Phoney war dispatches: budget polling bonanza

Budget week has let loose a torrent of opinion poll results from which you can argue whatever you like, depending on which ones you choose. Roy Morgan and Newspoll both reported a positive response to the budget but bounced in opposite directions on the question of voting intention, while the Sunday Age reported its exclusive results under the headline "poll shock for PM as budget misfires". Bearing in mind the wise note of warning sounded in today’s editorial in The Australian – that "it is when people actually see the money in their paypackets and family payments, after July 1, that the budget’s real political impact will be registered" – let us now examine the entrails.

• Today’s Newspoll offered a very strange mix of findings, including solid support for the budget, pronounced scepticism about Labor’s ability to do better, rising popularity for John Howard and a widening of his lead over Mark Latham as preferred prime minister – but with Labor opening up a three point gap on voting intention after being tied with the Coalition last fortnight, and their two-party preferred lead widening from 52-48 to 54-46. The Australian all but apologised for the latter finding, arguing that "historically there seems to be a firewall between what voters initially make of a budget and their voting intention".

• As if to demonstrate the time-honoured adage that you can prove anything with statistics, a Sunday Age-Taverner poll was reported under very different headlines from the others despite results that were not inconsistent with them. Reporter Phillip Hudson spoke of grim tidings for the government with results showing "two-thirds of people believe there was no benefit in the budget for them and 62 per cent of those who will receive tax cuts would be prepared to give the money up for more spending on services". Experienced political operators on both sides of the fence no doubt had a good laugh over the latter finding. The former suggests that 33 per cent of respondents did think there was benefit for them in the budget, compared with 29 per cent from Newspoll and 19 per cent in The Advertiser (see below). On voting intention Labor was put at 44 per cent against 40 per cent for the Coalition, but the 911 respondents were all in New South Wales and Victoria which would tend to distort things in Labor’s favour. The poll was taken on Thursday and Friday evening, before Newspoll (Saturday and Sunday) and after those below (Wednesday evening).

• On Friday the Adelaide Advertiser published results of a poll conducted on budget night from an unreliably small sample of 500 voters. It showed moderate support for the budget (19 per cent said they would be better off, 11 per cent worse) and a big swing to the Coalition since their previous poll on April 14. The ALP was down four points to 37 per cent with the Coalition up three to 41 per cent – presumably these are South Australian voters only.

• On Thursday Roy Morgan issued results from a phone poll gauging immediate reactions to the Treasurer’s budget speech of the previous evening. Twenty-seven per cent of voters thought it good while 12 per cent thought it poor, the accompanying blurb noting that "six in 10 budgets receive more negative than positive responses". The question of voting intention was also raised and produced a remarkably pro-Government result compared with the company’s findings from its fortnightly face-to-face polls, with the Coalition on 52 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. No primary voting intention breakdown was provided.

Budget lockdown

Readers will hardly need the Poll Bludger to inform them that the spending bonanza in Tuesday night’s budget has had pretty much everyone convinced that the federal election will be sooner rather than later. Another item of conventional wisdom is firming by the day: that the poll is unlikely to be held after the US election as a defeat for President Bush would not be a good look for Australia’s own Man of Steel. Melbourne News Limited tabloid the Herald Sun today includes a helpful graphic outlining the most likely nominations, which run as follows:

August 7. The earliest possible date for a normal House of Representatives and half-Senate election, which cannot be called until a year prior to the expiry of the Senators’ terms in mid-2005 and cannot be held until at least 33 days after the issue of the writs. It has been mentioned elsewhere that the Prime Minister might not care to have the election coincide with the Bledisloe Cup.

August 14, 21 or 28. The Herald Sun notes that these days overlap with the Athens Olympics and argues "the expected feel-good Games atmosphere may suit a campaigning PM". Providing nothing goes wrong of course. Touch wood.

September 4. If the Poll Bludger were prime minister this would be his favourite option – close enough after the Olympics for photo ops with medallists, near enough to September 11 to focus the mind on security issues. September 11 itself is considered a bit much. Then come a series of dates with nothing in particular to recommend them, followed by school holidays.

October 23 or 30. The last pre-US election windows of opportunity.

