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.

Phoney war dispatches: No Newspoll edition

The nation’s tea-leaf readers have been left driving blind after today’s non-appearance of Newspoll, which is apparently taking an extended long weekend. Phoney War Dispatches accordingly has disappointingly little to report.

• With expectations of an August 7 poll continuing to mount, the Prime Minister appeared to indicate otherwise today when he told the National Press Club he "would hope" that legislation for the United States free trade agreement could be passed before the election was held. Bearing Howard’s subtle qualification in mind, that suggests a new session of parliament to proceed on schedule in August and no election until October.

• The boil of Labor’s South Australian Senate preselection was finally lanced with Senator Geoff Buckland’s unexpected announcement today that would not be seeking another term. Buckland’s Right faction will now throw its support behind former state deputy leader Annette Hurley, who boldly abandoned her safe seat of Napier to unsuccessfully challenge a sitting Liberal minister at the 2002 state election. This means that Senator Nick Bolkus no longer has to abandon his place for the party to meet stricter definitions of its affirmative action quota.

• Peter Garrett has been the only nominee for Labor endorsement in the safe Sydney seat of Kingsford-Smith, the spurned rivals who were so vocal a week before quietly conceding defeat after the ALP National Executive took over the preselection process from the state branch. Newspoll did at least manage a poll released on the weekend gauging reaction to Garrett’s recruitment, with 39 per cent deeming it good for Labor against 19 per cent poor.

• Residents of Adelaide marginal seats are no doubt fed up with opinion pollsters already, but they can expect no respite between now and polling day. A Taverner poll in Adelaide’s Advertiser newspaper on Saturday for the electorate of Adelaide had Liberal and Labor equal on 38 per cent, calculated as a 53.2 per cent two-party preferred vote for Labor. This still represents a shift back to the Liberals from a poll taken in late February which had Labor ahead on the primary vote 40 per cent to 37. The poll also included questions on the budget in which the Poll Bludger isn’t much interested, but which were used by the Advertiser to paint a gloomy picture for the Government.

Phoney war dispatches: “Don’t cross that floor …” edition

• Labor’s plans to enlist Australian Conservation Foundation president and Oz Rock giant Peter Garrett for a safe Sydney seat had politics watchers of a certain age scanning their memories for apposite Midnight Oil lyrics, and they were not found wanting.
Laurie Brereton’s announcement on Friday evening that he would be vacating his Botany Bay-side seat of Kingsford-Smith surprised many, but obviously not the Labor officials who confirmed shortly afterwards that Garrett had been approached to run. Mark Latham soon added his enthusiastic endorsement. When Midnight Oil broke up in December 2002 it was widely reported that Garrett was leaving the band to prepare for a political career – indeed, The Australian endorsed the idea in an editorial at the time – and suspicions were aroused when he subsequently turned down an offer to lead the New South Wales Greens ticket. However the move has inflamed rival aspirants to the position and their followers in the local branches, and Garrett’s nomination will entail either a fraught preselection vote with much of Latham’s credibility pending on the result, or an internally bruising intervention by the national executive. Garrett has yet to make an announcement but today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports that "senior Labor sources close to Mr Garrett were expecting that he would accept the offer once the internal ructions within the party caused by reports of his impending preselection had settled".

• Mark Vaile, Trade Minister and heir apparent to the National Party leadership, faces a potential challenge in his North Coast electorate of Lyne from Rob Oakeshott, independent member for the corresponding state seat of Port Macquarie. Oakeshott was elected for the Nationals in 1999 but quit the party mid-term, winning re-election as an independent in March 2003 with 70.1 per cent of the primary vote.

• Four nominations were received for the National Party Senate preselection in Victoria, with the vote to be held on July 9. At stake is the crucial second spot on the Coalition Senate ticket and an all-but guaranteed six years in parliament. Incumbent Julian McGauran faces Scott Mitchell, a former Young Nationals president who is pursuing his challenge at the cost of his job as staffer for the aforementioned Mark Vaile; Darren Chester, of regional business lobby group Champions of the Bush; and Nationals junior vice-president Wes Head.

• The Greens confirmed that Christine Milne, former leader of the state parliamentary party, would head their Senate ticket in Tasmania. Milne is a strong chance to be elected in any case, and will be a near-certainty if 69-year-old incumbent Brian Harradine chooses to retire.

• In an otherwise quiet week on the opinion poll front, Friday saw Roy Morgan revert to its usual contrary-to-Newspoll ways. Labor were up 4.5 to 45.5 per cent with the Coalition down 2.5 to 40, blowing out Labor’s two-party preferred lead from 5 to 10 per cent. Quoth Gary Morgan: "this latest Morgan poll makes sense".

