Sunday, April 10, 2016

Colbeck Demoted To Fifth On Double-Dissolution Liberal Ticket

I am working on a belated roundup of federal polling but a quick post on today's Tasmanian Liberal Senate preselection decision is appropriate.  The state executive has confirmed a Senate preselection decision to order the Tasmanian Liberal Senate ticket in the event of a double dissolution as follows: 1. Senator Eric Abetz 2. Senator Stephen Parry 3. staffer Jonathan Duniam 4. Senator David Bushby 5. Senator Richard Colbeck 6. Break O'Day Councillor John Tucker.  There might yet be federal intervention, but in the absence of such, this article discusses what it may mean.  The Liberal preselection process does not include any member balloting or proportional representation and my understanding is it progresses by a series of votes on each position down the list.

This follows a previous preselection decision for a half-Senate election, which I did not cover here, in which Senator Abetz retained his position on top of the ticket very comfortably while Senator Parry apparently defeated Duniam for position two by one vote.  (Senators Colbeck and Bushby are mid-term so were not involved).

Aside from the state branch not preselecting even one woman to any of the six remotely winnable Tasmanian senate positions, the aspect attracting attention here is the effective demotion of Senator Richard Colbeck, who is currently Minister for Tourism and International Education, from top of the ticket in 2010 to below newcomer Duniam and Senator Bushby.  This has been widely and in my view probably rightly seen through the prism of conflict between hardliners and moderates, with the Tasmanian party being dominated by the former.  With Eric Abetz demoted from Senate leadership and all of the "three Amigos" in the Lower House being first-term backbenchers, Colbeck is now the most senior (though not the most longserving) Liberal in Canberra and topped the Coalition ticket for the 2013 election.

Two possible reasons for Colbeck's demotion are his perceived support for Malcolm Turnbull and his perceived status as a moderate within the party.  He is reported to have campaigned for a conscience-vote on same-sex marriage last year, while not actually supporting same-sex marriage.  He did not publicly declare for either Abbott or Turnbull but did inform the candidate he voted for of his support, and is widely suspected of having voted for Turnbull whereas other Tasmanian Liberals are all believed to have supported Abbott.  Other reasons for Colbeck's effective potential demotion may be claimed, but any referring to potential to advocate for Tasmania's interests should be taken as code for being perceived as too close to the Prime Minister.

However, the move could also be strategic.  The Turnbull government's state income tax proposal/strategic gambit/thought-bubble (any of these perceptions may be valid) was widely seen as ignoring Tasmania, which would suffer terribly under such a proposal unless compensated because of its low average income and high dependence on government services (including those, like health, that would become state funding matters).  While there would presumably have been compensation for Tasmania, the fact that it was not front and centre in attempts to sell the proposal would have fuelled views that Turnbull wasn't taking Tasmania seriously. A perception that Turnbull might not mind throwing state Liberal seats under the bus if it shored up seats in WA (the WA Premier Colin Barnett supporting the move since WA would benefit from it) is growing hard to avoid.  Dumping a Senator who Turnbull would see as an ally to a non-automatic position could send a message to Turnbull that he cannot neglect the state and endanger its House of Representatives seats without cost.

Another way of framing the ticket order is in terms of the allocation of Senators to three and six year terms following a double-dissolution. A method by which this can be done is to recount the election as if the election had been for six positions only, but the Senate is not obliged to follow this.  By this method, assuming the Liberal Party won five seats, Senators Abetz and Parry would receive the six-year terms they would have received at a half-Senate election anyway, while Senators Bushby and Colbeck would receive three-year terms.  Jonathan Duniam's position would depend on whether the Liberals were allocated two or three Senators from the six-year block.

Overall, Duniam's chance of winning a six-year term from third (if the method outlined above was followed) is probably slightly lower than his chance of winning a six-year term at a half-Senate election.  The reason for this is that the vote for the Jacqui Lambie Network will certainly be higher at a double dissolution with Lambie as lead candidate, meaning that Lambie herself could win a six-year term, or could take enough votes from the Liberals to make it easier for the Greens to win one even if their vote was poor.  However, Duniam is the big winner out of this since the payoff for a poor Liberal performance changes from nothing to a certain three-year term.

Duniam's potential elevation (should there be a double dissolution) marks an obvious moment of renewal for the party with such a young candidate (he's in his mid-30s) preselected.  However those expecting renewal in political ideas might be disappointed. Duniam describes himself as more conciliatory than Abetz but does not deny being his ideological successor.

Senator Colbeck is the obvious loser from the change because fifth position is just a likely win and not a guaranteed one.  Generally in recent years the Coalition has polled well enough to win at least five Senate seats in Tasmania at a double dissolution (see Antony Green's graph). However, in 2010 the Coalition would only have won four seats in Tasmania under the new Senate system, with the Greens winning three.  This followed a Coalition campaign in Tasmania in which the party was widely seen as neglecting the state, especially in the area of broadband policy.  1998 deserves comment too: the party polled only 4.4 double-dissolution quotas, and would have won five seats but only on the basis of luck with the distribution of remaining votes.

While a result of 5 Coalition, 4 Labor, 2 Green and Lambie has appeared (at least to me!) to be the most likely double-dissolution outcome in Tasmania, it is far from locked in.  Another campaign seen as neglecting the state could well result in 4-5-2-1.  Lambie might (although I am sceptical of it in the absence of polling) have enough support for two seats, making it extremely hard for either major party to win five.  On the other hand, it might be that Lambie has very little support and loses, in which case five seats should be easy in the absence of a very high Green vote.

It is also interesting to note that two poor performances by the party in the state have come with Abetz at the top of the ticket, although he was also top of the ticket for the 2004 election at which the party did very well in the state (mainly as a result of Mark Latham's forestry policy.)  Abetz is certainly a polarising high-profile figure and has recently been one of the leading figures (alongside Kevin Andrews) in the pro-Abbott rump following the leadership spill.  For all that one hears anecdotally about Abetz's prominence turning some Tasmanians off voting Liberal, there has not been any polling of Tasmanians' views about him or any other Senator.

There is some potential even for the contentious demotion of Colbeck to further endanger Colbeck, but it's very easy to overestimate the impact of these sorts of things.  I think the vast majority of voters pay no attention to Senate preselections at all, and that most Tasmanians would be flat out trying to name any more than maybe three of the state's twelve Senators.

I may well have more comments on this issue in coming days or weeks.  For comparison, I also posted pieces on the contentious Labor preselection and the secretive Greens effort, but neither of these parties has yet (to my knowledge) revisited their preselections for a possible double dissolution.

PS Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey has given Liberal preselectors an almighty serve for their attitudes.  Matthew Denholm's piece in The Australian (Richard Colbeck suspects Senate ranking payback for leader vote) is also interesting.  And 2013 Franklin Liberal candidate Bernadette "Instagram of Lolcats" Black has also backed up Hickey's account.

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