suburbs electorates of Reid and Greenway, and by the time of Brown’s retirement in 1990 the seat was marginal again.

Since then Parramatta’s behaviour has not been wildly out of the ordinary as far as New South Wales goes, which along with its position in the upper income-earning quartile should put an end to any talk that "Howard’s battlers" have been deciding the outcome. It is indeed true that the 1996 election saw particularly savage swings against the Keating Government in western Sydney, but these swings were worse in unloseable seats like Blaxland (Paul Keating down 9.1 per cent) and Werriwa (Mark Latham down 9.3 per cent) than in Parramatta (7.1 per cent). Cumulative swings over the next two elections were 1.5 per cent more favourable for the Liberals than the state average, although this is as likely due to the advantages of incumbency as demographic shifts or enthusiasm for the local member, Ross Cameron. In 2001 Cameron mirrored the state average by holding on with the same 1.1 per cent margin he won by in 1998, his swing cancelling out a redistribution that favoured Labor by 3.4 per cent.

Cameron has had an outwardly successful term, being appointed parliamentary secretary first to Larry Anthony immediately after the election, and then to Peter Costello in the October 2003 reshuffle. There have nevertheless been occasions in his career when colleagues may have had cause to doubt his political judgement. He has raised eyebrows on the left by calling for the ABC to be scrapped on the grounds that public broadcasting is out of date, and on the right by conceding that many saw mandatory detention as "primitive and barbaric" and calling on Australians to quit banging on about the Anzacs. He also told HQ magazine he regarded Mark Latham as "very intelligent, insightful and unorthodox", "a person of real intellect and political courage" and "a genuine leader figure". Here he has changed his tune somewhat recently, this week declaring that "Osama bin Laden is stroking his beard and celebrating the advent of Mark Latham".

Last year Cameron was involved in the cash-for-visas scandal, having lobbied extensively on behalf of Dante Tan, the Philippine fugitive businessman granted citizenship by the Immigration Department. It was established that Tan had donated $10,000 to Ruddock’s 2001 election campaign and that his lawyer had made a $2000 campaign donation to Cameron. Tan was also present at a Sydney Harbour fund-raising cruise for Cameron organised by immigration fixer Karim Kisrwani, though all concerned swear that he neglected to cough up when the hat was passed around.

It seems so long ago now, but at the time of Labor’s Parramatta preselection vote in November last year the position would have been regarded as no great prize, given the then-universal expectation that Labor faced disaster at the next election. This no doubt explains the party’s failure to pull any unduly big names out of the hat, with the left’s Julie Owens defeating independent Desmond Netto by 166 votes to 32. The right’s Pierre Esber, a Parramatta Councillor who scored an unwinnable spot on Labor’s list for the 2003 Legislative Council election, initially threw his hat into the ring but withdrew for reasons unclear to the Poll Bludger. Owens is the chief executive of the Association of Independent Record Labels, a worthy enough lobby group but one hardly likely to strike terror into the heart of the governing establishment. Her electoral apprenticeship was served with the thankless job of Labor candidate for North Sydney at the 1996 and 1998 federal elections, at which she predictably failed to cause Joe Hockey any trouble.

More fun in Queensland

The Poll Bludger’s brief is state and federal elections, but there is one municipality in Australia that is sufficiently large and partisan to be of interest to observers focused on the national scene. That of course is Brisbane, which faces the polls next Saturday, March 27. Brisbane City Council has a bailiwick covering the broader metropolitan area, council wards more than half the size of state electorates, quadrennial elections and responsibilities including public transport and water and sewage. As for partisanship, it seems remakable to an observer of council politics elsewhere that the 2000 election produced clear-cut Labor versus Liberal contests in every ward but Richlands, where independent George Pugh outpolled a poorly performing Liberal Party without causing any trouble for Labor (he is now running again). All of which makes it feasible to condense the results into a Mackerras pendulum:

