Essential Research: 54-46 to Coalition

Essential Research’s rolling fortnightly average continues to swing between 54-46 and 55-45, this week’s move of the pendulum being in Labor’s favour. Labor is up a point on the primary vote to 35 per cent, with the Coalition down one to 47 per cent and the Greens down one to 9 per cent. Also featured are questions on the outlook for 2012 for the economy, the parties (good for Liberal, very poor for Labor and the Greens), political leaders (poor for Tony Abbott, very poor for Julia Gillard, about neutral for Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull) and respondents personally. Most interestingly, only 26 per cent expect Julia Gillard will still lead the ALP in 12 months’ time against 55 per cent who think she won’t. The respective figures for Tony Abbott are 41 per cent and 34 per cent. Thirty-two per cent expect a federal election in the coming year, against 42 per cent who don’t.

Also:

• Newspoll reports that supplementary questions in its December 2-4 poll had 14 per cent expecting their financial position to improve over the next year (up two from last year), 57 per cent expected it to stay the same (up six) and 28 per cent thought it would get worse (down seven). Coalition voters were solidly more pessimistic than Labor supporters.

• A Liberal Party preselection vote on Saturday for Craig Thomson’s central coast NSW seat of Dobell was won by Gary Whitaker, former Hornsby Shire councillor and managing director of a local educational services company. The Sydney Morning Herald’s Diary reports this as a defeat for Chris Hartcher, state government minister, Terrigal MP and local powerbroker, as his preferred candidate had been WorkCover public servant Karen McNamara. Also reportedly in the field was Matthew Lusted, managing director of a Central Coast construction company.

Michelle Grattan of The Age reports Russell Broadbent, the Liberal member for the western Gippsland seat of McMillan, is likely to pay for his ideological moderation with a preselection challenge. However, Broadbent is thought likely to prevail, as the conservative forces being marshalled against him (“local Catholic members” apparently featuring prominently) will largely be ineligible to participate in the preselection because they have not been party members for two years. Any preselection vote is likely to take place in February and involve 300 local branch members.

• Brett Worthington of the Bendigo Advertiser reports Greg Westbrook, director of legal firm Petersen Westbrook Cameron, has nominated for Labor preselection in Bendigo, to be vacated at the next election by the retirement of Steve Gibbons. Lisa Chesters, a Kyneton-based official with United Voice (formerly the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union), is also rated a possible starter.

• There is mounting talk that Lara Giddings’ tenure as Tasmanian Premier is in jeopardy just a year after she replaced David Bartlett. Matt Smith of The Mercury has reported that David O’Byrne, who entered parliament at the March 2010 election, fancies himself as the apple isle’s answer to Kristina Keneally, and has secured backing from party room colleagues Michelle O’Byrne (his sister), Scott Bacon, Graeme Sturges, Brian Wightman, Craig Farrell and Brenton Best. This leaves only Michael Polley and Doug Parkinson in Giddings’ corner, while Bryan Green and Rebecca White remain on the fence. Bruce Montgomery, a former state political reporter for The Australian, writes in Crikey that public sector unions have been angered by Giddings’ pursuit of job cuts to balance the budget, and are hopeful of a more sympathetic hearing from O’Byrne, a former state secretary of the LHMWU. Kevin Harkins of Unions Tasmania, Chris Brown of the Health and Community Services Union and Tom Lynch of the Community and Public Sector Union are identified as critics of Giddings by The Mercury. However, O’Byrne has more recently denied any plans for a challenge.

• With former SA Treasurer Kevin Foley officially resigning from parliament, a by-election in his seat of Port Adelaide has been set for February 11. There is an expectation that Mike Rann’s resignation will follow shortly so that a by-election can be held for his seat of Ramsay on the same day.

