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Winning: it's right place, right time

By Peter Brent - posted Monday, 5 November 2007

Does a good candidate stand a better chance of winning a seat than a poor one? What is a "good" or "poor" candidate?

Take Maxine McKew in the Prime Minister's electorate of Bennelong. Does she give Labor a better chance than some party hack would? And how would we know?

And does Liberal Jackie Kelly's retirement from Lindsay, around Penrith in Sydney, hurt her party's chances of holding the seat? Or do voters not particularly care who the local candidates are?


There are two types of candidates: those who currently sit in a seat, and those who aspire to do so.

Most MPs, once they're elected, build a personal vote, which might average to a per cent or two. It comes from electors who don't have a strong party loyalty, have seen the member in the local rag and reckon they're not too bad. An MP who regularly displays independence from their party (generally by bagging the leadership) can build up a very high personal vote indeed.

Personal votes can be boosted in other ways. Consider Mal Brough in the Brisbane seat of Longman. His elevation last year from dreary Assistant Treasurer to denim-clad Action Man, a nightly news regular, fronting a popular cause, must be worth quite a few per cent.

On the other hand, you would expect John Howard's personal vote in Bennelong to be high, but after 11 years as Prime Minister it would already be built into his margin.

So it is reasonable to expect that Kelly's retirement has made Lindsay a little more vulnerable than it would otherwise be. At least as important, though, was a redistribution last year that shaved over two per cent from her margin.

But leaving them both for dead is the national mood. Opinion polls currently put the Labor Party at least 10 points ahead across the country, and if Kevin Rudd wins in a landslide, Lindsay will be part of it.


Then there are the candidates trying to snatch electorates from sitting members.

In these cases, it is difficult to know whether candidate "quality" whatever that is makes much, or even any, difference. Often such judgments are made on spurious grounds.

Kelly herself was a star in 1996 when she took the then safe Labor seat with a 12 per cent swing. Not too far away was a similar story in Hughes, with Danna Vale winning with a swing of 11 per cent.

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About the Author

Peter Brent is publisher of, a website devoted to Australian politics. He is also a PhD student at the Research School of Social Sciences, ANU. He is a member of the Australian National University's Democratic Audit of Australia.

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