Labor wards Liberal wards
** (30%) RICHLANDS
* (19%) CENTRAL
PULLENVALE (18%)
** (17%) DEAGON
* (17%) DOBOY
** (17%) DUTTON PARK
(16%) MORNINGSIDE
* (16%) NORTHGATE
** (15%) WYNNUM-MANLY CHANDLER (15%)
(14%) ENOGERRA
* (14%) GRANGE
(14%) MOOROOKA
** (14%) RUNCORN
** (13%) EAST BRISBANE
(13%) MARCHANT
(11%) HOLLAND PARK
(9.4%) LORD MAYORALTY WALTER TAYLOR (9%)
(7%) ACACIA RIDGE BRACKEN RIDGE (7%)
HAMILTON (6%)
* (5%) JAMBOREE WISHART (5%)
THE GAP (5%) *
TOOWONG (3%)
(1%) McDOWALL

A number of points of clarification are required here. Firstly, where there is an asterisk the results given are two-party preferred figures I have arrived at by calculating the Labor vote as a percentage of the overall major party vote, with independent preferences ignored (the remainder were two-horse races). This is because those cheapskates at Brisbane City Council expect me to fork out $20 for a full distribution of preferences for the ward elections (and I have no doubt that this is a big money-spinner for them), and Poll Bludging is not as lucrative a caper as some of you out there might imagine. The six wards that produced the highest independent vote (11.3 per cent or higher) have been given a second asterisk, so these should be treated with extra care.

It will also be noted that the "Lord Mayoralty" result gets its own entry as the position is filled by direct election and not by the councillors. The council website does in fact give preference outcomes from the 2000 mayoral election, so this figure can be taken seriously. That election marked a fourth successive victory for Labor’s Jim Soorley, who was replaced by Deputy Mayor Tim Quinn when he resigned in early 2003. The Deputy Mayor is chosen by the councillors from among their own number (Maureen Hayes of Grange ward got the nod after Quinn’s elevation), with Quinn having previously served as ward councillor for Dutton Park. Quinn will face Liberal candidate Campbell Newman, son of former Tasmanian federal ministers Jocelyn and Kevin, who has drifted northwards during a career first in the military and then with privatised grain handlers Grainco. Also in the field are high-profile Greens candidate Drew Hutton, hoping to generate momentum for his Senate campaign later this year, and independents Russell Hall, Derek Rosborough and Nick Kapsis. Hall is a renowned local architect and should do rather a lot better than either Rosborough, who made little impression with his campaigns for the Senate and the Northern Territory House of Representatives seat of Namadji, and Kapsis, a "psychic mathematician" whose recent involuntary hospital admission due to psychiatric problems apparently does not disqualify him.

The Poll Bludger will not pretend to be familiar with the state of swings and roundabouts in each particular ward and can only talk in generalities in predicting results. The state election suggests that further Liberal losses and swings against Labor of over 10 per cent are unlikely (though anything’s possible), so McDowall, Jamboree and Acacia Ridge appear at face value to be of the most interest. Liberal victories in all will even out the numbers from 18-8 to 15-11. To this may be added the four seats which are not being recontested by the victors from last time, all held by Labor. Incumbents Terry Hampson in Marchant and Sharon Humphreys in Morningside are not seeking re-election, while Dutton Park and Moorooka were vacated early last year, the former by Quinn upon his elevation to the lord mayoralty and the latter by retiring councillor Mark Bailey. Since these vacancies occurred in the final year of the term they were filled by direct nomination of the Labor Party and not with a by-election, so new members Helen Abrahams and Steve Griffiths have not yet received public endorsement.

