Phoney war dispatches: episode three

Welcome to the Poll Bludger’s Mothers’ Day Edition of Phoney War Dispatches.

• Tuesday’s Newspoll had the Coalition and Labor even on 42 per cent, with the Coalition down 1 per cent. The head-scratching that greeted Newspoll’s two-party preferred calculation last time had evidently led them to do something differently, because the Coalition increased 1 per cent on this measure to trail 48 to 52 per cent. The rebound in Mark Latham’s approval rating from last fortnight was all but reversed, his rating having bounced from 66 to 52 to 59 to 53 per cent over the last four polls. Newspoll also released figures showing the number of respondents who felt it worth going to war in Iraq dropping to 40 per cent from 46 per cent in February, with the percentage disagreeing increasing from 45 to 50. Perhaps most significantly, 47 per cent supported the assertion the troops should be home by Christmas.

Roy Morgan might be doing something differently as well, as Friday’s poll was their most Newspoll-like result in recent memory. It had the Coalition gaining 1 per cent directly at Labor’s expense to reach 42 per cent with Labor on 44 per cent. It is not unusual for Roy Morgan to record Labor 2 per cent higher than Newspoll but usually the Coalition are a point or two lower as well. Labor’s two-party preferred rating of 53 per cent was their lowest since the poll conducted on December 6/7, the first week of Latham’s leadership.

• A long-simmering Queensland Liberal Party preselection feud over the marginal Queensland seat of Herbert ended on Tuesday with the withdrawal of Peter Fon, challenger to incumbent Peter Lindsay. As related in this earlier posting the challenge was seen as a counter-attack by the party’s Santoro-Caltabiano faction following a challenge by moderates to Peter Slipper in Fisher. Several months after declaring his intention to run and one night before the vote, Fon suddenly decided he did not wish to jeopardise the return of the Howard Government.

Phoney war dispatches: episode two

Despite an eventful week in federal politics, things were somewhat quieter on the electoral front.

• ACNielsen turned in a near replica of last week’s Newspoll with the release of its monthly figures on Wednesday. The poll had Labor and the Coalition each on 42 per cent with Labor’s two-party preferred rating on 53 per cent, which differs from Newspoll only in that the Coalition are 1 per cent lower on the primary vote. Prime Minister John Howard’s approval and disapproval ratings were both steady on 55 and 37 per cent, while the impact of Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s rough month was measured as a 3 per cent drop in approval to 54 per cent and a 5 per cent increase in disapproval to 33 per cent. Howard gained 2 per cent as preferred prime minister directly at Latham’s expense, and now leads 50 per cent to 41. The table as published in The Age is available at Mumble.

• Brian Deegan, Adelaide magistrate, father of Bali bombing victim Josh Deegan and vocal critic of the Federal Government, announced he would run as an independent against Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in his South Australian seat of Mayo. Deegan’s move was no doubt partly inspired by John Schumann’s surprise near-success as Australian Democrats candidate for the seat in 1998. However the latest redistribution has made the electorate more rural and presumably less subversise, with a poll published today in the Sunday Mail putting Downer on 48 per cent against 18 per cent for Deegan with no allocation of the 12 per cent undecided. In Bennelong Prime Minister John Howard faces a similar irritant from former Office of National Assessments analyst turned leftist crusader Andrew Wilkie.

• Reports emerged this week that proposals for Senate reform raised in a government discussion paper in October last year died unnoticed in their sleep last month. Brendan Nicholson of The Age reported that an announcement was mistakenly placed on the website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet calling attention to a non-existent prime ministerial response to the consultative group from March 24 announcing that "the Government would not be pursuing constitutional change at this time". As Nicholson puts it, "it appears the announcement was planned for March 24, but when it was postponed someone forgot to tell those in charge of the website", although the government is maintaining the line that it has yet to decide if it will proceed. Given the near-impossibility of any new model gaining acceptance at a referendum, the move always looked like a gambit designed to scare minor party Senators into believing that a hostile attitude towards the government could put their futures in jeopardy.

