Maths and media: where the election will be won and lost

Shorten Morrison

It’s always unwise to make predictions about who is likely to win any election, but if Scott Morrison does end up on the victory podium on the evening of 18 May, it will be one of the most unlikely victories seen in Australian politics.

Not quite as unlikely as the Labor victory in the 2015 Queensland election, where a rump of a party managed to win an election against the Newman Government after just one term, but probably on par with Paul Keating’s ‘true believers’ victory in 1993, where Labor managed to turn around very difficult polls and trump John Hewson and the Liberal–National Party to win by 11 seats.

But the 1993 election was a contest of ideas, with Hewson’s Fightback! package providing many targets for Keating to attack. In 2019, it’s a contest of stability against instability, and competence against incompetence – the LNP has removed two leaders since 2013, whereas Labor has kept its leadership team intact during this time.

Not much has been said about this in the media, but the Morrison government has been in minority since the Wentworth by-election in November last year. Perhaps it’s because this occurred relatively late in the term and the expectation an election was due to be called soon, but it’s interesting to compare the rabid media during the final months of the Gillard/Rudd Government – the previous time we had a minority government – with the tepid media response when the LNP found itself in exactly the same position.





The LNP’s two terms of government since 2013 have been littered with political incompetence, navel gazing, corruption and policy quagmire. It denied the need for a Royal Commission into banking and has made its time in government a continuation of the Howard era of Liberal Party, rather than create a form of leadership that is relevant in today’s world.

Scott Morrison Peter Dutton
Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton orchestrated the coup against sitting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in August 2018.

For all of the faults of the Labor period between 2010–13, at least they can argue they had the global financial crisis to contend with and their differences were based around their dislike of Kevin Rudd as a personality, rather than policy matters.

The divisions with the LNP have been far worse – a divide between personalities, but coupled with a severe schism in the party about climate change and renewable energy. It’s almost as though they’ve been at war with everything, including themselves. And electric cars and veganism.

As John Howard loved to say when he was Prime Minister, elections and politics are all about arithmetic, and the measures required for the LNP to win the 2019 election will be difficult to achieve.

The first path to victory

First of all, the Liberal–National Party is currently in minority, holding only 74 seats of 150 seats, notionally, only 73 of 151 seats. This means to govern in its own right, the LNP will need to make a net gain of three seats. Just based on numbers alone, it’s hard to see this happening.

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There are a few seats that can be easily identified as potential wins – Wentworth, Indi and Lindsay. Wentworth and Indi were LNP-held seats until Cathy McGowan took Indi in the 2013 election, and Kerryn Phelps took Wentworth in the November 2018 by-election. McGowan is retiring from politics, and there are suggestions that away from the national spotlight a by-election commands, Wentworth will return to the Liberal Party.

The Liberal Party confidence in Lindsay is based on their performance in the recent NSW election, where they managed to hold on to the seat of Penrith, but internal party polling suggests the seat will be held by Labor’s candidate, Diane Beamer.

There are three ultra marginal seats held by Labor, all held by first-time MPs. The Queensland seat of Herbert is held by Cathy O’Toole, and this is the most marginal seat in the country, separated by only 37 votes.

Anne Aly took the WA seat of Cowan by just over 1,000 votes in the 2016 election, and is up against a political novice, Isaac Stewart, who currently works as a community development officer.

Ged Kearney holds the seat of Cooper, but the contest in this case is between Labor and Greens, and is out of reach for the LNP.

The seat of Dunkley, although notionally a Labor seat, is actually held by the Liberal’s Chris Crewther, but he will need a swing of 1.3 per cent towards him to hold the seat.

The renamed seat of Macnamara (previously known as Melbourne Ports) is held by Labor, but Michael Danby is retiring, and this seat is in contention – but for the Greens, not for the Liberal Party.

These are the only seats that present themselves as low-hanging fruit for the LNP, and they would need to win three of six winnable seats to win the election. And, if they did, they’d only be back to the precarious one-seat majority they found themselves with after the 2016 election.

The second pathway to victory

But this is only part of the first equation, and assumes the Coalition holds all of its other seats. How likely is this? There are four ultra marginal seats held by the Coalition: Corangamite, Capricornia, Forde and Gilmore.

The Victorian seat of Corangamite is held by Sarah Henderson. She won the seat in 2013 and again in 2016 by a margin of 3.13 per cent, but a redistribution has the seat notionally on 50.0 per cent. Given the large anti-Liberal swing in the Victoria election in November 2018, and the home-town factor for Bill Shorten, this is one seat that is likely to fall.

