Shifting Sands: Could Kevin Rudd Lose His Own Seat?

WITH LABOR’S apparent standing in opinion polls worsening the further this election campaign progresses, many commentators are now considering the question of Kevin Rudd’s own political mortality. Approaching a near-certain election loss, his survival in Griffith is simply a question of degrees.

I’m back in Melbourne, although it will be a day or so until things return to “normal;” readers will see a bit more of me now but it still may take a little time for our conversation to fully resume.

Even so, I have been watching political proceedings whilst away like a hawk, and note — interestingly — that commentators in the mainstream press are now openly pondering the question of whether Kevin Rudd might lose his seat of Griffith.

It’s a question we’ve considered at The Red And The Blue before, mostly in relation to the prospect of Rudd’s resumption of the ALP leadership before the event; and whilst I have re-linked to that article only recently, I think it more than appropriate to do so again.

Labor — federally — appears to be poised not just to lose this election, but to lose it badly; with a Nielsen poll released today showing the Coalition gaining a point after preferences to lead 53-47, the aggregate of the national polls is now almost precisely that.

At 53-47, the Coalition wins by at least 20 seats — probably more.

I’m not going to discuss — for now — the plethora of automated telephone poll findings from key individual constituencies that are beginning to appear; it is, however, noteworthy that one of these was conducted in the Prime Minister’s electorate of Griffith.

The merits or otherwise of automated polling not being up for discussion (this time), it is interesting that this poll showed Rudd losing the seat to his LNP challenger, Brisbane eye surgeon Bill Glasson, by a 48-52 margin.

The thing I want to look at here is the voting history of Kevin Rudd’s electorate.

There is a myth in political circles that this is, traditionally, a Labor seat, and to be fair I have at least once in the past described it as being “usually Labor.”

But as regular readers will have also heard me say, this is an electorate that tends to be won by the Liberal Party (or its non-Labor predecessors) whenever the conservatives win resoundingly at the federal level overall.

Created at a redistribution in 1934, Griffith has been held by the ALP for 58 of the 79 years since; the electorate has always broadly covered territory in the inner south and east of Brisbane, and whilst redistributions over the years have greatly altered its borders, the electorate’s political complexion has remained surprisingly constant.

For the ensuing 30 years, the voting pattern of the seat followed the thesis; it was won by the Liberals in 1949 when they won office for the first time under Bob Menzies, and remained in the Liberal fold for five years until Menzies very nearly lost office in 1954.

Four years later — with Menzies re-elected in a landslide in 1958 — Griffith was again picked up by a Liberal for a single term until Menzies suffered another electoral near-death experience, the 1961 election being won by just two seats (and ultimately decided by Communist preferences in another Brisbane seat, Moreton).

In 1966 — the biggest election win by the Liberal Party in its history, if measured on its share of the two-party vote, which stood at 56.9% — Griffith was won back for the Liberals by Don Cameron, who held it against the savage national swing to the ALP in 1969, the election of the Whitlam government in 1972,and Whitlam’s narrow re-election in 1974.

When an election following the dismissal of the Whitlam government took place in December 1975 — resulting in the biggest election win for the Liberal Party if measured on the parliamentary majority secured (91 Coalition, 36 ALP, majority 55) — the conservatives, obviously, already held the seat.

But after a redistribution favoured Labor in the seat ahead of the 1977 election, Cameron shifted electorates and Griffith was won for Labor by former Hawke/Keating government minister Ben Humphreys.

And in 1996 — with the Liberals scoring their biggest-ever win if measured on numbers of seats (94 Coalition, 49 Labor, 5 “Others”) — the Labor candidate replacing the retiring Humphreys was beaten by a Liberal alderman from the Brisbane City Council.

That Labor candidate was Kevin Rudd.

I apologise to those who follow such things closely as I do for the history lesson, but all readers will see the clear pattern: 1958, 1966, 1975 and 1996 are the four standout wins in Australian political history by conservatives, rivalled in scope only by the obliteration of the Scullin government in 1931 and Malcolm Fraser’s first re-election in 1977.

Griffith may indeed return a Labor member about 70% of the time, but it has been won by non-Labor representatives before, and as often for multiple terms as once only.

And it has rarely been, on paper, a “safe” seat: even now, the 8.4% margin Labor holds it with falls short of the accepted 10.1% or higher that constitutes “safe seat” status, despite regular media reporting that describes otherwise.

Which brings us back to Rudd, who entered Parliament in 1998 on his second attempt.

Rudd is not a typical case, when looking at Griffith from a historical perspective.

For one thing, he’s the only person from Queensland to ever become Prime Minister by winning an election as the leader of a political party; for another, it is likely that the 58.4% result he recorded in 2010 was inflated by a “sympathy factor” in the washout of his dumping as Prime Minister in an internal Labor Party coup.

I contend he is insecurely seated in the first place: the seat’s history is proof enough of that.

But in spite of Rudd throwing everything at Queensland to find electoral gains to offset losses elsewhere in the country, all evidence points to the ALP going backwards — perhaps very badly — in the Sunshine State.

The recruitment of Rudd nemesis and former Premier Peter Beattie as a candidate has been an unmitigated disaster to date; there is ample polling data to show Beattie is, at the minimum, partially responsible for driving the decline in Labor’s fortunes in Queensland.

And with a consensus now emerging among the mainstream press and commentariat that (barring unforeseens) Labor is looking down the barrel of losing 20 seats in a fortnight’s time, it raises the question of how badly Labor has to lose in order for Rudd to suffer the indignity on his own patch.

Complicating the question is the indisputable fact that Rudd is in no way a popular leader; across published polls his falling numbers now closely resemble those of Tony Abbott, which in any case have been steadily rising for the past month and are beginning to overtake Rudd’s in some polls and on some indicators.

It’s a consideration that will count against Rudd in his own seat as much as nationally: it’s clear that the messiah-like “popularity” he enjoyed during his time on the outer was fool’s gold, and his absence from Brisbane to campaign around the country will cripple his ability to counter this among the very people on whose his political survival depends.

But if Rudd loses in Griffith, it will be a very different scenario to the other two Prime Ministers who have suffered the humiliation of being thrown from Parliament at an election whilst still holding the office.

John Howard’s loss in 2007 occurred in a seat that had, over decades, been steadily redistributed geographically south and west and away from the Liberal Party’s citadel of North Shore support in Sydney.

And Stanley Melbourne Bruce’s defeat in the outer Melbourne electorate of Flinders whilst PM, in 1929, is commonly attributed the fact he was a poor local member: Bruce is known to have shown scant interest in, or regard for, constituent matters, and it cost him.

It is said that Rudd is a very good local MP, at least in terms of his attention to local issues — even in spite of his Prime Ministerial duties.

And Labor has held the seat in the past when the tide for the conservatives overall was high; 1977 is a case in point. 1955, with Menzies scoring 54% of the vote, is another.

But the growing swing to the Coalition nationally, coupled with the rising unpopularity of Rudd personally and obscured by the extent to which his margin is built on sympathy from 2010, tends to suggest that as long as the swing is on — as it seems to be — Rudd may well be about to come to the involuntary end of his political career.

Personally, I’m not going to pick it. Not yet, in any case.

But if I were Glasson, I’d at least be giving some cursory thought to where I might stay during sitting weeks in Canberra, and to ensuring personal affairs were in order whilst there is still plenty of time to do so.