The first stage of the tax relief – in the form of an offset for low- and middle-income earners when people submit their returns – will be available as soon as the Tax Office makes the necessary arrangements over the next few days. Getting the legislation through this week means there is only minimal slippage from the July 1 start date that was promised in the budget.
The numbers fell into place with Tasmanian crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie declaring she would vote for the package. She had negotiated with the government on her demand that it forgive the $157 million social housing debt her state owes the Commonwealth. This would save Tasmania $15 million a year, which Lambie wants used to deal with issues of homelessness and social housing.
Lambie said: “The good will is there and they know that we’ve got housing problems down there.”
While Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who had said there would be no horse-trading over the package, was publicly coy about the deal, Lambie is confident it will be delivered.
She said some details still had to be sorted out.
What I don’t want to be doing is rushing out saying here’s the money and that’s it. We want to make sure that that money is targeted […] we’re still dealing on good faith. And I look very forward to that over the next four to six weeks.
Cormann told Sky News: “Senator Lambie has been a very forceful advocate.
She has raised issues with us. We are very happy to work through these issues with her. When we are in a position to make further announcements down the track we will.
The other crossbench votes needed for the package come from independent Cory Bernardi and the two Centre Alliance senators.
Centre Alliance extracted a deal over action on gas prices.
It said in a Thursday statement that it had “worked with the government on both short- and long-term reforms to deal with gas market concerns.”
The government would announce the full package in coming weeks, it said.
It would include
changes to the Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism (ADGSM) to deal with current pricing, market transparency measures, measures to deal with the monopoly nature of East Coast gas pipelines and longer term measures to ensure future gas projects deliver surplus supply to the Australian market.
The gas agreement, canvassed publicly in recent days, has caused some blow-back from the industry.
Faced with the inevitability of the tax package passing, Labor said it would continue to pursue its attempt to split the package and then consider its options.
Eyes are now on Lambie’s position on the government’s bid to repeal the medevac act. Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton on Thursday introduced legislation for the repeal. Lambie said she was still making up her mind on how she will vote when the legislation arrives in the Senate. She is set to be the crucial vote.
In an intervention that would resonate with the late Brian Harradine, who was legendary for extracting concessions for Tasmania in return for his Senate vote, Jacqui Lambie has demanded the federal government forgive the state’s housing debt.
The Tasmanian senator – who has returned to the parliament after being disqualified in the citizenship crisis – is the last vital vote if the government is to rely on the crossbench, rather than Labor, to pass its tax package intact on Thursday.
Lambie refused to be drawn publicly until this week, although she’s had plenty of attention. For example the two Centre Alliance senators, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick, journeyed to Devonport to see her. She and they agreed to keep in touch as issues came up.
In the last couple of days, sources have been sure Lambie was in the government’s tax cart.
But on the eve of the vote, she issued a strong statement and video, saying she had “yet to arrive at a final position”. (She supports the first and second stage of the package but is arguing over the final one, delivered years on.)
She condemned homelessness in Tasmania, linking it to the $157 million the state owes the federal government in social housing debt (involving payments of some $15 million a year).
These debts are from funds borrowed by the states and territories from the federal government between 1945 and 1989 to build new housing, maintain existing stock and provide housing assistance.
“Tasmania is paying 50c in every dollar of our state housing budget back to the federal government in interest and debt repayments. That means we are building half as many homes, helping half as many people,” Lambie said.
“This debt is holding Tasmania back and denying shelter to thousands of Tasmanian families. The Commonwealth coffers don’t need $15 million a year from the Tasmanian budget,” she said.
“It’s only by having the balance of power for Tasmania in the Senate that real debt relief is going to happen and that’s what I am here to fight for.
“There is no way in good conscience I can vote for substantial tax cuts without making sure that the people who so desperately need a roof over their heads aren’t left to go without.”
The Tasmanian Liberal government has been pressing the federal government to forgive the debt, although Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz has opposed that, saying it would lead to demands from other states.
The Morrison government has claimed it won’t do any deals in its push to get the tax package through. In fact, this has not been true – Centre Alliance is confident, following detailed negotiations, there will be measures on gas policy to help smooth the way for its votes.
But Lambie’s demand is a very direct quid pro quo.
Senate leader Mathias Cormann, the government’s negotiator on the tax package, declared on Wednesday: “We are always happy to engage with senators in relation to issues of concern to them and their constituents”.
The government almost certainly would have to obtain the support of Tasmanian crossbench senator Jacqui Lambie to amend or repeal the medevac legislation.
Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton on Sunday claimed Labor was reconsidering its position on the legislation, but that was quickly dismissed by his opposite number Kristina Keneally.
The Coalition would need four of the six non-Green crossbench Senate votes, assuming the ALP and Greens opposed.
The government could rely on One Nation, which will have two senators, and Cory Bernardi from the Australian Conservatives.
But that would leave it one vote short. Stirling Griff, one of the two Centre Alliance senators, said Centre Alliance was “100% opposed” to repeal or amendment of the legislation. That position was “non-negotiable”, Griff said.
This would put Lambie, who is returning to the Senate after having to quit in the citizenship crisis, as the swing vote. Her spokeswoman said she was not giving answers on anything yet.
The government said in the election campaign that it would repeal the legislation.
It claimed when the medevac bill was passed – against Coalition opposition during the period of minority government – that it would lead to a flood of transfers from Manus and Nauru, including of people accused of serious crimes. It reopened Christmas Island and said any transferees under the medevac legislation would be sent there.
Dutton said on Sunday just over 30 people had come under the new law, none of whom had been sent to Christmas Island. Asked on the ABC whether they included any criminals or people charged with offences Dutton said he didn’t know. When pressed he said, “we don’t bring anyone to our country where we can’t mitigate the risk”.
