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Lies and statistics
Feb 28 2004
Feedback Peter Brent

Politicians of various colour support throwing public money at cane growers, who missed out on the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. That's because everyone wants their votes.

Who and where are the sugar seats? Their names are Dawson, Fairfax, Herbert, Hinkler, Kennedy, Leichhardt and Wide Bay in Queensland. We can also add Page and Richmond in northern New South Wales to the list, and each of these electorates, apart from Kennedy, home of maverick Independent Bob Katter, is Coalition-held.

That's nine electorates in total, almost enough to topple the government. But would they really change status because of the FTA?

According to Sugar Research and Development Corporation, there are about 7,000 sugar canegrowers in Australia, and the industry directly employs 22,000. This number would increase several-fold if we threw in families, friends and local communities.

Australian electorates generally have about 80,000 voters. The government's two most marginal sugar seats, Herbert and Richmond, are held by 1.5 and 1.7 percent respectively, margins that translate, in the case of both, into approximately 1300 votes.

At the other end, the safest sugar seat is Wide Bay, held by almost ten percent, a margin that translates into about 7600 voters. The other six lie somewhere in the middle. 

These numbers suggest sugar seats have the potential to be crucial.

But how likely are they to make a difference at the next election?

The 1990 federal election produced the ALP's best results in sugar seats in many a decade, when they won six out of nine. That poll saw a Labor two party preferred majority in Queensland, a rarity only seen every thirty years or so.

So a highly optimistic outcome for the ALP might be six extra seats at most.

We can also get an idea of how the sugar seats behave from the 1993 election, when they last held centre stage, as opposition leader John Hewson was promising tariff cuts.

The sugar seats huffed and they puffed, but did they make good their threats?

Eleven years ago, Labor went in to the election holding Page and Richmond in NSW, and retained them both. The former swung slightly to the Nationals, the latter to Labor by 1.2 percent. The NSW aggregate swing was 2.3 percent to the ALP.

In Queensland , the government went in holding Herbert, Hinkler, Kennedy and Leichhardt and emerged with just two of them. Every Queensland sugar seat moved towards the Coalition by more than the state aggregate, which was 1.8 percent (to the Coalition).

So if Dr Hewson really represented a threat to their interests, every sugar seat bar one behaved contrary to its interests, and that one exception swung to Labor by less than its state did.

If we can draw any conclusion it's that the sugar states' collective bark is worse than its bite. In addition, federal elections are rarely so close that a handful of seats would make a difference. 

And generally, pork-barrelling as a political tool is highly over-rated.

Peter Brent is editor of

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