Phoney war dispatches: No Newspoll edition

The nation’s tea-leaf readers have been left driving blind after today’s non-appearance of Newspoll, which is apparently taking an extended long weekend. Phoney War Dispatches accordingly has disappointingly little to report.

• With expectations of an August 7 poll continuing to mount, the Prime Minister appeared to indicate otherwise today when he told the National Press Club he "would hope" that legislation for the United States free trade agreement could be passed before the election was held. Bearing Howard’s subtle qualification in mind, that suggests a new session of parliament to proceed on schedule in August and no election until October.

• The boil of Labor’s South Australian Senate preselection was finally lanced with Senator Geoff Buckland’s unexpected announcement today that would not be seeking another term. Buckland’s Right faction will now throw its support behind former state deputy leader Annette Hurley, who boldly abandoned her safe seat of Napier to unsuccessfully challenge a sitting Liberal minister at the 2002 state election. This means that Senator Nick Bolkus no longer has to abandon his place for the party to meet stricter definitions of its affirmative action quota.

• Peter Garrett has been the only nominee for Labor endorsement in the safe Sydney seat of Kingsford-Smith, the spurned rivals who were so vocal a week before quietly conceding defeat after the ALP National Executive took over the preselection process from the state branch. Newspoll did at least manage a poll released on the weekend gauging reaction to Garrett’s recruitment, with 39 per cent deeming it good for Labor against 19 per cent poor.

• Residents of Adelaide marginal seats are no doubt fed up with opinion pollsters already, but they can expect no respite between now and polling day. A Taverner poll in Adelaide’s Advertiser newspaper on Saturday for the electorate of Adelaide had Liberal and Labor equal on 38 per cent, calculated as a 53.2 per cent two-party preferred vote for Labor. This still represents a shift back to the Liberals from a poll taken in late February which had Labor ahead on the primary vote 40 per cent to 37. The poll also included questions on the budget in which the Poll Bludger isn’t much interested, but which were used by the Advertiser to paint a gloomy picture for the Government.

Phoney war dispatches: “Don’t cross that floor …” edition

• Labor’s plans to enlist Australian Conservation Foundation president and Oz Rock giant Peter Garrett for a safe Sydney seat had politics watchers of a certain age scanning their memories for apposite Midnight Oil lyrics, and they were not found wanting.
Laurie Brereton’s announcement on Friday evening that he would be vacating his Botany Bay-side seat of Kingsford-Smith surprised many, but obviously not the Labor officials who confirmed shortly afterwards that Garrett had been approached to run. Mark Latham soon added his enthusiastic endorsement. When Midnight Oil broke up in December 2002 it was widely reported that Garrett was leaving the band to prepare for a political career – indeed, The Australian endorsed the idea in an editorial at the time – and suspicions were aroused when he subsequently turned down an offer to lead the New South Wales Greens ticket. However the move has inflamed rival aspirants to the position and their followers in the local branches, and Garrett’s nomination will entail either a fraught preselection vote with much of Latham’s credibility pending on the result, or an internally bruising intervention by the national executive. Garrett has yet to make an announcement but today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports that "senior Labor sources close to Mr Garrett were expecting that he would accept the offer once the internal ructions within the party caused by reports of his impending preselection had settled".

• Mark Vaile, Trade Minister and heir apparent to the National Party leadership, faces a potential challenge in his North Coast electorate of Lyne from Rob Oakeshott, independent member for the corresponding state seat of Port Macquarie. Oakeshott was elected for the Nationals in 1999 but quit the party mid-term, winning re-election as an independent in March 2003 with 70.1 per cent of the primary vote.

• Four nominations were received for the National Party Senate preselection in Victoria, with the vote to be held on July 9. At stake is the crucial second spot on the Coalition Senate ticket and an all-but guaranteed six years in parliament. Incumbent Julian McGauran faces Scott Mitchell, a former Young Nationals president who is pursuing his challenge at the cost of his job as staffer for the aforementioned Mark Vaile; Darren Chester, of regional business lobby group Champions of the Bush; and Nationals junior vice-president Wes Head.

• The Greens confirmed that Christine Milne, former leader of the state parliamentary party, would head their Senate ticket in Tasmania. Milne is a strong chance to be elected in any case, and will be a near-certainty if 69-year-old incumbent Brian Harradine chooses to retire.

• In an otherwise quiet week on the opinion poll front, Friday saw Roy Morgan revert to its usual contrary-to-Newspoll ways. Labor were up 4.5 to 45.5 per cent with the Coalition down 2.5 to 40, blowing out Labor’s two-party preferred lead from 5 to 10 per cent. Quoth Gary Morgan: "this latest Morgan poll makes sense".

