A tale of two seats

A couple of entries in the federal election guide have needed substantial revisions recently, the obvious example being the Liberal vacancy created in the Melbourne seat of Goldstein by the retirement of David Kemp. The names of former federal director Andrew Robb and former state president Michael Kroger were immediately floated, but Kroger has allowed it to be added to the long list of opprtunities he has knocked back owing to business and family interests. The formalities are still in progress but it appears likely that Robb will emerge uncontested when nominations close on Friday.

Robb had long been spoken of in relation to safe seats in New South Wales, his home for the past two decades, but he originally hails from Victoria where he was raised in a large working-class Catholic family that supported the Democratic Labor Party. Like Peter Costello, Robb moved in influential New Right circles after establishing himself in student politics, leading a crusade against the campus left’s dominance of the La Trobe University student council. Robb moved into a job at the newly established and soon-to-be hugely influential National Farmers Federation, becoming executive director in 1985. At around that time the NFF was creating industrial relations history by bank-rolling the Mudginberri abattoir and Dollar Sweets during their landmark legal actions against militant unions.

After leaving the NFF in 1988 Robb worked on the Liberal secretariat, as chief-of-staff to Andrew Peacock leading into the 1990 election, and then as federal party director. The 1990 and 1993 elections didn’t do his reputation many favours but most laid the blame elsewhere. In 1994 however many in the party held him responsible for a leak of party polling with which Kerry O’Brien was able to embarrass John Hewson during an appearance on the 7:30 Report, which led directly to Hewson’s demise as leader. In her book on the 1996 federal election campaign, The Victory, Pamela Williams recounted that when John Howard assumed the Liberal leadership in 1995 he had to be talked out of dumping him (by, among others, Michael Kroger, who "declared that he would bet his life on Robb’s trustworthiness"). The 1996 election result was seen to vindicate all concerned and Robb moved on, launching Conservatives for an Australian Head of State before the 1999 republic referendum and a business career that proved rather more successful, setting up the direct marketing company Acxiom for Kerry Packer.

Robb’s predecessor and mentor at the National Farmers Federation was Ian McLachlan, who would go on to federal politics as the Liberal member for the South Australian seat of Barker, which brings us in a roundabout way to the other federal election guide entry overtaken by recent events. Since McLachlan’s retirement in 1998 Barker has been held by Patrick Secker, who won preselection that year as the favoured candidate of Senator Nick Minchin’s Right faction. Despite holding his seat with a 17 per cent margin, Secker has had a number of occasions in the past year to think that his career might be in jeopardy. Like many South Australian electorates Barker was substantially remodelled in the redistribution that cost the state one of its 12 existing seats, extending north to take the Murray Valley/Riverland from Wakefield which now provides it with about a third of its voters. This area was the electoral heartland of Wakefield MP and House of Representatives Speaker Neil Andrew, who felt that Barker rather than the now unrecognisable semi-urban seat of Wakefield was his natural territory. Andrew averted a brawl by instead opting to retire, but Secker’s widespread reputation as a non-achiever had others in the party thinking they could do better. Crikey nominated three party figures (Ashley Jared, Draz Baric and Nick McBride) as having their eyes on the seat, but the Prime Minister’s insistence that sitting members not be challenged was apparently enough to dissuade them.

Then came widespread reports that the only National Party MP in the state parliament, Karlene Maywald, was planning to take a challenge to Secker directly to the voters after having toyed with nominating for Liberal preselection. Maywald’s popularity locally was indicated by her success in winning a seat as a Nationals candidate in a state where the party’s base is almost non-existent (their candidate for Barker in 1998 polled 2.2 per cent). As talk of her candidacy gained momentum, Secker made the courageous decision to stand by a recommendation of a parliamentary committee on which he sat that would have deprived South Australia of 500 gigalitres of Murray River flows. This provoked a sharp response from South Australian Liberals up to and including Alexander Downer – and, less surprisingly, from Karlene Maywald. In June 2004 Secker belatedly changed his mind.

All the elements for a fascinating contest were in place, but Maywald’s ambitions were also proving of concern to a state Labor Government who had the gumption to do something about it. With the effectively independent Maywald having proved a fairly agreeable cross-bencher in the view of Mike Rann’s minority government, Labor did not want the Liberals recovering her seat of Chaffey at the by-election that would follow a move to federal parliament. Showing the craftiness that has characterised his government, Mike Rann offered Maywald a cabinet position as Minister for the River Murray, Regional Development, Small Business and Consumer Affairs (hiving the first of these off the Environment portfolio being an added twist of genius), which she duly accepted. Rann now sits at the head of South Australia’s first majority government since 1997, and Secker can again breathe easy.

