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State of the states: more preference deals as pre-polling begins

The leaders debate returned Western Australia to the political spotlight this week. Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

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Our “state of the states” series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states.

We’ll check in with our expert political analysts around the country every week of the campaign for updates on how it is playing out.


New South Wales

Chris Aulich, Adjunct Professor at the University of Canberra

The Liberals proclaim their party is a “broad church”, embracing a spectrum of views. But like most churches, there is always the potential for schism. These schisms were played out in the 45th parliament, culminating in the removal of a prime minister. They also caused policy paralysis on matters such as climate change mitigation, immigration, water management and broad based taxation reform.

Simmering tension between moderates and conservatives are evident in a number of urban seats, where centre-right independents are challenging conservatives. It’s also evident in several regional seats, where the challenge to Coalition seats is coming from nonaligned, but generally right-leaning independents.

In the NSW seat of Farrer, former Coalition minister Sussan Ley is being challenged by Albury Mayor, Kevin Mack. At this stage, Mack is being priced by the bookies for a win, overcoming a 20% buffer enjoyed by Ley. Given that the federal electorate takes in two state seats that fell to the Shooters Fishers and Farmers at the recent state election, Farrer can now be described as marginal.

As with many other rural seats, especially in the irrigation areas, there is palpable anger with the Coalition’s handling of water management. Barnaby Joyce, the former Minister for Agriculture and Water, further alienated locals with his explosive interview with the ABC’s Patricia Karvelas last week. In this environment, the stocks of rural independents have risen.

In the Northern NSW seat of Page, sitting Nationals MP Kevin Hogan has suggested that he might sit on the crossbench if Labor forms government (as he did in 2018 in protest against the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull). Early internal polling suggests that Hogan is slightly ahead of Labor’s Patrick Deegan. Hogan may well find himself sitting with other regional independents, perhaps even holding the balance of power.

In Gilmore, on the south coast, Ann Sudmalis decided not to recontest the seat, resigning amid complaints of “bullying, betrayal and backstabbing” by local colleagues. The Liberals nominated Grant Schultz, but this nomination was overturned after the prime minister using a “captain’s call” to nominate former ALP President Warren Mundine. Schultz has since resigned from the party and is standing as an independent.

To add to this complexity, former Nationals member Katrina Hodgkinson has also nominated, and has enlisted as her campaign coordinator for Gilmore former Liberal member Joanna Gash. Labor and the Nationals are likely to be advantaged by Schultz’s decision not to preference any party, and this may be sufficient for Labor’s Fiona Phillips to secure the 0.7% of votes needed to win the seat.

Victoria

Nick Economou, Senior Lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University

Nothing in the campaign so far suggests that Victoria will not be really difficult for the government, with Liberal seats such as Chisholm, La Trobe and Michael Sukkar’s seat of Deakin under threat. The Liberal cause has been further undermined by the disendorsement of candidates in unwinnable seats who had been exposed as having made bigoted utterances. Labor triumphalism over this has been tempered by one of its candidates being accused of having made light of sexual violence against women.

Matters of substance to arise in Victoria over the last few weeks (during which time pre-polling commenced) relate to preference deals for both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In the seat of Flinders, held by health minister Greg Hunt with a 7.0% margin, high profile independent candidate Julia Banks – formerly the Liberal member for Chisholm – announced that her how-to-vote card would be advising supporters to direct their preferences to Labor ahead of the Liberal candidate. While Hunt is on a fairly significant margin, reports have suggested that the local Liberal campaign has become very concerned about this development.

Senate how-to-vote cards have also appeared in time for the pre-polling period. Of significance here is the Labor party decision to advise its supporters to give preferences to the Derryn Hinch Justice Party ticket. Not only does this boost Derryn Hinch’s chances of being reelected, the Labor how-to-vote card is a potential blow to the Greens’ Janet Rice if the Green ticket’s primary vote was to fall well short of the quota. The Greens will doubtlessly benefit from a flow of Animal Justice Party preferences, but in a half-Senate election, the combined vote may not achieve the 14.4% required for Rice’s re-election.

