Western front communiqué #1

Welcome to the first in a semi-regular series summarising developments in the lead-up to the Western Australian election:

• Monica Videnieks of The West Australian reported yesterday that "speculation is mounting" that the election will be held on February 5. Most had anticipated it would be called for February 19 as this would have been the set date under the government’s proposed fixed-term plan, but this would apparently make life difficult for participants in that day’s Rottnest Swim. For reasons unstated, the report quotes unidentified Labor sources saying February 5 is "preferred" over February 12.

• Recreational fishing is looming as the hot issue in North West Coastal, a new seat with a notional Labor margin of 5.4 per cent but eminently winnable for the Liberals. Labor’s efforts to court the Greens by expanding Ningaloo marine park sanctuary zones have roused the ire of locals, including Labor member Fred Riebeling; Robert Taylor of The West Australian reckons it "wouldn’t be too far fetched to suggest that Mr Riebeling’s uncharacteristic public break from his Government was sanctioned from on high. Mr Riebeling gets to play the local hero with the fishing lobby while the Government takes the tough decision for the greater good, not to mentions Greens preferences". The sensitivity of the issue has been further demonstrated by a government announcement that a push to have the whole area placed on the World Heritage register would be put on hold.

• With the retirement of Liberal incumbent Bill McNee, the electorate of Moore north of Perth looms as one of a number of potentially interesting contests between the Liberals and Nationals. Last week the Nationals nominated Moora Shire chief executive Peter Stubbs, who helped make himself known by turning up to Labor functions to present politicians with bricks taken from the deteriorating Moora Hospital. The West Australian reports that this was "credited with forcing a Labor commitment to a new regional hospital". Wheatbelt Business Enterprise Centre manager John Lysaught had earlier been named as Nationals candidate, but has dropped out for reasons unknown. The Liberal candidate is Dandaragan shire president Gary Snook.

• The Liberal candidate for the safe Labor seat of Balcatta is Melinda Poor, who came to national attention early in the federal election campaign when she rang a talkback program to ask Jann McFarlane, soon-to-be-defeated Labor member for Stirling, a curly question about the impact of Labor’s tax policy on stay-at-home mums like herself. McFarlane’s response – that Labor was "looking for where the disadvantage is and what we can do to adjust the policy" – was seized on to very great effect by the Prime Minister.

Belated Senate overview

The Poll Bludger has finally extracted the digit and reupholstered his Senate election guide, which now features post-match summaries and detailed excuses as to why most of his predictions were wrong. For the benefit of regular readers, the new additions read as follows:

New South Wales: Antony Green notes that the crucial factor in the Greens’ failure to win the final seat over Labor was Democrats preferences – although they favoured the Greens over Labor, the Greens never received them as Fred Nile had been favoured over them both, and he eventually overtook the Greens to make it to the final round. On the primary vote, the Coalition scored 3.08 quotas, Labor 2.54 and the Greens 0.51. In past elections the Greens could have felt reasonably confident that preferences would close their small deficit over Labor’s surplus, but such were the preference tickets that their vote remained stuck as the cast of micro and minor parties was progressively eliminated. Most remarkable was the success of Glenn Druery of Liberals for Forests in building upon a primary vote base of a mere 0.04 quotas to overtake One Nation (0.13 quotas) and the Democrats (0.15 quotas), devouring the preferences of each in turn and making it through to the final rounds along with Labor, the Greens and Fred Nile (0.18 quotas on the primary vote, compared with a mere 0.04 for Family First). The distribution of the various votes that Druery had absorbed by this point pushed Fred Nile ahead of both Labor and the Greens; since the Greens had fallen further behind Labor by this point, this meant the distribution of their preferences decided the final place in Labor’s favour. Note the Poll Bludger’s cautious pre-election talk of whether the Coalition can "maintain its primary vote at or near the 41.5 per cent it recorded in 2001" – they in fact increased it to 43.9 per cent.

Victoria: Many who had been relaxed about the democratic shortcomings of above-the-line voting after Pauline Hanson failed to win a Queensland seat in 2001 with 10.0 per cent of the vote became suddenly very alarmed when the Greens missed out here with 8.7 per cent. Admittedly, on this occasion there was the further aggravation that Family First succeeded from a mere 1.8 per cent, which compared unfavourably with the party’s performances in South Australia (3.9 per cent), Queensland (3.3 per cent) and Tasmania (2.3 per cent). Key to the result was the preference deals Labor and Democrats struck with Family First in the expectation that they would be the ultimate beneficiaries, which failed to transpire due to their own dismal performances. Boosted by preferences from various micro-parties, Family First overtook the Democrats to become the beneficiaries of their mutual preference deal, which was enough to put their candidate ahead of Labor’s Jacinta Collins due to their feeble 37.8 per cent primary vote. All of which disproved the Poll Bludger’s assertion that a potential Family First seat would most likely come at the expense of the Coalition, who in fact polled a resounding 45.8 per cent to score an easy three quotas on the primary vote.