Blind date

The Government’s plan to keep everyone guessing about the date of the election seems to be doing its job, with the subject dominating taxi-cab and water-cooler conversation and stopping barbecues around the country. The Poll Bludger has done his bit to keep the speculation informed with this calendar of election date possibilities, which lays out the pros and cons for the Government of each Saturday from August 7 to Christmas. Sharp-eyed and non-colourblind readers will note there are four red-letter days marked out – August 7, September 4 and October 23 and 30. The Poll Bludger is quite sure there are many subtleties of the political and economic cycle that have escaped him, so anyone who is aware of pertinent facts or just has a theory they would like to share is encouraged to drop me a line.

Phoney war dispatches: Newspoll somersault special

In the past week two articles in The Australian – one on Saturday and one on Tuesday – have demolished all of the conventional wisdom regarding the federal election that existed this time last Tuesday. So forget everything you thought you knew about where our nation is headed and adjust to the new reality, which – for the next seven days or so – runs as follows …

• The Coalition has experienced a massive boost in support in a short time-frame for no readily apparent reason, according to Newspoll. Taken over the weekend, at the very height of the Trish Draper affair, the poll had the Liberals up five points to 42 per cent with the Nationals up one to 5 per cent, the highest level of support for the Coalition since 16-18 May 2003 when momentum was building towards Kim Beazley’s June 16 challenge to Simon Crean’s leadership. Labor fell seven points to 37 per cent, their lowest rating since 28-30 November 2003, immediately after Simon Crean’s decision to stand aside. In other good news for the Government, the two-party preferred position switched from 46-54 to 53-47; three points shifted to satisfied with Howard from dissatisfied (57 and 35 per cent respectively); and Howard’s share of the preferred prime minister rating went from 50 to 54 per cent. The safest reading of this dramatic readjustment is that Labor faces too many people toying with the idea of voting for them and too few actually committed to doing so. Latham’s succinctly expessed views on the Bush Administration might be enough to blow out the opinion polls in his favour while Abu Ghraib is all over the news, but when the cycle moves on the hip-pocket nerve kicks in again – and the response to the federal budget was better than has been acknowledged. Most news reports on the post-budget polls focused on the Iraq-related slump in voting intention for the Government while ignoring the apparently contradictory figures on support for the budget, which were better than average in each of the five polls of which the Poll Bludger is aware.

• The Australian’s other surprise this week came when political editor Dennis Shanahan – by all accounts considered a good egg by the Government, as journalists go – emerged from a discussion with the Prime Minister reporting that "John Howard has recast the Coalition election strategy, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars more into a series of 10-year development plans that rule out an early election". This after all and sundry (present company not excepted) had been telling everyone the election would be held as early as possible, namely on August 7. It could be that the Government has been laying red herrings in order to upset Labor’s timetable, or perhaps that the Prime Minister has held off going early because he is (or has been) spooked by the polls.

• A Sun-Herald/Taverner Research poll showed that 18 per cent of voters in Wentworth would back Peter King if he ran as an independent against the man who defeated him in the February Liberal Party preselection, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull himself was on 35 per cent, still clear of Labor’s David Patch on 29 per cent. Despite the hysterical tone of the Sun-Herald report the figures show Turnbull in no danger, as King is well behind the Labor candidate he would need to overhaul to get up on preferences and most of his own preferences would go to Turnbull ahead of Patch.

• The Advertiser chose a splendidly opportune time to survey voting intentions in the South Australian electorate of Makin, held by beleagured Liberal Trish Draper. The poll had Draper on 33 per cent, with Labor’s Tony Zappia on 44 per cent. An Advertiser poll from February had Labor ahead 41 per cent to 39.

• On Saturday the National Party chose chartered accountant Barnaby Joyce to head its Senate ticket in Queensland. The preselection had originally been scheduled for late March but was postponed in a decision blamed by some in the party on president Terry Bolger’s desire to buy time for nominee Pam Stallman, who had unsuccessfully challenged Senator Ron Boswell for his preselection heading into the 2001 election. Joyce is the last piece in the puzzle of the contest for the fifth and sixth places in Queensland, the others being Russell Trood (Liberal), Frank Gilbert (Labor), Drew Hutton (Greens), John Cherry (Democrats), Hetty Johnston (independent) and Len Harris (One Nation, if it still exists).

• The corridors of power were abuzz following a number of sensational new additions to the Poll Bludger website. Full details in yesterday’s posting …