Mad about the Roy

Reasonably good news for Labor with today’s Roy Morgan poll, a proper effort this time with a sample of just under 2000, that has them leading the Coalition 43 per cent to 40 on the primary vote (Labor gaining a point directly at the Coalition’s expense) with 53.5 per cent on two-party preferred. Naysayers might note that they have only picked up a 0.5 per cent FTA bounce from the previous fortnight, and if they only do this well in Tuesday’s Newspoll the going will continue to look rough for them. The Greens’ vote is up marginally from 7.5 per cent to 8 per cent with the Democrats stable on 2.5 per cent – both would have been hoping to leach votes from Labor over their cave-in on the FTA, and their failure to substantially do so may be the real dividend of Mark Latham’s tactical success.

Clash of civilisations

Taken together, postings from the past week have perhaps gone too far in painting a picture of a Labor Party that faces a bloodbath whenever the election happens to be called (Crikey at least seems very sure it will be in the next few days). The Latham-is-back theme of the past week’s news reporting and blogosphere comment has been largely absent here, so in the interests of balance it’s probably time to focus on some of the brighter spots on Labor’s electoral picture.

On second thoughts, I’ll do that tomorrow. Instead, the subject of today’s lesson is the prospect of Labor losing a seat it already holds, and one not in Western Australia this time. Located in north-western Sydney, from Blacktown out to Marsden Park, Greenway is held by Labor with a margin of 3.2 per cent after swings to the Liberals of 10.1 per cent in 1996 and 6.4 per cent in 2001 (with a 6.5 per cent swing back to Labor in between). The seat has a lot in common with the nearby Labor strongholds of Chifley and Prospect, but other neigbours include outer Sydney seats that have decisively shifted to the Liberals in the life of the current government, namely Macquarie and Penrith-based Lindsay, plus the safe Liberal seat of Mitchell. Mitchell in particular is regarded as the epicentre of the Sydney "bible belt", and this is where the Liberals’ high hopes for Greenway come into play. Their candidate Louise Markus is a community worker for possibly Australia’s largest church, Hillsong, boasting a congregation of 17,000 concentrated in and around the electorate. As demonstrated by this earlier post, the idea that churches can provide a ready-made base of organisational and electoral support for their favoured candidates is very much in vogue at the moment. What’s more, Labor is losing the personal vote of a retiring local member, which is always a favourite for those hunting out electorates that might go against the grain.

Certainly the media is interested, and Labor a little worried. On Tuesday, Mark Davis and Marcus Priest of the Australian Financial Review reported that the paper had "obtained" a list of 29 marginal seats that will be the focus of Labor’s attention, eight with "defensive" and the remainder with "offensive" campaigns. Greenway was "being treated as warranting an offensive campaign" due to a retiring incumbent and an opposing candidate who was "a worker for the fast-growing and well-resourced Hillsong Church". This week The Bulletin entered the fray with a two-page article by Paul Daley that talks up Markus’s chances. He talks up a few other things as well, specifically Labor candidate Ed Husic’s background as a Muslim from the former Yugoslavia and how this might play in a seat located in "deep, middle-Australia, a place where the fears about border security, terrorism and illegal (mostly Muslim) migrant hordes, packaged by the government with such effect at the last election, resonated long and loud. And still do". An interview Husic conducted with the Blacktown City Sun is described as an "extraordinary" response to what the paper called "a whisper campaign about his religious affiliations from sections of the community in Greenway".

After the build-up, the reality check. Greenway is a good deal less white-bread than Daley makes out. Check table 14b in this Australian Parliamentary Library research paper and you will see that Greenway ranks twenty-first out of 150 in its arse-about-tit ranking of electorates by proportion of "persons of Islam religion" (sometimes known as "Muslims"). Also, the "personal vote of a retiring local member" that Labor is losing is that of the notoriously under-achieving Frank Mossfield. Indeed The Bulletin took the opposite tack in citing his retirement as a plus for the Liberals, reporting that "the people from the ageing fibros of Seven Hills and the so-called ‘McMansions’ of Stanhope Gardens and Glenwood are said to feel as if they have been taken for granted by successive federal and state Labor MPs".