Blind date

The Government’s plan to keep everyone guessing about the date of the election seems to be doing its job, with the subject dominating taxi-cab and water-cooler conversation and stopping barbecues around the country. The Poll Bludger has done his bit to keep the speculation informed with this calendar of election date possibilities, which lays out the pros and cons for the Government of each Saturday from August 7 to Christmas. Sharp-eyed and non-colourblind readers will note there are four red-letter days marked out – August 7, September 4 and October 23 and 30. The Poll Bludger is quite sure there are many subtleties of the political and economic cycle that have escaped him, so anyone who is aware of pertinent facts or just has a theory they would like to share is encouraged to drop me a line.

Phoney war dispatches: Newspoll somersault special

In the past week two articles in The Australian – one on Saturday and one on Tuesday – have demolished all of the conventional wisdom regarding the federal election that existed this time last Tuesday. So forget everything you thought you knew about where our nation is headed and adjust to the new reality, which – for the next seven days or so – runs as follows …

• The Coalition has experienced a massive boost in support in a short time-frame for no readily apparent reason, according to Newspoll. Taken over the weekend, at the very height of the Trish Draper affair, the poll had the Liberals up five points to 42 per cent with the Nationals up one to 5 per cent, the highest level of support for the Coalition since 16-18 May 2003 when momentum was building towards Kim Beazley’s June 16 challenge to Simon Crean’s leadership. Labor fell seven points to 37 per cent, their lowest rating since 28-30 November 2003, immediately after Simon Crean’s decision to stand aside. In other good news for the Government, the two-party preferred position switched from 46-54 to 53-47; three points shifted to satisfied with Howard from dissatisfied (57 and 35 per cent respectively); and Howard’s share of the preferred prime minister rating went from 50 to 54 per cent. The safest reading of this dramatic readjustment is that Labor faces too many people toying with the idea of voting for them and too few actually committed to doing so. Latham’s succinctly expessed views on the Bush Administration might be enough to blow out the opinion polls in his favour while Abu Ghraib is all over the news, but when the cycle moves on the hip-pocket nerve kicks in again – and the response to the federal budget was better than has been acknowledged. Most news reports on the post-budget polls focused on the Iraq-related slump in voting intention for the Government while ignoring the apparently contradictory figures on support for the budget, which were better than average in each of the five polls of which the Poll Bludger is aware.

• The Australian’s other surprise this week came when political editor Dennis Shanahan – by all accounts considered a good egg by the Government, as journalists go – emerged from a discussion with the Prime Minister reporting that "John Howard has recast the Coalition election strategy, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars more into a series of 10-year development plans that rule out an early election". This after all and sundry (present company not excepted) had been telling everyone the election would be held as early as possible, namely on August 7. It could be that the Government has been laying red herrings in order to upset Labor’s timetable, or perhaps that the Prime Minister has held off going early because he is (or has been) spooked by the polls.

• A Sun-Herald/Taverner Research poll showed that 18 per cent of voters in Wentworth would back Peter King if he ran as an independent against the man who defeated him in the February Liberal Party preselection, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull himself was on 35 per cent, still clear of Labor’s David Patch on 29 per cent. Despite the hysterical tone of the Sun-Herald report the figures show Turnbull in no danger, as King is well behind the Labor candidate he would need to overhaul to get up on preferences and most of his own preferences would go to Turnbull ahead of Patch.

• The Advertiser chose a splendidly opportune time to survey voting intentions in the South Australian electorate of Makin, held by beleagured Liberal Trish Draper. The poll had Draper on 33 per cent, with Labor’s Tony Zappia on 44 per cent. An Advertiser poll from February had Labor ahead 41 per cent to 39.

• On Saturday the National Party chose chartered accountant Barnaby Joyce to head its Senate ticket in Queensland. The preselection had originally been scheduled for late March but was postponed in a decision blamed by some in the party on president Terry Bolger’s desire to buy time for nominee Pam Stallman, who had unsuccessfully challenged Senator Ron Boswell for his preselection heading into the 2001 election. Joyce is the last piece in the puzzle of the contest for the fifth and sixth places in Queensland, the others being Russell Trood (Liberal), Frank Gilbert (Labor), Drew Hutton (Greens), John Cherry (Democrats), Hetty Johnston (independent) and Len Harris (One Nation, if it still exists).

• The corridors of power were abuzz following a number of sensational new additions to the Poll Bludger website. Full details in yesterday’s posting …

Green and red

Your correspondent had heretofore enjoyed a monopoly as Poll Bludger content provider, but he is more than happy to surrender it to ABC election analyst Antony Green. Mr Green dropped a line last week looking for a home for his election overview and key seat summaries until ABC Online sees fit to give it one, which will not be until the election is called. I have placed Green’s election overview on a page of its own, while his key seat summaries have been incorporated into my existing skeleton guide to the House of Representatives election, to which my own long-promised federal electorate summaries will be added in coming weeks.

