By-election results lead to nothing

28 May 2017


Few people outside northern Sydney’s Pittwater region will probably have heard of Alex McTaggart.  A popular local mayor, he was in the New South Wales Parliament for fifteen months – a period of time almost short enough for you to fail to even notice that he was there.  He entered after a by-election in late 2005, but lost his seat in early 2007.

The circumstances behind that 2005 by-election were dramatic.  McTaggart ran as an Independent in that by-election, for the seat of Pittwater, and won it from the Liberal Party, in whose hands it’d been since its creation.  The by-election followed the sudden downfall of Liberal leader John Brogden.  Elected to Pittwater in 1996, Brogden gained the Liberal leadership in 2002, lost a general election in 2003, and was thought likely to win the next election, in 2007, until revelations broke of him behaving badly while in a drunken state at a function.  He was in a bad mental condition after resigning as Liberal leader in August 2005, and he left Parliament soon after.

Pittwater voters believed that the Liberals themselves were behind Brogden’s downfall, as many Liberal MPs and officials disagreed with his aims for the future.  Because his seat was really safe for the Liberals, the Labor Party didn’t contest the by-election.  Some people believe that Labor’s absence made victory possibly for McTaggart, because Labor voters in Pittwater would’ve been looking elsewhere, and the Liberals would’ve lost much support in the area because of Brogden’s departure.  Being a popular mayor, McTaggart would’ve been a known quantity, and he ended up winning the by-election.

But in March 2007. when the next general election came, McTaggart’s career ended, with the Liberals regaining his seat.  As Labor ran here, like in every other seat, lots of voters supporting McTaggart in 2005 returned to Labor, so his vote dropped off.  And the Liberal candidate beating McTaggart was Rob Stokes, who became a minister in 2011.

The rise and fall of McTaggart jolted my memory earlier this year, when I heard about the sudden departures of Mike Baird and Jillian Skinner.  There was widespread surprise when Baird resigned as State Premier in January, although the exit of Skinner, the long-serving Health Minister who’d been tipped to lose her job after many years in it, surprised people less.  Both Baird and Skinner held safe seats in northern Sydney, which Labor had no chance of winning.  Therefore, I tipped no surprises in the by-elections to come in Manly and North Shore, the former seats of Baird and Skinner respectively, while Labor, unsurprisingly, didn’t contest either by-election.

Over time, I’ve seen the major parties lose by-elections to unconventional candidates, when their traditional rivals haven’t run, in seats considered safe – at least from their traditional rivals.  It’s like voters in those seats simply support or oppose the major parties holding them.  Apart from when the Liberals lost Pittwater to McTaggart after Labor opted against running, I remember when Labor lost a by-election for a safe seat to the Greens in the Wollongong area outside Sydney, which the Liberals skipped.

I’ve even seen the major parties lose those safe seats in general elections as well as by-elections, and with their traditional rivals running.  A by-election for Orange last year serves as a good example – this seat was safe for the Nationals, but at the by-election it fell to a candidate standing on behalf of shooters and fishers and farmers, even though Labor also ran.  And I remember how Tony Windsor won a safe seat from the Nationals at a Federal election in 2001, with the Labor vote collapsing in that seat.  Clearly Windsor won over voters who’d previously supported Labor more out of disliking the Nationals than actually liking Labor, as well as those who’d supported the Nationals only because they didn’t like Labor.  These circumstances have at times seen Independents like Ted Mack and Cathy McGowan elected to Parliament.

Going back to the seats of Manly and North Shore, when by-elections came for them last month, the Liberals won both.  There were big swings against the Liberals, but not big enough for them to lose, and they didn’t take long to claim victory.  For the record, Labor held one of its seats in another by-election at the same time.

I’d expected those by-election results in Manly and North Shore to lead to nothing, and they did.  As Labor skipped them, Independents unsurprisingly came second after preferences.  But even if any of them had won, I’d now be tipping any such winner to lose at the next general election, due in 2019.  The rise of fall of McTaggart, who lost his seat in a general election less than two years after winning it in a by-election, is typical.

I also remember an Independent coming second in a by-election for the Federal seat of North Sydney in late 2015.  With this a safe seat for the Liberals, Labor skipped that by-election.  But at a general election the following year, with Labor running this time, the second-placed Independent from 2015 lost support and finished well behind.

Voter dissatisfaction often puts Independents in Parliament at by-elections, especially when major parties don’t run.  But Independents must really stand out to win over voters at election time.  The lack of outstanding Independents lets the major parties keep power that they should really lose.



