Sugaring the poll

Throughout the life of the Howard Government, the threat of a rural revolt has been the dog that never quite barked. It was widely predicted that One Nation would sweep all before them in National Party heartland in 2001 as well as 1998, and when the Government’s failure to have sugar included as a component of the United States Free Trade Agreement became apparent in February it was feared there might be a localised backlash in the key electoral battleground of Queensland. The sugar-growing areas of this state mostly have a history as Coalition strongholds but have become dangerously unpredictable over recent state and federal elections, and National-turned-independent member for Kennedy Bob Katter has made little secret of his desire to exploit the situation. As a trial run he promoted five independent candidates at the February 2004 state election with extremely limited success, the only candidate to score 20 per cent having done almost as well without Katter’s help at the previous election. By May, Katter was taking a slightly different tack, threatening to form his own party to damage the Coalition not by winning seats on its own account, but by cutting a deal where his candidates would direct preferences to Labor provided they blocked the FTA. This could well have delivered Labor the marginal seats of Herbert and Hinkler, and at least raised the possibility of upsets in Dawson, Leichhardt and Wide Bay.

Labor of course did not block the FTA (or at least it does not appear that this is what it has done), and in any case Katter says he has had to limit his ambitions due to "lack of finances". Another reason might be fear of losing his own seat, it being quite common for voters to drift back to their natural major party after flirting with independents. Paul Daley of The Australian reported last week that internal polling showed Kennedy "again within the Nationals’ grasp"; one person who thinks differently is Martin Tenni, north Queensland party executive member and former Bjelke-Petersen Government minister, whose letter to state president Terry Bolger reporting "one thing is definite, we cannot win Kennedy" was leaked to The Australian. Whatever the reason, Katter is not forming a new party and will endorse only four independents, one of whom will run in the far-away Victorian seat of Murray where Liberal member Sharman Stone is unlikely to face sleepless nights.

Last Friday Katter unveiled Lars Hedberg as his candidate for Wide Bay, held by Warren Truss for the National Party. Much of the coverage focused on the response of Katter’s sparring partner, National Party Senator Ron Boswell, who ridiculed Hedberg for owning a McDonald’s franchise. Pretending not to have noticed the difference between the agrarian socialism and the campus left, Boswell said it was "hypocrisy" for such a person to run on a "platform of anti-globalisation". It is hard to imagine Hedberg seriously troubling Truss on his own account, but his candidacy could complicate things in a seat that is less secure than its 9.9 per cent margin makes it appear, having swung 10 per cent to the Nationals in 1996, 15 per cent to Labor in 1998 and 8 per cent back to the Nationals in 2001. Only one of the two other Queensland seats targeted by Katter has been identified, that being De-Anne Kelly’s seat of Dawson. Here it is expected that his seal of approval will go to Margaret Menzel, wife of former state National Party MP Max Menzel and co-ordinator of the Sugar Industry Reform Committee.

Some opinion polls

The Fairfax papers yesterday published a state-by-state voting breakdown from the past three monthly polls conducted by ACNielsen, a similar exercise to Newspoll’s quarterly geographic and demographic surveys but with smaller samples. Labor’s two-party preferred vote in the ACNielsen results for June to August compares with Newspoll’s results for April to June as follows:

Election ’01 Newspoll ACNielsen
National 49.0 51 53
NSW 47.9 50 53
Vic 52.2 55 53
Qld 45.3 50 52
WA 48.4 50 49.5
SA 45.9 49 49.5
Capitals 51.4 53 55.5
Regions 45.5 49 47

Newcomer Galaxy Research has today redeemed itself slightly with a new federal poll after its roguish-looking effort of a fortnight ago, though its results continue to favour the Coalition by about 3 per cent compared with its more established rivals. Last fortnight it found that despite Mark Latham’s FTA coup the Coalition primary vote lead had blown out to 47 to 36 per cent, putting them ahead 54-46 on two-party preferred. This time the Coalition are on 43 per cent against Labor’s 39 with a two-party preferred dead heat.

Steve Lewis of The Australian reported yesterday that polling conducted by Irving Saulwick for the Australian Democrats had their Senate support at a surprisingly high 10 per cent, although it appears respondents were first reminded of the party’s existence with a series of questions about them (very few being able to identify Andrew Bartlett as the current leader, despite the unfortunate incident on the floor of the Senate in December). Perhaps for this reason, Lewis reported it was "hard to find anyone within the Democrats who actually believe Saulwick’s polling is an accurate gauge of the public mood". Also hard to credit was a reported Greens vote of 12 per cent; unfortunately no other figures were provided.

Also worth noting is a McNair Ingenuity poll of 516 voters in the electorate of Parramatta published in the Sunday Telegraph, conducted in the immediate aftermath of Liberal member Ross Cameron’s self-inflicted wounding. The poll had Labor’s Julie Owens ahead, by 47 to 43 per cent on the primary vote and with 52.5 per cent of two-party preferred, but not by the margin that might have been expected after reports that Liberal internal polling showed Cameron’s support slumping by 10 per cent.