Frome by-election live

ALP NAT LIB GRN ONP BROCK COUNT
PRIMARY 5041 1267 7576 734 134 4557 19309
% 26.1% 6.6% 39.2% 3.8% 0.7% 23.6% 100.0%
Swing -16.4% -7.6% 0.7%
PORT PIRIE 2157 181 1344 129 29 2480 6320
% 34.1% 2.9% 21.3% 2.0% 0.5% 39.2% 100.0%
Swing -23.5% -11.7% -0.8%
REMAINDER 1368 735 4292 478 70 757 7700
% 17.8% 9.5% 55.7% 6.2% 0.9% 9.8% 100.0%
Swing -8.6% -6.2% 1.9%
DECLARATION 1516 351 1940 127 35 1320 5289
% 29.2% 6.5% 35.7% 2.3% 0.7% 25.5% 100.0%
Swing -9.2% -13.9% -1.9%
3CP 5532 8215 5562 19309
28.6% 42.5% 28.8%
2CP (FINAL) 9322 9987 19309
48.3% 51.7%

Thursday, January 28

Malcolm Mackerras muses on this and other recent by-elections in the Canberra Times.

Wednesday, January 27

Electoral commissioner Kay Mousley has officially rejected the Liberals’ request for a recount, on the basis that specific concerns about the counting of votes had not been identified. The mere closeness of the result was deemed insufficient grounds for a recount. Below is the piece I wrote for yesterday’s edition of Crikey, previously available to subscribers only. Martin Hamilton-Smith’s office has been in touch to dispute the claim that the “super Saturday” concept referred to below was seriously considered, saying it came down to “one MP” who had been “canvassing the notion to media”.

For psephologists and related species of political tragic, by-elections can’t happen often enough. But for normal people, forced mid-term visits to the polling booth rank somewhere around brain surgery on lists of favourite things. No political operative should ever need reminding of this, but it appears the South Australian Liberal Party did – and now has been, in terms it won’t forget in a hurry.

Saturday’s preference count for the Frome by-election, held a week earlier upon the retirement of former Premier Rob Kerin, gave the Liberal Party the rudest of shocks three days after it had issued a press release claiming victory. Both Liberal and Labor scrutineers were convinced that Liberal candidate Terry Boylan had survived an early scare, thanks to Nationals voters who ignored the party’s recommendation to direct second preferences to independent candidate Geoff Brock. It was believed this would prevent Brock from getting ahead of Labor’s John Rohde, resulting in his exclusion at the second last count. That being so, the State Electoral Office’s indicative two-party count pointed to an unconvincing final Liberal margin over Labor of 1.7 per cent.

However, it seems scrutineers obsessing over the Nationals had neglected to consider the actions of Greens voters, who in the absence of guidance from the party’s how-to-vote card were thought to have followed their normal practice of putting Labor second. In fact, 42 per cent of Greens preferences flowed to Brock against 37 per cent to Labor – enough for Brock to emerge a bare 30 votes ahead of Rohde, before storming home on Labor preferences to defeat Boylan 9987 votes to 9322.

Before the evening was through, a Liberal Party that could previously be heard expressing nothing but warm goodwill about their good mate Kero suddenly found voice to complain about the “obscure” reasons given for his retirement, which had “fuelled resentment” among voters. However, this was clearly wisdom after the event.

Last June, The Advertiser’s Greg Kelton reported that “senior Liberals” were “hatching a plan which would force the Rann Government to face a ‘super Saturday’ of by-elections on the growing political row over changes to country health services”. This would involve the simultaneous retirement of Kerin (who was quoted saying the idea had been “mentioned a few times”) along with fellow Liberal veterans Graham Gunn and Liz Penfold, initiating by-elections in the country and outback seats of Frome, Stuart and Flinders. As bad as Frome has been for the Liberals, it appears that only the reluctance of Gunn and Penfold to bring forward their retirements has spared them a self-inflicted triple-barrelled disaster.

For all that, Labor shouldn’t get too cocky (and reports from The Advertiser that “gleeful Labor MPs have run off copies of Mr Hamilton-Smith’s ‘Liberal victory’ press release to hold up when State Parliament resumes next month to goad the Liberals” do not bode well in this regard). The two-party swing Labor would have picked up if Brock had run third had less to do with voters’ conscious preferences than with their adherence to how-to-vote cards, which in Brock’s case had Labor third and Liberal fourth. The 16.4 per cent of voters who deserted Labor might very easily find less benign ways to register their evident displeasure with the government when the next election is held in March 2010.

Labor MPs would do well to acquaint themselves with a forgotten episode of Western Australia’s recent political history known as the Peel by-election, which in February 2007 gave Labor a morale-boosting 1.0 per cent two-party swing from a strong performance on the primary vote – for all the good that did Alan Carpenter 18 months later.

