Image for Labor will win Denison

I think a fair bit of wishful thinking, or to be charitable, misunderstanding about local politics that has led some journalists to wonder if Denison can be won by the Greens at the upcoming federal election.

Fran Kelly writing for the ABC’s The Drum thinks that with long-time sitting Labor member Duncan Kerr retiring “it’s just the sort of inner-city seat that’s vulnerable to an attack by the Greens off the back of the disillusionment caused by Kevin Rudd’s backdown on the ETS.”

Sue Neales at The Mercury floats Andrew Wilkie as a possible independent candidate with a chance. She also cites ABC election analyst Antony Green’s view that “Dension could be a surprise package at this year’s election, with a distinct possibility the Greens or an independent could unseat Labor.”

I never say never in politics, but I would put the probability of a victory other than Labor in Dension at less than 5 per cent. Labor will win, with a lesser margin than the one that Mr Kerr has been able to build, but win it nonetheless.

The idea that the Greens have a chance stems from some similarities on primary vote at the 2007 election with three other capital city Labor seats: Melbourne (Lindsay Tanner), Grayndler in Sydney (Anthony Albenese) and Adelaide (Kate Ellis). Below I have tabulated the primary and 2pp results for each of those electorates in 2007.

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The nearest comparison is Melbourne. There Liberals finished third after minor party preferences were distributed, and when the Liberal candidate was eliminated her preferences flowed to the Greens over Labor at a whopping 83% to 17%.

Much of the speculation that the Greens can take Dension centres on a Melbourne scenario: that the Greens can do better than the Libs, then will out-gun Labor on Liberal preferences. Let’s put that one to rest now. There is no way on God’s earth that Denison Liberal voters will preference the Greens anything like 85%. It would be lucky to be 30%. Can anyone seriously see a Liberal party in Tasmania, led by Eric Abetz and Will Hodgman fresh from shunning the Greens at the March state election, suddenly beseeching the faithful to favour the Greens now? And even if they did, Tasmanian voters are notoriously difficult to direct on preferences.

In addition, this scenario relies on a big drop in Labor’s vote. Many pundits see a large Kerr personal vote up for grabs. Won’t lefty, greenie types, who have stuck with Duncan now be free to vote with the Greens? they ponder. Well, they might, but I don’t think in any numbers enough to put the seat in doubt.

The first reason is that the “incumbency factor” is rarely as great as many commentators and journalists think. Stanford University’s Simon Jackman found a “retirement slump” of only 2.5 - 3% on average for ALP seats across the country. This is supported by Denison’s neighbour, Franklin, in 2007: there a popular, long term sitting Labor incumbent in Harry Quick retired, yet Labor lost just 5.0% on primaries.

My feeling is that Labor will shed somewhere around the 5% mark on primaries in Denison this time too. I can’t see a compelling argument that it will be more. The Labor candidate, Jonathan Jackson comes from the Kerr’s Left faction, he is heavily endorsed by Kerr and is the son of trendy leftie and ex-state minister Judy Jackson. Some Labor votes will drift to the Greens and to the Libs, particularly if the swing against Rudd is on, but I can’t see the primary vote dropping below the low 40’s.

And even if Jackson had a horror time and dropped 10% off the primary support he would still win. He would be elected on the preference of the third last candidate be it Liberal or Green.

Fran Kelly is wrong: Denison is not the sort of inner-city seat that’s vulnerable to an attack by the Greens. Denison has not got the demographics of Melbourne, Grayndler or Adelaide. For example, of Australia’s 150 electorates, the ABS ranks Melbourne as the 24th most socio-economically advantaged and Dension the 78th. Adelaide is the 43rd most advantaged and Grayndler the 26th. These are small geographically, affluent electorates with professionally educated voters. Not the mix of traditional welfare, working class and public service Labor faithful you see in Denison.

Don’t be fooled by the mainland hype. Denison is Labor’s in 2007.

UPDATE:I’ve been asked by a couple of people for my view on Andrew Wilkie’s chances if he stood as an independent.

In a field containing Wilkie and a candidate from each of the three major parties - Green, Labor and Liberal - I believe Wilkie is about 70% chance to run fourth. I say this because the electorate had the opportunity to embrace him as an independent at the March state election and he managed 8% of primaries, which is a great effort, but I can’t see any reason why it should suddenly increase dramatically in the space of a few months. Don’t forget that at federal elections the voters are being asked to decide, largely, who should form the next government. Much of their decision making focuses on the qualities of the prime minister and the alternative, and all the usual issues. The personalities of the individual candidates matter, but not as much as many think.

It is a fact that elections in Australia do not swing wildly from one year to the next. National swings of 3-4% are considered large. At the individual electorate level the swings can be greater, but double-digit movements are rare. In 2007 a handful of electorates swung to Labor in the 10-15% range when the swing to Rudd was on. In 2004 the biggest swing of the 150 electorates was 7.5%.

For Denison to fall, it requires a 16% swing from Labor. That’s a one-in-a-thousand event and there is no plausible reason to make Dension that unique in 2010.

UPDATE 2: I’ve been asked about the Simon Jackman research. It’s contained in a 2005 paper titled Incumbency Advantage and Candidate Quality. There is no web link that I can find, but if you would like a copy please email me (see the side bar for the address) and I can send you a PDF.

UPDATE 3: Back to Wilkie. A reader has asked about the scenario if Wilkie was the Green candidate. Okay, well, I suppose that is a possibility as he has stood for the Greens on two occasions before (Tas Senate and federal seat of Bennelong, NSW.)

Wilkie can be considered a “star” candidate for the Greens and should add to their vote. My guess is maybe a Green primary in the low twenties would be a good outcome. I just don’t think there is a feeling out there to dump the major parties - this election, like all federal elections, is about the next government of the country. The merits of individual candidates only add and subtract at the margins.

Where independents have succeeded - and there and only three currently - they have been sitting members with major party credentials who then replaced that major party. Katter moved from the Nationals to become an independent in Kennedy; Oakeshott is an ex-National, state independent took Lyne in NSW off the Nationals at a by-election; while Windsor, likewise, is an ex-National state member who won New England from the Nationals.

Wilkie as a Green in Dension doesn’t fit that scenario.

This article is taken from Peter Tucker’s political commentary blog, Tasmanian Politics. The article, with full links, is HERE