One-way ticket

On Friday the last piece in the Senate election puzzle fell into place when the National Party held its preselection for the second position on the joint Coalition ticket in Victoria. Incumbent Julian McGauran prevailed in a field of four including Scott Mitchell, a former Young Nationals president who pursued his challenge at the cost of his job as staffer for Trade Minister Mark Vaile. It is little wonder that the position was keenly sought, as McGauran is the beneficiary of an agreement which effectively reserves for the National Party one of the four to six Victorian Senate seats the Coalition can reasonably expect to hold, giving them the unloseable second position at alternating elections and the unwinnable fourth in between. On the strength of its own electoral merits the National Party has only been able to win two out of the 37 lower house seats in Victoria at the last three elections; of these, Mallee could well be lost when the Liberal Party is next able to contest it upon the retirement of member John Forrest, as the neighbouring seat of Murray was lost when Bruce Lloyd retired in 1996, while in Gippsland McGauran’s brother Peter faces an imminent threat from Labor.

For a party in such a position to be granted an automatic Senate seat it could never win from a separate ticket is an obvious bone of contention for ambitious Liberals. Part of the explanation involves a relic from a bygone era of Australian politics, the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP ceased to be a political force at the 1974 double dissolution election but has since managed to retain a loyal core of 1 to 2 per cent of the primary vote in the state of its origin. At the 1987 double dissolution election these votes were instrumental in delivering a sixth seat to the Coalition, and in ensuring that one of them went to McGauran who headed a separate National Party ticket. More recently, DLP preferences helped put Coalition third place-holder Kay Patterson over the line at Labor’s expense in both 1996 and 2001.

When the Australian Electoral Commission moved to de-register the DLP in 2002 after it refused to provide names and details for the 2000 members it claimed, the McGauran family’s help in funding legal action that prevented the deregistration from proceeding was widely seen as an astute political insurance policy. The wisdom of this appeared to be demonstrated on Thursday when Michael Harvey of the Herald Sun reported that "Liberal heavyweights including Treasurer Peter Costello and party state president Helen Kroger are believed to be behind a blunt ultimatum to the junior Coalition partner" whereby the Liberal Party would abandon the joint ticket arrangement if McGauran was not endorsed. The McGaurans’ support for the DLP may have been made with a view to maintaining the seat even if compelled to run from a separate National Party ticket, but it appears to have earned them enough gratitude that McGauran was able to bring to the table the promise of a straightforward allocation of DLP preferences to the Coalition ahead of Labor, in contrast to 1998 when Labor’s Jacinta Collins was rewarded for her opposition to euthanasia and stem cell research by being placed ahead of her third-place opposite number on the Coalition ticket, Tsebin Tchen.

McGauran’s brother faces an uncertain future, but for himself another term in the Senate is assured. However, the long-term decline of both the National Party and the Democratic Labor Party suggests that between now and 2010, the logic of a separate Liberal Party ticket will become irresistible.

August 7 – the God that failed

So, no August 7 election then. The next hypothesis to face the test is the one involving an August 14 election announced after a cabinet meeting next Tuesday, but this is not where The Poll Bludger is putting his money. In the midst of uncertainty, the best we can do is continue our usual game of wildly exaggerating the significance of fractional shifts in meaningless opinion polls.

Yesterday the least meaningless opinion poll of them all, Newspoll, added a further increment of evidence to the general picture of a gradual Coalition improvement, though perhaps too gradual to soothe the frayed nerves of Government back-benchers. Labor’s vote was down two points from 43 to 41 per cent, with the Coalition steady on 43 per cent. On two-party preferred the Coalition has cut the gap from 48-52 to 49-51. The headlines instead focused on a fall in Mark Latham’s satisfaction rating from 54 to 49 per cent, with dissatisfaction up 29 to 35 per cent. The poll was taken immediately after reports emerged of Latham’s altercation with a disgruntled constituent and with over-heated rumours circulating regarding the content of Channel Nine’s Sunday report.

