Thursday, January 28
Malcolm Mackerras muses on this and other recent by-elections in the Canberra Times.
Wednesday, January 27
Electoral commissioner Kay Mousley has officially rejected the Liberals’ request for a recount, on the basis that specific concerns about the counting of votes had not been identified. The mere closeness of the result was deemed insufficient grounds for a recount. Below is the piece I wrote for yesterday’s edition of Crikey, previously available to subscribers only. Martin Hamilton-Smith’s office has been in touch to dispute the claim that the “super Saturday” concept referred to below was seriously considered, saying it came down to “one MP” who had been “canvassing the notion to media”.
For psephologists and related species of political tragic, by-elections can’t happen often enough. But for normal people, forced mid-term visits to the polling booth rank somewhere around brain surgery on lists of favourite things. No political operative should ever need reminding of this, but it appears the South Australian Liberal Party did – and now has been, in terms it won’t forget in a hurry.
Saturday’s preference count for the Frome by-election, held a week earlier upon the retirement of former Premier Rob Kerin, gave the Liberal Party the rudest of shocks three days after it had issued a press release claiming victory. Both Liberal and Labor scrutineers were convinced that Liberal candidate Terry Boylan had survived an early scare, thanks to Nationals voters who ignored the party’s recommendation to direct second preferences to independent candidate Geoff Brock. It was believed this would prevent Brock from getting ahead of Labor’s John Rohde, resulting in his exclusion at the second last count. That being so, the State Electoral Office’s indicative two-party count pointed to an unconvincing final Liberal margin over Labor of 1.7 per cent.
However, it seems scrutineers obsessing over the Nationals had neglected to consider the actions of Greens voters, who in the absence of guidance from the party’s how-to-vote card were thought to have followed their normal practice of putting Labor second. In fact, 42 per cent of Greens preferences flowed to Brock against 37 per cent to Labor – enough for Brock to emerge a bare 30 votes ahead of Rohde, before storming home on Labor preferences to defeat Boylan 9987 votes to 9322.
Before the evening was through, a Liberal Party that could previously be heard expressing nothing but warm goodwill about their good mate Kero suddenly found voice to complain about the “obscure” reasons given for his retirement, which had “fuelled resentment” among voters. However, this was clearly wisdom after the event.
Last June, The Advertiser’s Greg Kelton reported that “senior Liberals” were “hatching a plan which would force the Rann Government to face a ‘super Saturday’ of by-elections on the growing political row over changes to country health services”. This would involve the simultaneous retirement of Kerin (who was quoted saying the idea had been “mentioned a few times”) along with fellow Liberal veterans Graham Gunn and Liz Penfold, initiating by-elections in the country and outback seats of Frome, Stuart and Flinders. As bad as Frome has been for the Liberals, it appears that only the reluctance of Gunn and Penfold to bring forward their retirements has spared them a self-inflicted triple-barrelled disaster.
For all that, Labor shouldn’t get too cocky (and reports from The Advertiser that “gleeful Labor MPs have run off copies of Mr Hamilton-Smith’s ‘Liberal victory’ press release to hold up when State Parliament resumes next month to goad the Liberals” do not bode well in this regard). The two-party swing Labor would have picked up if Brock had run third had less to do with voters’ conscious preferences than with their adherence to how-to-vote cards, which in Brock’s case had Labor third and Liberal fourth. The 16.4 per cent of voters who deserted Labor might very easily find less benign ways to register their evident displeasure with the government when the next election is held in March 2010.
Labor MPs would do well to acquaint themselves with a forgotten episode of Western Australia’s recent political history known as the Peel by-election, which in February 2007 gave Labor a morale-boosting 1.0 per cent two-party swing from a strong performance on the primary vote – for all the good that did Alan Carpenter 18 months later.
Tuesday, January 27
Crikey subscribers can read my by-election post-mortem here.
