Dubbo by-election preview

Tomorrow sees the end of an Australia-wide by-election drought going back to the Katherine by-election in the Northern Territory in October last year. Voters in Dubbo will go to the polls to choose a replacement for independent state MP Tony McGrane, who passed away on September 15. The state Labor Party, who have recently been taking a hammering in the opinion polls, have sensibly decided they have little to gain from fielding a candidate in a safe conservative seat where they would certainly suffer an embarrassing result as well as unnecessary expense. The real point of interest is whether the electorate will give the resurgent John Brogden-led Coalition a vote of confidence by returning the seat to the National Party.

Dubbo was held for the Coalition from 1959, Gerry Peacocke winning it for the Nationals in 1981 after the retirement of recently deposed Liberal leader John Mason. Peacocke, described by Antony Green as "an old-style irascible National Party MP", is perhaps best remembered for describing then-premier John Fahey as "a gutless little wimp" after he failed to tell him personally that he had been dumped from cabinet. When Peacocke retired at the 1999 election the Nationals preselected local talkback radio host Richard Mutton, but long-serving Dubbo mayor Tony McGrane ran against him as an independent and won by a mere 14 votes. His foothold established, McGrane had a less nervous time of it at the March 2003 election, leading the Nationals candidate 41.6 per cent to 38.2 per cent on the primary vote and prevailing by 5.5 per cent after preferences.

This time around the Nationals have nominated Jan Cowley, the party’s Parkes Electoral Council secretary, whose preselection opponents included Sam Peacocke, son of Gerry, and former mayor Greg Matthews. The Daily Liberal quoted a "key supporter" of McGrane saying his backers would endorse a new candidate if the nomination went to Matthews, who they linked to Richard Mutton; presumably the candidate they had in mind was Parkes mayor Robert Wilson, widely mentioned as a likely starter and described by the Daily Liberal as a friend of McGrane’s. Wilson indeed declined to run, but Dubbo deputy mayor Dawn Fardell has taken the field and should give Cowley a run for her money, having won public backing from state indepedents Richard Torbay and Peter Draper and federal independents Peter Andren and Tony Windsor. Ben Shields – who is on Dubbo City Council, along with Fardell, Matthews, Mutton and Sam Peacocke – was reportedly keen to run as a Liberal candidate but the party hierarchy thought better than to enter the contest. Rounding out the field of four are two candidates who contested the corresponding federal seat of Parkes at the October 9 election – Terrance Loughlin, of the Greens, and Makere Rangihaeata, a Citizens Electoral Council candidate at the federal election who is now running as an independent.

The final element that warrants a mention is New England MP Tony Windsor’s allegations of bribery against Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Senator Sandy Macdonald, with some suspicious folk linking the timing of Windsor’s announcement earlier this week with tomorrow’s poll. The suggestion is that Windsor, who also gave strong backing to Tony McGrane at the 1999 election, was seeking to give Fardell a boost over Cowley. If so, the impassioned rejection of his claims by businessman and supposed go-between Greg Maguire might mean the move has backfired, although many will continue to accept Windsor’s version of events. The episode has called attention to the long-standing debate in these parts about the relative merits of independent and major party representation; although the Poll Bludger cannot claim any connection with this particular part of Australia, and has no opinion polling to go on, his gut feeling is that the mood has swung in favour of the latter and that Jay Cowley will prevail. The impact of this on the numbers in the lower house will be barely measurable – from 55-6-32 to 55-5-33 – but it will provide a shot in the arm for an opposition that already has good cause to feel confident about its future prospects.

Way out west

The Western Australian Government’s announcement of $1 billion in tax cuts late last month had most convinced that Premier Geoff Gallop was paving the way for a pre-Christmas election, and the Poll Bludger accordingly felt compelled to spend the last fortnight slaving over his seat-by-seat Legislative Assembly election guide. It proved a false alarm, Gallop apparently having been spooked by both shaky internal polling and a Westpoll result that had the Coalition leading Labor 44 per cent to 36 per cent. The practical deadline for a pre-Christmas election passed last Thursday, and since Labor has introduced legislation to set fixed elections for the third Saturday in February, it is considered all but certain that the big day will be February 19. Since the election guide has been knocked into a presentable shape there seems little merit in holding back on it, so readers are invited to peruse the internet’s only guide to the 57 comprehensively redistributed Legislative Assembly electorates and the various political games currently being played out in each. A guide to the Legislative Council election will follow in due course.