Dutton has more bullets to dodge

14 May 2017

Delusions of grandeur probably enabled Michael Lavarch to enter Federal Parliament thirty years ago.  Back then, in July 1987, Bob Hawke was Prime Minister and leading the Labor Party to its third straight election win under his leadership since it went his way in early 1983 – never before had Labor won three Federal elections in a row.  But it wasn’t Lavarch having delusions of grandeur at that time.

Instead, having delusions, albeit in the year or so leading up to that July 1987 election, was Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the long-serving Premier of Queensland.  Believing neither Labor nor the Liberal-National Coalition to be capable of leading Australia to a better future, Bjelke-Petersen had fantasies about running for Federal Parliament, achieving an election win, and taking over the country.  In the end, his fanciful push did nothing but split the Coalition.  Although the Coalition had its own problems before he entered the fray, he had more than a small part in the Coalition’s loss of that 1987 election.  Months after that election, he resigned as Premier, and was lucky to avoid imprisonment over corruption exposed from the time of his premiership.

The 1987 election saw Labor win four seats from the Coalition in Queensland, as well as two seats elsewhere in Australia, although it lost two seats to the Coalition in New South Wales and Victoria.  And one of the new Labor MPs from Queensland was Lavarch.

Gaining the seat of Fisher from the Coalition in 1987, Lavarch held it at the next election, in 1990.  But with electoral redistributions occurring in Queensland and other states, ahead of the next election, which came in 1993, Lavarch chose to run for the newly-created seat of Dickson.  He ended up winning it.

By now, Hawke had left, after Paul Keating defeated him in a Labor leadership ballot and become Prime Minister in late 1991.  Although hugely unpopular among voters, Keating managed to lead Labor to an unlikely election victory in 1993.

But at the next election, in 1996, Labor lost office to the Coalition in a landslide.  Among many Labor MPs to lose their seats were thirteen people in the Keating ministry.  And among those highly-ranked casualties was Lavarch, who was then Attorney-General.

As for Dickson, which Lavarch lost to the Coalition, it went back to Labor in 1998, but the Coalition regained it in 2001.  The successful Coalition candidate was Peter Dutton, who’s held it ever since.  He became a minister several years later, remained a frontbencher between when the Coalition lost office in 2007 and returned to office in 2013, and is nowadays the Immigration Minister.

Mind you, Dickson hasn’t been easy for Dutton to hold since he won it.  For about a decade after its creation, it was a political graveyard, switching between Labor and the Coalition.  In fact, holding Dickson has been like dodging bullets for Dutton, who was a policeman before entering Parliament.

He dodged his first bullet when he held Dickson in 2004, making him the first person to hold that seat since its creation.

He dodged his second bullet at the next election, in 2007, when he narrowly held Dickson in the face of a large swing to Labor, especially in Queensland, the home state of Kevin Rudd, who’d become Labor leader a year earlier.  Rudd became very popular among voters all over the country.  And because Queenslanders liked the idea of one of their own potentially becoming Prime Minister, Labor won many seats in Queensland as Rudd led Labor to its first win since 1993.

An electoral redistribution in Queensland ahead of the next election, which was due in 2010, made Dickson harder for Dutton to hold.  In fact, he tried to leave the seat, seeking preselection for another seat, which he lost – he ended up contesting Dickson again.

But then came June 2010, when Rudd was suddenly dumped in a leadership coup.  His popularity had begun falling earlier that year, although he was still quite popular with voters.  However, many Labor MPs hated him, and they used his declining popularity as an excuse to dump him as Labor leader, in favour of Julia Gillard.

Queenslanders in particular hated the dumping of Rudd, and Labor almost lost an election later that year.  Many of Labor’s Queensland gains from 2007 were lost.  This might’ve saved Dutton, as I think that he’d have lost his seat if not for the dumping of Rudd – hence the third bullet that Dutton dodged.

After narrowing losing that 2010 election, the Coalition comfortably won the next election, in 2013.  Dutton, therefore, had nothing to worry about.

But the next election, in 2016, saw the Coalition almost lose office.  As for Dutton, he almost lost his seat – this was the fourth bullet that he dodged.

In terms of the next election, due in 2019, opinion polls suggest a swing against the Coalition, with Dutton struggling to hold his seat.  But an electoral redistribution is also due in Queensland soon, so Dutton’s seat could be different in terms of what areas it covers when the next election comes.

Dodging bullets probably doesn’t faze Dutton, as an ex-cop.  But current polling trends and a pending redistribution suggest that, politically, he still has more bullets to dodge yet.  History shows him successfully dodging many bullets, as both a cop and a politician, but his future might look clouded.