Queensland: Even more so than Victoria, Queensland provided the Senate election with its greatest astonishment, the Coalition winning four seats in one state for the first time since six-seat half-Senate elections became the norm in 1990. Antony Green calculates that if the Coalition had run a joint ticket, for which the National Party had been agitating, a fourth seat would not have been possible and either One Nation or the Greens would have been elected in their place. The issue was ultimately decided by the 1.3 per cent vote for the Fishing Party, whose preferences (when restricted to realistic contenders) had gone firstly to One Nation, then to the National Party, and then to Hanson. That meant the key factor in the count was Pauline Hanson’s success in narrowly maintaining her lead over One Nation despite unfavourable preference tickets, which she owed to her strong performance on below-the-line preferences. Since One Nation were eliminated first, the Fishing Party vote then moved on to the Nationals which ensured they stayed ahead of Hanson. If Hanson had gone first, the Fishing Party votes would have remained with One Nation who might have got their nose in front of the Nationals on Hanson’s preferences. One Nation would as ever have been starved for further preferences, allowing the Greens to win the seat with the preferences of either the Liberal and Nationals candidate, whichever of the two ended up being eliminated. Instead it was the elimination of Pauline Hanson that decided which of the finely poised Liberal, Nationals and Greens candidates won the final two places, the Greens predictably coming off the worst. One other surprise was that the Nationals ended up winning the fifth seat rather than sixth, overtaking the Liberals due to the considerable number of Pauline Hanson’s below-the-line votes that went against the ticket by favouring the Nationals ahead of the Liberals.

Western Australia: The only state the Poll Bludger called correctly. Most of the Greens’ quota came from three sources – 0.56 quotas from the primary vote; the 0.28 surplus over the second quota from a poorly performing Labor; and the Democrats’ 0.14 quotas, which also went to the Greens ahead of the major parties. With 0.8 per cent of the vote, Family First were not in a position to benefit from the Democrats preference deal. An excellent result for the Liberals, who scored 49.1 per cent of the primary vote.

South Australia: The key to the outcome here was the preference deal between the Democrats and Family First, which allowed Family First to overtake the Greens with their preferences and then consolidate with the Liberals’ considerable surplus over the third quota from their 47.1 per cent primary vote. That left the preferences the Greens needed locked up with Family First, who remained until the final count. At the point of their elimination the Democrats trailed Family First by 0.25 of a quota to 0.30 – had they finished ahead, preferences from Family First and then the Liberals would have delivered them the seat.

Tasmania: Only in Tasmania, where fewer candidates combined with habits formed at state elections produce a below-the-line voting rate of nearly 20 per cent, is there a serious likelihood that the final result will differ from what would have occurred had all votes been above-the-line. In this case Family First’s Jacquie Petrusma would have won the final seat if it weren’t for below-the-line voters favouring the Greens, who as usual had done very poorly on the preference tickets. Otherwise, the Greens’ Christine Milne would have remarkably failed despite scoring a 0.93 quota on the primary vote, which had a typically optimistic Bob Brown claiming premature victory on election night. An apology is due to Labor-turned-independent Senator Shayne Murphy who did rather better than the Poll Bludger dismissively suggested, recording 2.2 per cent of the vote and making it to the final counts.

New Dawn for Dubbo

The voters of Dubbo defied the Poll Bludger’s predictions to deliver a comfortable victory to independent candidate and Dubbo deputy mayor Dawn Fardell at Saturday’s by-election. The assessment of a likely National Party victory was based on the precedent of the Tamworth by-election of 8 December 2001 (held after Tony Windsor made his move for the federal seat of New England at the federal election held a month earlier), given the similarities between the electorates and the fact that the by-elections came at roughly similar points in the electoral cycle. On the earlier occasion the National Party recovered the seat that Windsor took from them in 1991, John Cull picking up an extra 24.7 per cent from a very low base of 11.6 per cent at the 1999 election and then winning a surprisingly high proportion of Labor and independent preferences (54.6 per cent) relative to the independent front-runner, Tamworth mayor James Treloar (Cull would go on to lose the seat to independent Peter Draper at the 2003 election). Saturday’s result could hardly have been more different, with Dawn Fardell’s 50.1 per cent being much higher than Tony McGrane’s 41.6 per cent at the 2003 state election and 22.7 per cent in 1999. The small field of candidates meant the National Party were still able to manage a small improvement on the primary vote, to 42.8 per cent from 38.2 per cent last year. Greens candidate Terrance Loughlin scored a meagre 3.7 per cent, not surprisingly for this electorate, while little-known independent Makere Rangihaeata did about the same.