Sunday, January 25
Electoral commissioner Kaye Mousley refuses a recount. Mousley argues that “the final difference between the two candidates is some 600 votes with the distribution of preferences”, although the point surely is that Brock survived the second last exclusion by 30. That would leave the Court of Disputed Returns as their only recourse. However, the Electoral Act empowers the court only to anoint a different winner or order a new election, and I’m not aware of any basis on which such an order could be made.
Saturday, January 24
7.15pm. The last trickle of 265 postal votes had little bearing on the result: 147 (55.5 per cent) went to the Liberals, 47 (17.7 per cent) to Labor, 37 (14.0 per cent) to Brock, 23 (8.7 per cent) to the Nationals, 10 (3.8 per cent) to the Greens and 1 (0.4 per cent) to One Nation. In other words, they added 10 votes to the hurdle faced by Brock to overtake Labor. Meanwhile, the Poll Bludger has maintained its dismal record in predicting by-election results with this clanger from January 9: “Despite a preference swap between independent Port Pirie mayor Geoff Brock and Nationals candidate Neville Watson, there seems little reason not to think Terry Boylan will easily retain the seat for the Liberals.” That said, there’s plenty of humble pie to go round.
6.55pm. The Advertiser now has a full report, which tells us “Liberal officials say they will be ‘seeking clarity’ on the count from the State Electoral Office”. Also:
Liberal MP for Morphett Duncan McFetridge partly blamed Mr Kerin for the loss, saying he had given obscure reasons for leaving politics which fuelled resentment by voters towards the by-election.
True enough, but I hadn’t heard anyone in the Liberal Party complain before. Indeed, it seems they were happy to bring on the by-election because they were expecting Labor to suffer a bloody nose over the country health plan. In June we were hearing this idiotic talk emanating from the Liberal camp (courtesy of Greg Kelton of The Advertiser):
SENIOR Liberals are hatching a plan which would force the Rann Government to face a “super Saturday” of by-elections on the growing political row over changes to country health services … The move would involve three Liberal MPs in rural seats – who are all due to retire at the next election – stepping down to force by-elections. The MPs, Rob Kerin in Frome, Liz Penfold (Flinders) and Graham Gunn (Stuart), have all been outspoken in their criticism of the Government’s planned changes to rural health services … Mr Kerin told The Advertiser the by-election idea had been “mentioned a few times’” but he had not spoken to anyone about stepping down in Frome which he holds with a 4.2 per cent margin. He said he would not rule out the idea … (Gunn) ruled out stepping down to force a by-election in his seat of Stuart which, with a 0.4 per cent margin, is the most marginal Liberal seat in the state. Ms Penfold, whose vast Eyre Peninsula seat of Flinders is the safest Liberal seat in the state, said normally she would not support any moves for a by-election. “But this is such an important issue I will reserve my judgment,” she said.
6.45pm. The surprise packet was the flow of Greens preferences to Brock – 41.7 per cent against 36.6 per cent for Labor and 13.4 per cent for the Liberals. The estimates I was using in my preference calculation were 30 per cent, 50 per cent and 20 per cent respectively. The reason Brock was being written off was the high number of Nationals voters who were defying the HTV card and preferencing Boylan. The Nationals preference distribution I eventually arrived at based on Antony’s reports of what scrutineers were saying was pretty much accurate: 48.0 per cent to Brock (I had 45 per cent), 37.8 per cent to Boylan (I had 40 per cent, which admittedly was the low end of what Antony was expecting) and 14.1 per cent to Rohde (I had 15 per cent). No doubt the page on the Liberal website on Wednesday claiming victory will be removed shortly, so I’ve preserved it for posterity here. That said, we may yet get a recount.
6.20pm. Wasn’t looking hard enough – SEO preference distribution here. The amazement lies in the second last exclusion: Boylan 8215, Brock 5562, Rohde 5532. With Rohde excluded, preferences give Brock his 1.7 per cent victory.
6pm. BROCK SHOCK! Nothing yet on the SEO or Antony Green’s site, but The Advertiser reports that the preference distribution has defied expectations by giving victory to Geoff Brock – according to Brenton in comments by 9987 votes (51.7 per cent) to Terry Boylan’s 9322 (48.3 per cent). Evidently those Nationals preferences were kinder to Brock than scrutineers believed.
