A Canning plan

Labor has moved quickly to fill the vacancy created by Cimlie Bowden’s withdrawal as candidate for Canning on Monday, with former state minister Kay Hallahan installed yesterday by a unanimous vote of the party’s administration committee. Since Monday’s posting it has emerged that senior figures in the WA branch including Premier Geoff Gallop had resolved on Monday to persevere with Bowden, if only because no mechanism existed to remove her, and that this and Bowden’s angrily worded announcement of her decision to withdraw became public at about the same time. Roger Martin looks into the troubles surrounding Bowden’s campaign in today’s WA edition of The Australian, reporting that "Labor campaigners say Ms Bowden became upset at trivial matters, would not put enough effort into doorknocking and refused to take advice". At one point Bowden became consumed in a row with campaign staff over sausages, and she is no longer on speaking terms with her former friend and campaign manager Shelley Archer, wife of enormously influential CFMEU boss Kevin Reynolds.

For her part, Hallahan is being perhaps more modest than is prudent, telling The Australian: "I don’t blame people for thinking I’m a retired state MP because that is an accurate picture. The question is can I make a contribution in representing the people in Canning. I have come to a view I can, and I shall do my best to do that". Hallahan was elected to state parliament in the February 1983 election that brought Brian Burke to power and was appointed to the ministry in the government’s second term, above a year before Burke handed the reins to Peter Dowding. As the government slowly collapsed under the weight of the WA Inc fiasco, with Carmen Lawrence ushered into the premiership after Dowding was offered up as a scapegoat, Hallahan prospered in a series of portfolios largely quarantined from the government’s shady deal-making, specifically Arts, Education and Community Services. Following the government’s defeat at the February 1993 election (at which Labor’s less-disastrous-than-expected performance encouraged Paul Keating to call a federal election the very next day) Hallahan rose to the deputy party leadership, but with a view to her forthcoming retirement she agreed to step aside in favour of a Jim McGinty-Geoff Gallop ticket (McGinty subsequently making way for Gallop) in October 1994 and left parliament at the December 1996 election.

The Poll Bludger was a young Western Australian throughout this period and if any mud attached to Hallahan at the time, he doesn’t remember it. Nevertheless, "former Burke Government minister" is an unenviable entry on the resume for any WA politician and her opponents are unlikely to let her forget it.

Rough trade

Doubts that the Poll Bludger had harboured over the opinion poll dividend awaiting Mark Latham’s Free Trade Agreement manouevre have been laid to rest with today’s Newspoll and ACNielsen results. Newspoll has Labor resuming a commanding 54-46 lead on two-party preferred thanks largely to a 6 per cent slump in support for the Coalition. Labor has absorbed only 2 per cent of this, up from 40 to 42 per cent, with the "others" vote up from 8 to 11 per cent (no hard copy to hand, but I’m guessing the remainder knocked the Greens from 6 to 7 per cent). ACNielsen has produced an impressively similar set of results, with the Coalition on 42 per cent and Labor on 39 per cent, respectively down 2 and 1 per cent. The Greens are steady on 9 per cent and the Democrats are stuck on 2 per cent, with Labor ahead 53-47 on two-party preferred. The consensus between Newspoll, ACNielsen and Roy Morgan leaves the odd-man-out newcomer OmniTalk looking on very shaky ground with its rosy picture for the Coalition. Taverner is perhaps admissible as further evidence of an intriguing drift to the minor party and independent sector which is not substantially benefiting the Greens or Democrats, instead vanishing into the mysterious "others" column. Last week’s national launch of Family First could well have something to do with it.

Margin for error

The phony election campaign has been marked by a series of unforced errors from candidates on both sides of the fence in crucial marginal seats. First came revelations surrounding Trish Draper’s taxpayer-funded trip to Europe with her boyfriend, putting in jeopardy the Liberal Party’s hold on the Adelaide seat of Makin which she holds with a margin of 3.8 per cent. Since then Andrew Murfin, Liberal candidate for the Perth seat of Swan which Labor holds by 2.1 per cent in a state expected to the swing to the Coalition, was twice admonished by the local Salvation Army for using his past association with them for political ends. One of these incidents involved a letter that made false claims against Murfin’s Labor opponent, Kim Wilkie, which appeared in a local newspaper under the name of an elderly Salvos member who denied having written it. Far above the Tropic of Capricorn in the Townsville-based seat of Herbert, held with a margin of 1.5 per cent by Liberal Peter Lindsay, Anita Phillips (who had abandoned a seat in state parliament to contest preselection with no assurance of success) exasperated her leader Mark Latham by arguing that he had not nominated exactly which Christmas the troops would be home by. Then there was Saturday’s article on Liberal member for Parramatta Ross Cameron in Good Weekend, the magazine that appears in Saturday editions of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Cameron, who had always been strongly identifed with the conservative Christian strand of the federal Liberal Party, decided that two months from an election would be a good time to make an emotional public confession that he had been unfaithful to his wife. His margin is 1.2 per cent.

