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Despite a scare campaign over a hung parliament, the election is tending to a narrow Coalition victory, with the Greens as everyone’s enemy. By Karen Middleton.

Marginal seats unlikely to deliver a hung parliament

Greens Leader Richard Di Natale and Deputy Leader Larissa Waters on the Great Barrier Reef.
Credit: DEAN MILLER

In the traditionally working-class, Labor-held seat of Batman, in Melbourne, the Greens are employing an all-weather campaign strategy to chase every vote – sympathy vote included.

“People are nicer to us when we’ve turned up in the rain,” one supporter says. “Even if they [might not] vote for us, they felt sorry for us.”

Having gone close to winning the seat in 2013, when long-time member Martin Ferguson retired and Labor’s David Feeney replaced him after switching from the senate, the Greens are throwing everything at the seat in 2016.

Thus far, it appears to be paying off, indicating the bad start to Feeney’s campaign, which could yet worsen.

Not only are the Greens quietly confident their candidate, Alex Bhatal, can win this time, Feeney’s colleagues on the Labor side think she probably will.

The demographics of the seat are helping the Greens, with its southern parts becoming gentrified, and left-leaning university students moving into its northern suburbs.

On top of that, David Feeney has garnered attention for all the wrong reasons this campaign.

His failure to include his $2.3 million investment property on the parliamentary register of interests led a cascading sequence of public stumbles, with Feeney unable to explain party policy and then leaving his party-issued cheat sheet of talking points in a television studio.

“We are a bit worried about Batman,” one senior Labor campaigner conceded. Another declared it “lost”.

Labor fears a second Melbourne seat – Wills, including the northern suburbs of Coburg and Brunswick – could go the same way, though views are mixed on whether it’s quite as endangered as Batman.

Wills is Bob Hawke’s old seat, vacated at this election by Labor’s Kelvin Thomson, who is retiring after 20 years.

Its new candidate is Peter Khalil, former national security adviser to prime minister Kevin Rudd and previously an executive with SBS.

Khalil is up against the Greens’ Samantha Ratnam, who is the mayor of the municipality of Moreland, which falls within the federal seat. But Khalil is receiving strong Labor campaign support.

Labor alleges Greens preference plan

With four weeks to go, Labor is less concerned about the Greens’ challenges to its Sydney-based seats. It is confident that both Anthony Albanese, in the seat of Grayndler, and Tanya Plibersek, in the seat of Sydney, will be secure.

The Greens’ threat to Labor is greater in Grayndler, but senior figures in the Labor campaign believe Albanese’s high personal profile will see off challenger Jim Casey.

Whether one and possibly two more Greens join the presumed-safe member for Melbourne Adam Bandt in the house of representatives may come down to preferences from Liberal voters.

This week, Labor stepped up its attacks on that front.

The member for the safe Labor seat of Scullin in Victoria, Andrew Giles, called a news conference on Tuesday to unveil a new Labor website – greenliberaldeal.com.au – to highlight what he said was the Liberals’ plan to swap preferences.

Pamphlets making the same allegation are now being letterboxed across the electorate.

Labor is alleging the Liberals plan to hand out how-to-vote cards recommending that their supporters put the Greens ahead of Labor in key seats where those preferences might be enough to secure a Greens victory.

In return, it is convinced the Greens will agree to break with the practice of previous elections, in which they have actively recommended Labor over the Liberals in some seats.

Giles made his allegation despite denials from Greens leader Richard Di Natale, who said on the ABC’s Q&A program the night before: “There is no deal with the Liberal Party. There is absolutely no deal.”

Giles also suggested that the Greens’ attempt to increase their representation in parliament was an exercise in “vanity” not democracy.

He said they could not form government in their own right and voters were “much more interested in who is governing Australia than who represents individual seats in the parliament”.

“That’s why this vanity exercise by the Greens to see if they can get a few candidates up instead of pursuing the election of a progressive government is so egregious,” he said.

Di Natale dismisses that attitude, saying the attacks on his party are becoming increasingly similar from both sides.

“Nothing brings you closer together than the threat from outside,” he said. “And rather than suggesting that standing for an election is arrogant, what we’re doing is we’re giving people a choice.”

Hung parliament unlikely

Turnbull has accused Labor of “snuggling up” to the Greens after Di Natale confirmed his party would consider an alliance with Labor.

“While this is a decision for the party to make, my view is it is inconceivable that we could support this government and that ultimately if the choice came down to who we would support, we would like to enter productive, responsible negotiations with the Labor Party.”

