As this is written, the date for the federal election had still not been nailed down. However, ever since the government agreed with the Greens to pursue long-overdue changes to the Senate voting system, it has been clear this must mean the Prime Minister has decided on a double-dissolution election—the first since 1987—and that it would almost certainly take place on July 2 (the first Saturday when such an election could be held within the post-June 30 “window” for such contests).
On Monday, March 21, with the Senate voting system legislation through the Parliament, Malcolm Turnbull virtually confirmed these expectations by having the Governor-General prorogue the Parliament on April 15, re-convening it on April 18 for the Senate to reconsider the once-rejected Australian Building and Construction Bill and the twice-rejected Registered Organisations Bill. Unless these bills were passed, he said, he would indeed advise the Governor-General to dissolve both houses and proceed to an election on July 2.
These events have been developing against a background which, having seen the Coalition riding high until early this year, has now changed. If we take as our guide the regular Newspoll results (as Mr Turnbull did when successfully seeking Tony Abbott’s overthrow), they have moved from a situation where the Coalition was enjoying a comfortable lead over Labor in the order of 53 to 47 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis, to one where Labor has its nose in front by 51 to 49 per cent. Meanwhile, although Mr Turnbull still enjoys a large (albeit rapidly diminishing) lead over the Leader of the Opposition as “preferred prime minister”, his own personal “satisfaction” and “dissatisfaction” ratings have slipped considerably—to the point where, for the first time, his “net satisfaction” rating has entered negative territory. Political observers are asking themselves incredulously, “Could Labor win?”
Different observers will give different answers to that question, and will give various reasons for their opinions; but two factors will be of great importance. The first is the Commonwealth Budget for 2016-17, to be brought down on May 3. The prime test of that budget will be whether it conforms to the Prime Minister’s latest (and by far his best) four-word slogan, “Living within our means”. That, and whether it lays down a credible path back to surplus over the next few years (as distinct from the next decade!), will determine the budget’s reception, and to a significant extent the government’s survival.
The second factor bearing on that survival will be the extent to which Mr Turnbull will be able to overcome the deeply felt resentment among Liberal Party members, and Liberal voters more generally, over the manner in which Tony Abbott—the prime minister they had overwhelmingly elected two years earlier—was overthrown on September 14 last. (Resentment runs at least as high among National Party members, who despite their centrality to the Coalition were never consulted on the matter.)
I have stated my own views on that issue in Spectator Australia articles on December 5 and March 12. For reasons there given, in both the House and the Senate I shall be putting a Turnbull-led Liberal Party last.
My vote, of course, does not matter in the least: the question is, how many other Liberal voters will feel equally outraged when, a few weeks hence, they enter the voting booths? We have some, though by no means clear-cut, evidence bearing on that question. I refer to the outcome in the North Sydney by-election on December 5. My wife and I reside in that electorate and consequently were participants in the by-election.
First, some facts:
- Total enrolment in North Sydney did not alter much between the 2013 federal election and the by-election, rising from 101,333 to 104,352 (2.98 per cent).
- In 2013, some 93,479 votes (formal and informal) were cast—what the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) calls “turnout” was 92.25 per cent. Some 7854 people (7.75 per cent of the electorate) did not vote.
- On December 5, only 81,779 votes were cast, “turnout” falling sharply to only 78.37 per cent. Almost a quarter of the electorate—22,573 people—failed to vote.
- Of the 93,479 votes cast in 2013, some 5031 were adjudged informal—5.38 per cent of the total.
- Last December, 5658 votes were informal—6.92 per cent of the total. So 627 more electors voted informally despite total votes cast being sharply down.
- In 2013, Labor’s candidate polled 17,727 votes (20.04 per cent of the formal votes cast). On December 5, Labor did not stand a candidate.
Consider next some other aspects of the contest:
The by-election was necessitated by the decision of Joe Hockey to resign after losing the Treasury portfolio following the Turnbull-led coup. Since Hockey’s performance as Treasurer was the second-most important reason giving rise to that event, there was a certain irony in his then subjecting his constituents (not to mention Australian taxpayers) to the cost and inconvenience of the by-election. Presumably, few North Sydney electors would have been pleased by this course of events.
