Latham hits the front

In an election campaign in which both sides have nominated trust and honesty as the major themes, the Poll Bludger got off to a poor start yesterday with his assertion that he had "meticulously sifted through his House of Representatives election guide" in producing his Election Projection outcome (see left). In fact this was done in such haste that the Victorian seat of La Trobe was lazily marked down as "Liberal retain" despite a long-harboured expectation to the contrary, owing to the loss of retiring Liberal incumbent Bob Charles’ personal vote and the high profile of Labor candidate Susan Davies, who held the state seat of Gippsland West as an independent from 1997 to 2002 (many thanks to reader Barney Langford for pointing this out). Thus does the Election Projection now record Labor at the all-important 76-seat mark at which they can form a majority government, however narrowly. Hopefully this stunning breakthrough will give the Opposition Leader the shot in the arm he needs following this morning’s disappointing Newspoll result.

Another dubious aspect of yesterday’s entry was an implicit assumption that all three existing independents would line up with the Coalition if push came to shove. In fact the most likely outcome in the event that Labor wins 75 seats would be that Peter Andren, the independent member for Calare, would accept a Labor offer of the Speaker’s position, thereby giving them a majority on the floor. Andren’s seat was held by Labor before he won it in 1996 and unlike his cross-bench colleagues he has no history of involvement with the National Party.

Newspoll and Taverner

The Coalition has bounced back from a horror result a fortnight ago in today’s Newspoll, taken over the weekend. Their primary vote is up from 39 to 43 per cent with Labor down from 42 to 40, though Labor maintain a 52-48 lead on two-party preferred (down from 54-46). Dennis Shanahan does a much better job than most journalists of talking up the poll’s significance without descending into hyperbole, saying the result "appears to bear out the Prime Minister’s view that the public is ‘fed up’ with the children overboard affair", which is perfectly true as far as it goes. However it is also true that the last poll probably inflated Labor’s lead.

The latest low-sample Taverner poll was published on Sunday, but the only information that may be gleaned from it comes from this article in Sunday’s Sun-Herald. Labor are on 53 per cent two-party preferred, showing no change on the poll from a fortnight ago, while the Greens are on a slightly implausible 11 per cent – also unchanged from last fortnight.

The short man in history

With three consecutive election wins under his belt including one that delivered him one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in Australian history, it would seem safe to assume that the Prime Minister is a reasonably effective election campaigner. But for political commentators being contrary goes with the territory, and the safer an assumption appears the more certain it is that a counter-argument will emerge. Peter Brent at Mumble has long been a Howard naysayer, citing the Government’s brush with death in 1998 and a victory in November 2001 that could be reckoned quite modest under the circumstances. The notion was given wider circulation today by Laura Tingle of the Australian Financial Review, who opened an article that featured prominently in today’s election wraparound thus:

John Howard’s utter dominance of federal politics for most of the past eight years has tended to overshadow something that will prove crucial to the outcome of the 2004 election: that he is a poor campaigner … (in 1996) Newspoll recorded the coalition’s primary vote falling from about 50 per cent in mid-January to 47 per cent on election day, March 2 … (in 1998) the government’s standing with voters deteriorated from a high of 44 per cent in mid-August to 39.5 per cent on election day on October 3. Even in 2001 in an election remembered for its focus on border security, the coalition’s primary vote fell from 50 per cent in late September to 43.1 per cent on polling day, November 10.

Tingle is being a little cute here. The 50 per cent result she chooses as her reference point for the 1996 election showed a spike in the Coalition vote for that fortnight, comparing with 47 per cent in the previous poll and 48 per cent subsequently. These results indicate that Howard maintained the status quo during the 1996 campaign, which would normally be considered a good effort from an Opposition Leader facing an entrenched and (normally) skilful incumbent. The poll chosen to represent the state of play going into the 1998 election was quirkier still, the quoted figure of 44 per cent comparing with 39 per cent from the previous fortnight and 40 per cent from the next. Following the logic of her 1996 comparison Tingle should have gone with the latter poll, that being the one taken immediately before the election announcement, but this would have required conceding that Howard held his ground during the campaign period. And if Tingle wanted to gauge the effect of a "focus on border security" in 2001 she could hardly have chosen a worse starting point than the poll taken immediately after September 11. It was inevitable that the Coalition vote would cool a little from this result, although the 43.1 per cent they ultimately recorded indeed represented a drop on their scores in Newspoll throughout the campaign – although it could just be that the maligned Roy Morgan was recording Coalition support more accurately.

The Government indeed has the fight of its life on its hands, but it may at least be said that any Labor partisans who are factoring pro-Labor bonuses into current polling based on Howard’s supposed campaigning incompetence are likely to be disappointed. Due to the inexperience of the Opposition Leader, for which the only modern precedent is John Hewson in 1993, and the proven capacity of governments to squeeze out one last term through election period scare campaigns, the Poll Bludger will continue to lean the other way and assume that the Coalition will claw back at least 2 per cent on two-party preferred over the next six weeks.

UPDATE (31/8/04): This post originally contained the outrageous claim that Howard’s 1996 majority was the biggest in Australia’s history. Thanks to Peter Brent at Mumble for alerting me to the fact that I had "taken the Howard truth serum" – it was in fact equal third.