Turnbull and his team are ruling out any alliance in government with anyone but the Nationals. “We’re not getting into bed with any other party,” frontbencher Josh Frydenberg said on ABC Radio. “We’ve got a very clear proposal at this election. I think we’ll get elected in our own right and if anything is to be worried about [in] two parties signing up to each other, it is Labor and the Greens. That’s what they’ve done in the past and that’s what they’ll do again.”

But for all the speculation about a hung parliament, neither the Coalition nor Labor actually believes it will happen.

“I think a hung parliament is unlikely,” one senior Coalition campaign strategist told The Saturday Paper. “If you had to put your money on it right now, it would be a Coalition win with a reduced majority.”

A senior Labor campaign official agrees with that scenario.

Talking up the prospect of a hung parliament is more a campaign device on the Coalition’s part, hoping to invoke memories of the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd years and to link Labor and the Greens negatively in voters’ minds.

Barring some dramatic development, both sides expect the return of three independents: Cathy McGowan in the Victorian seat of Indi, Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania’s Denison, and Bob Katter in the north Queensland seat of Kennedy.

The fourth lower house seat currently held by an independent, Fairfax, is expected to return to the Liberal National Party. This marks the end of Clive Palmer’s one-term dalliance with politics.

The Coalition believes Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce will deny former independent Tony Windsor the chance to join the others back on the crossbench.

Labor's target seats

The potential loss of Victorian seats to the Greens and the expected return of Fairfax to the Coalition makes the mathematics of victory overall even trickier for Labor.

And it’s not only the marginal seats – those on less than 5 per cent – that could see their members change.

What could offset an LNP gain in Fairfax is a possible Liberal loss in the South Australian seat of Mayo, where incumbent Jamie Briggs faces a challenge from Rebekha Sharkie of the Nick Xenophon Team.

Sharkie, a former adviser to South Australian Liberal state MP Isobel Redmond, has lived in the electorate for two decades.

She has mortgaged her house for her campaign and says she has driven 40,000 kilometres traversing the diverse, 9300-square-kilometre electorate, which stretches from the Adelaide Hills around the Fleurieu Peninsula to Kangaroo Island, taking in the towns of Mount Barker, Goolwa and Victor Harbor.

“What people are saying is for a long time they haven’t had strong representation,” Sharkie told The Saturday Paper.

She said voters have told her that, living in a blue-ribbon Liberal seat, they feel unattended and taken for granted. “It being a safe Liberal seat, it’s perhaps not doing us any favours.”

Sharkie has modelled herself on Victorian independent Cathy McGowan, particularly her grassroots approach.

“I really like Cathy’s style and Nick’s style,” she says of McGowan and her own party leader, Nick Xenophon. “Just being transparent and open. And there.”

Jamie Briggs has held Mayo since 2008, when he won it in a byelection following the retirement of former foreign minister Alexander Downer. Briggs is now fighting for his political life, having quit his own ministerial job and moved to the backbench six months ago, accused of pestering a 26-year-old female consular official in a Hong Kong bar.

Briggs says Mayo’s voters will receive better representation from him as a member of Malcolm Turnbull’s government than from a minor party with no prospect of governing.

“You need to choose a government to make decisions for the future of the country,” Briggs told The Saturday Paper. “…It is all very well to run around with a dark cloud over one’s head and present problems. It’s another to have solutions.”

He points to $16 million in funding for the Bald Hills interchange, on which work is due to begin in September, and funding for the new Fleurieu aquatic centre and an upgrade to Kangaroo Island airport. He promises “more announcements” on infrastructure in Mayo before election day.

There is one more prominent Liberal under challenge from an independent, with TV personality and former Australian Idol host James Mathison running against former prime minister Tony Abbott in his seat of Warringah on Sydney’s northern beaches.

A rank outsider in one of the bluest of blue-ribbon seats, Mathison says he’s entering the race to “rattle the cage”, hoping to ignite the interest of disillusioned conservatives, especially youth.

Redistribution changes calculation

A recent electoral redistribution also affects the mathematics of retaining or securing government in 2016.

In the 2013 election, the Coalition won 90 seats of a possible 150 and Labor won 55, with one Green and four independents securing the remainder.

In the wake of the Australian Electoral Commission’s pre-election boundary changes to account for population shifts around Australia, the Coalition entered this election race with a notional 88 seats, Labor with a notional 57, the Greens a notional one and four others notionally independent, based on the way residents of the areas within the new boundaries voted at the previous election.