The two Queensland seats of Capricornia and Forde are held by Michelle Landry and Bert van Manen respectively – of the two, Forde is the more likely to fall. Incumbency will play a large part here, and with lesser-known candidates in these seats, Labor will be hoping for overall swings against the Government in Queensland for one or both of these seats to fall.

Gilmore in the Shoalhaven area of New South Wales is another seat that is delicately balanced, and is held by the Liberal Party by just over 1,100 votes. The sitting member, Ann Sudmalis, failed in her preselection bid against Grant Schultz who, in turn, was turfed out when Scott Morrison decided to parachute former Labor leader, Warren Mundine, into the seat.

It’s not quite clear what this episode was meant to achieve. After her disendorsement, Sudmalis has failed to provide any support to the Liberal Party in the lead-up to the election – why would she – a disgruntled Schultz is running as an independent candidate, and Mundine has no connection to the area, and was only preselected in February.

Of these four ultra marginal seats, three are very likely to fall. Even if only one of these seats was to fall and the LNP managed to gain the three seats mentioned above, it would still be in a minority position, and depend on support from independent MPs to form government.

Other seats in a losing position

The mathematics in the position of having to gain three seats, while holding four ultra marginal seats is already difficult.

On top of this is a swathe of LNP-held seats all over the country that are delicately poised. In Queensland, the seats of Petrie, Flynn and Dickson are held by less than 2 per cent, and in Western Australia, the Liberal Party is not polling well in the seats of Hasluck, Swan or Pearce.

In the inner west Sydney seat of Reid, the Liberal Party only preselected Fiona Martin as their candidate last week, after the departure of popular MP, Craig Laundy. The seat is held by 4.7 per cent, but Laundy’s departure and the invisible nature of Martin’s campaign means this seat is also likely to fall.

The media is here to help

Clearly, the mathematics are against the chances of the Liberal–National Party securing a third term of office. The reason why governments usually face difficulties securing third and subsequent terms is that the electorate has a track record of a two-term government they can use to assess what they are likely to do in the future. And the signs for the LNP are not good.

The main issue for the LNP is one of political competence and management, and for a party to have three prime ministers within five years is a clear sign there are troubles within its ranks, just as there were for the Labor Party during 2010–2013.

The LNP in 2019 finds itself in exactly the same position as the Labor Party when the 2013 campaign commenced, but with one notable difference: the media.

The media constantly tells the electorate Bill Shorten is unpopular but it seems the electorate will put that to one side and vote in a Labor government.

Already, the mainstream media has swung into action behind Scott Morrison, and started to hammer Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. ‘Why are you so unpopular’, they ask Shorten, seemingly unaware according to many polls, Morrison is equally unpopular. Shorten does have an average disapproval rating of 51 per cent, but Morrison is not that far behind on 45 per cent.

Why is Morrison never asked by the media about why he is so unpopular?

Why are Morrison or Treasurer Josh Fryenberg never called out for the misrepresentation that Labor will increase taxes by $387 billion? Or that Labor’s negative gearing changes will make ‘property prices go down and rents go up’? Or Labor’s proposal changes to franking credits rules is a tax that will hurt pensioners, even though 80 per cent of those people affected have share assets of well over $1 million?

And now we have, not even two days since the election campaign was announced, Sydney Morning Herald journalist Peter Hartcher claiming the election is already a ‘depressing contest’ between an ‘angry dad figure in a baseball cap and a sad sack who looks like he learned public speaking at a funeral parlour’.

It’s hard to know what amuses the media when it comes to election time. All elections are fascinating, although for different reasons, and for political journalists to downplay an election is sad indictment of where the mainstream media sits today.

Elections are important, the 2019 federal election is perhaps more important than most. It pits one unstable and ideologically-divided side that is so set in the past and thoroughly undeserving of re-election, against another side that has provided stability in Opposition and released a steady flow of policy ideas that offer a fairer and more equitable future.

If elections don’t matter to these over-paid journalists who manage to somehow survive in a dying industry, it’s best they retire to other pastures and give up on the trade, because they’re not doing anyone any favours.

Labor is strongly favoured to win the election on 18 May but in a two-party race held over 35 days of campaigning, many issues still need to fall into place for either side, albeit, many more factors need to fall into place for the Coalition, than for the Labor side.

Recent polling:

DatePollLNPLabor
4–8 April 2019 Essential 48% 52%
4–7 April 2019 Newspoll 48% 52%
3–6 April 2019 Ipsos 47% 53%
25–28 March 2019 Galaxy 47% 53%
20–25 March 2019 Essential 48% 52%

Predicted seats outcome:

Labor 82 (+10)
LNP 63 (-10)
Others 6  

Betting:

Labor $1.17
LNP $4.00
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Eddy Jokovich

Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.