Like I said, the budget has shortened the odds on the earlier options. For this reason the Poll Bludger will be frantically getting his comprehensive guide to the federal election in order in the coming months and will thus be forced to restrict his overt activity to the weekly Phoney War Dispatches. Since the fortnightly release of Newspoll is the be-all and end-all of everything, these will be moved from Sundays to Tuesdays.

Phoney war dispatches: episode three

Welcome to the Poll Bludger’s Mothers’ Day Edition of Phoney War Dispatches.

• Tuesday’s Newspoll had the Coalition and Labor even on 42 per cent, with the Coalition down 1 per cent. The head-scratching that greeted Newspoll’s two-party preferred calculation last time had evidently led them to do something differently, because the Coalition increased 1 per cent on this measure to trail 48 to 52 per cent. The rebound in Mark Latham’s approval rating from last fortnight was all but reversed, his rating having bounced from 66 to 52 to 59 to 53 per cent over the last four polls. Newspoll also released figures showing the number of respondents who felt it worth going to war in Iraq dropping to 40 per cent from 46 per cent in February, with the percentage disagreeing increasing from 45 to 50. Perhaps most significantly, 47 per cent supported the assertion the troops should be home by Christmas.

Roy Morgan might be doing something differently as well, as Friday’s poll was their most Newspoll-like result in recent memory. It had the Coalition gaining 1 per cent directly at Labor’s expense to reach 42 per cent with Labor on 44 per cent. It is not unusual for Roy Morgan to record Labor 2 per cent higher than Newspoll but usually the Coalition are a point or two lower as well. Labor’s two-party preferred rating of 53 per cent was their lowest since the poll conducted on December 6/7, the first week of Latham’s leadership.

• A long-simmering Queensland Liberal Party preselection feud over the marginal Queensland seat of Herbert ended on Tuesday with the withdrawal of Peter Fon, challenger to incumbent Peter Lindsay. As related in this earlier posting the challenge was seen as a counter-attack by the party’s Santoro-Caltabiano faction following a challenge by moderates to Peter Slipper in Fisher. Several months after declaring his intention to run and one night before the vote, Fon suddenly decided he did not wish to jeopardise the return of the Howard Government.

Phoney war dispatches: episode two

Despite an eventful week in federal politics, things were somewhat quieter on the electoral front.

• ACNielsen turned in a near replica of last week’s Newspoll with the release of its monthly figures on Wednesday. The poll had Labor and the Coalition each on 42 per cent with Labor’s two-party preferred rating on 53 per cent, which differs from Newspoll only in that the Coalition are 1 per cent lower on the primary vote. Prime Minister John Howard’s approval and disapproval ratings were both steady on 55 and 37 per cent, while the impact of Opposition Leader Mark Latham’s rough month was measured as a 3 per cent drop in approval to 54 per cent and a 5 per cent increase in disapproval to 33 per cent. Howard gained 2 per cent as preferred prime minister directly at Latham’s expense, and now leads 50 per cent to 41. The table as published in The Age is available at Mumble.

• Brian Deegan, Adelaide magistrate, father of Bali bombing victim Josh Deegan and vocal critic of the Federal Government, announced he would run as an independent against Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in his South Australian seat of Mayo. Deegan’s move was no doubt partly inspired by John Schumann’s surprise near-success as Australian Democrats candidate for the seat in 1998. However the latest redistribution has made the electorate more rural and presumably less subversise, with a poll published today in the Sunday Mail putting Downer on 48 per cent against 18 per cent for Deegan with no allocation of the 12 per cent undecided. In Bennelong Prime Minister John Howard faces a similar irritant from former Office of National Assessments analyst turned leftist crusader Andrew Wilkie.

• Reports emerged this week that proposals for Senate reform raised in a government discussion paper in October last year died unnoticed in their sleep last month. Brendan Nicholson of The Age reported that an announcement was mistakenly placed on the website of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet calling attention to a non-existent prime ministerial response to the consultative group from March 24 announcing that "the Government would not be pursuing constitutional change at this time". As Nicholson puts it, "it appears the announcement was planned for March 24, but when it was postponed someone forgot to tell those in charge of the website", although the government is maintaining the line that it has yet to decide if it will proceed. Given the near-impossibility of any new model gaining acceptance at a referendum, the move always looked like a gambit designed to scare minor party Senators into believing that a hostile attitude towards the government could put their futures in jeopardy.

