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Is The Ground Shifting?

With the Federal election now only months away, speculation about the likely result is taking on a distinctly different tone from that which has prevailed for much of the year.

In the words of Laurie Oakes in the latest edition of The Bulletin, “you can feel the ground moving. Things are looking better for John Howard, shakier for Kim Beazley.”

The year began with opinion polls showing the coalition struggling federally and in all States. Since 1998, the ALP has won government in Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. It has been overwhelmingly re-elected in New South Wales and Queensland.

The year began badly for the coalition with the defeat of the Court government in Western Australia and the landslide re-election of Peter Beattie in Queensland.

Both elections were different. In Western Australia, the coalition lost a substantial percentage of its primary vote, but little of this went to the ALP. The ALP won office on the preferences of minor parties.

In Queensland, however, the ALP lifted its primary vote over the 48% mark and scored a resounding victory, reducing the official Opposition to the size of a cricket team and a few extras.

This was followed by the Ryan by-election which saw the ALP win an electorate it had never before held, an archetypal, affluent, Liberal seat. Again, this was achieved through winning over 60% of the preferences of minor parties, rather than an increase in the ALP’s primary vote.

The Ryan result was followed by the damaging leaking of a memo from Liberal Party Federal President, Shane Stone, which rekindled leadership tensions between Howard and Costello supporters.

The government has engaged in a series of “backflips” in recent months, ranging from changes to the Business Activity Statement and the GST, to fuel prices and family trusts. The May budget delivered a one-off cash payment to pensioners.

In this period, the ALP has launched its Knowledge Nation policy, countering the government’s Innovations launch in January.

The first electoral test of these developments was the Aston by-election, retained by the Liberal Party, but only after a 3.6% swing.

What conclusions can be drawn from these disparate developments?

It is now clear that the election will not be held until November or December. The Prime Minister is clearly determined to fight vigorously for as long as possible in order to claw back support.

Howard is scheduled to visit Japan this month and the United States in September for the anniversary celebrations of ANZUS. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is to be held in Brisbane in October, accompanied by a royal visit from Australia’s head of state, the English Queen Elizabeth II.

These events effectively ensure that the election will be held in the last few weeks of the year.

The government is clearly unpopular. There is a clear anti-coalition trend evident in all States over the past several years. By-election swings in Federal seats have been well above the level required for the government to lose office.

Opinion polls show similar trends, although the Newspoll reported this week in The Australian shows the government regaining ground.

Given the substantial swing of over 4% against the government in 1998, an election in which it failed to win a majority of the two-party-preferred vote, a swing of only a further 1% would see the government easily defeated.

The electorate appears ambivalent about embracing the Labor Opposition led by Kim Beazley. There is polling and anecdotal evidence suggesting that the Opposition is viewed as lacking policies, or not being able to offer anything better than the government. This is possibly borne out in the Aston result.

There is now a substantial media and government campaign against Beazley. Commentators and government ministers make frequent references to the lack of policy detail and the Opposition Leader’s supposed windbaggery. They question the ALP’s capacity to fulfill its election promises.

The centrepiece of Labor campaigning is the “rollback” of the GST. This has not yet been detailed or costed to any large extent. Whilst there appears to be support for a range of minor reforms, there also appears to be a sense of resignation about the retention of the GST.

The ALP is also campaigning on issues such as opposition to any further privatisation of Telstra. This could well resonate in regional and rural areas.

This points to the significance of local and industry-specific issues in individual electorates. The Liberals campaigned on local issues in Aston and seem to believe that this is the key to the general election.

However, campaigning on local issues is a double-edged sword. Electorates that have suffered because of economic reform are more likely to oppose the government, even if electors are not convinced of the Labor alternative.

The government faces a range of problems in specific electorates, from the Basslink controversy in Gippsland, to difficulties in the sugar industry in Queensland.

The situation is complicated by the support being garnered by independent candidates. The resignation of Bob Katter from the National Party is seen as an attempt to retain his Queensland electorate of Kennedy as an independent.

Other rural seats are under challenge from independents. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, faces a likely challenge in Gwydir, and the National Party member for New England, Stuart St. Clair, could be toppled by the popular NSW Independent MP, Tony Windsor. Other independents are running in vulnerable seat such as Eden-Monaro.

Whilst preferential voting works against the success of independent candidates, there is ample evidence of their impact in recent elections. The Victorian election in 1999 pointed to the disaffection in rural and regional areas that benefits these independents.

Thus, preference allocations will be crucial to the outcome. Even if One Nation can only garner 5-8% of the primary votes, its preferences will matter in many seats. One Nation may preference sitting members last which will disadvantage the government. On the other hand, preference deals with the coalition, particularly in Western Australia and Queensland, could deny the ALP victory in several electorates.

Preference deals may also have an impact in other States. It is generally believed that the Liberal Party lost seats in Brisbane in the 1998 State election because of voter dissatisfaction with the preferencing of One Nation in rural areas. The decision by the Western Australian State Convention of the Liberal Party last weekend presents a delicate challenge for the government.

Now that August is upon us, the battlelines for the election are taking shape.

The government is aiming to challenge the ALP’s policy credentials, particularly on taxation. Both John Howard and Peter Costello have spoken of their desire to implement more income tax cuts, whilst seizing on comments by Beazley about the overall level of taxation as evidence that a Labor government would increase income tax.

The election may already have been decided. Enough voters may have already committed themselves to swinging the famous baseball bat that knocked out Wayne Goss in Queensland in 1995.

Alternatively, it could be that Beazley could “do a Hewson” and lose the “unlosable” election because of concern about lack of differentiation and leadership strength.

The Prime Minister’s address to the National Press Club in Canberra today is being touted as his launching of a third term agenda. Perhaps it will also mark the beginning of the real election campaign.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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