Tuesday, January 27

Crikey subscribers can read my by-election post-mortem here.

Sunday, January 25

Electoral commissioner Kaye Mousley refuses a recount. Mousley argues that “the final difference between the two candidates is some 600 votes with the distribution of preferences”, although the point surely is that Brock survived the second last exclusion by 30. That would leave the Court of Disputed Returns as their only recourse. However, the Electoral Act empowers the court only to anoint a different winner or order a new election, and I’m not aware of any basis on which such an order could be made.

Saturday, January 24

7.15pm. The last trickle of 265 postal votes had little bearing on the result: 147 (55.5 per cent) went to the Liberals, 47 (17.7 per cent) to Labor, 37 (14.0 per cent) to Brock, 23 (8.7 per cent) to the Nationals, 10 (3.8 per cent) to the Greens and 1 (0.4 per cent) to One Nation. In other words, they added 10 votes to the hurdle faced by Brock to overtake Labor. Meanwhile, the Poll Bludger has maintained its dismal record in predicting by-election results with this clanger from January 9: “Despite a preference swap between independent Port Pirie mayor Geoff Brock and Nationals candidate Neville Watson, there seems little reason not to think Terry Boylan will easily retain the seat for the Liberals.” That said, there’s plenty of humble pie to go round.

6.55pm. The Advertiser now has a full report, which tells us “Liberal officials say they will be ‘seeking clarity’ on the count from the State Electoral Office”. Also:

Liberal MP for Morphett Duncan McFetridge partly blamed Mr Kerin for the loss, saying he had given obscure reasons for leaving politics which fuelled resentment by voters towards the by-election.

True enough, but I hadn’t heard anyone in the Liberal Party complain before. Indeed, it seems they were happy to bring on the by-election because they were expecting Labor to suffer a bloody nose over the country health plan. In June we were hearing this idiotic talk emanating from the Liberal camp (courtesy of Greg Kelton of The Advertiser):

SENIOR Liberals are hatching a plan which would force the Rann Government to face a “super Saturday” of by-elections on the growing political row over changes to country health services … The move would involve three Liberal MPs in rural seats – who are all due to retire at the next election – stepping down to force by-elections. The MPs, Rob Kerin in Frome, Liz Penfold (Flinders) and Graham Gunn (Stuart), have all been outspoken in their criticism of the Government’s planned changes to rural health services … Mr Kerin told The Advertiser the by-election idea had been “mentioned a few times’” but he had not spoken to anyone about stepping down in Frome which he holds with a 4.2 per cent margin. He said he would not rule out the idea … (Gunn) ruled out stepping down to force a by-election in his seat of Stuart which, with a 0.4 per cent margin, is the most marginal Liberal seat in the state. Ms Penfold, whose vast Eyre Peninsula seat of Flinders is the safest Liberal seat in the state, said normally she would not support any moves for a by-election. “But this is such an important issue I will reserve my judgment,” she said.

6.45pm. The surprise packet was the flow of Greens preferences to Brock – 41.7 per cent against 36.6 per cent for Labor and 13.4 per cent for the Liberals. The estimates I was using in my preference calculation were 30 per cent, 50 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. The reason Brock was being written off was the high number of Nationals voters who were defying the HTV card and preferencing Boylan. The Nationals preference distribution I eventually arrived at based on Antony’s reports of what scrutineers were saying was pretty much accurate: 48.0 per cent to Brock (I had 45 per cent), 37.8 per cent to Boylan (I had 40 per cent, which admittedly was the low end of what Antony was expecting) and 14.1 per cent to Rohde (I had 15 per cent). No doubt the page on the Liberal website on Wednesday claiming victory will be removed shortly, so I’ve preserved it for posterity here. That said, we may yet get a recount.

6.20pm. Wasn’t looking hard enough – SEO preference distribution here. The amazement lies in the second last exclusion: Boylan 8215, Brock 5562, Rohde 5532. With Rohde excluded, preferences give Brock his 1.7 per cent victory.

