While the Coalition appears to have been winning the political debate over recent weeks and pulling back Labor’s big poll lead in the process, a closer analysis of the crucial seats where the forthcoming election will be fought shows just how difficult the task of winning a third term will be for John Howard.
Of course the policies, the track record of both the Government and Opposition, the campaign itself, the tactics, leadership qualities and the credibility of the major parties will be the over-arching political factors to decide the election, some of which are still to be played out. However, there are several subterranean factors at work which make the Coalition’s task that much harder.
A seat-by-seat analysis of the Australian political landscape shows there is unlikely to be a uniform swing across Australia; local factors will make a big impression on the result. And the story for the Government at this stage of the political cycle is one of the good, the bad and the ugly.
The first and most important point to recall about the 1998 election was that the ALP won the majority of votes, but was out-campaigned in the guerrilla warfare which took place on the ground. As a result, the Coalition has many more marginal seats (15 under two per cent compared with Labor’s seven), and is vulnerable to even the smallest swing against it. In fact, to win this time around, the Coalition will need to improve on its 1998 vote just to retain power.
Secondly, the Coalition has to battle the fickleness of today’s embattled voters who grow weary of governments of any persuasion after a term or two.
The lifespan of governments in Australia and elsewhere is growing shorter, largely through the influence of radio, television and now the internet on the way people think. We are extremely unlikely to see anything close to the Bjelke-Petersen, Menzies, Bolte or Playford type of political dominance again.
A significant proportion of the electorate with short political memories (hundreds of thousands of young voters have no recollection even of the Keating era) will simply vote Labor to “give the other mob a go”.
Thirdly, the Coalition will have to battle the phalanx of state Labor governments.
In a political sense this will be a potent factor in favour of the Coalition, given that conservative Australia will not want to hand over the whole country to the Labor Party. But logistically Labor Governments will be putting considerable resources into helping their Federal counterparts at a time when the Liberal and National parties are finding it hard to raise cash and are without a decent infrastructure in some states.
In Queensland, for example, the Liberal Party has been decimated by internecine warfare and then by the Beattie Labor Party. It will have to fight a Federal campaign almost like a fledgling party. Against these added handicaps, where and how will the Coalition make ground?
The new electoral map has 150 divisions compared with the current 148-seat Parliament. There is an extra seat in the Northern Territory, and a 15th seat in Western Australia. The former division of Northern Territory has been abolished completely and replaced by two new seats.
The division of Solomon includes the urban areas of Darwin, while the vast division of Lingiari will cover just about everything else in the Northern Territory, including the far-flung Cocos and Christmas Islands to the north-west of Western Australia. Sitting Northern Territory MP, Labor’s Warren Snowdon, has opted to run for Lingiari which has a higher proportion of Aborigines who have traditionally voted ALP.
In normal circumstances the Northern Territory seats would be expected to split one each to Labor and the Coalition. However, the Howard Government has spent more on the Northern Territory than on any other part of the country including backing for the Alice Springs to Darwin railways and, more recently, the Christmas Island spaceport.
In Tasmania, Labor holds all five seats so the Coalition will have to pick up at least one seat to counter expected losses in other states particularly Victoria and Queensland.
Bass is the Coalition’s strongest, and probably only, hope. Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne holds it by the slimmest of margins and the Liberal Party in Tasmania will be pulling out all stops to regain the seat formerly held by high-flying Warwick Smith. It has pre-selected former Sheffield Shield cricketer and state MP, Tony Benneworth, whose local profile and campaigning skills will assist in the campaign.
Western Australia is probably the Coalition’s “good” state. It will have the new suburban seat of Hasluck in the south-east of Perth, the creation of which resulted in a redrawing of the entire electoral map shifting the boundaries of just about every seat except the gargantuan seat of Kalgoorlie.
Currently, WA is split seven seats apiece to the Labor and Liberal parties, and is on paper the Government’s best chance of success.
The result of the redistribution may mean that several marginal seats could change hands, making the result even more unpredictable. But unless there is a landslide it is unlikely that Labor will increase the number of seats it holds in the west. And, despite the fact that WA is Kim Beazley’s home state, the redrawing of the electoral boundaries means Labor could lose a seat or possibly two if the Coalition performs well during the campaign.
In South Australia, the Liberal Party already dominates the state and cannot realistically hope to win any seats.
Labor has its eye on three seats: Adelaide, which it is very confident of winning, together with Makin and Hindmarsh if the swing to the ALP is on. Adelaide is held by Trish Worth who is a prominent local member, but the ALP believes it would have won her seat last time, save for the television advertising the Liberal Party spent on retaining her seat.
In New South Wales, the Liberal Party may manage to hold its metropolitan base which helped it retain power this time, but outside affluent Sydney it faces several problem seats. Labor has for many months claimed the marginal seat of Parramatta where promising Ross Cameron is likely to pay the price for having a few ideas and the guts to discuss them in public.
Outside Sydney the National Party is looking vulnerable along the north coast, particularly in Larry Anthony’s seat of Richmond (which he holds by a few hundred votes), Page (held by Ian Causley), and even Cowper (where Garry Nehl is retiring). And if NSW independent Tony Windsor decides to give the Federal Parliament a run, he is a strong chance to win either the seat of New England, held by Stuart St Clair, or John Anderson’s Gwydir.
Eden-Monaro will be the traditional litmus test, and Labor’s Steve Whan will be trying a second time in the hope of winning the seat that decides the government. However the Coalition has spent an enormous amount in Eden-Monaro to keep Gary Nairn in the job.
In Queensland, where regional seats dominate, the Coalition is still in some trouble, being vulnerable to the whims of One Nation. On the other hand, Coalition polling suggests Kim Beazley’s recent promise to apologise to the Aborigines in his first week of power has turned tens of thousands of Queenslanders – who had been flirting with Labor – back to the Coalition.
Labor thinks it can win a swag of coastal seats including Alex Somlyay’s seat of Fairfax, Peter Lindsay’s seat of Herbert, Paul Neville’s seat of Hinkler, and even De-Anne Kelly’s seat of Dawson. Bob Katter is likely to keep his own seat by finally unshackling himself from the National Party.
For its part, the Coalition still thinks that Cheryl Kernot’s words of ingratitude on election night 1998 were the equivalent of signing her own death warrant in Dickson, and that nothing has changed since. It also has hopes of winning back Capricornia, held by Labor’s Kirsten Livermore.
Victoria is definitely the Liberal’s ugly state, where the ALP is already at a high watermark with 20 of the 37 seats under its control. Yet party officials are supremely confident of picking up several more seats, this time banking that the extraordinary popularity of Steve Bracks will rub off on Kim Beazley.
At a minimum Labor expects to win McEwan, held by Fran Bailey by just one per cent, and Ballarat where the local member Michael Ronaldson has decided to bow out. Labor had hoped to win Flinders, but Peter Reith’s departure should ensure it will remain a Liberal stronghold.
Other seats Labor has its sights on include the marginal eastern suburbs seats of La Trobe, Deakin and Dunkley, but hitherto the ALP has found it tough to win the conservative, affluent eastern suburbs and will only do so if a landslide is in the offing.
Outside Melbourne, Labor will be targetting everything from Peter McGauran’s Gippsland (where independents have gained a stronghold at a state level), to Indi (so the party can clip the career of Sophie Panopoulis who is making her first run).
The Liberal Party will be targetting Chisholm and McMillan, but even if the party were to hold its own in Victoria it would be a phenomenal achievement.