30 November 2015
Days remain before voters in North Sydney go to the polls for a by-election. It’s come about in the aftermath of the Liberal leadership coup which saw Prime Minister Tony Abbott dumped in favour of Malcolm Turnbull, and a subsequent ministerial reshuffle. But the by-election isn’t a result of Abbott resigning from Parliament – North Sydney is the seat of Joe Hockey, who was dumped as Treasurer in the reshuffle and chose to leave Parliament soon after.
At first glance, you wouldn’t pay much attention to this by-election, with North Sydney being one of the Liberal Party’s safer seats. Indeed the Labor Party isn’t contesting the by-election. With Labor’s fortunes having turned for the worse since Turnbull’s rise, it’s no surprise.
But I’ve seen the major parties lose, or only narrowly win, by-elections in seats that their usual rivals normally wouldn’t win. Strangely, these instances have often occurred when the usual rivals didn’t even run candidates. These seats have sometimes fallen to Independents or minor parties, in the absence of the usual rivals.
Just on ten years ago, in late 2005, one such by-election occurred in New South Wales. It followed the dramatic downfall of State Liberal Party leader John Brogden. Forced to resign as leader after revelations of ungentlemanly behaviour at some function, Brogden later resigned from State Parliament, causing a by-election in his seat of Pittwater, on Sydney’s northern beaches. With Labor opting out of contesting this safe Liberal seat, you wouldn’t have imagined the Liberals losing it. But with locals believing that Brogden had been done over by other Liberals, they revolted against the Liberals and elected an Independent.
A few years earlier, in late 2002, Labor lost a Federal by-election in a seat which the Liberals didn’t contest. The seat was Cunningham, in the Wollongong region. The Liberals would never have a chance of winning this safe Labor seat, and when the sitting Labor MP resigned, they opted against running in the resulting by-election. With locals unimpressed with Labor, they elected a Green. Although this was the first time that the Greens had won a seat in the House of Representatives, the newly-elected Green lost to Labor at the next general election. It’d take almost a decade before the Greens won another seat in the House of Representatives.
Despite these past instances of major parties losing by-elections to unconventional rivals, you’d still consider the Liberals unlikely to suffer in North Sydney at this coming by-election. They’ve been riding high in opinion polls since Turnbull became Prime Minister, whereas before they’d been facing a major election defeat under Abbott. Yet the possibility of defeat still seems to loom.
In a seat like North Sydney, which Labor has little chance of winning, voters arguably either vote for the Liberals or vote against them. If they vote against them, they probably give their votes to Labor more out of resignation, in the knowledge that they’ll have a Liberal representing them in the end. Those people normally voting for Labor will have to throw in their lot with other candidates, and there seems to be no single candidate whom they’d get behind, so a Liberal loss would seem unlikely.
Not much will probably be taken out of the North Sydney by-election. A loss might seem like little more than a minor issue for Turnbull. Victory will consolidate his standing within the electorate to some degree.