More fun in Queensland

The Poll Bludger’s brief is state and federal elections, but there is one municipality in Australia that is sufficiently large and partisan to be of interest to observers focused on the national scene. That of course is Brisbane, which faces the polls next Saturday, March 27. Brisbane City Council has a bailiwick covering the broader metropolitan area, council wards more than half the size of state electorates, quadrennial elections and responsibilities including public transport and water and sewage. As for partisanship, it seems remakable to an observer of council politics elsewhere that the 2000 election produced clear-cut Labor versus Liberal contests in every ward but Richlands, where independent George Pugh outpolled a poorly performing Liberal Party without causing any trouble for Labor (he is now running again). All of which makes it feasible to condense the results into a Mackerras pendulum:

Labor wards Liberal wards
** (30%) RICHLANDS
* (19%) CENTRAL
PULLENVALE (18%)
** (17%) DEAGON
* (17%) DOBOY
** (17%) DUTTON PARK
(16%) MORNINGSIDE
* (16%) NORTHGATE
** (15%) WYNNUM-MANLY CHANDLER (15%)
(14%) ENOGERRA
* (14%) GRANGE
(14%) MOOROOKA
** (14%) RUNCORN
** (13%) EAST BRISBANE
(13%) MARCHANT
(11%) HOLLAND PARK
(9.4%) LORD MAYORALTY WALTER TAYLOR (9%)
(7%) ACACIA RIDGE BRACKEN RIDGE (7%)
HAMILTON (6%)
* (5%) JAMBOREE WISHART (5%)
THE GAP (5%) *
TOOWONG (3%)
(1%) McDOWALL

A number of points of clarification are required here. Firstly, where there is an asterisk the results given are two-party preferred figures I have arrived at by calculating the Labor vote as a percentage of the overall major party vote, with independent preferences ignored (the remainder were two-horse races). This is because those cheapskates at Brisbane City Council expect me to fork out $20 for a full distribution of preferences for the ward elections (and I have no doubt that this is a big money-spinner for them), and Poll Bludging is not as lucrative a caper as some of you out there might imagine. The six wards that produced the highest independent vote (11.3 per cent or higher) have been given a second asterisk, so these should be treated with extra care.

It will also be noted that the "Lord Mayoralty" result gets its own entry as the position is filled by direct election and not by the councillors. The council website does in fact give preference outcomes from the 2000 mayoral election, so this figure can be taken seriously. That election marked a fourth successive victory for Labor’s Jim Soorley, who was replaced by Deputy Mayor Tim Quinn when he resigned in early 2003. The Deputy Mayor is chosen by the councillors from among their own number (Maureen Hayes of Grange ward got the nod after Quinn’s elevation), with Quinn having previously served as ward councillor for Dutton Park. Quinn will face Liberal candidate Campbell Newman, son of former Tasmanian federal ministers Jocelyn and Kevin, who has drifted northwards during a career first in the military and then with privatised grain handlers Grainco. Also in the field are high-profile Greens candidate Drew Hutton, hoping to generate momentum for his Senate campaign later this year, and independents Russell Hall, Derek Rosborough and Nick Kapsis. Hall is a renowned local architect and should do rather a lot better than either Rosborough, who made little impression with his campaigns for the Senate and the Northern Territory House of Representatives seat of Namadji, and Kapsis, a "psychic mathematician" whose recent involuntary hospital admission due to psychiatric problems apparently does not disqualify him.

The Poll Bludger will not pretend to be familiar with the state of swings and roundabouts in each particular ward and can only talk in generalities in predicting results. The state election suggests that further Liberal losses and swings against Labor of over 10 per cent are unlikely (though anything’s possible), so McDowall, Jamboree and Acacia Ridge appear at face value to be of the most interest. Liberal victories in all will even out the numbers from 18-8 to 15-11. To this may be added the four seats which are not being recontested by the victors from last time, all held by Labor. Incumbents Terry Hampson in Marchant and Sharon Humphreys in Morningside are not seeking re-election, while Dutton Park and Moorooka were vacated early last year, the former by Quinn upon his elevation to the lord mayoralty and the latter by retiring councillor Mark Bailey. Since these vacancies occurred in the final year of the term they were filled by direct nomination of the Labor Party and not with a by-election, so new members Helen Abrahams and Steve Griffiths have not yet received public endorsement.