Antony Green has noted the chatter surrounding Greenway and goes to an unusual amount of trouble to give the idea short shrift in his federal election guide entry:

There are a lot of odd things being written about this electorate. In the two decades it has existed, Greenway has always followed the state trend, becoming a marginal seat when the Labor Party has disastrous results, like 1996 and 2001. For all that time the seat has been represented by low profile MPs, which means Labor has never really benefited from the sitting member factor. Now Labor has Ed Husic, a younger more active candidate who grew up in the area, yet suddenly there is a lot of media talk that Labor could lose the seat. Some are pointing to there supposedly being 11,000 new voters since the last election. True, but most electorates would have that many new voters. The enrolment is only up 4,000, meaning most of those new voters are ‘churn’ in already settled parts of the electorate, with most of the increased enrolment in the new suburbs at the northern end of the electorate. There is a lot of pointing to Liberal candidate Louise Markus and her church connections, and certainly the fact the party has a presentable candidate (unlike some past campaigns) and an influx of eager young campaign workers will help. But it still seems unlikely that Labor could lose this seat when you consider it would have to do worse than its dreadful 2001 result.

The only thing the Poll Bludger can add to this is that the seat could well fall if events between now and polling day that cannot yet be foreseen transpire to deliver a substantial shift in public opinion towards the Coalition. But so might many others.

On your marks

Politically incorrect though it may be to repeatedly blow the trumpet of a Murdoch tabloid, the Poll Bludger just can’t get enough of Tuesday’s edition of the Daily Telegraph. Yet another must-read was Malcolm Farr’s analysis of the obstacles facing an October 16 election, that date being fixed for an Australian Capital Territory election that is unlikely to receive the attention it warrants here or elsewhere. Should a federal election be called for that date the Commonwealth Electoral Act requires that the ACT election be delayed until December 4, in which case the ACT could be "three days into an campaign for an October 16 ballot when Mr Howard intervenes and gazumps the date". Canberra voters could well react by gazumping Liberal Senator Gary Humphries.

The Australian Financial Review today felt confident enough to run a front page lead item from Laura Tingle that began, "Prime Minister John Howard has given his clearest indication that he may call a September 18 election as early as this Friday". "Party room sources" said the Prime Minister had spoken of the end of the parliamentary session "and all that implied", wishing all present well until "whenever we see each other again". These are not the first inscrutable Howard utterances to emerge from "party room sources" regarding the matter of election timing, perhaps suggesting a tactic of forcing his troops to get their acts together in advance and generally keeping them on their toes. The Poll Bludger is keeping his money on October 23.

A Galaxy far, far away

The Poll Bludger is not big on conspiracy theories, but it is worth noting that recent opinion polls commissioned by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph have raised eyebrows even among those who believe the world to be round. Conducted by a wholly unknown outfit by the name of OmniTalk, the very least that could be said about them is that they are cleverly taking advantage of the 10-day gap that has appeared in the cycle between a Friday Roy Morgan poll and the next Newspoll two Tuesdays hence. For an inference of more sinister motives, I shall hand the mic to Christopher Sheil at Back Pages, writing when the first such poll appeared on July 27:

The PM’s favourite newspaper, the American owned Daily Terrograph, today reports the results of a poll showing the Coalition ahead for the first time on the 2pp 51/49. Polling is important of course, and not only or even mainly because of its supposed relationship to how the parties are presently standing in the race. Polling also matters because the results themselves feed back into shaping people’s opinions. This poll was a survey of less than 1000 voters, which gives it a margin of error of 5 per cent (I think). So what do we make of a partisan newspaper popping its head up on an off-polling week, with the results of a survey it commissioned from some outfit with no track record (called OmniTalk), which purports to find the Coalition in front for the first time by a percentage well within the margin of error? Junk. Possibly suspicious and potentially dangerous junk. But junk all the same.