Dutton continued to insist the government could be compelled under the legislation to transfer criminals, although the medevac legislation gives the minister power to veto people on security grounds.
The minister claimed Labor was reconsidering its position “and that they would be open to suggestions about how that bill could be repealed or at the very least wound back”.
But Keneally said he had misrepresented Labor’s position; she stressed it supported the legislation.
It was “up to the government to explain if changes are necessary. I have no information that would suggest changes are necessary,” she said.
“If the government believes that the medevac legislation is no longer necessary to ensure that sick people can get the health care they need then the government needs to explain why to the parliament.
“And if the government wants to improve the medevac legislation to ensure that people can more readily get the health care that they need then the government needs to explain that to the parliament.
“The government has said nothing about either of those two aspects of the legislation”.
Dutton said there were now just over 800 people remaining across Nauru and Manus.
He did not think the United States would take the maximum 1,250 people under the deal between Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama.
So far 531 had gone to the US and there were about 295 in the pipeline who had approvals but hadn’t gone yet. More than 300 had been rejected by the US.
He hoped all offered a place would take it up. About 95 had either withdrawn from consideration or rejected an offer. “If we can get those 95 across the line, we get closer to zero”.
In a controversial decision, Australia accepted under the US deal two Rwandan men accused of involvement in the murder of tourists on a gorilla-watching expedition in Uganda in 1999. The government says the men have been found by Australian security agencies not to pose a threat.
Pressed on whether these two were the only ones coming here to fulfil Australia’s side of the deal, Dutton said: “We don’t have plans to bring any others from America at this stage.”
Dutton, while saying it was a matter for the department, also indicated the security company Paladin was likely to have its contract for services on Manus rolled over, despite an ongoing investigation by the Australian National Audit Office into the Home Affairs department’s management of the procurement process for the earlier A$423 million contracts.
Keneally said the A$423 million contract had been “given out by the government in a closed process – a closed rushed process […] to an organisation that was registered in a beach shack on Kangaroo Island, that had one member barred from entering PNG, had another accused of fraud”.
For some time now, Australian voters have rattled the cage of the political establishment. Frustrated with prime ministerial “coups”, political scandals and policy inertia, growing numbers have turned away from the major parties.
Does this mean minor parties and independent candidates will have a significant impact on the coming federal election?
Anti-major party sentiment doesn’t usually disrupt the numbers in parliament by much. Only five of 150 seats weren’t won by the major parties at the 2016 federal election, despite a national minor party/independent vote of over 23%. But a nationwide minor party Senate vote of over 35% in 2016 resulted in a record 20 crossbenchers – helped by a lower quota bar at a double dissolution election.
Familiar groups and faces are well placed to capitalise on this sentiment during the current election campaign.
Despite internal instability rocking its New South Wales branch, the Greens will hope to capitalise on growing progressive support (in Victoria especially) and an expected anti-Coalition swing to secure Senate influence.
Yet with recent Senate voting rule changes being tested for the first time at a normal half-Senate election, the Greens may in fact struggle to retain, let alone build on, their current nine Senate spots. Final Senate seats in most states will be fought over by a slew of (mainly right-wing) minor parties.
Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP), Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON), and – unlikely as it seems – Fraser Anning’s new Conservative National Party will chase the “protest vote” in all states and (apart from PHON) territories.
But intense competition for the conservative vote means they and other minor parties stand only an outside chance of winning lower house seats. One exception is Bob Katter likely holding Kennedy in north Queensland for his eponymous Australian Party.
Still, an expected high minor party vote will keep the major parties – and the media – focused on preferencing arrangements throughout the campaign. These preferences will likely play a key role in electing minor party candidates to the Senate, potentially returning familiar faces like One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts from Queensland.
Deference to preferences
Recent opinion poll results have unexpectedly placed Palmer’s party ahead of the field of minor parties on the right. Months of saturation advertising, it seems, have imprinted the billionaire’s messaging on voters’ minds. Yet this sudden poll prominence, like Palmer’s billboard pledge to “make Australia great”, is largely illusory.
Nevertheless, both major parties have responded to this seeming upsurge in UAP support. The Coalition has hurriedly concluded a preferencing arrangement that sees Palmer and Prime Minister Scott Morrison somewhat “reconciled”. The deal might deliver much-needed preferences to Coalition MPs in marginal seats, particularly in Queensland. It also increases the chances of Palmer candidates – and the man himself – winning a Senate seat.
But these are big “maybes”. Minor party voters are renowned for following their own preference choices. In 2013, voters’ preferences from Palmer’s United Party candidates split only 54% the Coalition’s way.
Clearly stung by the attention being shown to Palmer, Hanson has announced PHON will preference Labor last in some key marginal seats held by Liberal incumbents. That includes Peter Dutton, whose seat of Dickson is under siege. In 2016, PHON took a different approach when it preferenced against sitting MPs, costing the Coalition its hold on Queensland seats like Herbert and Longman.
As part of the same deal, PHON will exchange preferences with the Nationals – whose leader Michael McCormack claimed “it just made sense” – lifting the Nationals’ hopes in marginal and at-risk regional seats.
Labor has also sealed a deal to boost its chances in marginal Victorian seats, concluding an arrangement with Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. This will see Labor how-to-vote cards in tightly contested seats like Dunkley and Corangamite suggest second preferences go to Hinch’s Senate candidates ahead of the Greens (repeating Labor’s approach at the 2016 election).
But doing preference deals with minor parties carries reputational risks, as former Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett has warned. As has often been the case with personality-driven outfits, choosing suitable or qualified candidates easily brings minor parties undone.