Ms Milne goes to Canberra

Greens candidate Christine Milne ended up winning the sixth Tasmanian Senate seat more comfortably than earlier predicted. Most observers thought Milne would need enough Labor votes going below-the-line to send her preferences to keep open the gap between her and Family First. But in the event, unexpectedly large numbers of those who voted for the Democrats and ex-Labor independent Shayne Murphy, who both directed their preferences to Family First ahead of the Greens, went below-the-line and favoured the Greens. This allowed Milne to reach a quota with 420 votes to spare even before the elimination of Labor.

Senate cliffhangers

Apologies for the Poll Bludger’s silence over the past 10 days. After taking about a week off your correspondent has been hard at work reupholstering his federal election guide to add summaries of the outcomes for each electorate, and will eventually do the same for the Senate guide. Speaking of which, two Senate seats are going right down to the wire and depending on how they pan out, the Coalition will either attain its absolute majority or fall one short, while the Greens might add two more new seats to their one clear win in Western Australia. At some point today the Electoral Commission will "press the button" on their vote-counting gizmo which will spit the Tasmanian result out the other end. Whether the sixth seat goes to the Greens or Family First is anybody’s guess. The latest from the ever-helpful Geoff Lambert is that "there is sufficient below-the-line vote and sufficient leakage away from the tickets in the below-the-lines to see the Greens elected by a margin of about 2800, it seems. The progress of count sometimes surprises though".

The count in Queensland has been a bit of wild ride over the past week, and the final result will not be processed until Thursday. The Nationals had long had their neck just in front of One Nation at a crucial point of the count where they would be able to overrun the Greens on preferences if they held on. But on Friday there was what Antony Green described as "a dramatic change to the count" suggesting they had "counted something quite specific which had caused that change". The result was to put One Nation ahead of the Nationals, which would mean victory for the Greens since One Nation had been frozen out on preferences by all and sundry. Since then however the trend has gone back the other way, but Geoff Lambert reports that a "big parcel" of below-the-line votes added today gives One Nation "a whisker more than the Nats (by 40!) – based on the tickets, of course". Another correspondent, Chris Maltby, says that "it’s certainly swung back in (Greens candidate) Drew Hutton’s favour, but I reckon One Nation are still behind the Nats by 650 or so". If all voters had gone above-the-line this lead would be about 2500, suggesting a number of minor party below-the-line voters were specifically putting the major parties (or perhaps the Coalition in particular) last. Maltby also notes that One Nation will need all of Pauline Hanson’s preferences to threaten the Nationals, whereas her below-the-line voters might not have any specific attachment to the party she has since abandoned.

ACT Election wash-up

Labor looks to have won the first-ever absolute majority in the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, appearing set for nine or 10 seats in the 17-seat chamber. While the Democrats predictably collapsed, the Greens hardly improved at all and can only be confident of winning one seat, that being the one they held already in Molonglo. With the independent vote also in decline both major parties increased their primary vote, Labor looking set to pick up the Democrats’ seat in Ginninderra while retaining their third seat in Brindabella. They are also a chance of winning a fourth seat from the Liberals in Molonglo. What follows are the primary vote figures from the end of the evening with about 85 per cent of the vote counted, with the Poll Bludger’s best guess of the likely seat outcomes in brackets.

