Mixed signals likely in Canning

14 September 2015

The recent death of Don Randall has triggered a Federal by-election in Western Australia, which happens this Saturday.  Unsurprisingly, it’s been talked and written about as a test for the Liberal-National Coalition, with its popularity long on the skids, despite an apparent lack of appeal among voters for the Labor Party.

By-elections usually happen when MPs die or resign well before general elections happen.  These are separate elections held only in the seats of former MPs upon their departure.  In the case of the late Randall, the by-election caused by his death will happen in the seat of Canning, based on the southern fringe of Perth.

Randall had two stints in Federal Parliament, albeit without doing much of note.  He was first elected in the seat of Swan, in Perth’s south, in 1996, and was defeated in 1998.  He stood successfully for Canning in 2001, and held that seat until his death.  But the thing for which I remember Randall most was in fact a grubby jibe, which I’ll come to.

At first glance, the Liberal Party really shouldn’t lose Canning.  It holds this seat by a margin of about 11.8 per cent over Labor.  But when I last looked closely at some opinion polls a few months ago, they showed swings to Labor as high as the Canning margin in Western Australia alone – well above a predicted swing of 6-7 per cent to Labor nationwide, as well as the swing about 4.3 per cent needed by Labor simply to win the next election.  I haven’t looked closely at the polls of late simply because they’ve lacked geographic breakdowns, which I see more value in than the nationwide snapshots that most opinion polls focus on.  Anyway, the polls have actually suggested that Canning is more vulnerable than it looks.

Canning has also been something of a swinging seat over the last few decades.  The Liberals held it during the years when Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, lost it to Labor when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister in 1983, and won it from Labor when John Howard was elected Prime Minister in 1996.  Labor regained the seat in 1998, before Randall regained it for the Liberals in 2001.  In later years he survived one strong challenge from Labor candidate Alannah MacTiernan, a former State Labor Government minister.

When Randall first entered Parliament in 1996, he won Swan from Labor, after Deputy Prime Minister Kim Beazley left that seat to run for Brand, a safer Labor seat at the time.  In the end, Beazley was almost beaten in Brand.  Some observers put his near-defeat down to the reluctance of the Australian Democrats, led by Senator Cheryl Kernot, to direct preferences to Labor, to whom they’d usually directed their preferences at past elections.  Despite this near-death experience, Beazley became Labor leader after former Prime Minister Paul Keating departed.

In late 1997, the highly-regarded Kernot stunned all and sundry when she announced her defection from the Democrats to the Labor Party.  It seemed that Labor figures had been courting Kernot, who was disillusioned with the agenda of the Howard Coalition Government in those days – Labor was trying to distance itself from the unpopular Keating and might’ve seen Kernot as a break from the Keating era.  But Kernot had a hard time in Labor ranks, and was defeated in 2001, before it was revealed that she’d been having an affair with Labor stalwart Gareth Evans.

It was after Kernot’s defection to Labor that Randall did what I remember him most for.  Standing up in Parliament, Randall described Kernot as having “the morals of an alley cat” – a grubby remark.

There might well have been some irony in this incident.  Kernot arguably played some part in almost finishing off the career of Labor stalwart Beazley, but the insulting of her after her defection came from a man who would’ve finished off the career of Beazley if he hadn’t left the seat of Swan to run for Brand.

After this insult, Randall seemingly achieved little else in politics.  He lost Swan in 1998, before returning to Parliament by winning Canning in 2001.

Meanwhile, going back to the by-election resulting from his death, an element of sympathy might save the Liberals in his seat.  By-elections rarely change hands when triggered by deaths, and despite the unpopularity of the Liberals at this time, voters mightn’t be as keen to give them a kick in the rear end as they’d be if MPs call it quits outside election time for no good reason.

Mixed signals await in Canning with this coming by-election.  There’ll be a decent swing against the Liberals, but probably not big enough to lose them the seat, though any swing above 6-7 per cent against them could send Labor cock-a-hoop, despite voters’ doubts about Labor.  My tip is for a swing of 7-8 per cent to Labor, which wouldn’t be too bad a result for the Liberals at this time.  The size of the swing will grab attention, showing whether or not voters might gradually turn back to the Coalition.

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