Anning’s party has already stumbled badly. A pair of candidates in Victoria and the ACT has been called into question, and a party supporter allegedly assaulted journalists in Sydney.
Hanson’s party, no stranger to this pitfall, is still hosing down the controversy of the Al Jazeera taped conversations with party insiders, which has likely cost the party some support. Freshly released video footage has now forced Queensland Senate candidate, Steve Dickson, to resign in disgrace, in another blow to the often shambolic party’s standing.
Palmer’s candidates are similarly coming under scrutiny with doubts raised over citizenship qualifications, putting legitimate doubts into voters’ minds just as pre-polling has commenced.
Familiarity is key for independents
The best chances for independents are in lower house seats, yet there’s been only a dozen elected to parliament in the last several decades. Those who’ve broken through in election campaigns, like Kerryn Phelps at last year’s Wentworth byelection, typically benefit when there’s some controversy or ill-feeling towards an incumbent or their party.
But in the absence of full-on media glare of a high-profile by-election contest, Phelps might struggle to hold her seat – assuming the angst of local voters over Malcolm Turnbull’s deposing has dissipated.
Personal profile and high media interest puts Zali Steggall in with a chance to unseat Tony Abbott in Warringah. Likewise, a well-organised local campaign structure such as “Voices for Indi” behind Cathy McGowan’s hopeful successor, Helen Haines, can make the difference – though transition of support from one independent to another isn’t assured.
Newcomers on the ballot paper generally find the odds against them. Candidates with an established record and voter recognition, such as Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania’s Clark (like the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie in South Australia’s Mayo), enjoy an easier path to reelection.
Similarly, Rob Oakeshott is given a good chance of winning the New South Wales seat of Cowper from retiring Nationals MP, Luke Hartsuyker. He carries strong name recognition from his time as Independent MP for the neighbouring seat of Lyne.
But recognition alone mightn’t be enough for Julia Banks, the former Liberal MP for Chisholm in Victoria who is now challenging in Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders. Her decision to preference Labor’s candidate above Hunt might turn away potential support from Liberal-leaning voters, yet could put the seat within Labor’s grasp.
The chances of an “independent tide” sweeping several seats this election is unlikely, in part due to the ability of major parties to drown out the competition. And counter to long speculation about the “march of the minors”, there could in fact be a reduced crossbench in both the lower house and Senate.
But voter dissatisfaction with the major parties persists, and minor party preferences are likely to play a critical role in many seats.
The prominence of minor parties will maintain an air of unpredictability for the remainder of the campaign, clouding an election outcome many saw not long ago as a foregone conclusion.
In the wake of the far-right terrorist atrocity in Christchurch on March 15, there has been much condemnation of independent senator Fraser Anning’s anti-Muslim comments. Anning won just 19 personal votes below the line, so how was he fairly elected?
In the Senate, voters can either vote “above the line” or “below the line”. Above the line votes will go to the party’s candidates in the order they are placed on the ballot paper. Below the line votes are personal votes for a candidate.
At normal federal elections, six senators per state are elected, and a quota is one-seventh of the vote, or 14.3%. As the 2016 election was a “double dissolution”, where all senators were up for election, 12 senators per state were elected, and the quota was reduced to one-thirteenth of the vote, or 7.7%.
Electoral reforms were implemented at the 2016 election. Voters were asked to number at least six boxes above the line, though a “1” only vote would still be accepted. The effect was that voters would direct their own preferences once their most preferred party was excluded from the count. Previously, parties controlled their voters’ preferences, and still do in Victoria and WA, leading to bizarre results.
Voting below the line was also made easier. Voters were asked to number at least 12 boxes, though only six numbers were required for a formal vote. Previously, every box below the line needed to be numbered.
In the Senate system, any candidate who has a quota is immediately elected, and their surplus is distributed. Major parties elect multiple senators by this method, as almost all of the top candidate’s surplus goes to the second candidate, and so on.
When there are no more surpluses to distribute, candidates are excluded from the count starting with the candidate with the smallest number of votes, and their preferences distributed. During this process, candidates that reach quota are elected, and their surpluses distributed.
With the current Senate system’s semi-optional preferential voting, there will often be two or more candidates short of a quota with all preferences finished. In this case, the candidates further ahead are elected.
How this applies to Anning
The whole One Nation ticket had over 250,000 votes (9.2% or 1.19 quotas) in the Queensland Senate. Over 229,000 of these votes were above the line ticket votes, and virtually all the rest were personal votes for lead candidate Pauline Hanson.
Hanson was immediately elected, and her surplus was passed on to One Nation’s second candidate, Malcolm Roberts, who had just 77 below the line votes. In the race for the last seat, the Liberal Democrats started the preference phase of the count with 0.37 quotas, and Roberts (0.19 quotas) was also behind Nick Xenophon Team (0.27 quotas), Family First (0.25 quotas), Katter’s Australian Party (0.23 quotas) and Glenn Lazarus Team (0.22 quotas).
With nine candidates left, two of whom were certain to be elected (Labor’s Chris Ketter and the LNP’s Barry O’Sullivan), Roberts already had 0.45 quotas, thanks to voter-directed preferences from Australian Liberty Alliance (0.14 quotas) and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers (0.14 quotas). At this point, Roberts was tied for the lead with Family First from the seven contenders for the last seat, and ahead of everyone else.
With assistance from Glenn Lazarus Team and Katter’s Australian Party preferences, Roberts defeated Family First for the last seat by 0.78 quotas to 0.69.
When Roberts was disqualified by the High Court in October 2017 over Section 44 issues, he was effectively replaced in the count by Fraser Anning, One Nation’s third candidate. That is how Anning won his seat despite earning just 19 personal below the line votes.
