The latest monthly Nielsen survey, published in the Fairfax broadsheets, has Labor’s two-party lead at 53-47, down from 54-46 last time. Labor and the Coalition are equal on 42 per cent of the primary vote, with Labor steady and the Coalition up a point. The Prime Minister’s approval rating is down three points on a month ago, and nine points on two months ago, to 57 per cent; his disapproval rating is 37 per cent, compared with 33 per cent last time and 29 per cent the time before. Tony Abbott’s approval rating has bounced six points to 50 per cent, while his disapproval is steady on 41 per cent. Over the past three surveys, Kevin Rudd’s lead as preferred prime minister has gone from 67-21 to 58-31 to 57-35. Following last week’s health reform announcement, 79 per cent of respondents supported a greater funding role for the federal government. The poll was conducted from Thursday to Saturday from a sample of 1400.

A fair bit of legislative action to report:

• Federal parliament is currently considering a piece of legislation called the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Close of Rolls and Other Measures) Bill, which looks likely to give effect to a number of changes in time for the federal election. Three measures in particular have the support of the Coalition: treating pre-poll votes cast within the electorate as normal rather than declaration votes, so they can be counted on election nights; allowing enrolment to be updated online; and preventing parties’ registered officers from nominating multiple candidates in a single electoral division. The latter measure will prevent a repeat of the Bradfield by-election, at which the Christian Democratic Party was effortlessly able to complicate the process by indulgently nominating nine candidates. The party would now be required to find 50 nominators for each candidate after the first, as is required of independents. Two further measures are opposed by the Coalition, both of which seek to reverse unconscionable amendments made by the Howard government in 2005. One is a return to the seven-day period after the issue of writs allowing new voters to enrol or existing voters to amend their enrolment, against which no reasonable argument can be raised. The other seeks to repeal the requirement that those casting provisional voters provide identification to the AEC after polling day, which many neglected to do after the 2007 election. Antony Green reviews the closure of rules issue specifically here, and the legislation in general here.

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• The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has completed its inquiry into the New South Wales parliament’s automatic enrolment legislation. The government shares the bipartisan enthusiasm for the concept in New South Wales, but a dissenting report has signalled that any similar move at federal level will be opposed by the Coalition in the Senate. This has not impressed University of Queensland electoral law boffin Graeme Orr, who runs through his concerns with the Coalition’s position in Crikey.

• Legislation abolishing tax deductibility of donations to parties, members and candidates, and limiting deductions for gifts and contributions by businesses, completed its passage through parliament on February 25.

And as always, a whole lot happening on the preselection front:

• Saturday’s much-publicised Labor preselection ballot for Robertson saw the defeat of incumbent Belinda Neal at the hands of university lecturer Deborah O’Neill, by a margin of 98 to 67. A prescient article on Thursday by Andrew Crook of Crikey indicated Neal could rely on only 66 votes from the three branches she controlled – Woy Woy, Kariong and Mangrove Mountain – whereas Deborah O’Neill had the support of “at least 100” preselectors UPDATE: This is disputed by a commenter who says the Kariong branch voted unanimously for O’Neill.

• New South Wales Labor Senator Michael Forshaw has made life easier for his party by announcing he will not contest the next election. This leaves a vacancy for outgoing state party secretary Matt Thistlethwaite, who needed to be accommodated after he agreed to go quietly from his current position on the condition a Senate seat would be available to him. Both Thistlethwaite and Forshaw are members of the Right. A report by Imre Salusinszky of The Australian suggests he was pushed as much as jumped, saying the result was determined by “a meeting of right-wing unions and party officials”. The sequence of candidates will be John Faulkner, Matt Thistlethwaite and Steve Hutchins, the latter managing to cling on to a winnable-yet-loseable position because of “strong support from the powerful Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association”.

• South Australian Liberal Senator Alan Ferguson has announced he will not contest the next election, and will retire when his term expires in the middle of next year. This was foreshadowed in reports last year which suggested the vacancy was likely to be contested between former Wakefield MP David Fawcett, who like Ferguson is associated with the Right, and state party president Sean Edwards, a moderate.

• I learned from Joe Hockey on Insiders yesterday morning that Office of Aboriginal Health director Ken Wyatt has won Liberal preselection for the marginal Labor seat of Hasluck in eastern Perth. Hockey pointed out that if elected, Wyatt will become “the first Indigenous Australian to sit in the House of Representatives”. I’m wondering if he might be any relation to state Labor rising star Ben Wyatt (Shadow Treasurer and member for Victoria Park), who is part Aboriginal and the son of the Liberal candidate for Kalgoorlie at the 1996 federal election.

• The New South Wales Liberals have finalised preselections for those state upper house candidates who are chosen centrally rather than regionally (David Clarke being an example of the latter). The three winnable positions have gone to incumbent Catherine Cusack; Natasha Maclaren-Jones, state party vice-president and adviser to Senator Helen Coonan; and Peter Phelps, an adviser to Senator Michael Ronaldson and formerly to defeated Eden-Monaro MP Gary Nairn. Out in the cold was Dai Le, an ABC documentary producer who will have to content herself with a second tilt at unwinnable Cabramatta. Phelps has his admirers (“a very smart chap”, reckons politically moderate former party identity Irfan Yusuf), but they don’t include many who place a premium on standards of decency in public life. Highlights of a dangerous life include an appearance at a public forum at which he heckled Mike Kelly, soon-to-be Labor member for Eden-Monaro, comparing him to a Nazi concentration camp guard on the basis of his distinguished service in Iraq. In October, an email he wrote on media strategy with the candid subject heading “digging dirt” was released to the media: it recommended MPs pursue stories about “fat cat public servants not caring about taxpayers, pollies with snouts in the trough, special interest groups getting undeserved handouts from tax taken from hard-working Aussies, a favoured pro-Labor contractor who seems to be getting all the work for a particular job etc”.

• Margot Saville of Crikey writes that Leichhardt mayor Jamie Parker is expected to win Greens endorsement in the state seat of Balmain, where the party appears a better-than-even chance of toppling Labor incumbent Verity Firth.

Plus some other stuff:

• The process for a redistribution of Victorian federal electorates has begun, but with an expected date of completion of December 17, it is very unlikely to take effect before this year’s election.

• Simon Benson of The Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday that “the chance of Australia going to an early election has lessened with internal Labor research exposing a negative shift in mood towards Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in key marginal seats in Sydney’s west” – namely Lindsay, Macquarie, Greenway and Macarthur. In particular, we were told that “women had begun to sour on Mr Rudd and that mixed messages were now starting to show up on the Government’s climate change policy”. Labor national secretary Karl Bitar wrote on Twitter shortly afterward that the story was “not true”.

Peter Brent at Mumble urges the government to caution over the question of holding a referendum concurrent with the next election: firstly because history suggests referendum results bear little relationship to the question being posed, and secondly because there is reason to believe referendums on election day drag down support for the government.

• Gareth Griffith of the New South Wales Parliamentary Library has published two very interesting papers on the the record of minority government in Australia and the prospect of recall elections in New South Wales (the latter with Lenny Roth). The former covers similar territory to a paper I presented on minority government and the Greens at the Australian Study of Parliament Group conference in September, which will be published in the next edition of the Australasian Parliamentary Review.

• Owing to a public holiday in Victoria, Essential Research will publish its weekly survey on Tuesday, and not today as it normally does.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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