Other intelligence has come to light courtesy of the Courier Mail, which has run a poll conducted by TNS of 937 respondents in three key Queensland electorates. In Dickson, held by Liberal Peter Dutton with a margin of 6 per cent, Labor led 54 to 46 per cent on two-party preferred. While this seems a bit much, it may at least be counted as further evidence that this seat is more marginal than it looks, owing to the fact that Cheryl Kernot held it going into the 2001 election. There was better news for the Government from the other two seats. In Hinkler National Party member Paul Neville held 50.5 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, despite trailing 36 to 37 per cent on the primary vote (figures suggesting that undecided voters had not been assigned, as was the case with TNS’s polls during the Queensland state election). This is not plausible, but it may at least be taken as a broad indication that Neville is still the hunt, and that the Coalition may be able to contain the damage in Queensland. Further evidence to that effect came with the results for Longman, held by Employment Services Minister Mal Brough on a margin of 2.5 per cent. Brough was found to have widened the margin to 4 per cent.

The weekend before last the Canberra Sunday Times ran a poll of about 200 local voters which had Labor on 43.5 per cent, the Coalition 31.5 per cent, the Greens 6 per cent, Democrats 4 per cent and a remarkable 15 per cent for “others”. While the outcome in the lower house seats of Canberra and Fraser is not in doubt, the poll has led to further speculation that one of the two Australian Capital Territory Senate seats could be won by Greens candidate Kerrie Tucker at the expense of Liberal incumbent and former Chief Minister Gary Humphries. To prevent this Humphries needs a third of the primary vote or very close to it (and it should be remembered that the Liberal vote for the Senate is usually 1 to 2 per cent lower than for the House), since he will receive few minor party preferences.

Since the ACT was first granted its two Senate representatives in 1975 there have been 11 elections, each of which has produced a result of one seat each for Labor and Liberal. While Labor have never had any trouble scoring a third of the primary vote, there have been three occasions when the Liberals needed preferences to make it over the line. In 1998 former Senator Margaret Reid survived with 30.9 per cent, but that was under a preference regime more favourable for the Liberals than what they can expect now, due to a 4.7 per cent One Nation vote that split evenly between Reid and the minor parties. In 1984 the Liberal vote was 31.9 per cent and Reid just made it to a quota by picking up half of independent candidate Allan Nelson’s 4.1 per cent share of the vote. Had her vote been much lower, Democrats preferences could well have delivered the seat to the Nuclear Disarmament Party. The only time Labor came within range of winning the second seat was in 1983, but back then the Australian Democrats dominated the minor party vote and returned a reasonable proportion of it to the Liberals. Although the idea is not being entirely ruled out, Labor would need a substantial primary vote improvement to be in contention for the second seat on this occasion.

The marginal seats in Adelaide continue to be polled to within an inch of their lives, and many thanks to Phil Robins for calling my attention to two recent Advertiser polls that had previously escaped notice. On June 26 a poll was published from an impressive sample of 691 showing Labor behind 51 to 49 per cent in the seat of Wakefield, which it notionally holds with a margin of 1.5 per cent. Wakefield has been altered so dramatically by the redistribution that it does not bear comparison with the existing seat, retained by Neil Andrew for the Liberals at the last election on a margin of 14.6 per cent. The formerly rural seat is now largely urban and will be contested for Labor by Martyn Evans, member for the abolished seat of Bonython, with Neil Andrew to retire. Robins notes that "the working class area around Elizabeth may not be as reliable for Evans as the country towns are for the Libs. Many of the Poms who are strongly represented in Elizabeth don’t like the republic (which Latham is pushing). The Greens and Democrats are weak in Wakefield, too. And it seems the Budget has been more favourably received in Wakefield than in other marginal SA seats".

The other marginal Labor Adelaide seat, Kingston, was the subject of a poll a week earlier. It showed a slight strengthening in Labor’s position, with David Cox recording 53 per cent of the two-party preferred compared with his post-redistribution majority of 1.3 per cent. Together the polls point to a very uncertain picture in Adelaide, given the results that have been coming out of the Liberal-held seats showing sitting members like Trish Draper in Makin under threat.

New stuff, and lots of it

The Poll Bludger’s long promised and much-delayed seat-by-seat guide to the House of Representatives election is finally available for public edification and enlightenment. Click here for the federal pendulum and all-purpose entry point. The summaries are grouped on to six separate pages covering New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania and the Territories. With my own content now available to replace it, Antony Green’s material gracefully retires from the site – it may now be found at ABC Elections.

