Our 16th PM contested his seat ten times over 25 years, but today’s MPs panic after one negative poll, says Barry Cohen
A friend of mine was a practising psephologist until they caught him at it. Those with similar tendencies should desist. It can become addictive. But it can also be informative and a solace on lonely nights, particularly if you have delusions of grandeur.
For the uninitiated, psephology is, according to Macquarie Dictionary, ‘the study of elections by analysing their results, trends, etc’. Few will be surprised to learn that most politicians take more than a passing interest in this arcane subject, and their interest heightens as elections draw near. At the moment, NSW Labor and federal Coalition MPs are devotees. They can be identified by their nervous tic.
Apart from sitting members, there are numerous aspiring politicians vying for preselection in both blue ribbon and marginal seats. There is, not surprisingly, more interest in the former than the latter. When I suggested to one aspiring candidate that he should throw his hat in the ring for a marginal seat, he looked at me as if I was bonkers.
‘Are you mad? We’ll be lucky to hold our safe seats, let alone win marginals,’ he said. ‘I’ve got better things to do than waste a year running in a hopeless seat.’
I looked at this young man, who would be an ornament in any legislature, and wondered if he had the other ingredients essential for any politician: staying power, grit and the determination to win.
I told him he should study the careers of the giants of Australian politics — Chifley, Menzies, Howard, Curtin et al.
None had an easy ride. All had victories followed by devastating defeats in preselections, elections or leadership battles. Ultimately they triumphed because they refused to give in.
Chifley is the best example of a politician refusing to accept defeat. He was beaten in numerous preselections and elections before finally winning the seat of Macquarie (Bathurst) in 1928, retaining it in 1929 before losing it in the defeat of the Scullin government in 1931. He then spent nine years in the wilderness before he recaptured it in 1940. Chifley died in June 1951 shortly after losing an election as leader of the opposition. Despite endless setbacks he is regarded as one of our greatest prime ministers. Part of that greatness lay in his ability to take defeats with equanimity and try again.
Fast forwarding to the present, one must concede that the tasks facing Nathan Rees and Malcolm Turnbull are Herculean. But the NSW election is not due until March 2011 and a federal election will most likely be held in November next year. The task is not impossible.
My mind goes back to 1969 when, as a callow youth, I won the seat of Robertson on the NSW Central Coast, previously held by the Liberals for 20 years. The ‘experts’ told me I had no hope, but a visit to Canberra a few months before the 1969 election to gain inspiration had the opposite effect. I watched with despair as Arthur Calwell waved the latest poll results in front of his colleagues chortling, ‘Thirty-seven per cent. How can we win with 37 per cent?’ Arthur, of course, had many hatreds, but topping the list was the leader of the opposition, Edward Gough Whitlam.
When Cyril Wyndham, then Labor’s federal secretary, witnessed my deep depression and discovered the reason. He thundered, ‘Don’t you go near those miserable sods. They have no idea what’s going on. Get back to Robertson and continue your campaigning.’ Five months later Labor won 16 seats from the Coalition, including Robertson. What had seemed an impossible task in June nearly came off in October. The Coalition majority was reduced from 39 to seven. Politics is full of such surprises.
‘Ah yes!’ the Nervous Nellies will tell you, ‘but the polls show we are 5 per cent further behind and I need 7 per cent to win.’ It’s a trap for young players. Polls are an average. Unless taken in individual seats, swings will vary enormously from seat to seat.
No better example exists than the results of that 1969 election. The colourful Al Grassby won the seat of Riverina with a swing of 16.8 per cent, while Sam Calder held the Northern Territory seat with a swing to the Country Party of 7.5 per cent. The range of swings therefore was 24.3 per cent — 118 swung to Labor, seven to the Coalition.
Why such variations? A lot will depend on the political climate. Some elections are fought with great passion, others with little or none. Remember 1972, 1975 and 1996? All were volatile elections. Local issues, demographic changes, the quality of the candidate and the amount of effort they put in will all play a part.
Conventional wisdom has it that a local candidate is worth no more than 2 per cent. Tell that to former Al Grassby supporters. Tell it also to those who have recently been promoting Peter Dutton as a future Liberal leader. He showed his leadership qualities by panicking when the preliminary redistribution of boundaries in his Queensland seat of Dickson showed it was now nominally a Labor seat by 2 per cent.
He abandoned Dickson, a seat he had held since 2001, and failed to win preselection for the blue ribbon seat of McPherson on the Gold Coast. When the final boundaries for Dickson were announced, Labor’s lead was reduced to 1 per cent. Faced with no alternative, Dutton announced he will return to Dickson. The voters’ reaction? Difficult to say. Electors don’t like deserters, and that’s what they’re calling Dutton. It’s hard to believe that someone so highly regarded by the Liberals could not have held Dickson. He tossed in the towel far too early.
A final message to the future Whitlams, Chifleys and Howards. Whether the seat you want to contest is blue ribbon or marginal, ignore polls a year out from the election. If you’re going to gain the highest honour your nation can bestow, you need energy, drive and backbone, and you need to ignore all the daily ups and downs of politics.
If you win preselection, concentrate on your seat and nothing else. And if you fail, try, try, and try again.