Celebrity wheel of fortune

At first the "Vote for Me" contest being conducted by Channel Seven’s Sunrise program seemed vaguely distasteful but too trivial to warrant comment. Contestants were required to submit a three-minute policy speech on VHS from which a panel of "political" equivalents of Mark, Marsha and Dicko were to select 18 finalists. One winner would be chosen for each state after a series of Idol-type public auditions and staged media appearances, to be rewarded with $10,000 on the understanding that they would go on to run for the Senate. Shannon Noll may have been able to top the pop charts with a cover of Moving Pictures’ What About Me, but surely the public weren’t silly enough to fall for this one, at least not in numbers sufficient to put Channel Seven candidates in contention for a Senate quota. The impact seemed likely to be further subdued by the fact that these would be "ungrouped" candidates for whom voters could not place a single number above the line, thereby providing wholesale transfusions of preferences to whichever parties or candidates they happened to strike a deal with (as discussed by Antony Green yesterday on ABC Radio’s PM program).

However, all of that changed this week with the news that a high-profile independent who was already campaigning and already a chance of winning a seat in her own right had been nominated as one of the three Queensland finalists. Hetty Johnston is a former Cheryl Kernot staffer and one-time Australian Democrats candidate who came to national fame as the zealous child sex abuse victim advocate who pursued former Governor-General Peter Hollingworth over his failure to act over abuse in church institutions during his time as Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. During her crusade Johnston showed a conviction that the rightness of her cause justified her in levelling shocking charges against public figures on the basis of easily discredited evidence, specifically when she helped publicise flimsy rape allegations against Hollingworth. It does not require too much of an imagination to think what an MP with such a record might produce with the protection of parliamentary privilege.

With the decline of One Nation, Queensland has a substantial population of voters who remain cynical about the political process and susceptible to conspiracy theories about rogues in high places, particularly if those promoting them receive enough exposure on television. Even if Johnston does not succeed she will dramatically affect the dynamics of the Queensland Senate election, as she unlike her other competition hopefuls is almost certain to run at the head of a multiple candidate grouped ticket with an above-the-line voting option. With Labor, Liberal, the Nationals, the Greens and the Democrats all manoeuvring for the state’s final two Senate seats, all will be sorely tempted by the prospect of getting a piece of the action through a preference deal. If she does succeed, the Senate will have a member in a crucial balance of power position who will face all sorts of questions about her partiality when voting on media legislation.

Newspoll and ACNielsen

Contemporary readers have no doubt heard already, but for the benefit of future generations, let it be recorded here that polls released yesterday by Newspoll and ACNielsen produced similar results indicating a continuing drift away from Labor. The focus of the newspaper reporting is the failure of Kim Beazley’s return to the front bench to produce a Labor bounce, which seems fair enough for once. The stumble in Mark Latham’s approval rating suggests that any Beazley effect was cancelled out by disquiet over Latham’s emotional performance during the short-lived rumour frenzy two weekends ago, comparing unfavourably in the public mind with the Prime Minister’s steady hand and stiff upper lip (compare with the tone of earlier reports declaring "Emotional Latham plea wins support", as discussed in the post below). Both polls had Labor at 40 per cent (down 1 per cent in Newspoll, 2 per cent in ACNielsen) with the Coalition on 43 per cent by Newspoll’s reckoning and 45 per cent by ACNielsen’s. However ACNielsen somehow managed to conclude that Labor was on 52 per cent two-party preferred, the same result they produced with primary vote figures of 43 and 42 per cent in their last poll and 1 per cent higher than that recorded in Newspoll. Since ACNielsen’s result is at the extreme high end of the range recorded for the Coalition across all polls this year, Newspoll feels more accurate in any case.

This suggests a theoretically winnable position for the Coalition, who won comfortably with 43 per cent of the primary vote in 2001, but with One Nation no longer forming a substantial part of the minor party preference pool the Government has no reason to feel relaxed or comfortable about a primary vote in the low forties. The trend however is clearly moving in their direction, suggesting the Prime Minister did well to hold off from an August 7 election, and that those who rubbished him for doing so would do well to take care when querying his political judgement.

UPDATE (22/7/04): Thanks to reader David J. Lees for alerting me to ACNielsen’s belated realisation that the percentages for its poll added up to 101. The Coalition were in fact on 44 per cent (43.7 to be precise, as the Fairfax reporting unusually saw fit to reveal) rather than the published 45 per cent, which fits very nicely with a number of the above assertions.