Half-time report

Results from the Tasmanian upper house elections are in line with the expectations outlined below, although Steve Mav has done better than I predicted in finishing the night a close second in Apsley, presumably having projected his Liberal credentials sufficiently to win over party loyalists. However such has been the spread of support among the 10 candidates that he has achieved this with a mere 15.4 per cent of the primary vote (from a raw figure of 2,870 from 18,599). While the Poll Bludger knows nothing of the various candidates’ preference ticket arrangements he would be very surprised if many of them treated Mav more kindly than the other two front-runners, Tania Rattray-Wagner and Brendon Thompson. Rattray-Wagner pulled ahead of Mav late in the evening’s counting to finish with 3,078 votes (16.6 per cent) with Thompson also gaining on Mav to land third with 2,839 (15.3 per cent). Whoever wins will do so with less than 20 per cent of the primary vote, and anyone who can think of a comparable outcome in Australian electoral history is invited to call it to the Poll Bludger’s attention. Mandy Burbury has done well to finish fourth with 11.8 per cent and will not be conceding defeat just yet. It should be noted here that the description of Max Hall below as "little known" was somewhat unfair since he is a former Dorset councillor remembered fondly enough to have attracted 10.8 per cent of the vote and is perhaps still an outside chance. Glamorgan-Spring Bay Mayor Cheryl Arnol leads the field of also-rans with a disappointing 9.6 per cent.

Elwick has gone perfectly according to script, Terry Martin winning with 59.7 per cent of the primary vote. Although about 6 per cent shy of Labor’s performance in these booths in the 2002 Assembly election, the result would be at the upper end of the party’s expectations. It was a disappointing result for the Greens, whose candidate Helen Burnet failed to build on their performance here from 2002 in polling 14.8 per cent. This was some distance behind independent Steven King, who benefited from being the only option available to conservative voters to score 20.2 per cent. Although finishing last by a long distance Kamala Emanuel may have broken some sort of record for her Socialist Workers Party in polling 5.2 per cent.

UPDATE (5/5/04): Tania Rattray-Wagner was eventually elected ahead of Brendon Thompson with 55.5 per cent of the two-candidate preferred vote. Thompson beat Mav into second position by 53 votes. Full results are available at the Tasmanian Electoral Commission.

UPDATE (3/5/04): At the close of counting on Sunday evening Rattray-Wagner had extended her lead to 1584 votes (8.6 per cent) following the elimination of Lesley Nicklason, Cheryl Arnol, Max Hall and Mandy Burbury. Contrary to the Poll Bludger’s expectations Brendon Thompson did no better than Steve Mav on preferences and nearly relinquished third place to Burbury. Thompson and Mav are in a near dead-heat for second place, Thompson leading 5486 (30.5 per cent) to 5451 (30.3 per cent), subject to rechecking and the counting of postal votes. Whoever out of the two is eliminated, 65 per cent of the preferences then distributed would need to go against Rattray-Wagner for her to be defeated.

UPDATE (2/5/04): A primary vote re-check found Thompson attaining a three-vote lead over Mav to move into third place. Mav has again defied the Poll Bludger’s expectations to recover second place through preferences following the elimination of the three weakest performing candidates, but it’s early days yet. Rattray-Wagner’s narrow lead remains little changed, now at 236 votes. The pattern could be broken with the imminent distribution of 1,819 votes for Greens candidate Lesley Nicklason.

Belated Apsley and Elwick preview

The Poll Bludger apologises for his failure to come good on his promised preview of today’s Tasmanian Legislative Council elections in a more timely manner, as the good citizens of Apsley and Elwick now have only a few hours to absorb the invaluable insights contained herein before exercising their vote. Better late than never though. Those of you who are unacquainted with the peculiarities of the chamber and the manner of its election would do well to check this earlier posting before proceeding.

The first thing to be noted is that the campaign has attracted very little publicity, particularly from Hobart’s monopoly newspaper The Mercury, and for this reason the Poll Bludger expects a low turnout in the city seat of Elwick. This is good news for Terry Martin, Mayor of Glenorchy and Labor candidate (technically an independent, but there is no secret that this is a formality to allow him to remain mayor until council elections later this year) in a seat the party would only lose if an independent were to gain some oxygen, which Martin’s three opponents have manifestly failed to do. Helen Burnet is the Greens’ candidate and although she has attracted little media coverage, her vote will be worth keeping an eye on to gauge the response of an inner city Labor seat to the state’s pro-logging new Premier. Independent Steven King made the papers by being one of 10 hardy folk to show up last week in support of a rally against legalised brothels organised by Martin’s council colleague, Alderman Nigel Jones. And Kamala Emanuel represents the Socialist Workers Party. Booths in this area gave Labor about two-thirds of the vote at the 2002 Assembly election compared with about 18 per cent for the Liberals and 14 per cent for the Greens, with others including the SWP in statistically-insignificant territory. Compelled by law to vote in an election they probably only found out about at the last minute, voters can be expected to act upon force of habit and fall in behind the well-known Labor-endorsed local mayor.