6pm. BROCK SHOCK! Nothing yet on the SEO or Antony Green’s site, but The Advertiser reports that the preference distribution has defied expectations by giving victory to Geoff Brock – according to Brenton in comments by 9987 votes (51.7 per cent) to Terry Boylan’s 9322 (48.3 per cent). Evidently those Nationals preferences were kinder to Brock than scrutineers believed.

Wednesday, January 21

11pm. Antony Green in comments: “The Labor scrutineers have been watching National preferences all week to work out where they are going. They’re flowing to the Liberals, which is why everyone’s given up on Brock closing the gap. Once the Liberals get half of the National preferences, there aren’t enough votes left to get Brock ahead of Labor.”

4pm. Based on Antony’s feedback, I have changed the minor party preference estimates as follows. Nats: Brock 45, Liberal 40, Labor 15. Greens: Labor 50, Brock 30, Liberal 20. One Nation: Liberal 50, Brock 30, Labor 20. That leaves Brock in third place, 1.2 per cent behind Labor.

3pm. With the addition of 3288 pre-poll votes, only a handful of postal votes remain to complete the primary vote count. These have made things interesting: coming mostly from Port Pirie, where the main pre-poll booth was located, they have split 1094 (33.9 per cent) to Brock, 1033 (32.0 per cent) to Labor, 868 (26.9 per cent) to Liberal, 179 (5.3 per cent) to the Nationals), 50 (1.5 per cent) to the Greens and 14 (0.4 per cent) to One Nation. Brock’s primary vote deficit against Labor has narrowed from 3.3 per cent to 2.5 per cent and, if my preference estimate is correct, he will just barely edge ahead of Labor on preferences and ultimately win the seat. BUT – please read this before commenting – these estimates are completely unscientific (see my 8.16pm entry from Saturday) and are evidently different from the calculations of Antony Green, who has spoken to scrutineers. He says: “Brock could yet pull ahead narrowly and win on Labor preferences, but it would require stronger flows of preferences to him from the National and Greens candidates than I think can be delivered. Not impossible but I would say it is unlikely.”

Tuesday, January 20

12.30pm. Antony Green has added 1795 postal votes which aren’t yet appearing on the SEO site, and they are very encouraging for the Liberals. Only 189 (10.5%) are for Brock, whose total vote has fallen from 23.1 per cent to 21.7 per cent, increasing his deficit against Labor from 2.0 per cent to 3.3 per cent. However, Antony notes that the 3000 pre-poll votes remaining to be counted mostly come from Port Pirie, which might at least staunch the flow. Terry Boylan has received 925 votes (51.5 per cent), increasing his vote from 40.2 per cent to 41.5 per cent and perhaps increasing his slim hope of winning even if Brock overtakes Labor. My table now includes a section for provisional votes, with a “votes counted” figure based on an educated guess that the final total will be 4500. Note that the preference projection now has Brock finishing in third place.

Monday, January 19

My general overview of the situation can be read at Crikey. Dovif in comments: “As for the scrutineers, the ALP will be trying to kick out as many ALP 1s as possible, while the Libs will be trying to increase the ALP vote. That would be fun to watch.”

Sunday, January 18

The Advertiser reports the Liberals are “confident” of retaining the seat, while conceding a “slight possibility” of defeat. The report says “almost 5000” postal and early votes were cast by Friday.

Saturday, January 17

9.00pm. I have evidently not been giving enough weight to the possibility that Brock will fail to get ahead of Labor. He trails by 2 per cent on the primary vote, which he would be able to close on preferences – but as Antony Green points out, independents traditionally do poorly on pre-poll and postal votes and the primary vote gap can be expected to widen. Antony deems it unlikely that the Liberals can win if Brock stays ahead.

8.16pm. That’s us done for the evening, with the result still up in the air. My preference estimate has Brock leading 7208 to 6837. I have distributed the minor players as follows: Nats: Brock 60, Liberal 30, Labor 10. Greens: Labor 55, Brock 35, Liberal 10. One Nation: Liberal 55, Brock 35, Labor 10. I have then taken the Labor vote, including those votes Labor received as preferences from the aforementioned, and given 80 per cent to Brock and 20 per cent to the Liberals. It was reported on Wednesday there had been 1700 early votes and 2200 postal applications, which can be expected to favour the Liberals quite solidly. Stay tuned over the next week or two.