Wednesday, January 21
11pm. Antony Green in comments: “The Labor scrutineers have been watching National preferences all week to work out where they are going. They’re flowing to the Liberals, which is why everyone’s given up on Brock closing the gap. Once the Liberals get half of the National preferences, there aren’t enough votes left to get Brock ahead of Labor.”
4pm. Based on Antony’s feedback, I have changed the minor party preference estimates as follows. Nats: Brock 45, Liberal 40, Labor 15. Greens: Labor 50, Brock 30, Liberal 20. One Nation: Liberal 50, Brock 30, Labor 20. That leaves Brock in third place, 1.2 per cent behind Labor.
3pm. With the addition of 3288 pre-poll votes, only a handful of postal votes remain to complete the primary vote count. These have made things interesting: coming mostly from Port Pirie, where the main pre-poll booth was located, they have split 1094 (33.9 per cent) to Brock, 1033 (32.0 per cent) to Labor, 868 (26.9 per cent) to Liberal, 179 (5.3 per cent) to the Nationals), 50 (1.5 per cent) to the Greens and 14 (0.4 per cent) to One Nation. Brock’s primary vote deficit against Labor has narrowed from 3.3 per cent to 2.5 per cent and, if my preference estimate is correct, he will just barely edge ahead of Labor on preferences and ultimately win the seat. BUT – please read this before commenting – these estimates are completely unscientific (see my 8.16pm entry from Saturday) and are evidently different from the calculations of Antony Green, who has spoken to scrutineers. He says: “Brock could yet pull ahead narrowly and win on Labor preferences, but it would require stronger flows of preferences to him from the National and Greens candidates than I think can be delivered. Not impossible but I would say it is unlikely.”
Tuesday, January 20
12.30pm. Antony Green has added 1795 postal votes which aren’t yet appearing on the SEO site, and they are very encouraging for the Liberals. Only 189 (10.5%) are for Brock, whose total vote has fallen from 23.1 per cent to 21.7 per cent, increasing his deficit against Labor from 2.0 per cent to 3.3 per cent. However, Antony notes that the 3000 pre-poll votes remaining to be counted mostly come from Port Pirie, which might at least staunch the flow. Terry Boylan has received 925 votes (51.5 per cent), increasing his vote from 40.2 per cent to 41.5 per cent and perhaps increasing his slim hope of winning even if Brock overtakes Labor. My table now includes a section for provisional votes, with a “votes counted” figure based on an educated guess that the final total will be 4500. Note that the preference projection now has Brock finishing in third place.
Monday, January 19
My general overview of the situation can be read at Crikey. Dovif in comments: “As for the scrutineers, the ALP will be trying to kick out as many ALP 1s as possible, while the Libs will be trying to increase the ALP vote. That would be fun to watch.”
Sunday, January 18
The Advertiser reports the Liberals are “confident” of retaining the seat, while conceding a “slight possibility” of defeat. The report says “almost 5000” postal and early votes were cast by Friday.
Saturday, January 17
9.00pm. I have evidently not been giving enough weight to the possibility that Brock will fail to get ahead of Labor. He trails by 2 per cent on the primary vote, which he would be able to close on preferences – but as Antony Green points out, independents traditionally do poorly on pre-poll and postal votes and the primary vote gap can be expected to widen. Antony deems it unlikely that the Liberals can win if Brock stays ahead.
8.16pm. That’s us done for the evening, with the result still up in the air. My preference estimate has Brock leading 7208 to 6837. I have distributed the minor players as follows: Nats: Brock 60, Liberal 30, Labor 10. Greens: Labor 55, Brock 35, Liberal 10. One Nation: Liberal 55, Brock 35, Labor 10. I have then taken the Labor vote, including those votes Labor received as preferences from the aforementioned, and given 80 per cent to Brock and 20 per cent to the Liberals. It was reported on Wednesday there had been 1700 early votes and 2200 postal applications, which can be expected to favour the Liberals quite solidly. Stay tuned over the next week or two.