The real action for this seat came with the Labor preselection contest and its relation to the apparently Byzantine goings-on at Glenorchy Council. Martin was opposed by his Deputy Mayor, Stuart Slade, a party colleague but factional opponent on council. Others in Slade’s council grouping include aforementioned morals crusader Nigel Jones and Steve Mav, who is also a candidate for Sunday’s elections – but for far-away Aspley rather than local Elwick. Slade’s alignment with Mav no doubt raised eyebrows in the party given his links to the Liberals, which include a candidacy at the 2002 Assembly election. Slade was put under pressure to withdraw by his own right faction, but appeared reluctant to do so due to personal rivalries with Martin, whose promise to stay on as Glenorchy Mayor would deprive him of a stint in the chair. Without factional backing Slade was easily defeated by Martin, who while unaligned came with the endorsement of his good friend, former Premier Jim Bacon.

The Poll Bludger expects the formality of Martin’s election to be confirmed early this evening. Apsley is quite another matter. The district covers a quite extensive area of rural north-eastern Tasmania where campaigns are entirely about parish pump issues and local personalities. Ten of these have stepped forward to contest the seat upon the retirement of Colin Rattray, with only Greens candidate Lesley Nicklason carrying the endorsement of a party. There are three candidates who appear to be serious contenders and the even competition means the winner will be elected off a low primary vote after a complicated distribution of preferences. At the risk of exposing himself to an Albert Langer-style persecution by the authorities, the Poll Bludger believes it worth pointing out that voters in these elections are only required to preference three candidates, after which they may exhaust, but does not imagine this to be widely known by the voters and expects a full complement of completely distributed ballots to await the scrutiny of officials. Since the Electoral Office states that counting of preferences will not begin until tomorrow those with an interest in the outcome are advised not to hold their breath.

The departing Rattray is a farmer who has represented the region for 12 years and local voters will presumably be looking for someone similar but younger. Emphasising their rural backgrounds, front-runners Brendon Thompson and Tania Rattray-Wagner are both presenting themselves as Rattray’s natural heirs. Being his daughter, Rattray-Wagner has an intrinsically stronger case. She also has a second job as Deputy Mayor of Dorset. Thompson was the president of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, standing down from that position in order to run. The other candidate to watch is Cheryl Arnol, mayor of Glamorgan-Spring Bay Council. Rounding out the field are Mandy Burbury, a local tourist operator with a high but probably not high enough community profile; Bob Campbell and Peter Paulsen, respectively organisers of the Pollie Push a Barrel Race and Binnalong Bay Great Abalone Bake-Off; and little-known locals Max Hall and Stephen Hanslow. So baffled is the Poll Bludger by Mav’s candidacy that he can only think that he’s missing something (perhaps he ticked a wrong box on the nomination form?).

Whoever wins, the government will most likely find them less easy to do business with than Rattray – not for any grand ideological reasons, but simply because independent members arrive in parliament with a natural desire to exercise the muscle they have acquired after so much effort and expense. Thus will the government emerge from Council elections for the third year running facing a chamber just that little more irritating than before they went in. The Poll Bludger takes the unfashionable view that voters know perfectly well what they’re doing when they present an entrenched government with such an outcome, and suggests that abolitionists would do well to bear this in mind.

Dispatches from the phony war: episode one

Today the Poll Bludger commemorates Anzac Day with the first in what will be a regular series drawing together the major events of the preceding week as momentum builds towards the coming federal election.

• Prime Minister John Howard gave little away when probed by Neil Mitchell of Melbourne’s 3AW on Wednesday about the likely election date, but hypothetical mentions of late October and mid-November proved enough to provoke a flurry of nebulous speculation regardless. He at least ruled out the "sacred" weekends at the end of September and the start of October, which is very mildly interesting given that the 1998 election was in fact held on October 3.

Roy Morgan yesterday released a poll taken over the two previous weekends showing Labor and the Coalition each gaining 1.5 per cent on the primary vote at the expense of independents and Greens. With Labor recovering from a dip a fortnight earlier, Morgan has shown little fluctuation for Labor this year around its current level of 45 per cent. The Coalition however has reached its highest level for the year at 41 per cent primary and 45.5 per cent two-party preferred, although this doesn’t represent a major breakout from the 38-40 and 44-45 per cent bands in which they have been operating throughout this year. The poll also shows the Coalition recovering a lead on the question of who voters expect to win, which they had surrendered at the two previous polls.

