Belated Werriwa overview

So about this by-election then. Tomorrow the voters of Werriwa return to the polls due to the retirement of former Labor member Mark Latham, whose life story does not need repeating here. Nor does the make-up of the electorate, which has changed little since the federal election guide entry was composed last year.

When Latham pulled the plug on January 18, two questions emerged – who would be the Labor candidate, and whether the Liberals would bother. Local lawyer and Campbelltown mayor Brenton Banfield was reckoned to be the best-credentialled Labor contender, and many were unimpressed by the manner in which he was bumped aside. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 12, Alan Ramsey quoted (at length, naturally) from a detailed testimony by Banfield ally John Dowling that was mailed to branch members. Dowling complained that factional heavies assured Banfield he would not have to face a preselection vote, but withdrew their support when focus groups suggested he could fall victim to negative campaigning over his legal work for sex offenders. Banfield was persuaded to step aside and the nomination instead went to Australian Workers Union official Chris Hayes. Most saw this as a less-than-inspiring outcome.

In early February, newspaper reports quoted “Labor insiders” anticipating a 10 per cent swing to the Liberals, enough to deliver them the seat. This was obviously nonsense, as indicated by the Liberals’ ultimate failure to field a candidate. Laurie Oakes offers a far more plausible story in this week’s Bulletin:

Polling by the major parties after Latham quit showed quite clearly that the Liberals would be wasting their time if they entered the by-election contest. There was no resentment over Latham’s departure. Werriwa voters accepted that the former leader was entitled to pull out because of his health problems. In summary, the view was: ‘The poor bugger copped a walloping. His health suffered. He wants to spend time with his family. That’s fair enough’. And there was an added consideration: ‘Anyway, Howard’s got a big enough majority. He doesn’t need to win this one’.

With no threat from the Liberals, Labor’s remaining fear is of a repeat of the 1991 by-election in Wills or the 2002 by-election in Cunningham, respectively lost to independent Phil Cleary after the retirement of Bob Hawke and the Greens’ Michael Organ after the retirement of Steve Martin. Many in the party expressed concern that the unpopularity of the state government and the large field of 16 candidates might provoke unpredictable behaviour from voters. Significant local issues include the recent Macquarie Fields riots which took place in the electorate, and the Carr government’s hugely unpopular closure of the local Orange Grove shopping centre which benefited Labor patrons Westfield but left a number of locals without jobs.

One major difference with Cunningham is that this is not historically strong territory for the Greens, who have nominated 19-year-old Ben Raue. By general acclaim the candidate best placed to pull off an upset is Deborah Locke of the unregistered People Power party, a former fraud squad detective whose whistle-blowing was credited with bringing about the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption. Locke’s candidacy has generated valuable publicity including a Sunday Telegraph back cover and a 2GB interview. Stephen Mayne of Crikey reports that “the three independents who will be handing out HTVs across the electorate, former Labor branchstacker Sammy Bargshoon, Ned Mannoun and James Young, have all decided to give their preferences to Locke ahead of the other key contenders”, since they mutually agree she has the best chance of winning.

The best-known of the remaining candidates are Joe Bryant, a former Blacktown deputy mayor, and James Young, a Liberal Party member and former staffer to Jackie Kelly. Bryant took great pride in being described as a “Liberal trojan horse” by former Labor premier Barrie Unsworth when he ran for election two decades ago, and the Blacktown City Sun reported on March 8 that he “became a well-known local figure for his fight with the Commonwealth Bank”. Young is considered likely to absorb much of the homeless Liberal vote, and like Bryant he will deliver a solid flow of preferences to any non-Labor contender who emerges from the pack. Also worth noting is Sam Bargshoon, who turned against Labor after being burned by the Orange Grove closure and scored 4.9 per cent of the vote when he ran against Latham last year.

For all that, a Labor win would have to be considered the likely outcome. Writing in the Canberra Times on March 1, Malcolm Mackerras noted the following differences between the current circumstances and those of the Cunningham by-election:

First, the sudden and wholly unexpected nature of (Latham’s resignation) means there is not likely to be any high-profile independent candidate waiting in the wings. Here there is a major difference with Cunningham, where speculation that Labor MP Stephen Martin would resign was rife for six months before he actually did resign. Second, there are interesting sociological differences between Cunningham and Werriwa. These suggest that Cunningham is the sort of Labor seat where the Greens might fluke a one-off win. By contrast, Werriwa is not in that category of safe Labor seat … (the parliamentary library’s “relative socio-economic disadvantage” index) for Werriwa is 950 (in 17th place out of 150) compared with 1014 for Cunningham (at 104) … The third reason I expect Labor to win Werriwa lies in the difference of party leader. Simon Crean was leader at the time of Cunningham, Kim Beazley at the time of Werriwa.