A complicating factor for Labor this time is the Greens, who are fielding candidates in 17 wards, 13 of them Labor-held. This compares with the 2000 election when their only candidate (in Wynnum-Manly) polled a thoroughly unremarkable 5.7 per cent, though true to form they are talking up their chances of a strong showing this time. The Greens’ best performances at the state election were in Ashgrove (16 per cent), South Brisbane (20 per cent) and Mount Coot-tha (23.5 per cent), so presumably most of their joy will come from a clump of wards surrounding the CBD including Toowong, Central, The Gap, Grange, Dutton Park and East Brisbane. Since optional preferential voting is in operation at council as well as state level Greens victories are unlikely, although Hutton is talking up their chances of influencing outcomes through their still-to-be-announced preferences strategy. Here they face their usual dilemma – hoping to put fear into a Labor Party that knows they can’t follow through on their threats, as preferences to Liberal are out of the question and their supporters usually ignore how-to-vote cards anyway.

As for the Lord Mayor position, the Liberals’ best card is the it’s-time factor after a decade of Labor domination. But three weeks after an election which saw the Liberal Party win a solitary seat out of the 40 on offer in the Brisbane area, it would be a very brave Poll Bludger who would tip anything other than a victory for Quinn and another clear Labor majority on council.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Many thanks to correspondent Geoff Keed for his input, in particular for pointing out a now-corrected error above where I said Jim Soorley had been elected three times rather than four.

Dead wood and bad blood

One swallow does not a summer make, and even the months from December to February don’t count for as much as other seasons on the Australian political calendar (the ones not habitually described as "silly"). Even so, we’re far enough into Labor’s new era to state with confidence that those who predicted a brief honeymoon for Mark Latham followed by a dramatic fall to earth had it precisely wrong. Throughout December and January a sceptical Peter Brent at Mumble persuasively argued that Latham was not in fact enjoying the opinion poll bounce that many were imagining they were seeing simply because they were expecting it, and had in fact done no more than recover the vote that went astray during the weeks of leadership turmoil in late November. So it proved for each Newspoll up to February 20-22, each of which showed Latham’s Labor stuck in the 39 to 41 per cent bracket. However all that changed with the poll of March 5-7, in which Labor broke through to 44 per cent against 41 per cent for the Coalition, translating into a terrifying 10 per cent gap after distribution of Labor-heavy minor party preferences. Not for the first time in recent years, the result has been a wholesale junking of most existing items of conventional wisdom, in particular those relating to the value of incumbency and experience in an unsettled global security climate. All of a sudden "rejuvenation" is the word on the lips of Coalition watchers, and preselection challenges to actual or perceived under-achievers have taken on a new importance.

Enough ink has been spilled on Malcolm Turnbull’s surprisingly clear 88-70 win in the Wentworth preselection the weekend before last that the Poll Bludger will content himself with guiding interested readers towards the post-mortems from Glenn Milne at The Australian and Hillary Bray at Crikey. Suffice to say that the result indeed looked pretty good in Liberal-rejuvenation terms, until one considers firstly that defeated incumbent Peter King had barely two years in which to prove himself, and then the result of the other, less publicised Liberal preselection ballot held in Sydney that weekend. With a margin of 21.4 per cent, the Sydney "bible belt" seat of Mitchell is the Liberals’ second safest, a glittering prize held for the party for no less than 30 years by one Alan Cadman. The aforementioned Glenn Milne article gives some idea why Cadman has been able to go untroubled for so long, recounting that former federal director Andrew Robb’s ambitions for the seat were thwarted when he was informed that only a local candidate would be acceptable, which from this outsider’s perspective seems an unfortunate state of affairs. When local opposition eventually coalesced around former Nick Greiner staffer and AGL executive Ian Woodward, Cadman experienced a sudden burst of energy, failing to impress Peter Costello with a column in The Australian calling for a higher tax-free threshold for families. Costello may have had Cadman in mind when he lamented that there were not two seats available for both Peter King and Malcolm Turnbull, saying "I don’t think we’re so overflowing with talent that we don’t have opportunities elsewhere". However Cadman was obviously doing something right at the local level (and perhaps also reaping the benefits of years of loyalty to Howard), defying gravity and reason to win a narrow 58-55 victory that will certainly see the 66 year old warming a seat on the back bench for three more years.