After considering the various parties’ arguments about the fairest way to make the changes, the commission has abolished one Labor seat – the New South Wales regional seat of Charlton – with the seat of Hunter now shifted to cover the Charlton boundaries.

It has created a new seat in Western Australia – the seat of Burt – which is notionally Liberal on 6.1 per cent but which the Labor Party hopes it might take with its candidate Matt Keogh, who stood unsuccessfully against the Liberals’ Andrew Hastie in the Canning byelection.

Burt covers Perth’s south-eastern suburbs, taking in the southern parts of the old Liberal seats of Hasluck and Tangney. The Liberal candidate is Matt O’Sullivan, a fourth-generation resident who has been leading businessman Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s Indigenous employment scheme, GenerationOne.

The redistribution has made the inner-Western Sydney seat of Barton notionally Labor. And Labor’s deputy state leader, Linda Burney, has quit state politics to contest it – the boundaries overlap her state seat of Canterbury – against incumbent Nickolas Varvaris, who took the previously Labor-held seat for the Liberals in 2013.

The notional margin based on old voting patterns is now 6 per cent in Labor’s favour. If Burney wins in a current field of six candidates, including the Greens, the Christian Democrats and a couple of independents, she will become the first Indigenous woman in the house of representatives.

Two other Liberal seats – the NSW regional seats of Dobell and Paterson – are also notionally Labor under the redistribution, on estimated margins of 0.2 and 0.4 per cent respectively.

Dobell is the NSW Central Coast seat formerly held by controversial Labor MP Craig Thomson, convicted of stealing from the Health Services Union before he entered parliament. The Liberals’ Karen McNamara won it in 2013 and is standing again, facing a challenge from Labor’s Emma McBride.

In Paterson, in the lower Hunter Valley around Maitland, longstanding Liberal MP Bob Baldwin is retiring.

The most consistent bellwether seat, the NSW seat of Eden-Monaro, is also at risk of falling to Labor. Since 1972, whichever party has won Eden-Monaro has also won government but the redistribution has changed its demographic and may put an end to its bellwether status. The electorate wraps around Canberra, from the town of Queanbeyan down to the southernmost part of the NSW coast, back through Cooma below the Snowy Mountains to Yass. Labor’s Mike Kelly lost the seat in 2013 to the Liberals’ Peter Hendy, who holds it with a margin of 2.9 per cent, and is now trying to win it back.

The Liberal-held seat of Macarthur, around Camden in Sydney’s south-west, is also in play. A Liberal Party preselection brawl in the seat earlier this year received some negative attention, and Labor considers it winnable. It is held by Russell Matheson on 3.3 per cent.

In Darwin, the seat of Solomon, currently held by the Country Liberal Party’s Natasha Griggs, is in Labor’s sights, on a margin of 1.4 per cent. Challenger Luke Gosling also ran against her in 2013. Both federal leaders swung through the seat early in the campaign, and Malcolm Turnbull has been there twice.

Tasmania’s biggest electorate, Lyons, could change hands, too. Won by Liberal Eric Hutchinson in 2013 on a margin of 1.2 per cent, it’s the Coalition’s third-most marginal seat nationally.  Lyons is a regional mix, taking in the agricultural districts from outer Launceston to near Devonport, the outer edge of Hobart, and the tourist and fishing towns on Tasmania’s east coast. Labor is running Brian Mitchell, a public relations consultant who is a former journalist and political adviser.

Victoria is arguably Labor’s strongest state. In the outer Melbourne seat of La Trobe, around the Dandenong Ranges, Liberal MP Jason Wood, who holds the seat on a 4 per cent margin, faces a challenge from Labor’s Simon Curtis. Transport infrastructure and the local tourism industry are both significant issues there, and the prime minister recently paid the perennial campaign visit to ride the Puffing Billy steam train, promising funding to upgrade the rail line and rolling stock.

Labor has a more audacious eye on the outer-Melbourne suburban seat of Dunkley, around Frankston, where long-time Liberal MP and dumped former minister Bruce Billson is retiring.

The retirement of incumbent MPs is causing problems for both major parties. In Western Australia, Labor has new candidates in all three of the seats it holds, after the retirement of former minister Gary Gray in Brand, former state minister Alannah MacTiernan in Perth, and former frontbencher Melissa Parke in Fremantle. Regardless, it insists it is likely to retain all of them.