• As discussed in my previous post, Tuesday’s Newspoll had the Coalition up from 40 to 43 per cent with Labor fading from 44 to 42. This represents the Coalition’s best showing since December 12-14, in the second week of Latham’s leadership. Confusingly, Labor’s two-party preferred rating is steady at 53 per cent. Mark Latham recovered exactly half of the 14 per cent he lost from his satisfaction rating in the previous poll, bouncing back to 59 per cent (historical perspective: Alexander Downer recovered 3 per cent in the poll following his record 17 per cent belly-flop at the poll of 5-7 August 1994), while John Howard’s rose from 51 to 53 per cent.

• The Geelong Advertiser reported on Friday that Labor’s polling has them ahead in the Colac/Great Ocean Road electorate of Corangamite. Such an outcome would be a tremendous result for Labor, with Liberal member Stewart McArthur currently sitting on a margin of 5.4 per cent after a redistribution that cost him 0.3 per cent. The poll reportedly involved 2000 respondents and had Labor with 51 per cent of the primary vote, confirming a similar poll the party conducted three weeks earlier showing them on 50.5 per cent. Internal polling results are normally top secret party information, and no source is disclosed by the Advertiser. One can’t help noting that their release to the local media would have been helpful in encouraging cynicism over the Prime Minister’s motives in visiting the electorate twice this month.

• Former Australian Medical Association state president Dr Ingrid Tall won preselection for Labor’s most marginal seat, Brisbane, held by Arch Bevis with a margin of 0.9 per cent. Tall defeated unsuccessful 2001 candidate Sebastian Monsour 55 votes to 43. Monsour, a brother-in-law of Brisbane Mayor Campbell Newman, was at the centre of the "Brisbane Water-gate&quot incident on council election night which excited the Courier Mail but not the Crime and Misconduct Commission.

Makin whoopee

Opinion poll watchers are currently trying to work out how Newspoll was able to conclude this week that although Labor’s 4 per cent primary vote lead from a fortnight before had turned into a 1 per cent deficit, they had maintained their 53-47 lead on two-party preferred. The Poll Bludger will leave the number-crunching to others (Peter Brent at Mumble is always a good place start) as the broad lessons from recent polls are clear – Labor’s apparently election-winning momentum of a month ago has stalled, and the prospects of Mark Latham sweeping all before him are substanially diminished. Thus does our attention return to the seats that could have swung either way from last time, and in which a small nudge towards Labor will be enough for a change of government.

The consensus is that those located in Queensland and South Australia are the most important, and with good reason. In Victoria, Labor polled well enough last time that they have less room for improvement than elsewhere, even if they did emerge with only one new seat to show for it. Newspoll’s geographical voting analysis for the January-March period showed Labor’s primary vote had improved 5 per cent in New South Wales and 7.3 per cent in Queensland since the 2001 election, but only 1.4 per cent in Victoria. Furthermore the Victorian redistribution has tended to boost Liberal margins, such that the state has only one of the 11 most marginal seats that would give Labor victory. Combine that with the fact that the state Labor administration is a great deal less popular today than it was in November 2001 and it may be concluded that Victoria will be less instrumental in deciding the outcome than it is used to.

New South Wales may also present Labor with some collateral damage from a state government for which the love has long since died, but the Coalition’s historically strong performances in the last three elections mean that for them the only way is down, and there are plenty of seats in the firing line should the local boy come good. However it’s in Queensland and South Australia that Labor has serious room for improvement, and here the state governments are respectively still popular and basking in the peak of their honeymoon phase. Today the Poll Bludger will focus his attention on South Australia, where the last election saw the Liberal Party win nine seats out of 12 from a primary vote of 45.9 per cent (against 43.1 per cent nationally for the Coalition) with Labor winning the remaining three from 33.7 per cent (against 37.8 per cent nationally).