A complicating factor for Labor this time is the Greens, who are fielding candidates in 17 wards, 13 of them Labor-held. This compares with the 2000 election when their only candidate (in Wynnum-Manly) polled a thoroughly unremarkable 5.7 per cent, though true to form they are talking up their chances of a strong showing this time. The Greens’ best performances at the state election were in Ashgrove (16 per cent), South Brisbane (20 per cent) and Mount Coot-tha (23.5 per cent), so presumably most of their joy will come from a clump of wards surrounding the CBD including Toowong, Central, The Gap, Grange, Dutton Park and East Brisbane. Since optional preferential voting is in operation at council as well as state level Greens victories are unlikely, although Hutton is talking up their chances of influencing outcomes through their still-to-be-announced preferences strategy. Here they face their usual dilemma – hoping to put fear into a Labor Party that knows they can’t follow through on their threats, as preferences to Liberal are out of the question and their supporters usually ignore how-to-vote cards anyway.

As for the Lord Mayor position, the Liberals’ best card is the it’s-time factor after a decade of Labor domination. But three weeks after an election which saw the Liberal Party win a solitary seat out of the 40 on offer in the Brisbane area, it would be a very brave Poll Bludger who would tip anything other than a victory for Quinn and another clear Labor majority on council.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Many thanks to correspondent Geoff Keed for his input, in particular for pointing out a now-corrected error above where I said Jim Soorley had been elected three times rather than four.

Dead wood and bad blood

One swallow does not a summer make, and even the months from December to February don’t count for as much as other seasons on the Australian political calendar (the ones not habitually described as "silly"). Even so, we’re far enough into Labor’s new era to state with confidence that those who predicted a brief honeymoon for Mark Latham followed by a dramatic fall to earth had it precisely wrong. Throughout December and January a sceptical Peter Brent at Mumble persuasively argued that Latham was not in fact enjoying the opinion poll bounce that many were imagining they were seeing simply because they were expecting it, and had in fact done no more than recover the vote that went astray during the weeks of leadership turmoil in late November. So it proved for each Newspoll up to February 20-22, each of which showed Latham’s Labor stuck in the 39 to 41 per cent bracket. However all that changed with the poll of March 5-7, in which Labor broke through to 44 per cent against 41 per cent for the Coalition, translating into a terrifying 10 per cent gap after distribution of Labor-heavy minor party preferences. Not for the first time in recent years, the result has been a wholesale junking of most existing items of conventional wisdom, in particular those relating to the value of incumbency and experience in an unsettled global security climate. All of a sudden "rejuvenation" is the word on the lips of Coalition watchers, and preselection challenges to actual or perceived under-achievers have taken on a new importance.

Enough ink has been spilled on Malcolm Turnbull’s surprisingly clear 88-70 win in the Wentworth preselection the weekend before last that the Poll Bludger will content himself with guiding interested readers towards the post-mortems from Glenn Milne at The Australian and Hillary Bray at Crikey. Suffice to say that the result indeed looked pretty good in Liberal-rejuvenation terms, until one considers firstly that defeated incumbent Peter King had barely two years in which to prove himself, and then the result of the other, less publicised Liberal preselection ballot held in Sydney that weekend. With a margin of 21.4 per cent, the Sydney "bible belt" seat of Mitchell is the Liberals’ second safest, a glittering prize held for the party for no less than 30 years by one Alan Cadman. The aforementioned Glenn Milne article gives some idea why Cadman has been able to go untroubled for so long, recounting that former federal director Andrew Robb’s ambitions for the seat were thwarted when he was informed that only a local candidate would be acceptable, which from this outsider’s perspective seems an unfortunate state of affairs. When local opposition eventually coalesced around former Nick Greiner staffer and AGL executive Ian Woodward, Cadman experienced a sudden burst of energy, failing to impress Peter Costello with a column in The Australian calling for a higher tax-free threshold for families. Costello may have had Cadman in mind when he lamented that there were not two seats available for both Peter King and Malcolm Turnbull, saying "I don’t think we’re so overflowing with talent that we don’t have opportunities elsewhere". However Cadman was obviously doing something right at the local level (and perhaps also reaping the benefits of years of loyalty to Howard), defying gravity and reason to win a narrow 58-55 victory that will certainly see the 66 year old warming a seat on the back bench for three more years.