8.11pm. Clare has indeed given Liberal candidate Terry Boylan the result he needed – 59.0 per cent (though down 7.9 per cent from 2006) against only 6.2 per cent for Brock.

7.49pm. Port Broughton and Tarlee now added – relatively good results for the Liberals, bringing my margin estimate below 5 per cent. If Clare can cut that further, the result will be truly up in the air.

7.47pm. Port Broughton has kind of reported, but the SEO is having more of those data entry issues (Brock on zero).

7.44pm. Just taking my first look at Antony Green’s site – his assessment is about the same as mine.

7.42pm. Still to come: Clare (2432 votes in 2006), Port Broughton (good Liberal booth, 849 votes in 2006) and Tarlee (259 votes). The Liberals will need very good results here, a good show on the many outstanding declaration votes and better preferences than I’m crediting them with.

7.40pm. Port Pirie booth of Solomontown gives Brock a slightly below par 35.4 per cent. The Liberals will be hoping for a big result in the very large country booth of Clare.

7.35pm. Three rural booths plus Port Pirie West now in – another plus 40 per cent result for Brock in the latter. My preference calculation now has him opening up his lead, so my summation from three entries ago may have been askew.

7.33pm. These are my preference estimates – would be interested if anyone disagrees. Nats: Brock 55, Liberal 35, Labor 10. Greens: Labor 55, Brock 35, Liberal 10. One Nation: Liberal 55, Brock 35, Labor 10. Labor: Brock 80, Liberal 20.

7.31pm. Unfortunately, the SEO is doing an irrelevant Liberal-versus-Labor preference count. Brock will clearly finish ahead of Labor.

7.30pm. Here’s roughly how I see it. Frome is evenly divided between Port Pirie and the rural remainder – the former is breaking 66-34 to Brock over the Liberals, and the latter’s doing the opposite. That suggests it should be very close, but this is based on my very rough preference guesses which if anything probably flatter for the Liberals. The locally knowledgeable Michael Gorey is calling it for Brock in comments.

7.28pm. Crystal Brook (rural) and Port Pirie South both in, another 40 per cent result for Brock in the latter.

7.21pm. Risdon Park South replicates Risdon Park East, with Brock’s primary vote around 40 per cent – my slapdash preference calculation now has him in front.

7.19pm. Three more booths in including a very exciting result for Brock in the Port Pirie booth of Risdon Park East – assuming it’s not a glitch, because the SEO has no percentage figures next to the raw results.

7.12pm. 2CP error corrected.

7.10pm. Five more booths in, including the first from Port Pirie – which Geoff Brock narrowly won ahead of Labor. That shuts out any notion of Brock failing to pass the Nationals, and could yet make things very interesting as more Port Pirie booths come in. Apologies for the 2CP error in the table – will get to work on it.

6.55pm. I’ve now removed Brinkworth’s alleged 14 Labor votes from my count.

6.53pm. Some explanations about the table. The “3CP” result assumes the last three standing will be Labor, Liberal and Brock, although Brock is well behind the Nationals on the basis of small rural booths. The “count” figure has been devised so it will add up to 100 per cent when all votes are in, whereas other media normally just show you the number of votes counted divided by number of enrolled voters.

6.50pm. Two more small rural booths, Brinkworth and Manoora, now in – although something’s obviously gone awry with Brinkworth, which has 14 votes for Labor and nothing in any other column, including the total.

6.39pm. As Judith Barnes notes in comments, the absentee vote could be over 20 per cent.

6.37pm. Two country booths reporting, Georgetown and Lochiel – excuse the mess in the Port Pirie entries in the table, it will correct when I have figures in. Only a small amount counted, but Geoff Brock might have hoped for more, remembering of course that Port Pirie is his stronghold. In noting the drop in the Liberal vote, it needs to be remembered there was no Nationals candidate last time.

6.15pm. Please excuse the messiness in the table above – I’m still sorting it out. The numbers there are test results rather than real figures.

6.00pm. Polls close. Official results here. First figures should start to come in around 6.30pm, by which time I should have my act together with my results table.

Frome by-election (South Australia): January 17

This post will be progressively updated with news on the South Australian state by-election in Frome, to be held on January 17.