The Liberal-National ticket, meanwhile, directs preferences to Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. One wonders if this might not be the basis on which Palmer’s party secures a seat in Victoria, particularly if, as seems very likely, the Liberal-National primary vote falls below three quota (43.2%).

Queensland

Maxine Newlands, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at James Cook University

Herbert was always to going to be a tight race for the minor parties. The biggest battle should have been between One Nation and United Australia Party. In the 2016 election, One Nation gained in Palmer’s absence. This time around, One Nation could struggle to gain a foothold thanks to the Liberals’ legitimisation of Clive Palmer’s Canberra bid via preference deals. One Nation’s own implosion, and the fact that its Herbert candidate comes from outside the electorate compound its problems.

While minor parties traditionally rely on protest votes, this year pre-polling could scupper any last minute announcements. Smaller parties tend to spend big in the last few weeks of a campaign, but that might be in vain if large numbers of people have already voted.

Pre-polling is going to play an important role in this election. Pre-poll votes within the first 24 hours are almost double the number at the same stage in 2016. The Queensland electorates of McPherson, Lilley and Herbert recorded the highest numbers of pre-pollers in the first 24 hours.

Herbert’s Hyde Park booth was the third highest in Queensland to pre-poll in the first 24 hours. At 1,414, it is more than double the previous election. By Wednesday, Hyde Park had 3,175 votes lodged – the highest in Queensland.

Both Herbert and Dickson were in the top ten electorates for pre-polling in 2016. Dickson pre-polled at 1,343 in the first 24 hours. This week’s housing market announcement could affect those pre-polling in Dickson, with house prices and negative gearing a key election issue.

GetUp! has ramped up the pressure in Dickson this week with its “Ditch Dutton” campaign, which involves door knocking, calling voters, media stunts, testimony of disenfranchised Dickson voters, and plastering the electorate with Ditch Dutton signs.

Western Australia

Ian Cook, Senior Lecturer of Australian Politics at Murdoch University

The leaders’ debate may have returned Western Australia to the political spotlight, but less attention was being paid to what important players in WA’s 2017 state election were saying about a Liberal preference deal with Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.

In 2017, a desperate Liberal Party did a preference deal with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation to try to save the election. The results were not what the Liberals had hoped for. It might have helped them to hold Geraldton, but the general damage to the party was considerable.

Both important players in WA’s 2017 state election worried about the Chinese government’s reaction to a preference deal with Palmer’s UAP. Former Premier, Colin Barnett, and current Premier, Mark McGowan, called attention to Palmer’s ongoing spat with Chinese officials and warned that any deal with Palmer would upset Australia’s most important trading partner. Palmer responded by accusing WA Labor of sucking up to the Chinese.

More importantly, at least when it comes to the current election result, Barnett warned of a backlash from more progressive Liberal voters, for whom a deal to swap preferences with a populist party is offensive. Barnett should know. That’s what happened to him when party officials made the deal with One Nation. It didn’t help that soon after the deal, Hanson said that voters hated Barnett, and One Nation candidates said they weren’t going to preference the Liberals. But the general effect of some Liberal voters rejecting the deal and the party was real.

This brings us to the blue-riband seat of Curtin, which the Liberals hold by a 20% margin. While it’s an ultra-safe seat, like Wentworth, it contains the kind of progressive Liberal voters who helped to elect independent Kerryn Phelps.

Curtin’s gotten a little curious, though. The former Member for Curtin and Liberal star Julie Bishop’s first choice to replace her lost in the preselection process. This was yet another moment of rejection by a party that Bishop had served with great distinction for two decades. It also meant that a conservative was preselected to a seat where there are likely to be plenty of progressive Liberal voters.

Then former Fremantle MP and Minister for International Development in the Rudd government, Melissa Parkes, nominated for the seat and soon resigned as Labor candidate after comments she made that were critical of Israel returned to haunt her.

Finally, and even more bizarrely, the independent candidate who might have done a Phelps and snatched a blue-riband seat from the Liberals passed “results” from what turned out to be a fake opinion poll to the West Australian, which led the paper to publish a headline story about the Liberals losing the seat. So, we even had fake news!