Total (17) ALP LIB GRN DEM OTH
2004 46.9 (9) 34.7 (7) 9.3 (1) 2.3 (0) 6.8 (0)
2001 41.7 (8) 31.6 (7) 9.1 (1) 8.1 (1) 9.5 (0)
Molonglo (7) ALP LIB GRN DEM OTH
2004 45.6 (3) 32.2 (3) 11.6 (1) 1.4 (0) 9.2 (0)
2001 39.3 (3) 34.0 (3) 12.6 (1) 7.7 (0) 6.4 (0)
Brindabella (5) ALP LIB GRN DEM OTH
2004 46.0 (3) 40.3 (2) 7.1 (0) 1.5 (0) 5.1 (0)
2001 44.0 (3) 31.8 (2) 5.5 (0) 6.9 (0) 11.8 (0)
Ginninderra (5) ALP LIB GRN DEM OTH
2004 50.0 (3) 32.3 (2) 8.3 (0) 4.3 (0) 5.1 (0)
2001 42.8 (2) 28.0 (2) 7.9 (0) 9.7 (1) 11.6 (0)

Molonglo: The only electorate in which the Liberal vote fell, no doubt due to the 3 per cent polled by Liberal-turned-independent member Helen Cross. Her preferences will probably save the Liberals from dropping a seat to Labor, although they are not out of the woods yet. Labor incumbents Katy Gallagher, Ted Quinlan and Simon Corbell are all set for re-election, but Liberal member Jacqui Burke has again failed to impress voters, being outpolled by Liberal newcomers Richard Mulcahy and Zed Seselja. The Greens have gone backwards on the primary vote and have fallen well short of their stated hope for a second seat. They are nonetheless assured of one seat, with Deb Foskey having the edge out of those seeking to replace the retiring Kerrie Tucker.

Brindabella: The Liberals have performed much better than expected here, but not well enough to be in contention for a third seat. Opposition Leader Brendan Smyth has been easily re-elected but his fellow incumbent Steve Pratt has performed disappointingly and is in a wrestle for the other position with Steve Doszpot. The last seat emerges as a contest between the Greens and a third Labor candidate, and at present Labor appears to have the edge. John Hargreaves has been easily re-elected but colleague Karin MacDonald holds only a narrow lead over challenger Mick Gentleman, although the most likely result is that both will get up.

Ginninderra: Labor looks well placed to win a third seat at the expense of the Democrats, the other two staying with the Liberals. Chief Minister Jon Stanhope has dominated the Labor vote with a personal total of 35.2 per cent. It is not clear who the other Labor winners will be, incumbent Wayne Berry having attracted only 4.6 per cent. Liberal Bill Stefaniak has achieved a quota in his own right but colleague Vicki Dunne has not done as well, holding only small leads on the primary vote over the remaining Liberal candidates.

Another Senate update

The only person who really knows what’s going on, Antony Green, offered an illuminating contribution to yesterday’s Crikey newsletter detailing the state of play in the Senate. In New South Wales, the huge accumulation of preferences by Liberals for Forests meant none flowed on to the Greens, who were eventually eliminated ahead of both Liberals for Forests and Labor. Greens preferences then gave the seat to Labor. Family First’s victory in Victoria is now confirmed, for reasons that have been widely canvassed elsewhere. In Queensland, no trend has emerged in late counting to suggest an outcome other than three Liberal, one National and two Labor. In Western Australia, the outcome of three Liberal, two Labor and one Greens has never been in doubt. Antony Green refers to a "fevered hope" among the Democrats that they might win a seat in South Australia by overhauling their current 2,600 vote deficit relative to Family First, then making it home on Family First and Greens preferences. However, he can’t see this happening, which means Greens preferences will be deciding the issue between Labor and Family First rather than Labor and the Democrats – and thus that Labor as well as Liberal will win a third seat.

Only in Tasmania does the outcome remain entirely unclear, with below-the-line votes to determine whether the final seat is won by Family First or the Greens. Antony Green does not share the Poll Bludger’s previously expressed sentiment that the Liberals had "blundered" by not fielding a fourth candidate when they won more than three quotas: "If it was not their original intention, someone in the Liberal Party will be claiming great foresight in standing only three candidates. The result is that a full 0.29 of a quota goes straight to Family First rather than lingering with a fourth Liberal candidate". One possible scenario that might have unfolded had this not occurred is that the fourth Liberal would have knocked out Family First, whose preferences could have put incumbent Labor-turned-independent Senator Shayne Murphy into contention. Certainly it does not appear, as suggested earlier, that the Liberals might have been a chance to win the seat themselves.