Doing It the Queensland Way


When you examine the 20 most marginal Federal seats held by the Howard Government, only two are in Queensland. So why are political pundits saying that Labor must concentrate on Queensland?

There are 150 House of Representatives seats, 87 currently held by the Government, 60 by the Labor Opposition, with the remaining three held by independents (Peter Andren, Bob Katter and Tony Windsor).

The independents are all good local politicians and seem likely to be re-elected. Prior to the last election, they made it known that in the event of a hung Parliament they would support the political team with the largest number of seats, to form a government.

Assuming similar undertakings are given this year, Labor will need to win at least 74 seats to form a (minority) government.

Such a result would be far from ideal, because after providing the Speaker, who has a casting vote only, Labor would need the support of two of the three independents to get any legislation through the House. An additional two seats would be needed (ie 76 seats) for a majority.

Last year, electorate boundaries were redistributed in New South Wales and Queensland. According to veteran psephologist Malcolm Mackerras, under the new boundaries the uniform swing needed for Labor to win 74 seats is reduced from 4.4 per cent to 3.3 per cent. However, for Labor to win a majority of seats, a uniform swing of 4.8 per cent is necessary (which is the same as before).

The problem with this analysis is that uniform swings almost never occur. At Australian Federal elections the voting support of the major Parties often differs widely between the States, and also within particular States at different polls. The following table illustrates those varying voting patterns by contrasting the two-Party preferred (TPP) Labor vote in each State at the 2004 and 1990 federal elections.

Let us examine the 16 most marginal Coalition-held seats. Six are in New South Wales, three in South Australia, two each in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania, and one in the Northern Territory. Ten of the 16 are in the smaller States and Territories (measured by population) and four are rural constituencies.

In discussing the NSW and Queensland seats, I will use Malcolm Mackerras’s calculations of the swings needed on the new boundaries. For the remaining seats, the official figures at the 2004 elections are referred to.

In NSW, the marginals in ascending order of difficulty for Labor are Parramatta (0.9 per cent), Wentworth (2.5 per cent), Lindsay (2.9 per cent), Eden-Monaro (3.3 per cent), Bennelong (4.0 per cent) and Dobell (4.8 per cent). Parramatta is actually held by Labor’s Julie Owens but is now notionally Liberal as a result of the NSW redistribution. Labor should safely retain the seat because Owens is a very hard-working local member and incumbency will help her.

The others are more difficult. Wentworth is Malcolm Turnbull’s seat in Sydney’s inner east. At the last election he was opposed by Peter King, the Liberal MP he defeated for pre-selection who stood as an independent. The resulting disunity probably reduced the normal Liberal vote. Turnbull’s net worth also exceeds $100 million and he could outspend Labor in Wentworth by millions, so he may be difficult to dislodge.

Lindsay, based around Penrith on Sydney’s western fringe, is the true test. Labor will likely run a star candidate, lawyer David Bradbury, against the sitting Liberal Jackie Kelly. Kelly’s 10-year career as an MP and Minister is testimony to the weird results politics can throw up. When she first stood in 1996, she needed a 10 per cent swing, thought she couldn’t win and consequently didn’t bother to resign her job as an RAAF legal officer. Kelly was therefore an ineligible candidate because the Constitution says a candidate cannot hold an ‘office of profit under the Crown.’ After she won the seat with a 12 per cent swing, the High Court ordered a new election which Kelly also won. In 2007 her margin is 2.9 per cent, and if a swing is on, she will be gone.

Next, Eden-Monaro. This seat in the south-east corner of NSW is a perennial marginal and is affected by forest policy. It is usually won by the overall election winner and for Labor, 3.3 per cent is achievable, particularly with its changed attitude to timber jobs since 2004.

Bennelong, held since 1974 by John Howard, is now marginal. However, 4 per cent is a challenge for Labor because the PM is likely to spend much more time and money this year attempting to hold the seat. The PM, however, is no certainty.

Dobell on the NSW Central Coast is the last NSW marginal, requiring a swing of 4.8 per cent to shift the sitting member, Liberal Ken Ticehurst. The seat contains large numbers of refugees from Sydney either retirees or young home-buyers seeking affordable housing. The interest rates issue bit hard there in 2004 with Ticehurst increasing his margin to 5.5 per cent now cut back by the redistribution. This seat could swing back but not without a strong move to Labor.