Although the new Senate system makes it easier to vote below the line, above the line votes were still over 90% of all formal Senate votes in all jurisdictions except Tasmania and the ACT at the 2016 election, according to analyst Kevin Bonham. Only one candidate was elected against the party ordering of candidates on personal below the line votes: Labor’s Lisa Singh in Tasmania.
Anning’s 19 personal votes and Roberts’ 77 are far fewer than those received by any other winning candidate in Queensland. The other 11 winners (five LNP, four Labor, one Green and Pauline Hanson) all received at least 1,000 personal votes. Prior to the election, there was no interest in any One Nation candidate other than Hanson.
Can the major parties prevent the election of extreme candidates?
In Queensland 2016, the major parties were not responsible for Roberts’ election. Both Labor’s fourth candidate, Ketter, and the LNP’s fifth candidate, O’Sullivan, started the preference phase of the count well short of a quota. O’Sullivan eventually made quota, but Ketter was elected with 0.97 quotas. O’Sullivan’s tiny surplus assisted Family First rather than Roberts.
In general, the total vote for the major parties has been declining in the past two decades, and as a result, their influence on who wins has been reduced. The combined share for the two major parties in the Queensland 2016 Senate was just 61.7%. By contrast, the last time One Nation was strong, gaining 10.0% of the Queensland Senate vote in 2001, the total major party vote was 75.1%.
In the lower house, Labor will put One Nation behind the Coalition on its how to vote cards, but there has been some infighting within the Coalition over whether to return this favour.
On March 28, Scott Morrison announced that the Liberals would preference Labor ahead of One Nation in all seats; this applies only to the Liberals, not the Nationals, and it is not clear what the Queensland LNP will do. There had been pressure on the Liberals following revelations that One Nation solicited donations from the US National Rifle Association.
One Nation won one seat at the 2017 Queensland election because the LNP preferenced it above Labor, so putting One Nation below Labor will assist Labor in any seats where One Nation is ahead of the Liberals.
In the Senate, neither major party is likely to put the other major party in its top six preferences for above the line voters. It is likely that, as far as vote recommendations go, both major parties will treat the other major party the same as One Nation in the Senate.
Even if the major parties placed the other major party in the top six preferences on their how to vote material, the follow the card rate was low in 2016. According to Bonham, about 30% of Coalition voters in the mainland states followed the card, 14% of Labor voters and 10% of Greens voters. No other party had a follow the card rate above 10%.
Coalition wins majority at NSW election
The ABC has called all 93 lower house seats for the March 23 New South Wales election. The Coalition won 48 of the 93 seats (down six since the 2015 election), Labor won 36 seats (up two), the Greens three (steady), the Shooters three (up three) and independents three (up one). The Coalition will have a three-seat majority.
Seat changes are compared with the 2015 election results, and do not include Coalition losses in the Wagga Wagga and Orange byelections. If measured against the pre-election parliament, the Coalition lost four seats.
Brexit delayed until at least April 12
On March 21, a European leaders’ summit was held. Leaders of the 27 EU nations, not including the UK, agreed to delay the date of Brexit until April 12 (originally March 29). If UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal passes the House of Commons, Brexit would be delayed until May 22 to allow necessary legislation to pass.
European parliament elections will be held from May 23-26. If the UK were to participate in these elections, a longer extension could be given, but the UK must inform the European Commission of its intent to participate by April 12, hence the new deadline.
I wrote for The Poll Bludger about Brexit on March 22. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled that May’s deal cannot be brought back to the House, but there is a workaround – if May had the votes. May’s deal was defeated by 149 votes on March 12, after a record 230-vote loss on January 15.
In the wake of comments about the Christchurch massacre, members of the public have raised the question of whether a senator can be expelled from the Senate for making offensive statements.
It is now well known that members of parliament can have their seat vacated in the parliament due to their disqualification under section 44 of the Constitution for reasons including dual citizenship, bankruptcy, holding certain government offices or being convicted of offences punishable by imprisonment for one year or longer.
But there is no ground of disqualification for behaviour that brings a House of Parliament into disrepute. This was something left to the house to deal with by way of expulsion.
Section 49 of the Commonwealth Constitution provides that until the Commonwealth parliament declares the powers, privileges and immunities of its houses, they shall be those the British House of Commons had at the time of federation (1901).
The House of Commons then had, and continues to have, the power to expel its members. The power was rarely exercised, but was most commonly used when a member was found to have committed a criminal offence or contempt of parliament. Because of the application of section 49 of the Constitution, such a power was also initially conferred upon both houses of the Australian parliament.
The House of Representatives exercised that power in 1920 when it expelled a member of the Labor opposition, Hugh Mahon. He had given a speech at a public meeting that criticised the actions of the British in Ireland and expressed support for an Australian republic.
Prime Minister Billy Hughes (whom Mahon had previously voted to expel from the Labor Party over conscription in 1916), moved to expel Mahon from the House of Representatives on November 11 – a dangerous date for dismissals. He accused Mahon of having made “seditious and disloyal utterances” that were “inconsistent with his oath of allegiance”. The opposition objected, arguing that no action should be taken unless Mahon was tried and convicted by the courts. Mahon was expelled by a vote taken on party lines.
In 2016, a private member’s motion was moved to recognise that his expulsion was unjust and a misuse of the power then invested in the house.
The power of the houses to expel members, as granted by section 49, was subject to the Commonwealth parliament declaring what the powers, privileges and immunities of the houses shall be. This occurred with the enactment of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.