The Poll Bludger is also pleased to announce that he has not succumbed to the temptation to so obsess over the House of Representatives that the Senate election passes unremarked. To this end he proudly unveils his guide to the Senate election, in which the contests in each state and territory are put under the microscope and post-mortems conducted on the many ugly preselection spats. The page has been constructed under the assumption that there will be no double dissolution – the Prime Minister has until August 11 to prove me wrong.

Antony Green’s key seats are as follows, with links provided to the relevant entries.

New South Wales: Cunningham, Dobell, Eden-Monaro, Greenway, Lindsay, Lowe, Macarthur, New England, Page, Parramatta, Paterson, Richmond and Robertson.

Victoria: Ballarat, Bendigo, Chisholm, Corangamite, Deakin, Dunkley, Gippsland, La Trobe, McEwen and McMillan.

Queensland: Bonner, Bowman, Brisbane, Dickson, Herbert, Hinkler, Longman, Moreton, Petrie and Rankin.

Western Australia: Canning, Cowan, Hasluck, Kalgoorlie, Stirling and Swan.

South Australia: Adelaide, Hindmarsh, Kingston, Makin and Wakefield.

Plus Bass and Braddon from Tasmania and Solomon from the Northern Territory.

Phoney war dispatches: calm before the storm edition

With the election appearing even more imminent than was realised, the Poll Bludger has abandoned sleep and meal breaks to complete his guide to the federal election, which when unveiled will be a colossal bonanza of fun facts and figures covering each of the 150 House of Representatives seats, plus a complete state-by-state run-down on all the Senate election action. If the wind blows in the right direction this should be with you within the fortnight. Once that blockage has worked its way through the system postings will proceed on an almost-daily basis, so do stay tuned.

The Daily Telegraph reported on Thursday that "an anonymous person or persons" had booked Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel, scene of the last three Liberal Party election night celebrations, for the evening of Saturday, August 7. However, "whomever made the booking indicated they would confirm or cancel by next Friday, May 28" – it will be clearer then if this was merely a red herring. Then on Channel Nine’s Sunday program, Laurie Oakes got straight down to business in an interview with National Party minister Larry Anthony, telling him "I understand you’ve made a six-week block-booking of highway billboards and advertising space in bus shelters, staring on July the 1st in your electorate". Anthony, who holds the crucial New South Wales marginal seat of Richmond, did not deny the booking but insisted that no significance should be attached it. August 7 is the last Saturday in the relevant six-week period.

• While last week’s Roy Morgan poll offered hope to Liberals wishing to argue that Newspoll had been an aberration and the Government really did get a fillip from the budget, an ACNielsen poll taken over the weekend has undoubtedly tipped the balance the other way. Optimists in the party are now pinning their faith on the notion that the dividend will not be yielded until the tax cuts and benefit payments hit wallets on July 1. In keeping with the general trend of post-budget polling the figures offered a contradictory mix of support for the budget (46 per cent saying it would be good for the country, 29 per cent saying bad) with declining support for the Government. The answer may be found in the 63 per cent of respondents (up 12 per cent) who said they considered the Iraq war unjustified, which strongly suggests the Abu Ghraib scandal to be a factor in all this. The Coalition was down three points to 39 per cent while Labor rose one to 43 per cent, with Labor’s two-party preferred vote reaching a formidable 56 per cent. It is well worth noting that the Greens gained 2 per cent to reach double figures. Howard’s approve-disapprove figures narrowed from 55-37 to 52-41, while Latham’s widened from 54-33 to 58-29. Howard’s lead as preferred prime minister has all but disappeared, from 50-41 last fortnight to 47-43 now.

• Labor received a welcome boost in its campaign for the crucial South Australian marginal seat of Makin with moralistic Liberal member Trish Draper in a spot of bother over revelations she had taken a boyfriend on an overseas trip at taxpayer expense in clear violation of the rules. Typically Labor are too scared about skeletons in their own closet to run with the issue, so its electoral impact is likely to be localised.
Also of potential significance in the Adelaide marginals (which also include Adelaide and Hindmarsh) was Mitsubishi’s decision this week to close its Lonsdale plant at a cost of 650 jobs over the next 18 months.

• Another ray of light for the Coalition could be Western Australia, home to an unpopular state Labor Government and three seats that could be won from Labor with swings of 2.1 per cent or less. The West Australian’s Westpoll, published today, suggested they may not be too far out of reach. This was despite figures on the budget that were at least as unfavourable as those of the other polls, with 30 per cent saying Labor could do better and only 9 per cent saying they couldn’t. Taken late last week from a rather thin sample of 404, the poll had Labor falling an implausible eight points from the 40 per cent it recorded the previous month, with the Coalition rising from 39 to 44 per cent.