Three intertwined preselection battles in Queensland, one decided and the other two still in play, reveal the deep faultlines in the Queensland Liberal Party which explain their paltry representation in the state parliament and bode ill for their hopes in this crucial state at the coming federal election. The Brisbane seat of Ryan has been a constant source of fascination in recent years, starting with Labor’s deceptive by-election victory following Liberal minister John Moore’s untimely retirement in early 2001. This was followed by a divisive contest for the right to contest the seat at the November 2001 election in which state party president Bob Tucker was defeated by Michael Johnson, who seems to be creating more than his fair share of enemies as he climbs the greasy pole. Two names came forward as possible challengers – the withdrawal of the more prominent of the two, Brisbane City Councillor Margaret de Wit, was blamed by Graham Young at National Forum on threats to her own preselection for council. This leaves twice-defeated state election candidate Steven Huang opposing Johnson in the ballot to be held this weekend. Huang’s Taiwanese background could at least counter one of Johnson’s greatest strengths in securing the numbers, support from Brisbane’s Chinese community derived from his own half-Chinese background. Young does not fancy Huang’s chances, but such is the aroma surrounding Johnson that a strong conservative independent candidate could potentially make life interesting for him at the coming election, although such things are difficult to pull off in urban federal seats.

In the Sunshine Coast seat of Fisher, Liberal almost-veteran and Johnson factional colleague Peter Slipper comfortably won a three-way contest with 168 votes against barrister Glen Garrick (75 votes) and accountant Kerrie Cook (9 votes) (result courtesy of Peter Slipper’s office via Crikey’s newsletter). Graham Young claims these challenges to members of the "Sicilian" faction (so-called on account of power brokers Michael Caltabiano and Santo Santoro) have provoked a revenge attack on Peter Lindsay in Herbert through the agency of Townsville oncologist Peter Fon, the outcome of which will be decided on April 24. Young’s assessment has gained currency in light of the suspension of the entire Townsville branch of the Young Liberals by the Santoro/Caltabiano-dominated state executive (as reported on March 1 in the Courier-Mail) whose accusations of branch-stacking against Lindsay supporters have struck many Queensland Liberal Party observers as somewhat audacious.

Similarly, the demotion of Senators Judith Troeth and Tsebin Tchen on the Victorian Liberal Senate ticket has a lot more to do with rivalry than renewal, with the beneficiary being former Ballarat MHR Michael Ronaldson, whose retirement on health grounds had a lot to do with his seat being the only one lost by the Coalition at the 2001 election. He is evidently feeling better now, with his success in securing the top position on the Coalition list giving the Kroger-Costello forces revenge for Karen Synon’s demotion at the expense of Kennett-backed Tchen at the 1998 election. With second spot reserved for the National Party’s Julian McGauran, Troeth faces an uphill battle winning from third position while Tchen is gone for all money, the net result being a small but potentially significant increase in the Costello camp’s representation on the party room floor. Readers of a sensitive disposition may well have been pleased to hear talk that New South Wales Senator Bill Heffernan’s position was also under threat, but The Australian reported on March 2 (no link available) that Heffernan was likely to retain top position at the vote to be held next Saturday (March 20). However the right are gunning for a conservative clean sweep with their candidate Connie Fierravanti-Wells hoping to turf moderate incumbent John Tierney out of second place, with third reserved for the National Party.

Far be it from the Poll Bludger to suggest that a party with Wilson Tuckey and Bronwyn Bishop among its ranks might have hoped for a better harvest of dead wood than just Peter King and Tsebin Tchen (and perhaps also Peter Lindsay, Michael Johnson and John Tierney), but he would be far from the only observer now suspecting that the electorate could end up doing the job for them.

UPDATE (15/3/04): Crikey reports Michael Johnson defeated Steven Huang in Ryan by 328 votes to 68.

Awakenings

The Poll Bludger has stirred from his week-long post-election coma and is hard at work (honest) putting his Queensland election guide to bed now that something resembling final results are available. Once done each electorate entry will be appended with a wrap-up noting the outcome, swings and any last minute shenanigans the campaign updates may have missed. After that the Poll Bludger’s beady eye will turn to preselection fun and games now gathering steam both at the federal level and also in Western Australia, where a factious opposition may yet deliver Geoff Gallop a second term at the election due early next year.