It was enacted as a result of an inquiry by a parliamentary committee, which pointed out the potential for this power to be abused and that as a matter of democratic principle, it was up to voters to decide the composition of the parliament. This is reinforced by sections seven and 24 of the Constitution, which say that the houses of parliament are to be “directly chosen by the people”.
As a consequence, the power to expel was removed from the houses. Section 8 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 says:
A House does not have power to expel a member from membership of a House.
This means that currently neither house of the Commonwealth parliament has the power to expel one of its members.
Could the position be changed?
Just as the parliament had the legislative power to limit the powers and privileges of its houses, it could legislate to amend or repeal section eight so that a house could, in future, expel one of its members, either on any ground or for limited reasons.
Whether or not this is wise remains doubtful. The reasons given by the parliamentary committee for the removal of this power remain strong. The power to expel is vulnerable to misuse when one political party holds a majority in the house. Equally, there is a good democratic argument that such matters should be left to the voters at election time.
However, expulsion is still an option in other Australian parliaments, such as the NSW parliament. It’s used in circumstances where the member is judged guilty of conduct unworthy of a member of parliament and where the continuing service of the member is likely to bring the house into disrepute.
It is commonly the case, though, that a finding of illegality, dishonesty or corruption is first made by a court, a royal commission or the Independent Commission Against Corruption before action to expel is taken. The prospect of expulsion is almost always enough to cause the member to resign without expulsion formally occurring. So, actual cases of expulsion remain extremely rare.
Are there any other remedies to deal with objectionable behaviour?
The houses retain powers to suspend members for offences against the house, such as disorderly conduct. But it is doubtful that a house retains powers of suspension in relation to conduct that does not amount to a breach of standing orders or an “offence against the house”. Suspension may therefore not be available in relation to statements made outside the house that do not affect its proceedings.
Instead, the house may choose to censure such comments by way of a formal motion. Such motions are more commonly moved against ministers in relation to government failings. A censure motion is regarded as a serious form of rebuke, but it does not give rise to any further kind of punishment such as a fine or suspension.
The primary remedy for dealing with unacceptable behaviour remains at the ballot box. This is a pertinent reminder to all voters of the importance of being vigilant in the casting of their vote to ensure the people they elect to high office are worthy of fulfilling it.
Tony Abbott pulled the panic lever on Friday, and Malcolm Turnbull pushed the revenge button.
The gainers from these spectacular plays were Zali Steggall, the independent candidate who is trying to oust Abbott in Warringah, and Bill Shorten, who is handed another break in his campaign to defeat the government.
Years ago, in a much earlier round of the climate and emissions wars, Abbott referred to himself as a “weather vane.” That accurate self-assessment invited ridicule, but his latest change of direction is beyond absurd.
For months, Abbott was calling for Australia to exit Paris, like the Americans. It was part of his unremitting campaign against Turnbull, and the then PM’s drive for a national energy guarantee.
But Abbott’s new view is that leaving Paris is unnecessary.“I’m not calling for us to pull out now,” he told a Warringah candidates’ debate on Friday.
“We had an emissions obsession that needed to be broken and it’s now changed”, with a new prime minister and a new energy minister, he said.
“We can meet our Paris targets without substantial policy change and without significant additional costs on the economy.”
Abbott’s beef with the Paris agreement – for which his government set Australia’s targets – was tied to his jihad against his successor.
What’s mostly changed, though, is Abbott’s own circumstances. He faces what’s for him an existential threat – the risk of being driven out of parliamentary life. Steggall has climate change at the centre of her campaign.
But can Abbott really think his local voters are so naïve that they’ll be convinced by such an obviously expedient shift of position? They know him too well for that.
University of Canberra research has shown they are critical of him, especially over his opposition to same-sex marriage and his wrecking behaviour.
Isn’t his risk that they could simply become more cynical, concluding he’s taking them for mugs, and he could worsen rather than improve his position?
And apart from how Warringah will read his latest shift, what about his vocal right-wing supporters? You’d expect they would be shocked by this backflip.
Abbott didn’t do a full conversion, however – he remains a coal advocate, suggesting the Snowy Hydro Corporation could invest in it.
“Coal-fired power remains the cheapest form of baseload power,” he declared.
That was enough to bring in Turnbull, who slapped down his nemesis from afar. Oceans and time zones mean nothing when your anger burns hot and Twitter’s at hand.
“But it isn’t, ” Turnbull tweeted from London in response to Abbott’s
claim about cheapness. “Today the cheapest form of new dispatchable or
base load energy is renewables plus storage.
“We are now able to have lower emissions and lower prices but we need
to plan it using engineering & economics rather than ideology and
In another tweet Turnbull continued, “The reason the fossil fuel lobby and their apologists rail against Snowy Hydro 2.0, and have tried to stop it, is because it delivers the massive storage which does make renewables reliable and this enable our progress to lower emissions and lower energy prices”.
Turnbull was already fired up, having in a BBC interview (recorded on Wednesday London time) once again canvassed the circumstances of his political demise in that “peculiarly Australian form of madness” of last August. Unloading on those who’d brought him down, he contended that “you could argue, that their concern was not that I would lose the election but rather that I would win it”.
If it isn’t enough for a government, weeks out from the announcement of the election, to have two former PMs refighting the climate/energy wars, the Nationals are parading their own obsessions and divisions.
A letter this week from half a dozen Queensland Nationals called for the government to underwrite a new power generation project in regional Queensland (they refrained from specifying coal but that’s what they were thinking). They also said the government should put its “big stick” legislation to discipline power companies to a parliamentary vote – despite the fact it would be amended unacceptably
and so get nowhere.
This was followed on Friday by a Courier Mail report that some Nationals, discontented with Michael McCormack’s leadership, were pushing to have him replaced by Barnaby Joyce before the election.