Half-time report

Results from the Tasmanian upper house elections are in line with the expectations outlined below, although Steve Mav has done better than I predicted in finishing the night a close second in Apsley, presumably having projected his Liberal credentials sufficiently to win over party loyalists. However such has been the spread of support among the 10 candidates that he has achieved this with a mere 15.4 per cent of the primary vote (from a raw figure of 2,870 from 18,599). While the Poll Bludger knows nothing of the various candidates’ preference ticket arrangements he would be very surprised if many of them treated Mav more kindly than the other two front-runners, Tania Rattray-Wagner and Brendon Thompson. Rattray-Wagner pulled ahead of Mav late in the evening’s counting to finish with 3,078 votes (16.6 per cent) with Thompson also gaining on Mav to land third with 2,839 (15.3 per cent). Whoever wins will do so with less than 20 per cent of the primary vote, and anyone who can think of a comparable outcome in Australian electoral history is invited to call it to the Poll Bludger’s attention. Mandy Burbury has done well to finish fourth with 11.8 per cent and will not be conceding defeat just yet. It should be noted here that the description of Max Hall below as "little known" was somewhat unfair since he is a former Dorset councillor remembered fondly enough to have attracted 10.8 per cent of the vote and is perhaps still an outside chance. Glamorgan-Spring Bay Mayor Cheryl Arnol leads the field of also-rans with a disappointing 9.6 per cent.

Elwick has gone perfectly according to script, Terry Martin winning with 59.7 per cent of the primary vote. Although about 6 per cent shy of Labor’s performance in these booths in the 2002 Assembly election, the result would be at the upper end of the party’s expectations. It was a disappointing result for the Greens, whose candidate Helen Burnet failed to build on their performance here from 2002 in polling 14.8 per cent. This was some distance behind independent Steven King, who benefited from being the only option available to conservative voters to score 20.2 per cent. Although finishing last by a long distance Kamala Emanuel may have broken some sort of record for her Socialist Workers Party in polling 5.2 per cent.

UPDATE (5/5/04): Tania Rattray-Wagner was eventually elected ahead of Brendon Thompson with 55.5 per cent of the two-candidate preferred vote. Thompson beat Mav into second position by 53 votes. Full results are available at the Tasmanian Electoral Commission.

UPDATE (3/5/04): At the close of counting on Sunday evening Rattray-Wagner had extended her lead to 1584 votes (8.6 per cent) following the elimination of Lesley Nicklason, Cheryl Arnol, Max Hall and Mandy Burbury. Contrary to the Poll Bludger’s expectations Brendon Thompson did no better than Steve Mav on preferences and nearly relinquished third place to Burbury. Thompson and Mav are in a near dead-heat for second place, Thompson leading 5486 (30.5 per cent) to 5451 (30.3 per cent), subject to rechecking and the counting of postal votes. Whoever out of the two is eliminated, 65 per cent of the preferences then distributed would need to go against Rattray-Wagner for her to be defeated.

UPDATE (2/5/04): A primary vote re-check found Thompson attaining a three-vote lead over Mav to move into third place. Mav has again defied the Poll Bludger’s expectations to recover second place through preferences following the elimination of the three weakest performing candidates, but it’s early days yet. Rattray-Wagner’s narrow lead remains little changed, now at 236 votes. The pattern could be broken with the imminent distribution of 1,819 votes for Greens candidate Lesley Nicklason.

Belated Apsley and Elwick preview

The Poll Bludger apologises for his failure to come good on his promised preview of today’s Tasmanian Legislative Council elections in a more timely manner, as the good citizens of Apsley and Elwick now have only a few hours to absorb the invaluable insights contained herein before exercising their vote. Better late than never though. Those of you who are unacquainted with the peculiarities of the chamber and the manner of its election would do well to check this earlier posting before proceeding.