The first complication to be noted is that those 12 seats are now 11, this being the second occasion that the state has had its representation cut through relative population decline since the House of Representatives assumed its current size in 1984. Essentially the existing electorates of Bonython and Wakefield – respectively held safely for Labor by Martyn Evans and Liberal by Neil Andrew, who circumvented a post-redistribution preselection brawl by choosing to retire – have been abolished. Wakefield lives on in name, but bears little resemblance to the existing seat in its new form. Where it once awkwardly took in the Yorke Peninsula before stretching up the Murray Valley all the way to the Victorian border, Wakefield now retains a sliver of its former territory around Gawler as the base for a move into the suburbs taking in more than half of the electors formerly in Bonython. The AEC chose to stick with the name Wakefield for essentially sentimental reasons, Edward Gibbon Wakefield having been a fascinating and much underrated figure (of Sir John Langdon Bonython, the Poll Bludger knows very little). The new seat, with which Martyn Evans will have to make do, has a notional Labor majority of 1.5 per cent, although this was in the context of a historically poor performance for Labor in South Australia at the last election.

The three most marginal Liberal seats in the state, Adelaide, Hindmarsh and Makin, have also undergone small but potentially significant changes which represent a mixed bag for the incumbents. Adelaide and Hindmarsh, held by the Liberals in 2001 with respective margins of 0.2 and 1.9 per cent, have both lost territory from the northward expansion of the safe Liberal southern suburbs seat of Boothby. Adelaide has been compensated with extra territory in the east from safe Liberal Sturt, improving Trish Worth’s margin from 0.2 to 0.6 per cent, while Hindmarsh has moved north along the coast to take a chunk out of safe Labor Port Adelaide, cutting the Liberal margin from 1.9 to 1.1 per cent. Makin, located to the immediate north-east of Adelaide, has gained Salisbury East and Salisbury Heights with the abolition of Bonython, but its margin remains unaltered on 3.8 per cent.

Hindmarsh has been held since 1993 by Chris Gallus, whose success in winning first the now-abolished Hawker and then Hindmarsh – each for the first time in the Liberal party’s history – has earned her a reputation as something of a vote-winner. Samantha Maiden of The Australian reports that it "is understood" that the Prime Minister "hit the roof" when Gallus made her unexpected decision to retire at the coming election, since party polling showed her to be worth an extra 6 to 7 per cent to the Liberal vote. "Political observers" cited by Craig Bildstien of The Advertiser were more conservative, putting it at 3 or 4 per cent, but both sets of figures are easily the difference between victory and defeat. Significantly replacement candidates were reluctant to step forward, with Adelaide Crows player Nigel Smart among those declining to take the field in order to hold out for a safer seat. The preselection instead became a contest between Gallus-backed Simon Birmingham and the right faction’s Stavroula Raptis, with Crikey reporting that Birmingham won on the second ballot with "50 per cent plus three votes". For the third election running, Labor’s candidate is Steve Georganas, a former taxi driver who got the gig as the "soft left" faction’s nominee in a deal that saw the right’s Kate Ellis take Adelaide (more on that below). Georganas did extremely well to almost unseat Gallus with a 6.9 per cent swing in 1998, but in 2001 he performed no better or worse than the state average in dropping 1 per cent. He has been keeping off the streets lately thanks to a job as adviser to SA Urban Development Minister Jay Weatherill.

Ellis, an adviser to state Industry Minister Rory McEwen, will attempt to break a humiliating 11-year Liberal grip on what ought to be another safe Labor inner-city seat. Between World War II and 1988, Labor only ever lost Adelaide with the 1966 Harold Holt landslide. An embarrassing by-election defeat for the Hawke Government was corrected at the 1990 election (Andrew Peacock having since taken over as Liberal leader from John Howard), but a strong statewide swing against the national trend helped Trish Worth pick the seat up in 1993. Since then she has had a nervous but remarkably stable time of it, her closest shave coming with a 343-vote victory in 2001. Worth’s political future appeared in doubt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, but she apparently remains in good health and is again taking the field. The redistribution has tripled her margin, but most observers will be surprised if it’s enough.

Labor are in big trouble if they don’t reel in Adelaide and Hindmarsh, but Makin could be the one that decides the outcome if the result comes down to the wire. Member Trish Draper was named by the Prime Minister in 1998 as one of three Liberal "heroes" (along with Jackie Kelly in Lindsay and Danna Vale in Hughes) whose success in maintaining their seats in traditional enemy territory had helped the government cling to power at that year’s election. Draper had just limited her Labor opponent to a flimsy 0.2 per cent swing against a statewide average of 4.8 per cent, and her performance in 2001 was scarcely less impressive, her 3 per cent swing comparing with a state average of 1 per cent.