The Turnbull forces in the Liberal Party’s New South Wales Division then rammed through pre-selection of the party’s candidate, Trent Zimmerman (who was acting chairman of the division), with no serious consultation with the 570 party members in the electorate.
That Mr Zimmerman is an openly declared homosexual (without even, the Australian has reported, any long-term “partner”)—that is, the fact that he was so unrepresentative of the electorate—merely added insult to that injury.
More “conservative” Liberal voters (such as ourselves) bitterly resented both the fact of the Turnbull takeover and the Labor-like modus operandi of the key conspirators; some of the voters (like ourselves) were determined to punish the Liberal candidate for his party’s sins in that regard.
An issue provoking some backlash from normally Liberal voters derived from the Baird government’s proposals for amalgamating local authorities in the greater Sydney area. While not concluded at the time, proposals for amalgamating North Sydney Council with one or more adjoining councils had received widespread publicity. They excited no enthusiasm from North Sydney ratepayers, and may well have been a consideration in some minds as people voted.
• Thirteen candidates nominated. Apart from the Liberals and the Greens, there were nine micro-party candidates and two independents.
All of these points would have worked against the Liberal candidate.
What quickly became striking was the extraordinary level of Liberal Party support being poured into Mr Zimmerman’s campaign. After all, Hockey had won in 2013 with 61.04 per cent of primary votes cast, and 65.89 per cent on a two-candidate-preferred basis. The other candidate then represented Labor, which was not contesting this by-election. On the face of it, and even after allowing for the swing against parties in government typically recorded in by-elections, Mr Zimmerman might have been thought likely to win in a canter.
Not at all, it seems, to judge by the almost frenetic level of party support thrown behind him. His candidacy had barely been announced when into our letter-box came a well-prepared letter (and enclosed full-colour brochure) over his signature, introducing himself as a long-term North Sydney resident “committed to making our community an even better place to live … and raise a family”. At the time, we had no idea that Mr Zimmerman himself was not active in the family-raising business; but that aside, fair enough.
Other letters however quickly followed, while there also began a series of robocalls. I failed to note the dates on which these latter were received, but I distinctly recall that there were four. All delivered around 6.30 to 7.00 p.m. (when households are likely to be home preparing for dinner), they were:
First, one in Malcolm Turnbull’s voice, lauding not only Mr Zimmerman’s qualities, but also (surprise, surprise) those of the newly invigorated, Turnbull-led government in Canberra, and seeking our support for its candidate.
Second, one in the voice of a woman who, I believe, did not identify herself (but maybe I cut her off before she could), delivering a similar message.
Third—by which time our irritation was reaching levels dangerous to our health—one in Julie Bishop’s voice. To be enjoined to do anything for the Liberal Party by the party’s Lady Macbeth was in itself enough to lose Mr Zimmerman our vote.
Fourth, another in Malcolm Turnbull’s voice, repeating his plea on behalf of Mr Zimmerman.
Meanwhile (as well as a standard Liberal Party mail-out offering to help us obtain postal voting papers, immediately consigned to the trash), we had also been receiving further paper-based entreaties.
A pleasant letter from the New South Wales Treasurer, Gladys Berejiklian, whose state electorate largely falls within North Sydney. Ms Berejiklian, an unusually well-respected politician, told us how “Malcolm Turnbull’s federal government, working with Trent Zimmerman”, had “committed extra resources” to do several expensive things in the North Sydney area. (Regrettably, these pork-barrelling initiatives had actually been taken earlier by the Treasurer of the Abbott government—facts which I concede it is probably ungracious of me to mention.) Accompanying the letter was a full-colour, two-page exposition of “the Turnbull Liberal Team’s Local Community Plan”.
Late in the piece, dated November 30, there came a letter from the Prime Minister himself, enclosing an eight-folded full-colour brochure fronted by his beaming visage and entitled “Malcolm Turnbull’s Plan for Innovation and Opportunity”. The letter failed to mention Mr Zimmerman apart from a one-line postscript asking us to “please vote for Trent Zimmerman, Liberal, on Saturday”. Of the brochure’s eight folds, only the last was devoted to the candidate.
