Tuesday, December 25, 2018

New South Wales 2019: Battle Of The Unknowns

It's a personal tradition to release something on this site on Christmas Day if possible.  This year it was tempting to go with the annual Ehrlich Awards for Wrong Predictions, but one of the predictions on the shortlist still has a remote chance of being fulfilled in the few days left in this year, and also, it's a bit mean on the recipients to drop this year's collection at such a time. So that will come out early in the New Year, and in the meantime, nominations for any false predictions I may have missed regarding political events in the year 2019 are welcome.  See the original Ehrlich piece for the award rules.

Instead I've decided to go with a curtain-raiser for this year's biggest state election in New South Wales.  Currently the expected date of the NSW election is March 23, with the federal election generally expected to follow seven or eight weeks later.  An alternative scenario is the federal election being held on March 2, in which case it is possible to delay NSW until April 13, at the expense of a slowed post-count because of Easter.  There are some other scenarios, but it's highly likely the NSW election will be within about two months of the federal one, with a lot of rather anxious interest surrounding the question of whether it will be before or after.

A very major theme of state election analysis on this site is that the federal picture makes a massive difference.  For whatever reasons, voters are more likely to re-elect state governments when the opposite party is in power federally.  Opposite-party state governments are almost always re-elected while same-party governments are a not much better than even money propositions.  Age also matters - the Berejiklian government is eighr years old.  No Coalition state government (of any state) has won a third or later term since 1986, and it will be forty years since a state's third or later Premier led a state to a majority win at their first election.

If the election is held before the federal poll, it will be interesting to see how the influence of federal factors plays out.  While voters kicking same-party state governments is certainly a thing, it's not clear whether it's because voters like to ensure power is dispersed, like to send federal governments a message, have their perceptions of the state party coloured by perceptions of the federal party, or use state elections to punish the federal government for its misdeeds.  Perhaps it is all of these things to a degree.  Some of them point to state voters potentially focusing on state factors if they are convinced the federal government will be gone soon anyway (cf Tasmania 1996).  There are not so many recent cases of state and federal elections held close together, especially not in big states, to use as a guide.

The Liberal-National Coalition under then very popular Premier Mike Baird won the 2015 election convincingly, with a 2PP vote of 54.32%, winning 54 of the 93 seats.  In by-elections since, it has dropped Orange (NAT 21.7% vs ALP) to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and Wagga Wagga (Lib 12.9% vs ALP) to independent Joe McGirr.  Orange was very close but the Wagga Wagga flogging was so heavy that Labor very narrowly won the 2PP vs the Liberals as well.  The record in NSW is much the same as the record elsewhere - government defeats at by-elections tend to predict 2PP swings against the government at the next election.

Uniform Swing Is A Risky Assumption

The NSW 2019 election, more than any other recently, looms as one where just reading uniform swing numbers off an electoral pendulum could give a misleading result.  The main reason for this is the strange distribution of margins in Coalition seats in the 2016 result.  Six Coalition seats were held on 3.2% or less, but then there are no more between 3.2% and 6.2%.  Yet then there are another five in the range 6.2% to 7.6% and another eight on 8.2% to 9.7%. On uniform swing assumptions there is no difference between a 51.1-48.9 result to the Coalition and a 51.9-48.1 result to Labor.  However, because swings are never uniform, it makes a lot of difference.  If the swing is around the former level, it's likely Labor won't take all the sub-3.2% marginals, especially as Labor's vote is likely to be disproportionately boosted by personal vote swings in the seats they took from the Coalition last time.  On the other hand a swing of around 6% would almost certainly take out some of the seats in the 6-8% range, and perhaps one or two higher up the tree.

Currently the Coalition holds 52 seats, Labor 34, the Greens 3, Shooters, Fishers and Farmers 1 and independents 3.  Losing a net six seats puts the Coalition into minority, while a gain of thirteen would give Labor a majority.  The first would happen on a uniform swing of 3.2% if the Coalition fail to recapture the two seats lost in by-elections.  If those two seats are recaptured, the uniform swing required rises to 6.6%.  But in reality for the reasons above, the swings needed for these two targets would be closer together than that.  The target for Labor for majority government, all else being equal, is 8.7% (there are three seats on exactly that).   Some of any swing to Labor will be wasted on personal vote effects in seats that will become safe if the election overall is at all competitive; on the other hand Labor would hold hopes of taking a seat or two from the disunited (to say the least) NSW Greens.  Very uneven swings would seem to be needed for Labor to win a majority without winning the 2PP by a commanding margin, while the Coalition might get away with a fairly narrow 2PP win, or even if very lucky a 50-50ish result.