South Australia

Rob Manwaring, Senior Lecturer in Politics and Public Policy at Flinders University

The election campaign is steadily cranking up in South Australia, and we just are beginning to see some frays and cracks at the local level of campaigning. The past week has been dotted with a number of incidents – none of which in and of themselves may prove decisive – but certainly add to the colour of the campaign.

Rather unfortunately, Shaun Osborn, the Liberal candidate for Adelaide, sent out a letter with his first name misspelled on the header. This gaffe followed an apology to a local café owner, after Osborn had invited local members to an event where he had not sought prior permission.

A more serious incident took place in the much more tense battle for the seat of Mayo, held by Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie. One of Sharkie’s volunteers was charged by the police with stalking high-profile Liberal candidate Georgina Downer. The volunteer in question now faces the magistrates court in mid-May, and Sharkie has ordered that the man takes no further part in her campaigning in a seat she holds by just 2.9%.

Finally, racist graffiti was scrawled over a campaign poster for the Greens Senate candidate, and Ngarrindjeri elder Major “Moogy” Sumner. While these events have added some drama, it has distracted from a focus on local issues.

South Australia’s key, distinctive, policy contributions to the overall campaign are likely to remain water policy and energy policy.

The water issue was given fresh impetus when Labor Senator Penny Wong took a swipe at the Liberals’ preference deal with Clive Palmer’s UAP. Senator Wong argued strongly that the UAP water policy was to scrap the current Murray Darling Basin plan. Energy is a key issue, and has remained prominently associated with South Australia since the 2016 blackout. Bill Shorten is trying to pivot this into his campaign agenda, with his announcement to create a new “renewable energy zone” in the Spencer Gulf.

Tasmania

Lachlan Johnson, PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations and Research Assistant at the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania

This week has seen Tasmania emerge as an important battleground with polls narrowing across the country. Reporting from the past week that the Coalition is confident of Gavin Pearce’s chances in Braddon has been bolstered by new uComms polling now giving the Liberal candidate a slim lead in the rural North-Western electorate.

While Braddon was always expected to be close, perhaps the bigger news from recent polling is a Coalition resurgence in Bass, which covers Launceston and the state’s North-East. That poll, also by uComms, gave the coalition a two-party preferred lead of 54-46%.

This suggests the disproportionately large amount of time spent by Scott Morrison and Michael McCormack in northern Tasmania, relative to some other marginal areas, may be paying dividends.

Bill Shorten also visited Tasmania on Saturday, unveiling new funding commitments in Hobart and Launceston. The opposition leader promised A$120 million in federal tourism funding, plus A$25 million towards a Tasmanian AFL team should it win office on May 18. Of that tourism funding, A$50 million would support the development of a new hotel and theatre at MONA. Interestingly, neither MONA nor AFL funding have been well received in the state’s two crucial northern electorates.

Unsurprisingly, the MONA announcement has generated significant interest and controversy. Also, given that Labor is in little danger of losing Lyons, and even less danger of winning Clark – held by independent Andrew Wilkie – the strategy behind the MONA proposal is puzzling. Millionaire proprietor David Walsh has suggested that the funding wouldn’t change even his vote, adding that Wilkie remains a safe bet. Now that Liberal Lyons candidate Jessica Whelan has resigned (following discovery of anti-Muslim social media posts in her name) these south-eastern electorates are unlikely to need much further intervention from Labor, who will instead redouble their efforts in Bass and Braddon.

It may therefore be the case that this tourism funding boost to the state’s major population areas is an attempt to garner upper house votes in what will surely be a very tight contest for a third Senate quota between the two major parties. Despite the government currently having four more Senators than the ALP nationally, a 2016 below-the-line voting campaign for Lisa Singh means that Tasmania is the only state in which Labor has more senators up for reelection than the Coalition this time around.

With both Bass and Braddon now in play, and a Senate challenge from the Coalition, Greens, and high-profile independents, this week has seen Labor looking increasingly vulnerable in Tasmania.

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