The agitation is driven particularly by the situation in Queensland, where several Nationals’ seats are at risk – notably Capricornia, Flynn and Dawson.
Joyce did nothing to calm things on Friday when he told the Northern Daily Leader he was “not driving the process”, but if a spill were called “of course I would stand”.
McCormack is not cutting through electorally and critics are unhappy he does not stand up enough to the Liberals.
He’s considered certain to lose his leadership post-election, assuming the loss of Nationals seats.
But any attempt at moving him before the election would be madness – and most Nationals do appear to accept that.
Consider how it would look, in budget week (the only time the parliamentary party is scheduled to be in town before the election) if the Nationals were to roll the Deputy Prime Minister, or make a move to do so.
Anyway, Joyce is now a highly controversial figure within and outside the party. He might win some votes in Queensland, but he might well lose some for the government elsewhere.
With a battle for the “women’s vote” so live at this election, and Labor going all out to exploit Coalition weaknesses in this area, it would be lunacy to think of bringing back someone whose exit from the leadership was partly triggered by allegations (denied) of sexual harassment.
Zali Steggall is a poster person for a batch of high-profile
centre-right independents contesting seats in the May election.
Her bid to oust Tony Abbott from his Liberal heartland Sydney seat of Warringah is receiving national attention and the former prime minister is clearly feeling under pressure.
But, according to qualitative research in the seat this week, Steggall – former Olympian, lawyer, local – is yet to embed herself in the minds of those voters who are potentially willing to turn against Abbott.
The focus groups, sponsored by the University of Canberra’s Democracy 2025 project and conducted by Landscape Research, found mixed feelings about Abbott, who has held the northern beaches seat since 1994, but uncertainty about alternatives.
The four groups, each of seven to nine “soft” voters (who haven’t made up their minds) drawn from across the electorate, were held on Monday and Tuesday. This research is not predictive but taps into general attitudes.
Federal politics isn’t top of mind for these Warringah residents, many of whom display conservative views on economics while being socially progressive (for example, disdaining the use of border security as a political weapon).
Their concerns focus more on infrastructure, particularly roads and traffic congestion, population growth, environmental concerns on the northern beaches and housing affordability for their children.
Older voters are more engaged, more readily able to discuss current issues in federal politics and more concerned with the impact on their area. Younger voters have largely tuned out, feeling powerless.
Interestingly, in view of Steggall’s very strong pitch on climate change, that issue barely rates a mention, with people’s environmental concerns more on the loss of farmland to mining, the decline of the Murray Darling Basin, and the impact on the local beaches of population growth in the longer term.
Older Warringah voters trust Scott Morrison more than Bill Shorten to run the country. But for quite a few this is grudging. Morrison is the “least worst” option – they don’t trust him that much, but they trust Shorten less.
Younger people are divided as to which leader they trust more. Shorten is regarded as having the more progressive and inclusive policy agenda. Those younger voters who trust Morrison more see him as more likeable and sympathetic and a “straight shooter” as well as having stronger economic credentials.
But there is some concern among both older and younger voters about Morrison’s religious beliefs, and their possible influence on policy and pushing the Liberal Party to the right. “Morrison’s too much of a radical Christian, a bit of a loose cannon,” an older woman says.
Some voters see Shorten’s leadership position as more stable than
Morrison’s (suggesting they haven’t tuned into the Liberals’ new rule that a Liberal PM winning an election would see out the term).
A positive for the prime minister is the Liberals’ historical
reputation as better economic managers. Shorten’s union background and character are cited as negatives for him.
While a few younger voters support Labor’s policies on capital gains tax, negative gearing and franking credits as being more equitable, many older voters are highly critical of the policies. A 66-year-old woman admin officer laments: “I will be a self-funded retiree when I retire, and my whole life is stuffed up, because everything I’ve worked for is about to go arse-up.”
Stability – or lack of it – is a recurring theme among Warringah soft voters. They see politicians from both sides as focussed on themselves, and the leadership coups as evidence they are more preoccupied with power than “doing the right thing by the people”.
For his critics in these groups, Abbott’s trenchant stand against
same-sex marriage is clear evidence of being out of touch. Three
quarters of Warringah electors voted yes in the 2017 plebiscite.
A younger female says Abbott “has lost a lot of trust over his whole attitude towards women, and the same sex marriage issue”. A female nurse from Curl Curl declares he’s “past it and hasn’t got his finger on the pulse. He’s very old school, very set in his ways, bit of a misogynist. He’s very 1950s in his thinking”.
On the other hand, for some participants Abbott’s sticking to his
beliefs has been a plus, a sign of strength of character and
There was passing reference to Abbott as a climate change sceptic, but his stance on same-sex marriage, which people cite repeatedly to illustrate his being out of touch with the electorate, aggravates them far more than his views on climate change.
Some voters who might disagree with him on issues see him as tenacious and committed to a life of public service. “He’s one of the most principled politicians I’ve ever seen,” says a 59-year old male musician from Dee Why.
Running in Abbott’s favour is his local activism. His lifesaving,
firefighting and general community engagement are well known. But his long tenure of itself can work against him. A 47-year old mother of two from Allambie Heights says: “I don’t dislike Tony Abbott. I just think he’s been in the job too long”.
Others regard him as untrustworthy and bitter. A female retiree from Mosman says it is clear he “has spent a lot of time in the parliament getting revenge and caused the most enormous amount of damage to the party”.
But the challenge for Steggall is to turn discontent with the incumbent into support for her.
As the researcher’s summary of the findings puts it: “What might appear to be a high-profile candidature to those looking in from outside the peninsula, does not yet appear to have penetrated the streets of Warringah.