Call of the board

At the close of last night’s count Labor were ahead in 64 seats, the Nationals in 14, Liberal in six, One Nation in one and independents in four. It is universally anticipated that postal votes and the remaining undeclared booth will see off Labor’s eight vote lead in Charters Towers. The National Party have also won Burdekin (4.7 per cent) and Burnett (2.9 per cent) from Labor and Lockyer (12.3 per cent) from One Nation. However, Keppel has been lost to the Labor Party (4.2 per cent).

The Liberal Party has won two seats on the Gold Coast, Currumbin (3.4 per cent) from Labor and Surfers Paradise (15.0 per cent) from an independent. Doubt still remains over Labor’s hold on the Brisbane seats of Clayfield and Indooroopilly, although their 549-vote (1.6 per cent) lead in the latter will presumably be enough. In Clayfield however just 233 votes (0.6 per cent) separate incumbent member and former Play School presenter Liddy Clark from Liberal challenger Sally Hannah. The Liberals may yet lose their Sunshine Coast seat of Caloundra, where they lead by 370 votes (0.9 per cent).

Labor then will emerge with between 62 and 64 seats, a respectable distance from the Poll Bludger’s final projection of 65. The Nationals have done one better than I expected in winning 15 seats while the Liberals have won between four and six (I tipped five). Independents Elisa Roberts (Gympie), Peter Wellington (Nicklin), Liz Cunningham (Gladstone) and Chris Foley (Maryborough) were re-elected but Lex Bell lost Surfers Paradise, while One Nation held Tablelands but lost Lockyer – all of which was as I had anticipated.

In terms of Labor’s majority I would appear not to have done quite as well as Peter Brent at Mumble or Charles Richardson at Crikey (not available online), who tipped Labor to win 63 and 64 seats respectively. The content of our judgement is another matter, as indicated by the fact that I got one seat closer to the mark by wrongly (so it would seem) deciding on Friday that Labor would not hold Clayfield after all. This was one of six seats I got wrong, the others being Burdekin, Burnett, Charters Towers, Currumbin and Toowoomba North. The latter was my worst call, with Labor 7.6 per cent ahead at the close of polls. My Burdekin judgement marked a grave under-estimation of the sugar industry effect (in this electorate at least), with the Nationals leading by 4.7 per cent. Of the remainder, Currumbin surprised everybody, while Clayfield and Charters Towers were close enough that I can forgive myself. Burnett could have been better judged, but the Nationals’ 2.9 per cent lead is almost within an acceptable margin for error for state election predictions (not federal though).

Peter Brent may be given latitude as he made his prediction early in the campaign and wasn’t taking it as seriously, offering no comment on the fate of One Nation or independents. He wrongly picked Noosa, Burleigh and Kawana as Coalition gains, missing Burdekin, Burnett and Currumbin, but correctly picked Charters Towers as a Nationals gain (unlike the Poll Bludger) and Labor’s win in Keppel.

Charles Richardson was cleverer than me in that he reached his conclusion by picking six seats as possible Labor losses and calculating they would lose half of them – Burdekin, Burnett, Charters Towers, Burleigh and Thuringowa to the Nationals, and Mount Coot-tha to the Greens. As far as it goes this was perfectly correct, but the seats Labor retained here were held by margins of 5.1, 8.3 and 11.2 per cent. He also tipped the Liberals to win the same three seats as last time, thereby missing Currumbin and their easy win in Surfers Paradise, and wrongly predicted a One Nation wipeout, which proved 16.9 per cent off the mark in Tablelands. This makes for three full errors and three half-errors, so while I might claim to be ahead on percentage, I have to concede it to Richardson on points.

To the Poll Bludger’s knowledge, Malcolm Mackerras made no effort to retract his prediction of January 14 that Labor would win by 15 seats, though he would surely have known many of his calls were untenable before yesterday.

I take it all back

Just kidding. Two hours out from the closure of polls I thought it worth noting that the Sunshine Coast Daily today carries "pre-poll booth exit polls" of 100 respondents each for five electorates on its turf, suggesting Labor-held Kawana and Liberal-held Caloundra will change hands assuming preferences do the job in the former (Labor’s Chris Cummins led Liberal Harry Burnett 43 per cent to 42). In Caloundra Labor supposedly leads 49-35. Other figures had Labor ahead in Noosa and an impressive 61 per cent supporting National Party MP Fiona Simpson in Maroochydore.