Morgan, McNair and Westpoll

Roy Morgan appears to have marked the arrival of election season by moving its schedule from fortnightly to weekly federal polling. Unfortunately their sample sizes have suffered as a result, the polls from the last two weeks surveying fewer than 1100 respondents compared with more than 2000 for most Morgan polls from the first half of the year. For this reason the latest finding of a shift to Labor should be treated with caution. The poll shows Labor widening the two-party preferred gap in its favour from 51.5-48.5 (still a winnable position for the Coalition, as Peter Brent of Mumble explains) to 54-46, the Labor primary vote up from 43.5 to 46 per cent with the Coalition down a point to 41.5 per cent. As usual, judgement would best be left reserved until Tuesday’s Newspoll.

Of more specific interest, last weekend various News Limited papers carried a McNair Ingenuity Research poll of just over 200 respondents from each of the Coalition’s five most marginal New South Wales seats. The results would have been disappointing from Labor’s perspective, showing the Coalition well ahead in Paterson (50 per cent to 40, Greens 6 per cent) and with their nose in front in Richmond (47 per cent to 37, Greens 11 per cent), with Labor holding modest leads in Eden-Monaro (45 per cent to 44, Greens 7 per cent), Dobell (47 per cent to 43, Greens 4 per cent) and Parramatta (46 per cent to 42, Greens 6 per cent).

The West Australian’s monthly Westpoll, conducted two weekends ago and published on Monday, was still more encouraging for the Coalition. The poll of 407 respondents produced a 12 per cent "don’t know" figure that was not distributed, but had they gone to the trouble of doing so the results would have been 49 per cent for the Coalition against 40 per cent for Labor. Due to the near-disappearance of One Nation this represents a substantial improvement for both parties on the 2001 election, at which the Coalition polled 42.4 per cent in Western Australia and Labor 37.1. In two-party preferred terms however, it may be roughly calculated as a swing to the Coalition of 1.5 per cent, once again raising concerns about Labor’s hold on Stirling (Jann McFarlane, 1.6 per cent), Hasluck (Sharryn Jackson, 1.8 per cent) and Swan (Kim Wilkie, 2.1 per cent).

As usual, these low-sample polls had the newspapers that commissioned or conducted them reading ludicrous significance into their findings. Interestingly, though probably coincidentally, the tone of the misreporting was uniformly pro-Labor. Perth’s Sunday Times ran the McNair Ingenuity Research polling under the plainly incorrect headline, "Labor up in five key seats" (since their aggregate vote across the five seats was higher than the Coalition’s). Other News Limited reporting gave undue emphasis to rather pointless questions included in the survey regarding the allegations then circulating about the Opposition Leader, which predictably found most respondents affecting not to care. The West Australian’s reporting of its Westpoll findings struck a similar note, the headline reading "Emotional Latham plea wins support", the basis for which was that Labor had improved on the previous month’s poll at which they slumped eight points for no readily apparent reason. The only plausible explanation for this was a dud sample. Labor’s real hope for better things in the West came after the poll was published, with the return to the front-bench of local hero Kim Beazley on Wednesday.

House of cards

Yesterday’s surprise reshuffle marked a departure from the earlier practice of the Howard Government, which entered the last two elections with no changes to the ministry in the preceding year. In particular, the Prime Minister was happy to enter the 2001 campaign carrying three prominent Cabinet "lame ducks", Peter Reith, Michael Wooldridge and John Fahey, and he also neglected to jettison Ian McLachlan from the Defence portfolio (a happily lesser concern at that time) when he announced his impending retirement in the months before the 1998 election. This time he is reacting to a somewhat different set of circumstances – Peter Garrett’s nomination as Labor candidate for Kingsford-Smith has added urgency to the need for new blood in the Environment portfolio, and the return of Kim Beazley has narrowed if not closed the front-bench talent gap and demanded an assertive Government response.

From an electoral perspective, the most intriguing aspect of the reshuffle is the Prime Minister’s move to generate positive publicity for key marginal seat holders through happily timed promotions. Mal Brough, member for Longman (Queensland, 2.5 per cent), rose within the junior ministry to assume the Assistant Treasurer and Revenue portfolio vacated by the new Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan; his earlier position of Employment Services Minister went to Fran Bailey, member for McEwen (Victoria, 2.2 per cent), entering the junior ministry for the first time; and Bailey’s earlier position of parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister in turn went to Teresa Gambaro, member for Petrie (Queensland, 3.5 per cent). There seems no reason to doubt the initial announcement will generate useful goodwill in these three crucial seats, but this needs to be traded off against the preference of many voters for a local member free to tend to electorate matters. There are also concerns held by Government MPs, according to Mark Metherell in the Sydney Morning Herald, "about the risks facing new ministers grappling with new briefs during an election campaign".