By comparison the indiscretions of Cimlie Bowden, who was today forced by her party to withdraw as Labor challenger for the knife-edge outer Perth seat of Canning, are somewhat obscure. Bowden, who had previously been best known for an unsuccessful bid to unseat Mark Olson as state secretary of the Australian Nurses Federation in 2001, won the nomination as the favoured candidate of the Centre faction to replace Jane Gerick, who died on Christmas Day in 2003 after again being preselected for the seat she had held from 1998 to 2001. The first indication that Bowden’s campaign was in trouble came on August 4 when Karen Middleton and Robert Taylor of The West Australian reported that factional colleague and Senate candidate Glenn Sterle had been drafted to replace a campaign manager with whom Bowden had not been getting along. Mutterings were raised about her failure to attend a scheduled campaign appearance, The West Australian reporting on Friday that party secretary Bill Johnston "felt it necessary to ask Ms Bowden if she was fully committed to the task".

By this time a candidate was being named for her replacement – Kay Hallahan, former minister in the state Burke/Dowding/Lawrence Government from the late 1980s to 1993. Leading the charge was another veteran of that government, Graham Edwards, the popular member for Cowan who lost his legs to a landmine in Vietnam. Edwards told The West Australian that Hallahan "would be a strong and formidable candidate and I hope she accepts the challenge. If we’ve got problems there then they need to be addresseed and if they’re addressed by way of a new candidate, I would encourage Kay Hallahan". Bowden said she had been "assured by Mr Johnston that she had the full support of the WA Labor Party", but the report would only quote Johnston as saying there was "no mechanism to remove her". Today that non-existent mechanism was exercised with the ABC reporting that Bowden had been "dumped" because, in Johnston’s words, "she cannot win the seat and the campaigning has taken a heavy toll on her".

Certainly it had been reported that party polling had Labor behind in Canning, and this was cited by "party sources" as a reason for the move against her. Quite why the blame for this should have been sheeted home to the candidate is unclear; whether an MP from the WA Inc era who retired from state politics in 1996 can do anything to reverse it remains to be seen.

Top Sunday reading

The Sunday Age has again seen fit to commission Taverner to conduct a poll of New South Wales and Victorian voters only, having last conducted such an exercise immediately after the May budget. This time the sample is even lower – 605 rather than 911 – and the results are very strange indeed, with both major parties taking a big hit on the primary vote. Labor are down 5 per cent from May to 39 per cent, while the Coalition are down 2 per cent to 38. The Greens have soaked up 4 per cent of the remainder to reach 11, but the destination of the remaining 3 per cent is unclear (it did not go to the Democrats, who are stuck on 2 per cent). There may be an element of truth in Labor having lost at least some ground to the Greens but the rest is hard to credit. Meanwhile, Glenn Milne in Sunday Telegraph rates Malcolm Turnbull’s candid comments on Iraq as the clincher for the Prime Minister holding back on a September 18 election (which can be announced no later than tomorrow).

Mad about the Roy

Reasonably good news for Labor with today’s Roy Morgan poll, a proper effort this time with a sample of just under 2000, that has them leading the Coalition 43 per cent to 40 on the primary vote (Labor gaining a point directly at the Coalition’s expense) with 53.5 per cent on two-party preferred. Naysayers might note that they have only picked up a 0.5 per cent FTA bounce from the previous fortnight, and if they only do this well in Tuesday’s Newspoll the going will continue to look rough for them. The Greens’ vote is up marginally from 7.5 per cent to 8 per cent with the Democrats stable on 2.5 per cent – both would have been hoping to leach votes from Labor over their cave-in on the FTA, and their failure to substantially do so may be the real dividend of Mark Latham’s tactical success.

Clash of civilisations

Taken together, postings from the past week have perhaps gone too far in painting a picture of a Labor Party that faces a bloodbath whenever the election happens to be called (Crikey at least seems very sure it will be in the next few days). The Latham-is-back theme of the past week’s news reporting and blogosphere comment has been largely absent here, so in the interests of balance it’s probably time to focus on some of the brighter spots on Labor’s electoral picture.