These perceptions have been further strengthened by recent political developments. The rise in interest rates and the government’s decision to send more troops to Iraq, blamed for their recent slump in the opinion polls, have given traction to Labor’s appeal for voters to “send John Howard a message” by voting for Labor directly. Most persuasive of all to the Poll Bludger’s mind is the number-crunching done by Bryan Palmer at Oz Politics which suggests that historically speaking, Labor’s vote is likely to fall little if at all from the 52.6 per cent recorded by Mark Latham at the federal election. My own calculations suggest that Labor picks up roughly 20 per cent of the non-Labor vote as preferences at by-elections which are not contested by the Coalition, although this fell as low as 15.7 per cent at the Cunningham by-election. Even on the latter figure, Labor would need to fall to about 41 per cent if they were to lose the seat. This would entail the loss of 11 per cent from their primary vote at the October election, substantially greater than the 6.2 per cent decline that cost them Cunningham. Accordingly, it is the Poll Bludger’s considered judgement that Labor can rest easy.

Service resumes

The Poll Bludger is back in business after a week off line, and will be keeping a close eye on the final stages of the count for the Western Australian Legislative Council before turning attention to the March 19 Werriwa by-election. Late counting in Western Australia has produced no reversals of fortune in the lower house; the Liberals have narrowly won Bunbury and Murray, and independent Janet Woollard has retained Alfred Cove at the expense of Liberal Graham Kierath after an unpredictable preference distribution. Antony Green has published a full analysis of the upper house count based on figures from Thursday, concluding that contests are still in play for the seventh seat in South West, between the Greens and Nationals, and for the fifth seat in Agricultural, between Liberal, the Nationals, Labor and the Christian Democratic Party (the Poll Bludger prematurely called it for Labor in the previous post). Green reports that the prospect of a Fremantle Hospital Support Group boilover in South Metropolian is "receding", since a Liberal revival has made it unlikely that they will stay ahead of the Christian Democratic Party at the crucial point in the count (as discussed in the previous post). Their elimination would unlock a flood of preferences to the Greens who would emerge in front of the CDP but behind Labor, who would ultimately win the seat.

Assuming no sudden revival for the Fremantle Hospital Support Group, that leaves Labor on 16 seats, Liberal on 14, the Nationals on one and the Greens on one, with two in doubt. As far as the Poll Bludger is concerned, the magic number here would be a combined total of 19 for Labor and the Greens, as this would give one-vote one-value supporters an absolute majority on the floor with which to pass constitutional legislation. Since a victory for the Greens appears the more likely outcome in South West, the contest for Agricultural assumes a tremendous importance and the Poll Bludger will be over it like a rash in the coming days. By Green’s reckoning the Christian Democratic Party are currently poised to prevail over Labor at the final count by 1313 votes, although this assumes that all votes are ticket votes. Green thinks the bigger threat to the CDP comes from either the Nationals or (more likely) the Liberals, who need to overhaul a 411 vote deficit against the CDP at a key point in the count to coast home on preferences. Given that a CDP member representing a non-metropolitan region would probably take a dim view of one-vote one-value, the most likely outcome is a replication of the 18-16 deadlock from the previous parliament.

Another place

There is still much counting to be done for the Legislative Council, but two clear patterns have emerged. One is that Labor has done well, winning a second seat in Agricultural for the first time and also picking up an extra seat in Mining and Pastoral, and perhaps also in South Metropolitan and South West. Under their best case scenario of 17 seats, there is also the possibility of another two Greens members producing the constitutional majority required to pass one-vote one-value legislation (outside Mining and Pastoral of course). The other pattern is of a near wipeout for the minor parties. None of the former One Nation members proved competitive, and of the five Greens members only Giz Watson in North Metropolitan can be entirely confident. They still might win as many as three seats, with Paul Llewellyn still a good chance in South West but Lynn MacLaren needing a miracle in South Metropolitan.