Phoney war dispatches: final edition

In order to mark the end of the financial year, the handover of sovereignty in Iraq and the arrival of the period in which the Prime Minister may call a half-Senate election, the Poll Bludger proudly presents the Final Edition of Phoney War Dispatches. His massive House of Representatives election guide WILL be up by the end of the week and with that labour of love out of the way, PWD will be rendered redundant by near-daily blogging.

• Those of you who followed the Poll Bludger’s advice from last week to "mark an extra red circle around the date for the next Newspoll a fortnight hence" may remove it, as the survey did in fact come out last Friday. Aggregating polling from April to June to produce state-by-state figures, the results suggest an improving Coalition performance in New South Wales (Coalition 42 per cent, Labor 40 per cent – in the first quarter it was the other way round) and, in particular, in South Australia (where they trailed 42 to 43 last time, but now lead 45 to 38). Labor however has improved its showing in Victoria, lifting two points to 45 per cent with the Coalition steady on 40 per cent, and in Western Australia, up three points to 41 per cent with the Coalition down one to 44 per cent.

• Tasmania suffers a cavalier dismissal at the hands of Newspoll, but the Hobart Mercury stepped into the breach today publishing an EMRS poll individually covering the five Tasmanian electorates. The results suggest that Labor’s stranglehold in Tasmania is secure. In the most marginal, the Launceston-based seat of Bass, Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne led Liberal challenger Michael Ferguson 49 to 41 per cent, compared with 42.8 and 41.4 per cent at the 2001 election. The poll coincides with a visit to Bass by the Prime Minister, who was notably unenthusiastic about Ferguson during the preselection campaign. The survey had the Liberals on 37 per cent in Braddon and Lyons (compared with 39.2 and 35.8 per cent in 2001) and 31 per cent in Franklin and Denison (37.6 and 31.6 per cent).

• Continuing with Tasmania, Brian Harradine announced on Monday that after 29 years as an independent Senator he would not be contesting the next election. Labor and the Liberals claim they are both hopeful of winning his seat, but by the Poll Bludger’s reckoning Greens candidate Christine Milne, who led the party in the state parliament from 1993 to 1998, would be doing very badly to lose. Indeed some party optimists suggest they could win two Tasmanian Senate seats instead of one.

• A rare Saturday sitting of parliament to push through deck-clearing legislation prompted a further outbreak of head-scratching over the election date. Crikey reported that "Sky News is pushing August 14 with the election to be called straight after a Cabinet meeting scheduled for two weeks’ time", a possibility which has been nowhere else countenanced to the best of the Poll Bludger’s knowledge.

State of excitement

For much of the current term, election watchers have been looking at the Coalition side of the Mackerras pendulum to identify the 11 seats Labor will have to win to gain a majority. From this it has been concluded that the outer urban and regional areas of New South Wales and Queensland, along with Adelaide, are where the action will be on election night. However, clouds on the horizon to the West suggest a more complicated picture and a taller order for Labor. Newspoll’s quarterly geographic and demographic analysis in June showed that Labor’s two-party preferred performance for the first quarter had improved since the 2001 election in every state other than Western Australia, by about 5 per cent in New South Wales and South Australia and 3 per cent in Victoria and Queensland (Tasmania was not included). In Western Australia however, there was a 0.4 per cent shift to the Coalition. On May 25 The West Australian’s Westpoll, taken from a rather thin sample of 404, had Labor down eight points from the 40 per cent it recorded the previous month, with the Coalition rising from 39 to 44 per cent. Four days later Louise Dodson of the Sydney Morning Herald reported that "insiders believe the party may lose the Perth seat of Stirling, now held by Jann McFarlane with a margin of 1.6 per cent".