Asked about it at the time by Leon Byner on Adelaide 5AA, Mark Latham too said he had "never heard of this polling outfit". Two rather spectacular Daily Telegraph/OmniTalk findings released over the past two days will do little to lay suspicions to rest. First came Monday’s findings on the electorate of Eden-Monaro discussed in yesterday’s posting. Coverage from this has been spread over two days, and has even warranted its own dinkus. One day later came a sequel to the poll of a fortnight earlier, a full national survey of about 1000 respondents taken just last weekend. The result: a thumping 47 per cent for the Coalition with Labor flat-lining on 36 per cent, despite Mark Latham’s efforts on the Free Trade Agreement. On two-party preferred the Coalition led 54-46. The gaps had respectively widened by 5 per cent and 6 per cent from the poll that so excited Sheil a fortnight earlier. Collectively, the two surveys represent an overkill of positive opinion poll coverage for the Coalition from the Murdoch-owned tabloid that brings you Piers Akerman.

Regrettably, the Poll Bludger’s digging has led him to a more benign conclusion. Although the Telegraph is doing little to promote the fact, OmniTalk is a brand name of a division of market research firm Galaxy Marcoms called Galaxy Research. One of its two principals is David Briggs, who until recently was general manager of Newspoll. This fledgling agency would hardly be willing to put its reputation at risk with findings it knew would be disproved when the election came around. Furthermore, a feature of modern election campaigns is that parties compete for underdog status in order to prevent complacent supporters from lodging protest votes. Directing one’s lackeys to promote the view that one’s re-election is a foregone conclusion goes strongly against the conventional wisdom.

Certainly an innocent explanation exists for the intensity of the coverage given the Eden-Monaro poll – reporters Josh Massoud and David Penberthy have turned in excellent copy, a cut above the usual Struggle Street drivel and well worth a read for anyone able to get their hands on yesterday’s Telegraph (it appears not to be available online, unless I’m missing something). They describe their methodology thus:

Like many things in journalism, it started as a ruse to get out of the office and have a stack of fun at company expense. In the end, it picked the 2001 election result – a 10-day road trip through 10 key NSW seats in a turbo-charged 1967 HR Holden. The Daily Telegraph decided that rather than the usual "seats to watch" tedium which profiles candidates at the expense of the people who vote for them, we’d throw our coverage into reverse. We ignored the candidates and used the massively unreliable souped-up HR to conduct about 320 face-to-face interviews with voters, starting the morning of September 11, 2001. It took several hours to start the car – and we made it to Cessnock at night, in time to see the first of the twin towers collapse. When we set out the next day for the interviews, the tone was set. Voter after voter – even Labor voters – said Kim Beazley had no chance of victory. The line was repeated: "After what’s happened, why would you change now?" This time, we got a more reliable car – the Holden Eden-Monaro. And despite our success last time, we got a more reliable polling method — through polling company Galaxy, whose OmniTalk polls will appear in this newspaper throughout this campaign. The good people at Holden lent us the car and the good people at Galaxy told us how to poll properly. Galaxy did 400 telephone interviews in the electorate of Eden-Monaro, and the remaining 600 were done face-to-face by us last week. We divided up the interviews using ABS and Australian Electoral Commission data to reflect population spread and age profiles – hence 12 voters in Dalgety, 294 in Queanbeyan. We drove just over 2000km using a map with each seat tagged up with the target interview numbers, aiming for an average 120 a day. Of these 600 face-to-face interviews, 60 were with people aged 18 to 24, 110 with people aged 25 to 34, 180 with people aged 35 to 49, and 250 with the 50-plus brigade. We did 50-50 men and women.

In an already crowded market OmniTalk could well be that one opinion poll too many – News Limited already has Newspoll, after all. But that doesn’t make its findings particularly suspicious, much less potentially dangerous. Instead they should be interpreted for what they are – legitimately bad news for Labor.

Bellwether report

Two polls released yesterday have given Labor still further cause to pray that Mark Latham’s FTA manoeuvre and the public statement by former diplomats and department heads critical of the Iraq war will provide them with a circuit breaker. The Daily Telegraph published a remarkable survey conducted by OmniTalk of no fewer than 1000 respondents in the New South Wales electorate of Eden-Monaro, which has famously gone the way of the victorious party at each election since 1972. The poll had Liberal incumbent Gary Nairn leading Labor 46 per cent to 40, interestingly echoing last week’s Newspoll which had the Coalition one point lower. A strong flow of preferences from the Greens’ 8 per cent could still save Labor from this position, but it’s hardly where they would like to be heading into the campaign.