While promotions in the Howard Government have not previously occurred this close to an election, its past history offers two precedents that do not augur well in this regard. At the reshuffle closest to the 1998 election, Tasmanian MP Warwick Smith was entrusted with the Family Services portfolio which then included responsibility for aged care. This area had already proved the undoing of Judi Moylan and would later destroy Bronwyn Bishop. Smith fared little better – in one of his first experiences in the job, angry pensioners shouted at him as he defended Government plans for nursing home fees during an appearance on the Nine Network’s Midday program. Although thought to have performed well in the job by most objective observers, he suffered a 4.7 per cent swing at the October 1998 election and lost his seat of Bass to Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne.

The reshuffle closest to the 2001 election, announced in December 2000, saw the promotion to the Employment Services junior ministry of Mal Brough, who once again benefited in yesterday’s reshuffle. Brough’s subsequent swearing-in was delayed as the Federal Police investigated untimely vote rorting allegations involving his electorate office, and he later hit trouble when reports emerged of widespread rorting of the Job Network program. Brough picked up a 1.8 per cent swing at the 2001 election, but this compared unfavourably with swings in the neighbouring seats of Fairfax (4.8 per cent), Petrie (2.7 per cent) and Dickson (a Cheryl Kernot-boosted 6.1 per cent).

Presumably none of this has been lost on the Prime Minister, who has certainly not gone overboard with this particular aspect of his strategy. Both the new Cabinet appointments are Senators, and three other recipients of promotions hold reasonably safe seats. With further rearrangements not being ruled out in the event that the Government is re-elected, Brough, Bailey and Gambaro have presumably been given a brief to enjoy the photo opportunities and stay out of trouble.

One-way ticket

On Friday the last piece in the Senate election puzzle fell into place when the National Party held its preselection for the second position on the joint Coalition ticket in Victoria. Incumbent Julian McGauran prevailed in a field of four including Scott Mitchell, a former Young Nationals president who pursued his challenge at the cost of his job as staffer for Trade Minister Mark Vaile. It is little wonder that the position was keenly sought, as McGauran is the beneficiary of an agreement which effectively reserves for the National Party one of the four to six Victorian Senate seats the Coalition can reasonably expect to hold, giving them the unloseable second position at alternating elections and the unwinnable fourth in between. On the strength of its own electoral merits the National Party has only been able to win two out of the 37 lower house seats in Victoria at the last three elections; of these, Mallee could well be lost when the Liberal Party is next able to contest it upon the retirement of member John Forrest, as the neighbouring seat of Murray was lost when Bruce Lloyd retired in 1996, while in Gippsland McGauran’s brother Peter faces an imminent threat from Labor.

For a party in such a position to be granted an automatic Senate seat it could never win from a separate ticket is an obvious bone of contention for ambitious Liberals. Part of the explanation involves a relic from a bygone era of Australian politics, the Democratic Labor Party. The DLP ceased to be a political force at the 1974 double dissolution election but has since managed to retain a loyal core of 1 to 2 per cent of the primary vote in the state of its origin. At the 1987 double dissolution election these votes were instrumental in delivering a sixth seat to the Coalition, and in ensuring that one of them went to McGauran who headed a separate National Party ticket. More recently, DLP preferences helped put Coalition third place-holder Kay Patterson over the line at Labor’s expense in both 1996 and 2001.

When the Australian Electoral Commission moved to de-register the DLP in 2002 after it refused to provide names and details for the 2000 members it claimed, the McGauran family’s help in funding legal action that prevented the deregistration from proceeding was widely seen as an astute political insurance policy. The wisdom of this appeared to be demonstrated on Thursday when Michael Harvey of the Herald Sun reported that "Liberal heavyweights including Treasurer Peter Costello and party state president Helen Kroger are believed to be behind a blunt ultimatum to the junior Coalition partner" whereby the Liberal Party would abandon the joint ticket arrangement if McGauran was not endorsed. The McGaurans’ support for the DLP may have been made with a view to maintaining the seat even if compelled to run from a separate National Party ticket, but it appears to have earned them enough gratitude that McGauran was able to bring to the table the promise of a straightforward allocation of DLP preferences to the Coalition ahead of Labor, in contrast to 1998 when Labor’s Jacinta Collins was rewarded for her opposition to euthanasia and stem cell research by being placed ahead of her third-place opposite number on the Coalition ticket, Tsebin Tchen.

McGauran’s brother faces an uncertain future, but for himself another term in the Senate is assured. However, the long-term decline of both the National Party and the Democratic Labor Party suggests that between now and 2010, the logic of a separate Liberal Party ticket will become irresistible.