Bernardi looks like a new Hall

6 May 2017

The last Federal election in mid-2016 began with eighteen crossbenchers, meaning from neither the Liberal-National Coalition nor the Labor Party, in the Senate.  The result of the election, which the Coalition only just won, was a rise in the number of Senate crossbenchers, to twenty.  Now another face is on that crossbench, namely Cory Bernardi of South Australia, who recently quit the Coalition and formed his own political party.

How Bernardi’s defection affects the Coalition remains to be seen.  Even before that, the Coalition needed the support of a decent number of Senate crossbenchers to get any legislation passed.  Bernardi will probably vote with the Coalition on most issues, as I haven’t noticed any issues likely to make him vote with Labor against the Coalition.

The question is whether any Coalition people in the House of Representatives, where the Coalition has a tiny majority, will see fit to defect to Bernardi’s party.  There’s been some speculation of defections within the Reps, but I don’t see any coming in the near future.

However, I’d be interested to see how Bernardi’s defection affects his home state of South Australia, where a general election comes next year.  Even if no MPs join Bernardi’s party there, its very presence might be troubling, in a state where Liberal fortunes haven’t been good for more than four decades.

Indeed I wonder if Bernardi might become a modern-day version of a controversial South Australian politician – Steele Hall, who was State Premier from 1968 to 1970 and later served in Federal Parliament.

Suggesting that Bernardi looks like a new Hall might be a stretch.  But the state of Liberal politics in South Australia over many years makes me rate the comparison appropriate, in a broader context.

It was during the 1940s that the Liberal Party of Australia, as we know it today, first emerged.  But while it didn’t take too long to win elections, in various states as well as nationally, it didn’t have representation, at least officially, in the State Parliament of South Australia until the mid-1970s.  That representation came from MPs formerly with another political party – the Liberal and Country League, or the LCL for short.

After gaining office in South Australia during the 1930s, the LCL governed continuously for the next three decades.  It lost office at an election in 1965, but returned to office after the next election, in 1968.  By then, Hall had become LCL leader, after the defeat of the long-serving Sir Thomas Playford at that 1965 election.  Hall was Premier for two years, but lost office at an election in 1970.  As a result of differing opinions, Hall formed his own little group within the LCL, in March 1972.

The group was called the Liberal Movement, or the LM for short.  Among LCL MPs with Hall in the LM were David Tonkin and Dean Brown – both of whom would later have terms as Premier.

Later, the LM became a political party in its own right, after the LCL declared it a separate body.  Hall went out of the LCL as a result, but only a few supporters went with him.  Most LM people, including Tonkin and Brown, chose to stay with the LCL.

A few years after this split, the LCL and the LM settled their differences, and came back together.  Some LM people didn’t return, but Hall was among those who did.

By that stage, they could all be described as members of the Liberal Party.

However, since this split in the 1970s, the Liberals have seldom won elections in South Australia.  Indeed they’ve arguably been in a state of semi-permanent civil war.  To be fair, it wouldn’t have helped to be facing popular Labor leaders like Don Dunstan and John Bannon and Mike Rann, each of whom served for many years as Premier.

Tonkin led the Liberals to an election win in 1979, but lost the next election, in 1982.  The Liberals lost elections in 1985 and 1989, before winning in 1993, under Brown.  But he was rolled in a surprise leadership coup in 1996, and John Olsen became Liberal leader and Premier as a result.  Olsen almost lost the next election, in 1997, and resigned in 2001 after a scandal engulfed him.  The new Liberal leader and Premier, Rob Kerin, narrowly lost an election in 2002.  The Liberals have been out of office ever since.

Even before winning office in 1993, the Liberals had problems.  Labor had begun to unravel amid major financial scandals after its 1989 election win, but voters weren’t flocking to the Liberals.  Indeed Brown was out of Parliament as Labor began to unravel, having lost his seat to a former colleague who’d stood against him as an Independent in 1985.  He only returned when another former colleague suddenly quit Parliament in 1992, much to the behest of Olsen, who was a fierce rival and hadn’t sided with Hall.

Coupled with various leaders and leadership challenges since Kerin’s 2002 defeat, you can see how fiercely the South Australian Liberals have fought each other for so long.

How the Liberals do at the next South Australian election seemingly matters little with their internal squabbles, even though they should win, because Labor looks stale after almost sixteen years of governance.  The defection of Bernardi might unsettle the Liberals now, just as Hall and his group unsettled them in the past.