January 16

One day to go: this site will be providing live coverage from shortly after the close of polls at 6pm local time tomorrow. Antony Green lays out the officially registered how-to-vote cards, which have been lodged by all candidates bar the Greens. The Flinders News reports that “No Pokies Senator Nick Xenophon and Member of the House of Assembly Kris Hanna are rallying behind (Geoff) Brock to help him become the next local parliamentarian”. Xenophon’s support for Hanna was instrumental in his surprise success in retaining his seat of Mitchell after quitting first Labor and then the Greens during the previous term.

January 14

The Australian’s Jamie Walker breathlessly reports that Labor’s direction of preferences to Geoff Brock has “thrown the contest wide open”, as if the alternative – preferences to the Liberals – had been in any way in prospect. The Liberals are “taking this remote possibility seriously”, “spending heavily on advertising and working the electorate to get local policeman Terry Boylan over the line”. We are also told that “the ALP can’t be discounted, either”, though I’ll stick my neck out and say that they can be. The Independent Weekly reports the Greens are not directing preferences. The ABC reports a record 1700 early votes have been received along with 2200 postal vote applications, which the State Electoral Office puts down to the number of people away on holidays. Antony Green has a new post on Frome, mostly focused on the historical record of governments winning seats from oppositions at by-elections.

January 12

Former Port Pirie resident Michael Gorey in comments notes that the Nationals are not even putting the Liberals ahead of Labor on preferences: they are issuing a split ticket between the two for third preference behind Geoff Brock. Gorey says we should not rule out the prospect of a Nationals-fuelled Brock overtaking Labor and perhaps achieving an upset with their preferences.

January 2

Mike Rann’s tip: “My expectation is that it’s a safe Liberal seat and will continue to be a safe Liberal seat”.

December 29

Jamie Walker of The Australian reports Geoff Brock and Neville Watson have arranged to swap preferences.

December 24

Russell Emmerson of the Adelaide Advertiser reports that radio ads featuring Mike Rann explaining cuts of 1600 jobs in the government’s recent mini-budget are “under scrutiny” to determine whether they are “electoral material”, and thus in breach of regulations. One very much doubts that the regulations would encompass public information advertising of this kind – what’s more, the ads were broadcast only in the metropolitan area, notwithstanding the opposition’s line that “the footprint for most of these radio stations extends well into the Frome electorate”.

December 18

Nominations have closed, and there are no further candidates to those already noted. The ballot paper order is John Rohde (Country Labor); Neville Wilson (Nationals); Terry Boylan (Liberal); Joy O’Brien (Greens); Peter Fitzpatrick (One Nation); Geoff Brock (Independent Your Voice). Antony Green has gone to town on the by-election here. Along with many other facts and figures, he notes something that had previously escaped my notice: that this is the first state by-election in South Australia since 1994. He also observes that Frome was expressly created to serve as a marginal electorate for purposes of the state’s counter-productive arithmetic test of electoral fairness, which he gets stuck into here.

December 17

The Northern Argus reports Hallett resident Joy O’Brien and Dublin resident Peter Fitzpatrick will respectively run for the Greens and One Nation. Clare and Gilbert Valleys Mayor Allan Aughey, who has “previously been a Labor Party candidate” (not sure when), has denied rumours he will run as an independent.

December 10

The ABC reports that the mayor and deputy mayor of Port Pirie, Geoff Brock and Neville Wilson, will contest the by-election – the former as an independent, the latter as Nationals candidate. Nominations close on Thursday, December 18.

November 28

The State Electoral Office has a Frome by-election page up. Its map and profile of the electorate can be viewed here.

November 25

Channel Nine News reports nominations will close on December 18.

November 15

Conservative firebrand Christopher Pearson weighs in in his regular column for The Weekend Australian:

The rural electorate of Frome has an industrial end, the city of Port Pirie, where Nyrstar’s mainland lead and zinc-smelting operation is based. Either directly or by way of contractors, the smelter accounts for about 800 jobs and another 600 flow-on jobs. Without them, the city would have no economic reason to exist. Its present unemployment rate is 6.2 per cent. If the plant were to close, it’s estimated the rate would nearly double. On Wednesday, Nyrstar announced it was considering shutting down Pirie’s smelter and its zinc operation in Hobart. Under the eligibility formula in the Rudd Government’s green paper on emissions, Nyrstar is not eligible for assistance as an emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industry. The prospect of a $40 per tonne carbon price, envisaged in Treasury modelling, would drive smelting operations offshore …