Crystal ball gazing

The Poll Bludger has meticulously sifted through his House of Representatives election guide to determine the likely outcome in each of the 150 seats, which will no doubt be revised many times between now and October 9. It is certainly to be hoped so, because the current assessment is for the nightmare scenario of a hung parliament in the true sense of the word, with the Labor and non-Labor forces gridlocked on 75 seats each.

In New South Wales, Dobell, Parramatta and Richmond are nominated as Labor gains. Despite margins of just 1.5 and 1.7 per cent, Paterson and Eden-Monaro are tipped to hold against the tide due to the advantages of incumbency and popular local members, although most would say these were bold calls at this stage. Labor will recover Cunningham, lost to the Greens at a 2002 by-election.

A status quo result is predicted for Victoria, except that Christian Zahra is tipped to hold McMillan which became notionally Liberal with a margin of 2.9 per cent in the recent redistribution. Here the advantages of incumbency will work in Labor’s favour, but in three seats on narrower margins I am tipping the Coalition to get over the line. The bravest of these judgements is Dunkley, an outer suburban mortgage belt seat where Coalition scaremongering over interest rates, combined with the local issue of the Bracks Government’s tolls for the Scoresby Freeway, will bite as the campaign develops.

Queensland is universally reckoned to be the danger zone for the Coalition, and so it appears on this assessment – Labor will even up the ledger in this state by winning Herbert, Hinkler, Moreton, Longman, Bowman, Petrie and Dickson.

Three seats are there to be won for Labor in South Australia – Adelaide, Hindmarsh and Makin – and the current tip is that all of them will be, the first two by natural correction, the second with help from a retiring Liberal member, and the second with help from a sitting Liberal member (Trish Draper).

Labor will win a third successive clean sweep of Tasmania, win both seats as usual in the Australian Capital Territory and gain the Darwin seat of Solomon.

So on the current hypothetical election night, that will leave all eyes on Western Australia which would need to deliver three seats to the Liberals late in the evening to keep John Howard in the Lodge – or two to confuse the situation. The latter seems the most likely outcome at this stage, a projected 2 per cent swing to the Coalition in Perth delivering them Stirling and Hasluck with Swan to remain out of reach due to a slightly bigger margin and a comical pre-election performance from Liberal candidate Andrew Murfin.

And they’re off

A bleary-eyed and hungover Poll Bludger awoke mid-afternoon to face the big news, that October 9 will indeed be the big day. The Senate however will sit as scheduled on Monday and Tuesday, the Prime Minister saying he "didn’t want anybody to suggest that I was trying to prevent the Senate doing any pointless political business that it might want to do". Time now to take a Tylenol and a step back – individual seat predictions and a survey of the battlefield will be added later this evening, or maybe tomorrow (more likely tomorrow).

Election date entrails examined

As anyone who has heard a news report in the last 24 hours will be aware, speculation is rife that John Howard will call an election tomorrow for October 9. While this would mean an unusually long election campaign, the theory is that he will be willing to risk it out of desperation to head off an aimless two week session of parliament with the legislative decks already cleared and the Senate waiting to rake through the children overboard affair. The rumblings began on Wednesday when Liam Bartlett of ABC Radio in Perth pressed Howard on the question of whether parliament would resume on Monday, to which he would only reply that it was "scheduled to". Yesterday he told an ABC interviewer in Tasmania he would be leaving for Canberra rather than his usual destination of Sydney, perhaps suggesting he was planning a visit to Yarralumla.

More cutely, the Launceston Examiner reported on Wednesday that Liberal candidate for Bass Michael Ferguson had campaign posters up around the electorate – which, under Launceston City Council’s rather strange rules governing such things, will see him fined if an election is not held within two months. At The Age, Olympics reporter Geoff McLure read great significance into a request to the Australian Olympic Committee from the Prime Minister’s office for a pronunciation guide for the names of all Australian gold medallists, to be provided no later than Sunday morning.

For all the weight of evidence, the Poll Bludger is not so sure. Rational alternative explanations are available for each of the substantial matters raised above. Howard’s unilluminating remarks are wholly consistent with his established straight bat approach in which he sticks to factual statements that leave all his options open. The plane flight to Canberra rather than Sydney also leaves his options open, while sparing him another journey to attend parliament on Monday. As for a new session of parliament, Laura Tingle and Sophie Morris of the Australian Financial Review said yesterday that the "decks" were less "cleared" than most imagined, reporting "the government has set an ambitious agenda for legislation in federal parliament next week", which "will be dominated by issues on which the government still believes it can ‘wedge’ Labor, from school funding to the additional private health insurance rebate for seniors announced earlier this week". Howard might also be tempted by the notion that Labor will end up chasing its tail on the children overboard issue, perhaps associating themselves too closely with indignant histrionics from the Greens and Democrats in the Senate. Most likely he will go over internal polling today and baulk at going early, instead hoping to somehow swing momentum back in the Government’s favour during the coming session of parliament.

If he needed another reason to hold off, Roy Morgan today provided it – their fortnightly face-to-face poll of 2000-odd respondents showed Labor headed for a landslide victory. The Coalition’s primary vote was down to 39 per cent, their worst showing since the peak of Mark Latham’s honeymoon period in February, although Labor’s rating of 43.5 per cent was no better than their average over the past six months. The two-party preferred split had Labor on a commanding 55.5 per cent, although this gives them 70 per cent of the preferences from minor parties and independents, an unreasonable figure despite the Greens recording their best performance since March with 9 per cent.