Phoney war dispatches: budget polling bonanza

Budget week has let loose a torrent of opinion poll results from which you can argue whatever you like, depending on which ones you choose. Roy Morgan and Newspoll both reported a positive response to the budget but bounced in opposite directions on the question of voting intention, while the Sunday Age reported its exclusive results under the headline "poll shock for PM as budget misfires". Bearing in mind the wise note of warning sounded in today’s editorial in The Australian – that "it is when people actually see the money in their paypackets and family payments, after July 1, that the budget’s real political impact will be registered" – let us now examine the entrails.

• Today’s Newspoll offered a very strange mix of findings, including solid support for the budget, pronounced scepticism about Labor’s ability to do better, rising popularity for John Howard and a widening of his lead over Mark Latham as preferred prime minister – but with Labor opening up a three point gap on voting intention after being tied with the Coalition last fortnight, and their two-party preferred lead widening from 52-48 to 54-46. The Australian all but apologised for the latter finding, arguing that "historically there seems to be a firewall between what voters initially make of a budget and their voting intention".

• As if to demonstrate the time-honoured adage that you can prove anything with statistics, a Sunday Age-Taverner poll was reported under very different headlines from the others despite results that were not inconsistent with them. Reporter Phillip Hudson spoke of grim tidings for the government with results showing "two-thirds of people believe there was no benefit in the budget for them and 62 per cent of those who will receive tax cuts would be prepared to give the money up for more spending on services". Experienced political operators on both sides of the fence no doubt had a good laugh over the latter finding. The former suggests that 33 per cent of respondents did think there was benefit for them in the budget, compared with 29 per cent from Newspoll and 19 per cent in The Advertiser (see below). On voting intention Labor was put at 44 per cent against 40 per cent for the Coalition, but the 911 respondents were all in New South Wales and Victoria which would tend to distort things in Labor’s favour. The poll was taken on Thursday and Friday evening, before Newspoll (Saturday and Sunday) and after those below (Wednesday evening).

• On Friday the Adelaide Advertiser published results of a poll conducted on budget night from an unreliably small sample of 500 voters. It showed moderate support for the budget (19 per cent said they would be better off, 11 per cent worse) and a big swing to the Coalition since their previous poll on April 14. The ALP was down four points to 37 per cent with the Coalition up three to 41 per cent – presumably these are South Australian voters only.

• On Thursday Roy Morgan issued results from a phone poll gauging immediate reactions to the Treasurer’s budget speech of the previous evening. Twenty-seven per cent of voters thought it good while 12 per cent thought it poor, the accompanying blurb noting that "six in 10 budgets receive more negative than positive responses". The question of voting intention was also raised and produced a remarkably pro-Government result compared with the company’s findings from its fortnightly face-to-face polls, with the Coalition on 52 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. No primary voting intention breakdown was provided.

Budget lockdown

Readers will hardly need the Poll Bludger to inform them that the spending bonanza in Tuesday night’s budget has had pretty much everyone convinced that the federal election will be sooner rather than later. Another item of conventional wisdom is firming by the day: that the poll is unlikely to be held after the US election as a defeat for President Bush would not be a good look for Australia’s own Man of Steel. Melbourne News Limited tabloid the Herald Sun today includes a helpful graphic outlining the most likely nominations, which run as follows:

August 7. The earliest possible date for a normal House of Representatives and half-Senate election, which cannot be called until a year prior to the expiry of the Senators’ terms in mid-2005 and cannot be held until at least 33 days after the issue of the writs. It has been mentioned elsewhere that the Prime Minister might not care to have the election coincide with the Bledisloe Cup.

August 14, 21 or 28. The Herald Sun notes that these days overlap with the Athens Olympics and argues "the expected feel-good Games atmosphere may suit a campaigning PM". Providing nothing goes wrong of course. Touch wood.

September 4. If the Poll Bludger were prime minister this would be his favourite option – close enough after the Olympics for photo ops with medallists, near enough to September 11 to focus the mind on security issues. September 11 itself is considered a bit much. Then come a series of dates with nothing in particular to recommend them, followed by school holidays.

October 23 or 30. The last pre-US election windows of opportunity.

Like I said, the budget has shortened the odds on the earlier options. For this reason the Poll Bludger will be frantically getting his comprehensive guide to the federal election in order in the coming months and will thus be forced to restrict his overt activity to the weekly Phoney War Dispatches. Since the fortnightly release of Newspoll is the be-all and end-all of everything, these will be moved from Sundays to Tuesdays.