But the Labor-held seats of Chisholm and Bruce in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs are now viewed as possibly vulnerable to the Liberals, with Labor losing the recognition of former speaker Anna Burke and former minister Alan Griffin, both of whom are retiring.

Labor is eyeing the Liberal-held seat of Brisbane, where incumbent Liberal Teresa Gambaro is retiring. Previously a Labor seat, the Liberals hold it on a margin of 4.3 per cent. But with a high Greens vote helping with preferences, polls suggest a swing back.

Also in Queensland, Labor is hopeful of taking the Liberals’ two most marginal seats – Petrie, north of Brisbane, which is on a margin of 0.5 per cent, and Capricornia, around Rockhampton, on 0.8 per cent. 

Surprisingly, Labor is also quietly talking up its chances in the seat of Herbert, around Townsville. Despite the Liberals’ margin of 6.2 per cent, Labor insists anger over the failure to construct a local stadium is seeing sentiment drift its way.

But even if Labor wins all of these seats, that still does not add up to enough to win government.

There is increasing speculation that this election could see a repeat of the 1998 result, in which Labor secured a majority of the national vote but not enough in Coalition seats for it to win government.

Party strategists caution against putting too much store in the published polls, including those indicating sizeable state-by-state swings against the Coalition.

Both sides concede the Coalition will lose seats. But they also point out that those polls measure voting inclination across a whole state, not within a single seat.

The problem there for Labor is that its improving support could end up largely in safe Labor seats in its existing heartland, not in the marginal seats it needs to win. In other words, it could find itself preaching to the choir.

Superannuation policy fight

Similarly, on the Coalition side they are confident that, at this stage, the anger over the Coalition’s superannuation changes is largely confined to its existing support base.

It is not showing up as a significant issue of concern in its research.

Despite backbench rumblings demanding post-election changes to the policy, the prime minister has ruled them out.

“There is always consultation about the details of the drafting … the administrative implementation,” Turnbull said on Thursday. “The policy the substance of it, the economic substance of it – that is all settled. That’s in the budget and that is our policy.”

So while that issue is attracting considerable media attention and prompting some supporters to threaten to withdraw their donations in retaliation, the Coalition doesn’t believe it is costing potential votes where it counts.

Labor holds a different view.

It is detecting concern about the new proposed tax on the “transition to retirement” program, the element of the superannuation system that tripped up both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young in radio interviews during the week.

Upon reaching the age of 56, that program allows employed people approaching retirement age to scale back to part-time work, keep contributing to their superannuation, and draw a tax-free supplement from their super accounts as a top-up.

But some people have been using the system to maximise their super gains and minimise their tax, continuing to work full time, pouring almost their entire incomes into super, and drawing out an effective full-time salary, tax free.

The government has announced it will now tax those withdrawals at 15 per cent.

Labor is convinced that the concern over superannuation resonates beyond just the budget measures themselves.

It is detecting unease among voters. It says even voters not directly affected by the changes are seeing them as a sign that more changes could come. Labor hopes to exploit that sentiment, using the superannuation issue to sow seeds of doubt about what else the Coalition might do – and not only in superannuation.

Its research is suggesting there is also lingering community concern about a 15 per cent goods and services tax.

It has now begun linking all this in television advertisements seeking to harvest these concerns, encouraging voters to conclude that Turnbull can’t be trusted.

Contrasting campaigns

Turnbull’s is a narrative campaign. He is telling the story of “jobs and growth” and the Coalition’s credentials as an economic manager, boosted this week by good growth figures, albeit with some underlying concerns about national income and living standards. Turnbull is using his national message to reinforce strong local campaigns on the ground.

In contrast, Shorten’s campaign is disruptive – interrupting that Coalition narrative whenever he can, trying to cast doubt on Turnbull’s promises. This week he has emphasised job creation in the renewable energy sector.

Those campaigns will ramp-up further over the next fortnight, with pre-poll voting available from June 14.

Australians are taking the same approach to voting as they do to grocery shopping and TV watching. They want to be able to do it when it suits them, not necessarily on election day.

At the previous election, a record 3.2 million votes were cast before election – somewhere between a quarter and a third of all eligible voters. That means a lot of minds being made up well before July 2.

For the first time since 1987, this election is in winter. It’s also being held in the school holidays in almost every state.

That virtually guarantees high levels of pre-poll and postal voting, as voters plan trips away. For candidates and their supporters, it also means a lot more doorknocking, rain, hail or shine, before they go.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 4, 2016 as "Hung parliament lost in the margins". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.