One exception to the latter pattern is the possibility that Keith Woollard might have pulled off Western Australia’s first successful act of micro-party preference harvesting on behalf of his Fremantle Hospital Support Group in South Metropolitan. On the current count they have just 1.6 per cent of the vote, but this will be engorged with preferences from Forest Liberals (0.4 per cent), the Public Hospital Support Group (0.5 per cent), the Democrats (1.1 per cent) and Family First (1.9 per cent). That might put them ahead of the Christian Democratic Party, who scored 2.3 per cent and stand to receive preferences from One Nation (1.2 per cent) as well as the small Liberal surplus (roughly 2 per cent). They would then get preferences from anyone inclined to put single issue minor parties ahead of the Greens, who would most likely be left behind since they have polled a disappointing 8.0 per cent. Their preferences would flow on to the FHSG candidate in turn who would then have a 16.7 per cent quota. In the other scenario, where FSHG is eliminated ahead of the Christian Democratic Party, a straight contest will emerge between Labor and the Greens in which Labor appears to be well ahead.

In the seven-member South West region, the Liberals have won three quotas off the primary vote to Labor’s two, with the Greens, the Nationals, Labor and Family First all in the hunt for the final two places. An outcome of three Liberal, three Labor and one Greens would have very interesting implications for the ultimate make-up of the chamber, since it would be the first time parties of the left had won four seats here. Agricultural appears to have delivered a heartening result for Labor, who look sure to win a second seat for the first time since the current system was introduced in 1989. On the primary vote, the Liberals won two quotas with the Nationals and Labor on one each, with the final place set to go to Labor after preferences. This is a straightforward case of the combined Labor and Greens vote adding up neatly to two quotas; since the Greens’ vote was only 3.8 per cent there was little doubt which of the two would take the second seat. Thus ends Dee Margetts’ second spell as a parliamentarian. Frank Hough’s New Country ticket also performed poorly, winning only 3.2 per cent.

Mining and Pastoral reverted to type, returning three Labor and two Liberal members with the defeat of John Fischer and Robin Chapple of the Greens. There were status quo results in seven-member North Metropolitan, with Liberal and Labor each winning three quotas on the primary vote and the Greens set for the final seat after receiving Labor’s surplus as preferences; and in East Metropolitan, where Labor are poised for a clear three quotas with more than 50 per cent of the primary vote. The Liberals are falling about 3 per cent short of a second quota, but with preferences from the Christian Democratic Party, Family First, New Country and One Nation they will have little trouble getting there ahead of the Greens.

Humiliating backdown

For about one hour, this entry proclaimed that Charles Richardson of Crikey and myself shared the honours for best Western Australian election prediction since we ended up reaching identical conclusions after my late change of heart on Albany. On re-reading Richardson’s piece I see that he did warily predict that Labor would take Kingsley, which unquestionably makes him the king of the castle. He scores a further point for expressing more doubt about Alfred Cove than myself. Kingsley, a formerly Liberal seat where Labor ended the night with a lead of 1.1 per cent, is my only clear wrong call apart from Greenough, which only half counts because it is a Nationals gain from the Liberals (it might emerge as Richardson’s only error). The other swap between the Coalition parties, Liberal candidate Graham Jacobs’ apparent victory at the expense of the Nationals in Roe, was correctly tipped by us both. In Alfred Cove independent member Janet Woollard is struggling to prove us right by staying in front of a Labor candidate she must keep in third place to ride over Liberal Graham Kierath on preferences; and Labor might yet hold Bunbury and Murray, tipped as Liberal gains. But in each case the predicted outcome is still the more likely and everything else went according to script.

The key to Labor’s win was a strong performance in the northern suburbs marginals, which constitute a collective bellwether of far greater utility than Bunbury. Labor picked up swings of between 3 and 4 per cent in Mindarie and Wanneroo as well as Kingsley (which should be of some comfort to the Edwardes clan), and also held firm in Joondalup. This area switched sides en masse with the three previous changes of government in 1983, 1993 and 2001 and the Liberals are unlikely to lose sight of the fact next time. Elsewhere, a 2.0 per cent swing was not enough to see Labor’s Tony McRae off in Riverton, while Jaye Radisich added a handsome 3.3 per cent to her shaky margin in Swan Hills. The picture was patchy outside Perth but Labor performed well where they needed to, picking up a huge 6.9 per cent swing in Collie-Wellington and holding firm in Geraldton.