A number of factors are contributing to Labor’s softness in the West. One is the unpopularity of the Gallop Government, which came to office in February 2001 with 37.2 per cent of the primary vote plus considerable help from One Nation’s decision to direct preferences against most sitting members. Unlike the Rann Government in South Australia, and despite the lowest unemployment in the land and economic growth in the order of 6 per cent, the Gallop Government enjoyed no honeymoon period and has at no stage cracked 40 per cent in Newspoll. Another factor is Western Australia?s traditionally conservative leaning. Labor’s success in winning seven of the 15 seats in 2001 was a reasonable performance historically, and was achieved from an unpromising primary vote of 37.1 per cent – almost identical to Labor’s vote in the state election, and more or less where Labor has been stuck in both state and federal polling in WA for years – compared with 42.4 per cent for the Coalition. Three of those seats, Stirling, Hasluck and Swan, have margins of between 1.6 and 2.1 per cent, while the only marginal Liberal seat is Canning, which Don Randall (who had been member for Swan from 1996 to 1998) narrowly won from the late Jane Gerick in 2001. A further unpredictable element is the destination of the 6.3 per cent vote for One Nation, a constituency that still views Labor with suspicion over the asylum seeker issue. Last but not least is the Kim Beazley factor, the local boy?s defeats at the hands of eastern staters in 2003 having roused parochial jealousies. Three weeks after Latham?s elevation to the leadership in December, Andrew Fraser of the Canberra Times reported that Don Randall had gone so far as to say that "they’re welded on to Kim Beazley over here – If we don’t pick up two (seats) in WA I’d be surprised".

The most precarious of the Labor marginals is Stirling, where the Poll Bludger spent his happily uneventful childhood. This patch of Perth’s northern suburbs extends from North Beach and Scarborough on the coast as far inland as Dianella, the Liberal-leaning coastal strip slightly more than cancelled out by notoriously low-rent Mirrabooka and Balga. The seat was nevertheless held for the Liberals by former and current ABC radio presenter Eoin Cameron from 1993 to 1998. Jann McFarlane then recovered it for Labor with a 4.1 per cent swing and held on in 2001. McFarlane came to parliament via the Australian Services Union and has devoted much of her current term to anti-war and pro-refugee activism which, if I remember my home turf correctly, would be passing largely unnoticed by most of her constituents. A health scare in early 2004 raised questions about her political future, but she appears set on another term. The Liberals thought they had landed a pretty fair catch when they endorsed millionaire businessman Paul Afkos, but it soon emerged that he had borrowed $300,000 from a man he knew to be a convicted drug trafficker. Afkos stood aside, and "senior party officials" reacted quickly by drafting Michael Keenan, real estate salesman and former adviser to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.

Over the other side of town is Swan, home to Kim Beazley from his entry into parliament in 1980 until his well-timed move into Brand in 1996. Like Stirling, Swan trades off waterfront Liberal areas in the west against Labor territory further inland, the water in this case being the scenic end of the Swan and Canning rivers at South Perth and Como. At the other end of the electorate is Perth Airport and the industrial precinct of Welshpool. Swan has been held for Labor since 1998 by Kim Wilkie, who worked as a farmer and prison officer before entering politics via South Perth City Council. Wilkie survived unwelcome publicity in late 2000 and early 2001 after accusations against staffers over travel allowances and membership slush funds. The way Tony Wright from The Bulletin tells it, Wilkie’s office was being used as a headquarters for Stephen Smith’s "New Right" faction, and the leak of travel allowance information to the Left faction produced claims that car travel reimbursements were being used to fund party memberships. However it proved to be nothing on a scale sufficient to cause electoral damage, and he suffered a swing of less than 1 per cent at the 2001 election. Wilkie has kept his nose clean since and built a reasonably solid local profile, although he may regret having dismissed Latham as inexperienced in the days prior to the December 2 leadership vote. The Liberal candidate is Andrew Murfin, a former Perth and Belmont Councillor. Murfin was the subject of a timely eulogy last weekend from Peter Sweeney of Perth’s Sunday Times which focused mostly on his work a Salvation Army volunteer, but also made the generous claim on his behalf that as Liberal candidate for the state seat of South Perth in the 2001 state election, he "came within 63 primary votes of defeating elected independent Phillip Pendal". In Australia of course candidates are not "defeated" on the primary vote, and in the count that matters Murfin suffered a 12.8 per cent drubbing (it might be noted here that a hostile local media is another factor counting against Labor in Perth).