8.11pm. Clare has indeed given Liberal candidate Terry Boylan the result he needed – 59.0 per cent (though down 7.9 per cent from 2006) against only 6.2 per cent for Brock.
7.49pm. Port Broughton and Tarlee now added – relatively good results for the Liberals, bringing my margin estimate below 5 per cent. If Clare can cut that further, the result will be truly up in the air.
7.47pm. Port Broughton has kind of reported, but the SEO is having more of those data entry issues (Brock on zero).
7.44pm. Just taking my first look at Antony Green’s site – his assessment is about the same as mine.
7.42pm. Still to come: Clare (2432 votes in 2006), Port Broughton (good Liberal booth, 849 votes in 2006) and Tarlee (259 votes). The Liberals will need very good results here, a good show on the many outstanding declaration votes and better preferences than I’m crediting them with.
7.40pm. Port Pirie booth of Solomontown gives Brock a slightly below par 35.4 per cent. The Liberals will be hoping for a big result in the very large country booth of Clare.
7.35pm. Three rural booths plus Port Pirie West now in – another plus 40 per cent result for Brock in the latter. My preference calculation now has him opening up his lead, so my summation from three entries ago may have been askew.
7.33pm. These are my preference estimates – would be interested if anyone disagrees. Nats: Brock 55, Liberal 35, Labor 10. Greens: Labor 55, Brock 35, Liberal 10. One Nation: Liberal 55, Brock 35, Labor 10. Labor: Brock 80, Liberal 20.
7.31pm. Unfortunately, the SEO is doing an irrelevant Liberal-versus-Labor preference count. Brock will clearly finish ahead of Labor.
7.30pm. Here’s roughly how I see it. Frome is evenly divided between Port Pirie and the rural remainder – the former is breaking 66-34 to Brock over the Liberals, and the latter’s doing the opposite. That suggests it should be very close, but this is based on my very rough preference guesses which if anything probably flatter for the Liberals. The locally knowledgeable Michael Gorey is calling it for Brock in comments.
7.28pm. Crystal Brook (rural) and Port Pirie South both in, another 40 per cent result for Brock in the latter.
7.21pm. Risdon Park South replicates Risdon Park East, with Brock’s primary vote around 40 per cent – my slapdash preference calculation now has him in front.
7.19pm. Three more booths in including a very exciting result for Brock in the Port Pirie booth of Risdon Park East – assuming it’s not a glitch, because the SEO has no percentage figures next to the raw results.
7.12pm. 2CP error corrected.
7.10pm. Five more booths in, including the first from Port Pirie – which Geoff Brock narrowly won ahead of Labor. That shuts out any notion of Brock failing to pass the Nationals, and could yet make things very interesting as more Port Pirie booths come in. Apologies for the 2CP error in the table – will get to work on it.
6.55pm. I’ve now removed Brinkworth’s alleged 14 Labor votes from my count.
6.53pm. Some explanations about the table. The “3CP” result assumes the last three standing will be Labor, Liberal and Brock, although Brock is well behind the Nationals on the basis of small rural booths. The “count” figure has been devised so it will add up to 100 per cent when all votes are in, whereas other media normally just show you the number of votes counted divided by number of enrolled voters.
6.50pm. Two more small rural booths, Brinkworth and Manoora, now in – although something’s obviously gone awry with Brinkworth, which has 14 votes for Labor and nothing in any other column, including the total.
6.39pm. As Judith Barnes notes in comments, the absentee vote could be over 20 per cent.
6.37pm. Two country booths reporting, Georgetown and Lochiel – excuse the mess in the Port Pirie entries in the table, it will correct when I have figures in. Only a small amount counted, but Geoff Brock might have hoped for more, remembering of course that Port Pirie is his stronghold. In noting the drop in the Liberal vote, it needs to be remembered there was no Nationals candidate last time.
6.15pm. Please excuse the messiness in the table above – I’m still sorting it out. The numbers there are test results rather than real figures.
6.00pm. Polls close. Official results here. First figures should start to come in around 6.30pm, by which time I should have my act together with my results table.