However, Draper’s Labor opponent at this election is a strong candidate in more ways than one. Tony Zappia is the only Australian weightlifter ever to win 10 national titles, and has managed to hold the mayoralty of Salisbury aloft for seven hamstring-straining years, with a further 20 years on council before that. He was widely seen to have been hard done by in losing the 2001 nomination to Gail Gago, former nursing union leader and current MLC, essentially due to his factional non-alignment. A repeat performance appeared to be on the cards when the deal over Adelaide and Hindmarsh referred to earlier reserved Makin for Dana Wortley, Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance state secretary and nominee for a faction described by Paul Starick of The Advertiser as a "coalition of the Hard Left and remnants of the Centre". The deal was of use to the major left faction centred around Nick Bolkus as the preselection of a female candidate would have allowed the party to achieve its affirmative action quota without costing Bolkus his spot in the Senate. Local party members however were not pleased, which led state member Frances Bedford to throw her hat into the ring in what Rebecca DiGirolamo of The Australian described a "tactical move to get Mr Zappia up", despite Bedford being a factional colleague of Wortley. In the event Premier Mike Rann managed to persuade Wortley’s key union backers to shift their support to Zappia, in what would appear to have been an electorally sensible decision.

On top of Liberal Party internal polling reportedly showing Labor ahead in Hindmarsh, the Sunday Mail helpfully shed light on the matter with an impressive opinion poll sampling 500 voters from each of the three electorates currently under our microscope. The poll found Labor ahead 42 per cent to 35 in Hindmarsh (compared with 38.3-46.0 in 2001), 40-37 in Adelaide (37.1-44.2 in 2001) and 41-39 in Makin (36.7-45.9). This however was published on February 22, at the very peak of pendulum’s swing towards Labor. The correction that has followed in a very short time frame since suggests that none of these seats is about to get any less interesting between now and polling day.

UPDATE: By a chilling concidence Peter Brent at Mumble has chosen today to publish extensive ruminations on the situation in South Australia submitted to him by one-time Labor candidate for Sturt Phil Robins. It draws attention to one conspicuous omission from above – the possibility that the very popular Karlene Maywald, the only National Party MP in state parliament and thus effectively an independent, will run against the no-profile Liberal member for Barker, Patrick Secker. The Riverland is Barker’s focal point now that it has gained the area following Wakefield’s reconstruction (see above), and this is Maywald’s home territory. The smart money would be on her to prevail if this were to eventuate.

Council of the wise

The best way to explain the Tasmanian parliamentary system to newcomers is to say that it’s like the federal parliament, only the other way round – single-member districts in the upper house, with multi-member electorates chosen by proportional representation in the lower. Of the many important features that this glosses over, perhaps the most significant is the unique system of annual elections for upper house seats held on the first Sunday of each May, at which either two or three of the 15 districts go up for election on a rotation system. This year is the turn of Apsley, a rural seat covering the north-east corner of the state, and Elwick, in the northern suburbs of Hobart.

The system by which the Council is selected is consistent with old-fashioned notions that a rolling mandate for the upper house, combined with longer terms (six years in this case) and a restricted franchise (only properly eliminated with the abolition of rural vote weighting in 1997), would provide a check against whichever libertine passions happened to be consuming the mob on the day the lower house was elected. It was thought that the result would be an independent and conservative counterweight to the government of the day, and in this respect it can only be said to have been a great success. Much of this is due to the Liberal party’s long-standing, highly unusual and very astute convention of not running endorsed candidates. The Poll Bludger is not foolish enough to imagine that any political behaviour can be explained in terms of ethical principles, and has no doubt that the Liberal tactic is based on a calculation that conservative independents are more likely than endorsed Liberals to defeat Labor candidates. Given that Labor’s representation hovered between one and two for many years up to the 1990s, the wisdom of this approach has been self-evident. Furthermore, Labor’s ascendancy in Tasmania over the years has been such that unpredictable behaviour from the Council during rare periods of Liberal government has seemed an acceptable trade-off.

The past decade has seen an improvement in Labor’s representation and a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt by the Liberals to get in on the action. Ignoring the lessons of history, the Liberals first attempted to abolish the Council in 1997, and then decided to field candidates in 2000 when this failed. Both their candidates performed disastrously, with one running third behind the Greens, and the Liberals have not repeated the error since. Labor on the other hand increased its numbers from two to five between 1995 and 2001 (or six if including Labor independent Silvia Smith, who held the federal seat of Bass for the party from 1993 to 1996) in a house which shrank from 19 members to 15 during the same period. Labor has been assisted here by the smaller number of larger electorates, which require more resources for effective campaiging and thus favour party machines over independents, as well as the abolition of rural vote weighting. The outcome has had a lot to do with the liberalisation of the Council’s attitudes, with the government needing the support of only a small number of independents to pass gay law reforms and liberalise Sunday trading.