People get ready

While nobody is taking seriously the Prime Minister’s recent assertion that the election could be held as late as March or April, this being typical of the school-masterly statements of fact he likes to offer when pressed on the subject, he has at least succeeded in giving currency to the idea that it might be delayed until November. But the Government has nothing to gain from either protracted uncertainty nor the prospect of being caught in the backwash of the historic demise of the Bush Administration. September 25, October 2 and October 30 have been explicitly ruled out, which leaves October 9, 16 and 23. October 9 would coincide with school holidays in New South Wales, Western Australia and South Australia and would also require dissolving the House before the end of the coming session of parliament, although this might not be a discouragement. October 30 has been ruled out because a poll four days before a US election would "not make sense"; 11 days before is not that much better, so October 23 seems the less likely of the remaining prospects. A complicating factor for the entire period is that October 16 is reserved for an election for the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly, which will be postponed until December 4 if a federal election is called for the same date. Such a postponement could be the best outcome, since the two campaigns will clash if the federal election is held a week on either side. If this is to occur painlessly the writs for the federal election will need to be issued before the ACT pre-election period begins with the opening of nominations on September 10. The announcement may therefore be expected immediately upon the conclusion of the coming parliamentary session, on September 9.

Act local

Roy Morgan has been keeping its profile up recently with a series of low-sample phone polls addressing questions of marginal interest at best. Today’s installment at least provides a two-party preferred voting intention, with Labor on 54.5 per cent, but phone polls with samples of 578 are to be taken with a pinch of salt. Of more interest is an article by John Warhurst of the Australian National University in today’s Canberra Times, which may be read as a rebuke to those of us obsessing over local electorate contests. The counsel for the defence presents as evidence Parramatta and Swan, where Liberal Party candidates are going to extraordinary lengths to make an impact on the national outcome.

High fidelity

If anyone was wondering how Ross Cameron’s remarkable decision to give his dirty laundry a public airing was going to play in his very marginal electorate of Parramatta, a report by Emma-Kate Symons in today’s Australian appears to have the answer. The pertinent section reads:

Liberal sources have told The Australian that internal polling shows support for the 39-year-old MP, who holds his crucial seat of Parramatta in Sydney’s western suburbs by a margin of just 1.15 per cent, has dropped by 10 per cent in the week since he went public with his infidelity. But The Australian understands the MP has further angered his Liberal Party colleagues by flagging the possibility of quitting. The female vote is considered especially vulnerable following newspaper reports of multiple infidelities. However, Mr Cameron told The Australian last night: "I intend to represent my party as its candidate at the next election.

Elsewhere in the same publication, women are also credited with "driving a swing" in public sentiment on asylum seekers. Newspoll had found that 43 per cent now disagreed with the Government’s actions during the Tampa episode compared with 35 per cent in support. Among women, the latter figure was just 26 per cent.

A Canning plan

Labor has moved quickly to fill the vacancy created by Cimlie Bowden’s withdrawal as candidate for Canning on Monday, with former state minister Kay Hallahan installed yesterday by a unanimous vote of the party’s administration committee. Since Monday’s posting it has emerged that senior figures in the WA branch including Premier Geoff Gallop had resolved on Monday to persevere with Bowden, if only because no mechanism existed to remove her, and that this and Bowden’s angrily worded announcement of her decision to withdraw became public at about the same time. Roger Martin looks into the troubles surrounding Bowden’s campaign in today’s WA edition of The Australian, reporting that "Labor campaigners say Ms Bowden became upset at trivial matters, would not put enough effort into doorknocking and refused to take advice". At one point Bowden became consumed in a row with campaign staff over sausages, and she is no longer on speaking terms with her former friend and campaign manager Shelley Archer, wife of enormously influential CFMEU boss Kevin Reynolds.

For her part, Hallahan is being perhaps more modest than is prudent, telling The Australian: "I don’t blame people for thinking I’m a retired state MP because that is an accurate picture. The question is can I make a contribution in representing the people in Canning. I have come to a view I can, and I shall do my best to do that". Hallahan was elected to state parliament in the February 1983 election that brought Brian Burke to power and was appointed to the ministry in the government’s second term, above a year before Burke handed the reins to Peter Dowding. As the government slowly collapsed under the weight of the WA Inc fiasco, with Carmen Lawrence ushered into the premiership after Dowding was offered up as a scapegoat, Hallahan prospered in a series of portfolios largely quarantined from the government’s shady deal-making, specifically Arts, Education and Community Services. Following the government’s defeat at the February 1993 election (at which Labor’s less-disastrous-than-expected performance encouraged Paul Keating to call a federal election the very next day) Hallahan rose to the deputy party leadership, but with a view to her forthcoming retirement she agreed to step aside in favour of a Jim McGinty-Geoff Gallop ticket (McGinty subsequently making way for Gallop) in October 1994 and left parliament at the December 1996 election.

The Poll Bludger was a young Western Australian throughout this period and if any mud attached to Hallahan at the time, he doesn’t remember it. Nevertheless, "former Burke Government minister" is an unenviable entry on the resume for any WA politician and her opponents are unlikely to let her forget it.