Hasluck was created at the 2001 election, mostly from parts of Perth, Tangney and Swan, its neighbour to the west. Geographically it takes in the last gasp of the coastal plain and the foothills of the Darling Scarp. Roughly speaking the former area, including Midland, Gosnells and Thornlie, does better for Labor while the more scenic hills area, in particular Kalamunda, goes the other way. The seat had a notional margin of 2.4 per cent upon its creation, and the Liberals’ insufficient 0.6 per swing saw it go the way of Sharryn Jackson, official for the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union official and member of the Labor Left. Jackson hasn’t made too much noise in her debut term, although she did all right with the Dick Smith crowd by "launching a fighting fund" against the American firm that had acquired the rights to the name "ugg boots" and was trying to put honest Aussie battlers in the hard-done-by TCF sector out of business. Jackson voted for Simon Crean in the first challenge and was a late decider in Beazley’s favour in the second. Her Liberal opponent is Stuart Henry, of whom little is known.

The Liberals would need a solid city-wide swing of around 2 per cent to rope in all three, a tall order for a Government asking for a fourth term. However, Western Australia is not without a history of contrary behaviour, and the Opposition Leader would as always be mindful of the precedent set by his mentor Gough Whitlam. In December 1972, Whitlam’s election triumph was just slightly tarnished by the loss of two seats in Western Australia – widely interpreted at the time as a backlash against an unpopular state Labor government, soon to be defeated after one term.

Phoney war dispatches: reality check edition

With the cycle upset by Newspoll’s three-week break, all three major opinion pollsters have delivered their findings in the past five days. For once, there is a remarkable degree of agreement between them.

• Sanity returned to Newspoll with today’s survey recording both the Coalition and Labor on 43 per cent and Labor ahead 52-48 on two-party preferred. All sorts of rubbish was spoken about the 10 per cent primary vote shift to Labor compared with the survey of three weeks ago, those charged with explaining What It All Means trying their luck with the Peter Garrett effect and a calamitous failure of the Government’s post-budget advertising campaign. Meanwhile, seers and oracles who had spent the last three weeks staking their reputations on an August 7 election suddenly felt the cold hand of doubt. They should all have known better, as it was clear even at the time that the last poll was a dud. Every other Newspoll of the past three months, including today’s, has had the Coalition between 40 and 43 per cent and Labor between 42 and 44 per cent, with the two-party preferred split ranging from 52-48 to 54-46 in Labor’s favour. Opinion poll buffs should mark an extra red circle around the date for the next Newspoll a fortnight hence, as it will include their quarterly geographic and demographic analysis featuring breakdowns of party support state-by-state. If the August 7 scenario plays out, the election will have been called by then.

• The monthly AC Neilsen poll published yesterday in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age was an almost perfect match of Newspoll, although it took a swing from the opposite direction to get it there. It showed the Coalition narrowing the gap from a 56-44 two-party preferred split to 52-48 and taking a slender lead on the primary vote, from 43 to 42 per cent. Although representing a sharp shift to the Coalition compared with last month’s poll, the results were almost identical in all measures to the survey before that. Reports accompanying the survey in the Herald and the Age divulged that Labor was recording 49 per cent two-party preferred in New South Wales (a 1 per cent swing to Labor compared with the 2001 election), 54 per cent in Victoria (a 2 per cent swing) and 56 per cent in Queensland (a 10.7 per cent swing, although it’s best to dismiss this on the basis of a small sample and wait for the next Newspoll).

• The Roy Morgan poll released on Thursday had Labor leading the Coalition 43.5 to 42.5 per cent on the primary vote and 53-47 on two-party preferred. This compares with a 10 per cent gap a fortnight ago, but a better idea is to look at the trend since February which suggests a gradual improvement in Coalition fortunes that does not yet seem to have run its course.

• In non-opinion poll news, the Poll Bludger was left wondering what game Nick Bolkus has been playing for the past few months when he announced on Wednesday he would not be seeking another term as a Senator for South Australia. That came one day after the other South Australian Labor Senator up for re-election, Geoff Buckland, had done the same. Buckland’s decision put to rest any controversy over Bolkus’s refusal to stand aside for the sake of the party’s affirmative action quota, a matter that had been causing convulsions within the party for the past six months. His Left faction has anointed Anne McEwen of the Australian Services Union to replace him, well and truly putting an end to any concerns over female representation.