However, recent history suggests the May 2001 elections were Labor’s high-water mark, and that next month’s elections need to be viewed in this context. In that year Labor’s Allison Ritchie succeeded in ousting independent Cathy Edwards from Pembroke in large part due to her successful attacks upon Edwards’ dual role as Mayor of Clarence, a not uncommon practice in the Council. That led excitable folk in the party to talk openly of a possible Labor majority two elections hence, and to promote the effort by having MP Fran Bladel resign from her lower house seat to stand against independent incumbent Paul Harriss in Huon. It seems obvious in hindsight that this threat to the chamber’s cherished independence would provoke an electoral backlash, and so it proved. Harriss was comfortably re-elected, Labor’s other candidate in Rosevears scored 8.3 per cent, and the following year saw Silvia Smith easily defeated in Windermere by conservative independent Ivan Dean.

Some idea of the impact of these results, as well as what’s at stake on May 1, can be discerned from the following table noting the percentage of occasions on which the various independent members voted with the Labor members (who voted en bloc on each occasion) during the 36 divisions which have taken place in the Council since the May 2002 elections.

# % expiry
Norma Jamieson 2/11 18% 2009
Ivan Dean 1/11 9% 2009
Kerry Finch 10/17 59% 2008
Paul Harriss 2/36 6% 2008
Sue Smith 11/34 32% 2007
Jim Wilkinson 14/34 41% 2007
Greg Hall 16/36 44% 2006
Don Wing 2/14 14% 2005
Tony Fletcher 4/36 11% 2005
Colin Rattray 19/36 53% 2004
Sylvia Smith 19/25 76% 2003
Geoff Squibb 5/21 24% 2003

Some points of clarification: Silvia Smith and Geoff Squibb are italicised because they are no longer members, Squibb having been defeated by Norma Jamieson in the 2003 election for Mersey. Don Wing has participated in markedly fewer divisions than his colleagues as he has been Council President since early 2002, and the Poll Bludger has not taken the trouble to record his exercise of the casting vote.

Reporting in March 2002 on the government’s efforts to secure the numbers on the contentious issue of Sunday trading, Martine Haley of The Mercury reported that senior Labor figures believed outgoing Apsley member Colin Rattray was "the only truly independent MLC in the Legislative Council". The figures above suggest this is a bit rough on Kerry Finch, Greg Hall and Jim Wilkinson, who respectively voted with Labor in 59, 44 and 41 per cent of divisions in which they participated, compared with Rattray’s 53 per cent. While the others are independent in their way and show little resembling party discipline, it would not be unreasonable to group them together as the Council Opposition. Ivan Dean was Liberal enough to get a phone call from John Howard in February begging him to contest federal preselection for Bass, and he has only voted with Labor on one occasion. Tony Fletcher rarely votes with Labor and holds conservative views on same-sex adoption and abortion. Relative newcomer Norma Jamieson’s record so far, particularly on gay adoption and poker machines, suggests her to be within the Council’s socially conservative tradition. Don Wing on the other hand is a former Liberal Party director who appears to have fallen out with the Tasmanian party’s ascendant right faction, being vocal in his criticism of the party’s disendorsement of small-"l" Liberal (and now Australian Democrat) Greg Barns. Sue Smith may be a borderline case, although in the lead-up to her bid for re-election in 2002 Labor used a reference she had sent to Liberal preselectors on behalf of a Senate candidate to cast her as a "closet Liberal".

Accepting this slightly arbitrary classification, the house thus has five government members, six of the opposition (including the Council President) and four independents. The election on May 1 will see one Labor member and one Labor-friendly independent vacate their seats. Nominations closed Thursday and the list of candidates is available for all to behold at the Tasmanian Electoral Commission. The Poll Bludger will take a closer look at these campaigns and who’s involved in them closer to the big day.