On Tuesday there was some doubt over whether Labor would field a candidate at the by-election, despite Kerin’s margin being a low 3.4 per cent. South Australia’s new Country Health Plan has been very poorly received and the Government had resigned itself to a rebuff in a pre-Christmas poll. By Thursday evening, SA Labor had decided to deprive the Liberals of an easy win by postponing the vote until January 17 and running a campaign on the theme of Premier Mike Rann standing up to Canberra and fighting for local jobs. SA Opposition Leader Martin Hamilton-Smith had been expecting a December 13 poll. At first he complained about the delay, which will keep the under-resourced Liberals on a war footing throughout the festive season. However, he seems to have warmed to the task in the wake of reports that the launch of Climate Change Minister Penny Wong’s white paper had suddenly been delayed. Federally, the Coalition welcomes the campaign as a mini-referendum on the design and timing of the Rudd Government’s emissions trading scheme.

November 13

House of Assembly Speaker Jack Snelling has set January 17 as the date for the by-election. This has displeased the Liberals, who wished for it to be held on December 13. The accompanying ABC report confirms that John Rohde will contest the seat for Labor.

November 12

Thanks to Max in comments for alerting us to the following tidbit from The Advertiser: ”(Premier Mike Rann) said Labor was likely to contest the by-election. Labor’s candidate is likely to be John Rohde who ran for the seat at the last election.”.

November 11

Former SA Liberal Premier Rob Kerin has announced his retirement, effective immediately. This will initiate a by-election in his seat of Frome, where his margin fell from 11.5 per cent to 3.4 per cent at the March 2006 election. Kerin had already made it known he would note contest the election, and Port Pirie policeman Terry Boylan was preselected to succeed him in May. Labor also has an election candidate in place – postal worker John Rohde, who also contested in 2002 and 2006 – but the struggling Rann government probably won’t be game to take on a mid-term by-election in a normally safe Liberal seat. Unless a strong independent candidate emerges, Boylan is likely to go untroubled. My election guide entry described the electorate thus:

Frome was created when a redistribution before the 1993 election removed Port Pirie from Stuart, which it had previously dominated along with Port Augusta. Port Pirie is an industrial town whose principal attraction is Pasminco’s lead and zinc smelter, and it provided Labor with a safe seat in the days when it formed an electorate in its own right (which ended when rural vote weighting was abolished in 1970). There has since been a decline in both Port Pirie’s relative population and Labor’s share of the vote. It is now included in Frome as part of a 50 kilometre stretch of the eastern Spencer Gulf coastline, from which the electorate stretches south-eastwards through the Clare Valley wine country to Tarlee, about 50 kilometres north of Adelaide. More than half the electorate’s voters are in small country towns such as Gladstone, Crystal Brook and Clare, which have kept the seat in Liberal hands since Rob Kerin became its inaugural member in 1993.

UPDATE: I note Greg Kelton of The Advertiser reported the following on July 23:

SENIOR Liberals are hatching a plan which would force the Rann Government to face a “super Saturday” of by-elections on the growing political row over changes to country health services … The move would involve three Liberal MPs in rural seats – who are all due to retire at the next election – stepping down to force by-elections. The MPs, Rob Kerin in Frome, Liz Penfold (Flinders) and Graham Gunn (Stuart), have all been outspoken in their criticism of the Government’s planned changes to rural health services … Mr Kerin told The Advertiser the by-election idea had been “mentioned a few times’” but he had not spoken to anyone about stepping down in Frome which he holds with a 4.2 per cent margin. He said he would not rule out the idea … (Gunn) ruled out stepping down to force a by-election in his seat of Stuart which, with a 0.4 per cent margin, is the most marginal Liberal seat in the state. Ms Penfold, whose vast Eyre Peninsula seat of Flinders is the safest Liberal seat in the state, said normally she would not support any moves for a by-election. “But this is such an important issue I will reserve my judgment,” she said.

Perhaps I’m underestimating the desire of locals to vent their fury about country health services, but this strikes me as foolish in the extreme. Sykesie in comments notes that the government released its draft Country Health Care Strategy just last week.