Closer to the election, when more sitting MP retirements are customarily known, I will fire up a seat-based model to see what different levels of 2PP swing should be expected to do.  (After the 2015 election I estimated that Labor would need about a 50.6% 2PP for a 50% chance of winning.) But it is worth already noting some of the seats where personal votes are a factor.

Firstly the seat of East Hills (Lib 0.4%) was a miracle hold for the Liberals in 2015, but the miracle was tainted by a nasty and multiply illegal smear campaign against the Labor candidate. Liberal incumbent Glenn Brookes' campaign manager was charged but found not guilty, and the culprit(s) have not been identified.  Brookes was also caught out in a campaign donations scandal and, after leaving then rejoining the party during the term, has decided to rejoin.  Given that the seat is a vacancy, is on a tiny margin and was won in circumstances unlikely to be repeated, it's generally considered a goner.  You can get $5 on the Coalition in it if you don't agree.

Secondly the seat of Lismore (Nat vs Green 2.9%, Nat vs ALP 0.2%). Lismore and its neighbour Ballina were involved in similar three-cornered contests with Labor and the Greens, but the vacant seat of Ballina fell, whereas Thomas George's personal vote helped him record enough primaries and hold off the preference flows from Labor to the Greens enough to survive.  This time George is retiring, which is problem enough for the Coalition, but there is more.  The seat is closer than its 2PP margin suggests.  George defeated the Greens by over 2000 votes, but he only beat Labor on the 2PP by 192.  Labor were only not George's opponent because the Greens got over them by 417.  So it takes only a 0.5% swing from Green to Labor (surely plausible for multiple reasons right now) before the seat reverts to being a 2PP seat, at which point George's retirement means that it should fall if there is no statewide 2PP swing.  So unless there is very good reason to expect that the factors driving the swings in Lismore and Ballina in 2015 have gone away, this seat could be very difficult to hold.

(Those who like the ultimate in electoral wonkery with their Christmas cheer will be delighted to know that a recent paper by Blom, Stuckey and Teague uses Lismore as an example of why the final margin of a seat is not a reliable indicator of easy it would be to change its result by hacking.  This also applies to changing the result by convincing voters to change their minds!)

Thirdly, in Goulburn (Lib 6.6%) prominent sitting member and eleven-year incumbent Pru Goward is retiring.  In theory this should reduce the effective Liberal margin in the seat making it one likely to fall if Labor is getting up into the 4-5% swing range.  However, Goulburn saw a remarkably large swing to Labor (just over 20%) in 2015, and hasn't been won by Labor since 1965.  Did the swing to Labor just about "max out" last time, or could the seat actually fall?  In Victoria there were examples of a large swing at one election being no barrier to another one at the next.

It's also worth noting that Nationals seats (Lismore, Upper Hunter, Monaro and Tweed) are over-represented among the low-hanging marginals.  This means Labor's task will be much easier if it can appeal to these sorts of seats and win them back.  Upper Hunter is another seat where Labor got an extremely large swing (in this case 20.8% off the retirement of a long-sitting incumbent) and it's a seat Labor hadn't historically been even competitive in for decades until then (and hasn't won in over 100 years.)  Feel free to mention other seats of interest in comments.

Recent polling and leaderships

Most of the polling since Gladys Berejiklian became Premier showed the Coalition either modestly ahead or around even on a 2PP basis.  Since Michael Daley replaced Luke Foley, however, two polls have shown Labor with small leads (a 51-49 ReachTEL and 52-48 Galaxy).  This sort of lead, if repeated at an election, wouldn't be likely to be majority-winning, but would give Labor a good chance of forming a minority government.

This polling might well represent a honeymoon effect for new Labor leader Michael Daley.  The previous Labor leader Luke Foley was always controversial and was widely regarded by progressive politically-engaged voters as a bit of a dud (both tactically and politically).  Daley faces a challenge making himself known to the electorate in time, but voters are usually more concerned with expressing a view about a government, rather than what they think of the opposition.

If Daley wins, he will be one of the shortest-serving and therefore least-known state opposition leaders to win in the past several decades.  The only similar case at state level in even remotely recent times was Tasmanian premier Ray Groom, who won the state's election in 1992 having replaced former Premier Robin Gray just two months before the election.  At federal level there was Bob Hawke, but in those days ACTU leaders were major political figures, and Hawke's ratings had been being polled and reported by pollsters for years.