The first thing to be noted is that the campaign has attracted very little publicity, particularly from Hobart’s monopoly newspaper The Mercury, and for this reason the Poll Bludger expects a low turnout in the city seat of Elwick. This is good news for Terry Martin, Mayor of Glenorchy and Labor candidate (technically an independent, but there is no secret that this is a formality to allow him to remain mayor until council elections later this year) in a seat the party would only lose if an independent were to gain some oxygen, which Martin’s three opponents have manifestly failed to do. Helen Burnet is the Greens’ candidate and although she has attracted little media coverage, her vote will be worth keeping an eye on to gauge the response of an inner city Labor seat to the state’s pro-logging new Premier. Independent Steven King made the papers by being one of 10 hardy folk to show up last week in support of a rally against legalised brothels organised by Martin’s council colleague, Alderman Nigel Jones. And Kamala Emanuel represents the Socialist Workers Party. Booths in this area gave Labor about two-thirds of the vote at the 2002 Assembly election compared with about 18 per cent for the Liberals and 14 per cent for the Greens, with others including the SWP in statistically-insignificant territory. Compelled by law to vote in an election they probably only found out about at the last minute, voters can be expected to act upon force of habit and fall in behind the well-known Labor-endorsed local mayor.

The real action for this seat came with the Labor preselection contest and its relation to the apparently Byzantine goings-on at Glenorchy Council. Martin was opposed by his Deputy Mayor, Stuart Slade, a party colleague but factional opponent on council. Others in Slade’s council grouping include aforementioned morals crusader Nigel Jones and Steve Mav, who is also a candidate for Sunday’s elections – but for far-away Aspley rather than local Elwick. Slade’s alignment with Mav no doubt raised eyebrows in the party given his links to the Liberals, which include a candidacy at the 2002 Assembly election. Slade was put under pressure to withdraw by his own right faction, but appeared reluctant to do so due to personal rivalries with Martin, whose promise to stay on as Glenorchy Mayor would deprive him of a stint in the chair. Without factional backing Slade was easily defeated by Martin, who while unaligned came with the endorsement of his good friend, former Premier Jim Bacon.

The Poll Bludger expects the formality of Martin’s election to be confirmed early this evening. Apsley is quite another matter. The district covers a quite extensive area of rural north-eastern Tasmania where campaigns are entirely about parish pump issues and local personalities. Ten of these have stepped forward to contest the seat upon the retirement of Colin Rattray, with only Greens candidate Lesley Nicklason carrying the endorsement of a party. There are three candidates who appear to be serious contenders and the even competition means the winner will be elected off a low primary vote after a complicated distribution of preferences. At the risk of exposing himself to an Albert Langer-style persecution by the authorities, the Poll Bludger believes it worth pointing out that voters in these elections are only required to preference three candidates, after which they may exhaust, but does not imagine this to be widely known by the voters and expects a full complement of completely distributed ballots to await the scrutiny of officials. Since the Electoral Office states that counting of preferences will not begin until tomorrow those with an interest in the outcome are advised not to hold their breath.

The departing Rattray is a farmer who has represented the region for 12 years and local voters will presumably be looking for someone similar but younger. Emphasising their rural backgrounds, front-runners Brendon Thompson and Tania Rattray-Wagner are both presenting themselves as Rattray’s natural heirs. Being his daughter, Rattray-Wagner has an intrinsically stronger case. She also has a second job as Deputy Mayor of Dorset. Thompson was the president of the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association, standing down from that position in order to run. The other candidate to watch is Cheryl Arnol, mayor of Glamorgan-Spring Bay Council. Rounding out the field are Mandy Burbury, a local tourist operator with a high but probably not high enough community profile; Bob Campbell and Peter Paulsen, respectively organisers of the Pollie Push a Barrel Race and Binnalong Bay Great Abalone Bake-Off; and little-known locals Max Hall and Stephen Hanslow. So baffled is the Poll Bludger by Mav’s candidacy that he can only think that he’s missing something (perhaps he ticked a wrong box on the nomination form?).

Whoever wins, the government will most likely find them less easy to do business with than Rattray – not for any grand ideological reasons, but simply because independent members arrive in parliament with a natural desire to exercise the muscle they have acquired after so much effort and expense. Thus will the government emerge from Council elections for the third year running facing a chamber just that little more irritating than before they went in. The Poll Bludger takes the unfashionable view that voters know perfectly well what they’re doing when they present an entrenched government with such an outcome, and suggests that abolitionists would do well to bear this in mind.