31 December 2017
The Bennelong by-election earlier this month has bought Malcolm Turnbull some time, with a Federal election possible in the coming year.
Defeat in that by-election would’ve cost Turnbull his parliamentary majority, of a single seat. With that, it could’ve even ended his time as Prime Minister, but maybe not at once.
To be fair, the by-election wasn’t too easy for Turnbull and the Liberal-National Coalition to lose. Although their popularity among voters has nosedived since Turnbull became Prime Minister in September 2015, albeit after initially rising with Turnbull’s rise to the top job and then falling, there hasn’t exactly been a massive jump in support for their opponents in the Labor Party. Bennelong was relatively safe for the Coalition, with John Alexander holding the seat by almost a double-digit percentage margin. And by-elections don’t often result in huge swings against governments, at least if the Bennelong margin before the by-election was anything to go by. On top of that, Alexander was relatively popular as a local member.
In the end, the by-election result in Bennelong, in Sydney’s inner north-west, was a swing of around 4-5 per cent against the Coalition overall. Labor needed to gain a swing twice as big in order to win, and that didn’t happen.
The by-election came about after Alexander resigned from Parliament, because of some suspicion that he might’ve been a dual citizen. He’s among several Federal politicians forced out of Parliament amid a saga surrounding dual citizenshop. It all began when the Greens lost one of their people, Scott Ludlam, from the Senate in July, after he was found to be a citizen of another country besides Australia, making him ineligible for Parliament. Before long, other politicians were suspected of the same thing, and they either resigned or were disqualified by court rulings.
After Alexander’s resignation triggered the Bennelong by-election, Labor chose a high-profile candidate in Kristina Keneally, who’d previously served as Premier of New South Wales. This might’ve been a masterstroke or a dud move.
As Premier, Keneally had led Labor to a massive election defeat in NSW in 2011. While she was relatively popular as a person, and someone whom you could like, her problem was leading Labor after it’d been in office for well over a decade and showing obvious signs of not just incompetence but also corruption. When she’d become Labor leader and thus Premier, voters were itching to throw Labor out. In fact, they’d really wanted to vote Labor out in 2007, but they’d found the Coalition almost as bad, and after Labor won unexpectedly in 2007, it gradually imploded, with Keneally put in the top job purely to make voters less inclined to revolt. Ultimately, it didn’t work.
Keneally also had the trouble of the company that she’d kept. Her rise to the job of NSW Premier arguably couldn’t have happened without the influence of controversial Labor figures like Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, whose names were odious in NSW.
After losing office in 2011, Keneally left NSW Parliament, and her time politics seemed over. But that was until Labor saw fit to choose her to contest the Bennelong by-election.
It didn’t take long for the Coalition to bring up “dirt” regarding Keneally. Her connections to the likes of Obeid and Tripodi, the former of whom later went to prison on misconduct charges, were brought up in the campaign. Rightly or wrongly, Keneally was somehow painted as a figure of factional powerbrokers – people who often work behind the scenes in political parties and can scare parliamentarians or candidates into doing what seems best for the parties’ special supporters instead of greater public good.
Another such powerbroker to be used as a weapon against Keneally was controversial Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, who was frequently seen to be doing deals for contentious supporters of Labor, especially foreign businesspeople. Just days before the Bennelong by-election, Dastyari announced his resignation from the Senate, arguing that his mere presence was distracting Labor and Keneally, and making it very hard to keep pressure on Turnbull and the Coalition with their one-seat majority. But with Dastyari still very much in the headlines, Keneally couldn’t shake her image of somebody’s “girl”.
Alexander, though, wasn’t without problems. Having Turnbull campaigning with him mightn’t have always helped, because Turnbull’s less popular than before. But having former PM Tony Abbott campaigning with him wouldn’t have helped, because Abbott was immensely unpopular. Indeed Abbott’s massive unpopularity was in part what triggered a revolt that put Turnbull in the top job.
But the by-election probably just came and went, given that a much closer result had been predicted. With Alexander holding the seat for the Coalition, he therefore kept Turnbull’s majority as it was – still tiny but safe. It’s bought Turnbull time, because rumblings over his leadership aren’t going away and some Coalition MPs still agitate over this. The next Federal election might happen in the coming year, so Turnbull potentially keeps his critics at bay for a bit longer.