Finally, on election eve, there arrived a two-sided full-colour card enjoining us to “Back Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal Team”. This time, Mr Zimmerman did not rate a mention.
I cannot tell how much all this party propaganda must have cost. To be conservative, I assume that the five mail-outs were not sent, and the four robocalls not made, to everyone on the electoral roll, but only to those whom the Liberal Party machine believed had some affiliation to that party. Still, if we take Joe Hockey’s 2013 primary vote (53,991) as some guide to that, and discount that figure further by (say) an ultra-conservative 50 per cent, we are still left with roughly 27,000 recipients. Printing, postage, handling and phone call costs for such a number add up. Estimates (guesses?) of $600,000 were published in the Daily Telegraph, and even higher figures in the Sydney Morning Herald. All this to win a by-election in a seat held two years earlier with a 61.04 per cent primary vote!
On election morning we walked to the polling station, the nearby school, whose fence was covered for some tens of metres in blue plastic sheeting emblazoned with—you guessed it—the features of Malcolm Turnbull. Only near the polling booth entrance was the voter enlightened that he was not the candidate. Having done our civic duty—placing Mr Zimmerman at number thirteen on our ballot papers (yes, even below the Greens!)—we retired home, marvelling at the whole experience.
The 76,121 formal primary votes were cast as follows: Zimmerman (Liberal), 36,690 votes (48.20 per cent); Ruff (Independent), 14,303 votes (18.79 per cent); Chesterfield-Evans (Greens), 11,959 votes (15.71 per cent); and Odds and Sods, 13,169 votes (17.30 per cent). After distribution of preferences, Zimmerman won with 45,848 votes (60.23 per cent), Ruff being runner-up with 30,273 votes (39.77 per cent).
From these bald statistics several observations emerge.
- Mr Zimmerman’s primary vote (48.20 per cent) fell by 12.84 percentage points from that recorded by Hockey, forcing the Liberals to preferences for only the fourth time in North Sydney in the last seventy years. However, aided perhaps by the absence of a Labor candidate, and by the “return” (through preferences) of otherwise Liberal votes given initially to the large number of Odds and Sods, he did significantly better than Hockey had done in the preference distribution process, scoring 36.45 per cent of the total preferences distributed (25.6 per cent in Hockey’s case), and lifting his two-candidate-preferred percentage to 60.23 per cent, only 5.66 percentage points behind Hockey. While Dr Ruff did almost twice as well in that process, it was not enough to enable him to overtake Mr Zimmerman.
- The council amalgamation factor, mentioned earlier, does seem to have adversely affected Mr Zimmerman’s vote. For example, whereas his primary vote fell by almost 13 per cent across the electorate as a whole, it was down by 16 per cent in the booth in Hunter’s Hill, a council area particularly upset by the proposal to amalgamate it with those of Ryde and Lane Cove.
- These considerations notwithstanding, Dr Ruff’s performance was impressive. A local medico of long standing, married with five children and well known throughout the electorate, he enjoyed the support of the highly respected former independent member for North Sydney, Ted Mack, whose “Letter to residents” was distributed in his favour. However, apart from one other “flyer”, there was little other sign of money, or other indications of an organised machine, behind his candidacy.
- The Greens performed poorly. In a by-election where no Labor candidate was standing, and where there was much unhappiness with the Liberal Party, they might have been expected to do well. In fact, their primary vote (11,959) actually fell below that recorded in 2013 (13,579). Even as a percentage of formal votes recorded in an election where total turnout fell sharply, the Greens (15.71 per cent) barely managed to better their 2013 performance (15.35 per cent).
- Notably, Greens preferences flowed more strongly to the Liberals (26.0 per cent) than in 2013 (17.6 per cent). Greens voters are bound to find Malcolm Turnbull more attractive than his predecessor; he is, after all, one of their own. (The Roy Morgan pollsters have been making this point for some months. When they distribute respondents on the basis of their stated preferences, the Coalition two-party-preferred result is up to one percentage point higher than when respondents’ preferences are simply distributed on the same (party) basis as in 2013—the method employed by most pollsters, including Newspoll. The North Sydney result is consistent with that hypothesis.)