Wisdom of Solomon (and Lingiari)

After 13 months spent living in terror at the prospect of reduced federal parliamentary representation, Northern Territorians can again breathe easy. Last Thursday parliament legislated to overturn the Australian Electoral Commission’s determination that the Territory had 295 people too few to warrant a second seat in the House of Representatives. This had earlier led Territory Country Liberal MHR David Tollner to introduce a private member’s bill seeking a guaranteed two seats for the Northern Territory and three for the Australian Capital Territory (reverting to the state of affairs it enjoyed between 1996 and 1998), which proved too much for MPs from the states who may have had their own representation cut to keep the House’s numbers within the constitutional limit. The matter was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters and the government eventually accepted its recommendation that the AEC ruling be overturned for the coming election, and that technical amendments be made to improve the territories’ chances of making it over the line in future.

This is hardly the first time that representation of the Northern Territory has presented challenges to those framing electoral laws. Between 1922 and 1968 the territory’s solitary member in the House did not have full voting rights (the same being true of the Australian Capital Territory from 1949 to 1968), and Senate representation for the territories was not secured until the Whitlam Government’s electoral reform bill passed at the historic joint sitting following the 1974 double dissolution election. As the territories’ share of the national population has grown there has emerged the present difficulty, wherein representation proportionate to population leaves the Northern Territory warranting about 1.5 seats and the Australian Capital Territory about 2.5. This means that for the foreseeable future they still face the prospect of swinging back and forth between one and two and two and three, meaning under-representation in the former case and over-representation in the latter.

However, the parliament’s decision to overrule the abolition of a Northern Territory seat could well set a precedent, even if that decision was ostensibly based on concerns surrounding the accuracy of statistics used to reach the determination. It is doubtful that such concerns would have troubled the key actors had they not decided that the maintenance of two seats was in their interests, but it appears that Labor and Liberal are both confident of winning Tollner’s Darwin-based seat of Solomon at the coming poll. The Poll Bludger has not been able to track down the calculations indicating precisely how unlucky the Australian Capital Territory was to lose its third seat in 1997 (it scored 2.4209 at the 2003 calculation) but has little doubt that the Howard Government would have scotched any move by Parliament to overturn it since the outcome was unambiguously damaging to Labor.

In the shorter term the maintenance of the second Northern Territory seat has major implications for the coming election as the seat of Solomon is the most marginal in the country. Tollner’s 88 vote margin over Labor’s Laurene Hull in 2001 is not the only reason he is lucky to be in parliament. Elements within the Country Liberal Party were gunning for his disendorsement prior to the 2001 election for a series of misdemeanours including an earlier conviction for cannabis possession, an undisclosed drink driving conviction, and a campaign observation that "the CLP is family-focused – Labor is focused on women who have six kids by six different fathers". The first transgression might be pushing it a little, but on the whole it’s not an intolerable rap sheet by the standards of Darwin politics (even after he further added to it shortly following the election when he was again done for drink driving, and also for driving an unregistered vehicle). More troubling was the fact that Tollner had run in the 1997 Territory election as an independent against endorsed CLP candidate Chris Lugg, coming within 41 votes of victory. Two significant figures in the party cited Tollner’s preselection as a factor contributing to their decision to quit – Nick Dondas, who held the Northern Territory electorate for a term after the 1996 election, and Maisie Austin, who went so far as to run against Tollner as an independent, but could only manage 5 per cent of the primary vote. Not only is Austin now back in the party fold, she has been preselected as candidate for the Territory’s other electorate of Lingiari, held by Labor’s Warren Snowdon on a comfortable margin of 5.3 per cent.

Since his drink driving conviction Tollner has made headlines mostly for the right reasons, and appears to have silenced doubters in the party enough to have avoided facing a challenge to his preselection for the coming election. As one might expect from a candidate of the right representing Darwin, Tollner has continued to call it like he sees it, describing Territory legislation to lower the gay age of consent from 18 to 16 as "rent-boy legislation". He also took a rugby match against French parliamentarians during the 2003 World Cup more seriously than the occasion demanded, boasting of having given one of his opponents a "friendly facial" during which he "spilt some French blood". Joining in the scrum at the coming election is Labor’s Jim Davidson, about whom little is known (by me at least). Paul Dyer of the Northern Territory News reported on February 16 that Davidson was a 50 year old civil engineer who "has been NT Business and Industry Minister Paul Henderson’s business adviser since January 2002". The state of Henderson’s finances is also not known. The report goes on to say that Davidson "oversaw the construction of Dick Ward Dve in Darwin, the construction of Robertson Barracks and all civil works at the Darwin Naval Base".