Going into the 2019 election we know very little about what the voters think of either Berejiklian or Daley.  Daley's approval rating as leader has never been polled.  Berejiklian's last personal rating was a net satisfaction of +10 from Newspoll back in March, but that's probably ancient history already.  The recent Galaxy had a preferred Premier lead of only 33-31 to the incumbent, and a forced-choice ReachTEL had Daley ahead 54-46.  These results seem unflattering to Berejiklian.  Alongside the understandable concern that the federal Coalition alone could cost the state Coalition the election, there have been plenty of internal concerns about whether the Coalition is selling its message effectively.  Somewhat contradicting that, there is also concern about whether the Coalition should be selling its message of achievement or needs to be offering the voters something new (which both Baird and, in Tasmania, Will Hodgman did successfully in the most recent Coalition victories at state level.)  There is also, somewhat unfortunately, concern about whether the Premier has enough of a public personal story, as if the electorate want their politicians to be celebrities and aren't going to assess them on how they do their job.

Much has been said already about the impact of One Nation.  At the party's current polling level of 8% (Galaxy) it seems unlikely it will win a seat, but if its voters are conservative-leaning but cheesed off with the government they could have a strong impact under optional preferencing.  A high exhaust rate off One Nation voters would spell trouble for the incumbents.

All up the Coalition's position in the Lower House looks pretty fragile at this stage, but it's possibly too early to have a justifiably confident view about which way it is going, especially with the impact of federal factors still to unfold.

I will be looking at the NSW Upper House closer to the election.  Thankfully it doesn't have Group Ticket Voting and also it has a statewide electorate, so it's a lot less work for us all.  On the other hand, it has constitutionally embedded random preference sampling, which is ridiculous.  And it has eight year terms.  It's possible Mark Latham, David Leyonhjelm and Jeremy Buckingham will all be in there until 2027!  Hope I haven't ruined too many Christmas evenings by mentioning that ...


  1. what is random preference sampling and why is it ridiculous?

    1. See https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-13/nsw-electoral-law-problem-of-randomly-elected-candidates/9022410

  2. I think you might be underestimating the One Nation threat in areas around the Hunter. At the 2016 Federal election the ONP candidate for Patterson (Graham Burston) polled 13%, and NSW elected an ONP Senator (Brian Burston). That without any local profile. At this election we'll see Mark Latham leading the party (up for election in the upper house), which will significantly raise their profile, and might even lend the party respectability in some circles.

    1. And cost it credibility with others - though I doubt any of them would be predisposed to vote One Nation, so your point remains disturbingly valid.

  3. still the must read blog site on polling. Keep it up Kev sorry Doctor Kev

  4. One factor that should be considered is how optional preferential tends to amplify the hammering that a political party that is truly on the nose: much of the drubbing that Labor got in 2011 was due to the votes that may otherwise have gone to Labor on preferences simply exhausting.

    I don’t think that 2015 was truly reflective of just how marginal some of these Liberal held seats are - in 2015 Labor was still suffering from its poor last three years in government, the Obeid factor was still fresh in people’s minds to a degree and Labor went into that election with a new and uninspiring leader in Luke Foley (especially when compared with Mike Baird). There is no way that a seat like Parramatta is genuinely a ‘safe’ seat with a 12% margin. Penrith is a lot closer than 6.2% that it appears on the election pendulum.

    In 2019 it will be the Liberals that will suffer from the optional preferential voting phenomenon. They are really on the nose in Sydney. Labor on the other hand will benefit from this anger - either they will pick up primary votes or, such is the anger with the liberals, people will likely preference Labor to makes sure their anti government votes counts.

  5. Further to my previous post: As much as the Liberals are on the nose in Sydney, the National Party are on the nose in the Bush. I reckon a number of NP seats will fall to either independents, or the Shooters. Perhaps even ON will get a look in. An interesting seat to keep an eye on is Dubbo: with Troy Grant’s retirement its an open seat and I think the NP - who have preselected a local ABC ration broadcaster - will struggle to get over 30% of the primary vote. There is a strong Labor candidate in Barrister Stephen Lawrence and a high profile independent, who is basically a Liberal in a pretty ytransparent disguise. Lawrence is personally very popular, and even for country folk who could not stomach voting directly for Labor, he might spring a surprise - if he keeps Labor’s primary vote above 20%, he could accumulate every bodies primaries and end up growing over the top and win (which nearly happened in the recent Wagga Wagga byelection by the way ...)