“Some participants had never heard of Steggall. Some had only heard her name and knew nothing else about her, while a few knew she was an Olympian and/or a lawyer, and that she has children and has been married twice; certainly their knowledge of her at this time is not enough to make her an obvious alternative vote choice to Abbott.
“The dilemma for Steggall’s campaign is that neither the former
Liberal-voting Abbott defectors nor the ‘anyone-but-Abbott’ voters are automatically falling her way,” the report says.
“The very fact of deciding (definitely or probably) not to vote for Abbott causes these Warringah electors to consider their vote more carefully, to ponder the issues and weigh up their options on candidates (seriously for the first time in more than two decades).
“Some are aware that there is a ‘strong Indigenous female candidate’ (Susan Moylan-Coombs) and while her name is not top of mind for them, ‘she looks interesting’. The Labor candidate did not rate a mention across all four groups. Minor parties such as the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, as well as potential other independent candidates, are also under consideration by some”.
Older voters are more aware of Steggall, her legal career and her
father’s local legal practice. The fact she’s been an Olympian is a plus for some, indicating discipline; they see her legal qualification as indicating intelligence. A couple of the participants have received direct marketing information from her, making them feel more positive towards her. A 40-year old male from Freshwater who’s been getting “a lot” of Steggall material says: “She’s an independent, she’s moderate. Perfect.”
The assessment from a male business development manager from Balgowlah reflects the ambivalence in some voters’ minds: “There is something exciting about her, and she’s different, but you can’t have that trust in her because there’s no track record there, so you’re really just taking a leap of faith”.
As the researcher sums up from the group discussions, at this stage Steggall “is a local by geography but has yet to prove her mettle as a worthy community advocate.”
But this contest has a long way to run.
Postcript:Listen to interviews with Abbott and Steggall on The Conversation’s Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast
An extraordinary amount of hype and some confected hysteria preceded Tuesday’s vote on the medical transfer legislation.
The government threw everything at trying to avoid a defeat. In a last stand, it fell back on a constitutional argument – backed by
Solicitor-General advice – that carried no practical weight and was simply circumvented by the majority that passed the bill in the House of Representatives.
While the government frantically attempted to thwart Labor and the crossbench, Scott Morrison also ran the line that he wasn’t that fussed. Afterwards he told a news conference: “Votes will come and votes will go, they do not trouble me.” That claim wouldn’t pass a fact check.
This was a big vote, and everyone knew it. Morrison operates a
minority government and Tuesday’s loss underscored that he can’t
automatically get his way. (Ironically, in the last days of Turnbull’s majority government, the threat of losing a House vote came from internal dissidents.)
The next test for Morrison will be on whether the House agrees to
extra sitting days to discuss the measures from the banking royal
commission. For procedural reasons, this needs 76 votes, one more than the 75 required on the medical transfer bill. The government has been leaning heavily on Bob Katter, the crossbencher who will be the key.
While the government looked rattled as the votes on the medical
transfer bill proceeded, Labor was calm and steely.
For all the talk about Labor’s misjudgement on the issue, this week it has moved cautiously and methodically.
Originally pushed by the crossbench into taking a stand on
humanitarian grounds – the bill is based on a proposal from
independent Kerryn Phelps – Labor has sought to display compassion but contain the political risk.
Bill Shorten, knowing the danger, decided the version of the bill
coming from the Senate (which Labor had supported there) left the ALP too exposed. He flagged last week he’d like a “middle” course.
So the opposition came up with amendments to give the minister wider discretion and more time in making decisions, and to limit the application of the legislation to those on Nauru and Manus now. The latter change was to minimise the “pull” factor – the extent to which the new arrangement would encourage the people smugglers.
Then it was a matter of persuading the required six crossbenchers.
They accepted in the negotiations that a modified bill was better than nothing (though there was some Greens cavilling).
In the House, the ALP troops were kept carefully in check; the emotion was turned down; the speeches from the bill’s supporters were few and brief. Labor just wanted one thing in the chamber – a win. This wasn’t the time to grandstand.
The government, wounded and worried, is seeing this as one (albeit
major) battle in the long war to the election. Its spruikers will say that in defeat it has had a victory – that Labor has given the
Coalition ammunition for the campaign.
It’s true the bill has breathed new life into the border security
debate, but whether this will be enough to do Labor serious harm is an open question. `
The ALP is always vulnerable on boats. On the other hand, boats are lower in voters’ minds than they used to be.
The government will turn up the dial by announcing “contingency plans” against fresh arrivals. Morrison, having accused Shorten of
undermining offshore processing, is already moving on to the claim that he couldn’t be trusted to be strong on turnbacks.
Goodness knows how the politics would play out if a boat appeared on the horizon in the next few weeks. You can be sure, however, that the government would be quick to tell us about it, and point the finger at Shorten.
In all this, the bill itself (which has to go back to the Senate for a tick off on the amendments) should be kept in perspective.
The minister has a veto on “security” grounds, including being able to exclude anyone who has committed a major crime. The composition of the medical panel which would have the final say on other transfers is broad and balanced.
Probably, over a period, there would be a lot of transfers out of the 1000 people offshore. But there have already been nearly 900 (some after legal action). These transfers have amounted to a backdoor route into Australia.
If the legislation in the longer term opens that door a little wider, it will also be a way of “settling” people in Australia without acknowledging that is being done.
More of the same? Or a radical change? It depends how you look at it.
This week’s Newspoll, conducted February 7-10 from a sample of 1,570, gave Labor a 53-47 lead, unchanged from last fortnight. Primary votes were 39% Labor (up one), 37% Coalition (steady), 9% Greens (steady) and 5% One Nation (down one) – One Nation’s lowest Newspoll vote since February 2018.