First, three lesser conclusions:
- The lift in the flow of Greens preferences to the Liberals has already been mentioned. If maintained at the general election—as seems likely—it would have the effect of raising the Coalition’s two-party-preferred vote by up to a full percentage point above what most pollsters have been predicting.
- Although the Liberal Democrats had an unusually good candidate in Sam Kennard (son of the late Neville Kennard, an important financial backer in its early days of the Centre for Independent Studies think-tank), he attracted only 2.09 per cent of total votes cast. In 2013 the Liberal Democrats’ Senate vote in North Sydney was almost 9 per cent, but on this occasion the Liberal Party went out of its way to warn voters on its how-to-vote card not to “confuse Liberal with Liberal Democrat”—a warning that seems to have had the desired effect. Taken in conjunction with the disastrous showing of the Liberal Democrats’ candidate in the Canning by-election (finishing last in a twelve-candidate field with only 0.58 per cent of total votes cast), this result would seem to point to a limited future for its continued Senate representation, even in a double dissolution (where the election quota would be halved).
- The same goes—in spades—for the Palmer United Party, whose candidate polled only 0.46 per cent of total votes cast, to finish last.
To turn now to the main game, there can be little doubt that the Liberal Party’s internal machinations damaged its vote. John Ruddick, a former member of the party of some twenty years standing and a North Sydney resident who says he “wants Malcolm Turnbull to succeed”, nevertheless said he would be placing Trent Zimmerman last. “The NSW Liberal Party,” he said, “is bogged down in a morass of factional enforcers protecting an unprincipled collection of lobbyists and sub-standard MPs.” Reinforcing that view, Ted Mack said: “The only reason there is a serious independent campaign is Liberals were given no real choice of candidate.” One very senior Liberal Party member, himself a former senior minister, has told me that he “voted for Trent Zimmerman through gritted teeth”.
Such sentiments, together with other factors mentioned earlier, told against Mr Zimmerman’s candidacy, as did the presence in the contest of as many as ten non-serious contenders—many of whom would have helped to fragment the decisions of otherwise Liberal voters. However, while that fragmentation doubtless damaged Mr Zimmerman’s primary vote, it also had the reverse effect once preferences came to be distributed.
There is no doubt that the slump of almost thirteen percentage points in Mr Zimmerman’s primary vote, compared to Hockey’s result in 2013, came as a nasty shock to the New South Wales Liberal Party. Various adjectives (appalling, extraordinary, catastrophic) were applied to it by sundry commentators. The official line quickly became one of ignoring the primary vote and focusing on the two-party-preferred result, which showed a fall of 5.66 percentage points from the 2013 level. Given that Andrew Hastie, in the Canning by-election held only days after Abbott’s overthrow, suffered only a 6.55 per cent two-party-preferred swing, this was still not a great result, albeit one much easier to talk about if forced to do so!
What then can be said about the implications of the North Sydney by-election for the approaching federal election? First, it seems fair to say that the huge swing against Mr Zimmerman was magnified by factors that will probably have little bearing on the federal vote. Even there, however, so far as New South Wales is concerned, resentment over the council amalgamation matter is still likely to be running high, as is (to a lesser degree) disgust at the reprehensible behaviour of the Liberal Party’s New South Wales Division over pre-selections and more generally. Given these complexities, nobody can evaluate the importance of “the Abbott factor” with any certainty: all one can do is state an opinion.
In my opinion, that factor will be small, but not negligible. Tony Abbott himself is encouraging voters to re-elect the Turnbull government, and no doubt many of those upset by his treatment at the hands of Malcolm Turnbull will hold their noses and follow his advice. If however we bear in mind that the election is now looking likely to be “a damned close-run thing”, even a small coterie of people such as myself may constitute the difference between Liberal marginal seat-holders surviving or just falling short. Interesting times, indeed!
John Stone was formerly Secretary to the Treasury and the leader of the National Party in the Senate.