Three intertwined preselection battles in Queensland, one decided and the other two still in play, reveal the deep faultlines in the Queensland Liberal Party which explain their paltry representation in the state parliament and bode ill for their hopes in this crucial state at the coming federal election. The Brisbane seat of Ryan has been a constant source of fascination in recent years, starting with Labor’s deceptive by-election victory following Liberal minister John Moore’s untimely retirement in early 2001. This was followed by a divisive contest for the right to contest the seat at the November 2001 election in which state party president Bob Tucker was defeated by Michael Johnson, who seems to be creating more than his fair share of enemies as he climbs the greasy pole. Two names came forward as possible challengers – the withdrawal of the more prominent of the two, Brisbane City Councillor Margaret de Wit, was blamed by Graham Young at National Forum on threats to her own preselection for council. This leaves twice-defeated state election candidate Steven Huang opposing Johnson in the ballot to be held this weekend. Huang’s Taiwanese background could at least counter one of Johnson’s greatest strengths in securing the numbers, support from Brisbane’s Chinese community derived from his own half-Chinese background. Young does not fancy Huang’s chances, but such is the aroma surrounding Johnson that a strong conservative independent candidate could potentially make life interesting for him at the coming election, although such things are difficult to pull off in urban federal seats.

In the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, Liberal almost-veteran and Johnson factional colleague Peter Slipper comfortably won a three-way contest with 168 votes against barrister Glen Garrick (75 votes) and accountant Kerrie Cook (9 votes) (result courtesy of Peter Slipper’s office via Crikey’s newsletter). Graham Young claims these challenges to members of the "Sicilian" faction (so-called on account of power brokers Michael Caltabiano and Santo Santoro) have provoked a revenge attack on Peter Lindsay in Herbert through the agency of Townsville oncologist Peter Fon, the outcome of which will be decided on April 24. Young’s assessment has gained currency in light of the suspension of the entire Townsville branch of the Young Liberals by the Santoro/Caltabiano-dominated state executive (as reported on March 1 in the Courier-Mail) whose accusations of branch-stacking against Lindsay supporters have struck many Queensland Liberal Party observers as somewhat audacious.

Similarly, the demotion of Senators Judith Troeth and Tsebin Tchen on the Victorian Liberal Senate ticket has a lot more to do with rivalry than renewal, with the beneficiary being former Ballarat MHR Michael Ronaldson, whose retirement on health grounds had a lot to do with his seat being the only one lost by the Coalition at the 2001 election. He is evidently feeling better now, with his success in securing the top position on the Coalition list giving the Kroger-Costello forces revenge for Karen Synon’s demotion at the expense of Kennett-backed Tchen at the 1998 election. With second spot reserved for the National Party’s Julian McGauran, Troeth faces an uphill battle winning from third position while Tchen is gone for all money, the net result being a small but potentially significant increase in the Costello camp’s representation on the party room floor. Readers of a sensitive disposition may well have been pleased to hear talk that New South Wales Senator Bill Heffernan’s position was also under threat, but The Australian reported on March 2 (no link available) that Heffernan was likely to retain top position at the vote to be held next Saturday (March 20). However the right are gunning for a conservative clean sweep with their candidate Connie Fierravanti-Wells hoping to turf moderate incumbent John Tierney out of second place, with third reserved for the National Party.

Far be it from the Poll Bludger to suggest that a party with Wilson Tuckey and Bronwyn Bishop among its ranks might have hoped for a better harvest of dead wood than just Peter King and Tsebin Tchen (and perhaps also Peter Lindsay, Michael Johnson and John Tierney), but he would be far from the only observer now suspecting that the electorate could end up doing the job for them.

UPDATE (15/3/04): Crikey reports Michael Johnson defeated Steven Huang in Ryan by 328 votes to 68.