43% were satisfied with Scott Morrison (up three), and 45% were dissatisfied (down two), for a net approval of -2, up five points. Bill Shorten’s net approval was down two points to -15. Morrison led Shorten by 44-35 as better PM (43-36 last fortnight).
There has been much debate in the last fortnight about Labor’s proposal to abolish franking credit cash refunds. Voters were opposed by 44-35, but this is down from 48-30 opposition in December. Opposition was strongest among those aged over 65 (59-28 opposed).
Voters supported reducing investor tax breaks, such as negative gearing and capital gains tax deductions, by a 51-32 margin (47-33 in November).
It has been over five months since Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull as PM in late August 2018. In nine Newspolls, his net approval has been in the single digits, positive or negative.
The last three Newspolls of 2018 were all 55-45 to Labor, while the first two of 2019 have been 53-47. I believe the Coalition has been assisted by Morrison’s relative popularity and a greater distance from the events of last August.
In Turnbull’s last four Newspolls as PM, the Coalition trailed by just 51-49, but Turnbull’s ratings were weaker than Morrison’s, with a peak net approval of -6. However, Turnbull’s ratings would have been better if not for the hard right’s hatred of him; it is plausible that 10% of the electorate disliked him from the right. Morrison has no problem with his right flank.
The Coalition is perceived as too close to big business (see Essential below), and Greg Jericho wrote in The Guardian that the latest data are not good for the Australian economy. A key question is whether Morrison’s ratings eventually fall due to the unpopularity of most Coalition policies. Economic credibility is likely to be important if the economy slows.
Essential poll: 52-48 to Labor
Last week’s Essential poll, conducted January 23-31 from a sample of 1,650, gave Labor a 52-48 lead, a one-point gain for the Coalition since Essential’s mid-January poll. Primary votes were 38% Coalition (steady), 36% Labor (down two), 10% Greens (steady) and 7% One Nation (steady).
The fieldwork period and the sample size were both larger than usual for Essential – normally Essential is conducted over four days with a sample a bit over 1,000.
By 47-41, voters agreed that one of the reasons why there are relatively few female MPs is that women choose not to get involved with politics. By 46-39, they disagreed with the proposition that voters preferred to elect men, rather than women. By 72-20, they disagreed with women being less capable politicians. Gender quotas were supported 46-40, but Coalition voters were opposed 50-37.
37% supported a separate national day to recognise Indigenous Australians alongside Australia Day, 15% thought Australia Day should be replaced, and 40% did not support a separate day.
At least 50% thought that private health insurance companies, big banks, mining companies and big business wanted the Coalition to win the next election. Labor had a lead on this question with pensioners and people with a disability, and at least 50% with families with young children and the unemployed.
Seat polls of Warringah, Stirling and Pearce
A ReachTEL poll of the NSW seat of Warringah for GetUp, from a sample of 622, gave independent Zali Steggall a 54-46 lead over incumbent Tony Abbott. Primary votes and fieldwork dates were not included in the media report. In 2016, Abbott won Warringah by 61.6-38.4 against the Greens, and 61.1-38.9 against Labor.
60% thought Abbott’s performance as a local member poor, and 60% said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who would tackle climate change – 78% among those who had defected from Abbott.
A Labor internal poll of the WA seat of Stirling, conducted after Michael Keenan announced his retirement from a sample of 950, gave Labor a 1.5% lead after preferences. In 2016, Keenan won Stirling by a 6.1% margin. Labor and the Liberals were tied at 36% each on primary votes with 6.8% undecided.
A GetUp ReachTEL poll of the WA seat of Pearce, conducted January 16 from a sample of 674, gave the Liberals a 52-48 lead over Labor (53.6-46.4 at the 2016 election).
Seat polls are very unreliable, but Stirling and Warringah are inner metropolitan seats, while Pearce is outer metropolitan. I believe the Coalition will struggle most in better-educated inner metropolitan seats.
The three seat polls were commissioned by left-aligned groups. However, ReachTEL asks for voting intentions first. Media-commissioned polls are superior to polls from political interest groups, but seat polls are unreliable in any case.
SA byelections and NSW pill testing Newspoll
Byelections occurred on Saturday in the South Australian state seats of Cheltenham and Enfield, following the resignations of Labor’s Jay Weatherill and John Rau respectively. Labor retained both seats easily, with primary vote swings to Labor of 6.6% in both Cheltenham and Enfield since the March 2018 election. The Liberals did not contest either seat.
In an additional question conducted with last fortnight’s NSW Newspoll that had a 50-50 tie, voters were in favour of the NSW government providing a pill testing service at music festivals by a 56-35 margin. Over 70% of Labor and Greens voters supported pill testing, while Coalition voters were narrowly opposed 49-45.
On January 25, the US government shutdown ended when President Donald Trump accepted a bill that would reopen the government until February 15 without funding for the southern border wall he had demanded. The 35-day shutdown was the longest, beating the previous record of 21 days from 1995-96. Trump has suggested declaring a national emergency if Congress cannot agree to fund the wall by February 15.
In the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate, Trump’s ratings fell to 39.3% approve, 56.0% disapprove on January 26. Since then, his ratings have recovered to 40.2% approve, 55.1% disapprove. However, Trump’s ratings among Republicans are well over 80% approve.
A second shutdown could occur after talks between Democratic and Republican members of Congress broke down. To avert a shutdown, new funding must be passed by Friday (Saturday Melbourne time).
Given strong opposition to Trump in the polls, he needs the US economy to stay strong to have a reasonable chance of re-election in 2020. Despite the January shutdown, the economy added 304,000 jobs in that month.