On second thoughts, I’ll do that tomorrow. Instead, the subject of today’s lesson is the prospect of Labor losing a seat it already holds, and one not in Western Australia this time. Located in north-western Sydney, from Blacktown out to Marsden Park, Greenway is held by Labor with a margin of 3.2 per cent after swings to the Liberals of 10.1 per cent in 1996 and 6.4 per cent in 2001 (with a 6.5 per cent swing back to Labor in between). The seat has a lot in common with the nearby Labor strongholds of Chifley and Prospect, but other neigbours include outer Sydney seats that have decisively shifted to the Liberals in the life of the current government, namely Macquarie and Penrith-based Lindsay, plus the safe Liberal seat of Mitchell. Mitchell in particular is regarded as the epicentre of the Sydney "bible belt", and this is where the Liberals’ high hopes for Greenway come into play. Their candidate Louise Markus is a community worker for possibly Australia’s largest church, Hillsong, boasting a congregation of 17,000 concentrated in and around the electorate. As demonstrated by this earlier post, the idea that churches can provide a ready-made base of organisational and electoral support for their favoured candidates is very much in vogue at the moment. What’s more, Labor is losing the personal vote of a retiring local member, which is always a favourite for those hunting out electorates that might go against the grain.

Certainly the media is interested, and Labor a little worried. On Tuesday, Mark Davis and Marcus Priest of the Australian Financial Review reported that the paper had "obtained" a list of 29 marginal seats that will be the focus of Labor’s attention, eight with "defensive" and the remainder with "offensive" campaigns. Greenway was "being treated as warranting an offensive campaign" due to a retiring incumbent and an opposing candidate who was "a worker for the fast-growing and well-resourced Hillsong Church". This week The Bulletin entered the fray with a two-page article by Paul Daley that talks up Markus’s chances. He talks up a few other things as well, specifically Labor candidate Ed Husic’s background as a Muslim from the former Yugoslavia and how this might play in a seat located in "deep, middle-Australia, a place where the fears about border security, terrorism and illegal (mostly Muslim) migrant hordes, packaged by the government with such effect at the last election, resonated long and loud. And still do". An interview Husic conducted with the Blacktown City Sun is described as an "extraordinary" response to what the paper called "a whisper campaign about his religious affiliations from sections of the community in Greenway".

After the build-up, the reality check. Greenway is a good deal less white-bread than Daley makes out. Check table 14b in this Australian Parliamentary Library research paper and you will see that Greenway ranks twenty-first out of 150 in its arse-about-tit ranking of electorates by proportion of "persons of Islam religion" (sometimes known as "Muslims"). Also, the "personal vote of a retiring local member" that Labor is losing is that of the notoriously under-achieving Frank Mossfield. Indeed The Bulletin took the opposite tack in citing his retirement as a plus for the Liberals, reporting that "the people from the ageing fibros of Seven Hills and the so-called ‘McMansions’ of Stanhope Gardens and Glenwood are said to feel as if they have been taken for granted by successive federal and state Labor MPs".

Antony Green has noted the chatter surrounding Greenway and goes to an unusual amount of trouble to give the idea short shrift in his federal election guide entry:

There are a lot of odd things being written about this electorate. In the two decades it has existed, Greenway has always followed the state trend, becoming a marginal seat when the Labor Party has disastrous results, like 1996 and 2001. For all that time the seat has been represented by low profile MPs, which means Labor has never really benefited from the sitting member factor. Now Labor has Ed Husic, a younger more active candidate who grew up in the area, yet suddenly there is a lot of media talk that Labor could lose the seat. Some are pointing to there supposedly being 11,000 new voters since the last election. True, but most electorates would have that many new voters. The enrolment is only up 4,000, meaning most of those new voters are ‘churn’ in already settled parts of the electorate, with most of the increased enrolment in the new suburbs at the northern end of the electorate. There is a lot of pointing to Liberal candidate Louise Markus and her church connections, and certainly the fact the party has a presentable candidate (unlike some past campaigns) and an influx of eager young campaign workers will help. But it still seems unlikely that Labor could lose this seat when you consider it would have to do worse than its dreadful 2001 result.

The only thing the Poll Bludger can add to this is that the seat could well fall if events between now and polling day that cannot yet be foreseen transpire to deliver a substantial shift in public opinion towards the Coalition. But so might many others.