Even worse for Labor was the monthly Westpoll in The West Australian (which now demands subscription for full access, the publishers apparently having heard that there is money to be made from pictures of pretty girls on the internet), surveying 400 voters in Western Australia. The poll does not distribute the 17 per cent undecided vote, so the Poll Bludger has done it for them to produce an outcome of 55.5 per cent for the Coalition (compared with 42.4 per cent at the 2001 election), 35 per cent for Labor (compared with 37.1 per cent) and 6 per cent for the Greens. This represents a 6 per cent fall in Labor’s vote on the previous month and an even worse performance than that in the May survey, which strained credibility at the time.

A few qualifications should be added here. Newspoll’s geographic and demographic analysis survey, operating off a somewhat larger sample, had the Coalition’s lead at 44 to 38 per cent in June, narrowing the gap from the previous quarter by 4 per cent. The West Australian’s reporting inadvertently exposes some poor past form for Westpoll in noting that Labor’s worst-ever performance in the survey came one month before the November 2001 election, at which Labor managed to win seven of the 15 Western Australian seats. Taken together, and with the Westpoll findings treated with due caution, it suggests a very tight race in the Labor marginals of Stirling (1.6 per cent), Hasluck (1.8 per cent) and Swan (2.1 per cent) and an uphill battle for Labor in the Liberal marginal of Canning (0.4 per cent). For more detail on the state of play in Western Australia, see this earlier posting and this piece in The Australian from Edith Cowan University politics lecturer Peter van Onselen.

The family that prays together

It is little wonder that reporters covering the South Australian state election in February 2002 failed to anticipate the success of the Family First party. Long renowned as a haven for lecherous drunks and Godless communists, the profession of journalism effectively quarantined itself from the new wave of evangelical religious fervour that was taking hold in the less fashionable suburbs. The phenomenon was politically activated in September 2001 with the launch of Family First by Andrew Evans, a senior national figure in the Assemblies of God church and pastor of the Paradise Community Church in north-eastern Adelaide, which boasted a 4,000 strong congregation including future Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian. Tapping into a ready-made base of organisational and electoral support the party polled 4.1 per cent of the vote for the Legislative Council, enough to win Evans a seat at the expense of the much more fancied Greens. Not surprisingly, Evans’ success has encouraged the party to broaden its horizons. Yesterday saw the launch of Family First as a national entity with plans to field candidates in most lower house electorates and for each state in the Senate.

Having demonstrated that the electoral market gap that Fred Nile has filled in New South Wales is there to be exploited in other states, there seems every reason to believe that the party might continue to operate beneath the radar of the national media and once again surprise pundits on election night. Queensland has a large mass of disaffected voters who have been left looking for a new home with the decline of One Nation. Religious conservatives in Western Australia have long had no obvious option. The Democratic Labor Party in Victoria has never reached beyond the Catholic community. And Brian Harradine’s electoral base and Senate seat are up for grabs in Tasmania.

With One Nation effectively out of the picture it had seemed safe to assume that the non-major party vote would return to its traditional pattern of favouring Labor on preferences to the tune of 60 per cent or more. This could be jeopardised if Family First proves successful in harvesting a substantial share of the minor party protest vote. While their preferences are unlikely to have a decisive impact on the House of Representatives, for which many voters make up their own mind about preference allocation, they could play a crucial role in the Senate, where 95 per cent of voters accept the party’s nominated preference distribution by exercising the above-the-line voting option. Excluding independents and micro-parties, Family First’s preference order for the South Australian Legislative Council election in 2002 ran Nationals, Liberal, Labor, Greens, Democrats and One Nation. Unless the party has a substantial change of heart for the federal election, this could provide a substantial boost to the Coalition’s chances of gaining a blocking majority by controlling half the Senate. One could even fantasise about them achieving this despite losing government, in which case Mark Latham might find himself emulating his mentor Gough Whitlam in a manner he would have preferred to avoid.