The outstanding statistic here is the respective improvement in the Nationals’ vote compared with the Tamworth result – 4.6 per cent against 24.7 per cent. This is a sobering outcome both for the state Coalition and more broadly for the National Party, whose exasperation with their own failure to defend heartland seats has been the focus of considerable attention recently.

Dubbo by-election preview

Tomorrow sees the end of an Australia-wide by-election drought going back to the Katherine by-election in the Northern Territory in October last year. Voters in Dubbo will go to the polls to choose a replacement for independent state MP Tony McGrane, who passed away on September 15. The state Labor Party, who have recently been taking a hammering in the opinion polls, have sensibly decided they have little to gain from fielding a candidate in a safe conservative seat where they would certainly suffer an embarrassing result as well as unnecessary expense. The real point of interest is whether the electorate will give the resurgent John Brogden-led Coalition a vote of confidence by returning the seat to the National Party.

Dubbo was held for the Coalition from 1959, Gerry Peacocke winning it for the Nationals in 1981 after the retirement of recently deposed Liberal leader John Mason. Peacocke, described by Antony Green as "an old-style irascible National Party MP", is perhaps best remembered for describing then-premier John Fahey as "a gutless little wimp" after he failed to tell him personally that he had been dumped from cabinet. When Peacocke retired at the 1999 election the Nationals preselected local talkback radio host Richard Mutton, but long-serving Dubbo mayor Tony McGrane ran against him as an independent and won by a mere 14 votes. His foothold established, McGrane had a less nervous time of it at the March 2003 election, leading the Nationals candidate 41.6 per cent to 38.2 per cent on the primary vote and prevailing by 5.5 per cent after preferences.

This time around the Nationals have nominated Jan Cowley, the party’s Parkes Electoral Council secretary, whose preselection opponents included Sam Peacocke, son of Gerry, and former mayor Greg Matthews. The Daily Liberal quoted a "key supporter" of McGrane saying his backers would endorse a new candidate if the nomination went to Matthews, who they linked to Richard Mutton; presumably the candidate they had in mind was Parkes mayor Robert Wilson, widely mentioned as a likely starter and described by the Daily Liberal as a friend of McGrane’s. Wilson indeed declined to run, but Dubbo deputy mayor Dawn Fardell has taken the field and should give Cowley a run for her money, having won public backing from state indepedents Richard Torbay and Peter Draper and federal independents Peter Andren and Tony Windsor. Ben Shields – who is on Dubbo City Council, along with Fardell, Matthews, Mutton and Sam Peacocke – was reportedly keen to run as a Liberal candidate but the party hierarchy thought better than to enter the contest. Rounding out the field of four are two candidates who contested the corresponding federal seat of Parkes at the October 9 election – Terrance Loughlin, of the Greens, and Makere Rangihaeata, a Citizens Electoral Council candidate at the federal election who is now running as an independent.

The final element that warrants a mention is New England MP Tony Windsor’s allegations of bribery against Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson and Senator Sandy Macdonald, with some suspicious folk linking the timing of Windsor’s announcement earlier this week with tomorrow’s poll. The suggestion is that Windsor, who also gave strong backing to Tony McGrane at the 1999 election, was seeking to give Fardell a boost over Cowley. If so, the impassioned rejection of his claims by businessman and supposed go-between Greg Maguire might mean the move has backfired, although many will continue to accept Windsor’s version of events. The episode has called attention to the long-standing debate in these parts about the relative merits of independent and major party representation; although the Poll Bludger cannot claim any connection with this particular part of Australia, and has no opinion polling to go on, his gut feeling is that the mood has swung in favour of the latter and that Jay Cowley will prevail. The impact of this on the numbers in the lower house will be barely measurable – from 55-6-32 to 55-5-33 – but it will provide a shot in the arm for an opposition that already has good cause to feel confident about its future prospects.

Way out west

The Western Australian Government’s announcement of $1 billion in tax cuts late last month had most convinced that Premier Geoff Gallop was paving the way for a pre-Christmas election, and the Poll Bludger accordingly felt compelled to spend the last fortnight slaving over his seat-by-seat Legislative Assembly election guide. It proved a false alarm, Gallop apparently having been spooked by both shaky internal polling and a Westpoll result that had the Coalition leading Labor 44 per cent to 36 per cent. The practical deadline for a pre-Christmas election passed last Thursday, and since Labor has introduced legislation to set fixed elections for the third Saturday in February, it is considered all but certain that the big day will be February 19. Since the election guide has been knocked into a presentable shape there seems little merit in holding back on it, so readers are invited to peruse the internet’s only guide to the 57 comprehensively redistributed Legislative Assembly electorates and the various political games currently being played out in each. A guide to the Legislative Council election will follow in due course.