So in NSW, perhaps only three seats are likely gains on a pro-Rudd swing.

Next, South Australia, where there are three very vulnerable Liberal marginals. The first is Kingston in the outer southern suburbs of Adelaide the most marginal Coalition seat of all held by only 0.1 per cent. This should be an easy Labor win, remembering the crow-eaters’ TPP vote for Labor in SA was only 45.6 per cent in 2004, so there is plenty of room for improvement.

Second, Wakefield, a rural seat with a swing of only 0.7 per cent needed. Like Kingston it should be a certain gain. Then Makin in Adelaide’s north-east, held by Liberal Trish Draper another ’96er’ 0.9 per cent will do it. See ya Trish, you get the pension.

Then Tasmania. Braddon covers the north-west of Tassie: Burnie, Devonport and rural surrounds. One point one per cent will take it and Labor should regain it with its changed forest policy. Bass is the adjoining seat on the other side of the island including Launceston. Harder at 2.6 per cent with demographic change making it harder still, but Kevin Rudd will spend a lot of time there. It should be a win.

In Western Australia, Latham’s Labor received less than a ringing endorsement in 2004 with a State-wide TPP vote of 44.6 per cent. With such a low vote, a swing sufficient to win back the Perth suburban seats of Hasluck (1.8 per cent) and Stirling (2.1 per cent) should be achievable.

Next is the Northern Territory seat of Solomon, comprising metropolitan Darwin, winnable with a 2.8 per cent swing. Solomon had a low voter turn-out in 2004 (91 per cent) and if Labor could just get 2 or 3 per cent more of enrolled Darwinians to actually vote, its task would be easier. The remaining two marginals are the Brisbane suburban seats of Bonner (0.6 per cent) and Moreton (2.8 per cent) both well within reach of the ALP now that it has a Queensland-based leader.

The problem of unequal swings remains, particularly in NSW. Unless it takes the three more difficult NSW seats, Labor may fall short.

This is where Queensland comes in. In that State in 2004, the Labor TPP vote was a deplorable 42.9 per cent. If Rudd’s leadership can improve his home State’s vote by say, 7.6 per cent to a modest 50.5 per cent, a further five Queensland seats can be won. Those seats, four of which are in regional areas, are Blair (5.7 per cent), Herbert (6.2 per cent), Longman (6.5 per cent), Petrie (7.4 per cent) and the new division of Flynn (7.5 per cent). This cannot be done in any other State a 50.5 per cent vote anywhere else would not win a single extra seat outside the 16 marginals.

So, to make Kevin Rudd Prime Mini
ster, Labor must do two things. First, it must get a half-decent vote in Queensland like in 1990 (see above) and second, it must improve in NSW, the smaller States and the bush.

How can this be done?

Obviously, quality candidates are essential. Then there is policy. One policy move which should resonate in Queensland, the three smaller States and the regions, is to highlight the centralism of the Howard Government. Labor has already proposed ‘fixing the federation,’ meaning the poor distribution of legislative powers between the Commonwealth and the States, but it will need to focus its attack carefully to get the vote where it counts.

The weakest link in Howard’s position on the issue is the huge imbalance of taxing powers between the three tiers of government now greater than at any time in our history. The Commonwealth currently raises 82 per cent of all taxes, the States raise 16 per cent and local government 2 per cent, but the States are responsible for 40 per cent of all spending and local government 6 per cent. In other words, the States’ taxes raise less than half of their required spending and local councils raise only a third of theirs! They have to go cap-in-hand to the feds for the rest. This is democracy?

There is clearly a strong case for giving a greater share of revenue sources to the States and municipalities. This is precisely what a centralist control-freak like Howard will never do, and it will hurt him where it matters most in parochial Queensland, the least urbanised State. A good ‘States’ rights’ politician could exploit this centralism.

Old Joh Bjelke-Petersen, now rotting in his grave at Kingaroy, did it for years. Are you up for it Kevin Rudd?

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