Lessons from North Sydney for minor players

27 December 2015


Both sides of politics have much to think about as a new year dawns.  With a Federal election coming next year, the Turnbull Coalition Government looks assured of victory, with the Opposition looking unelectable, at least as far as opinion polls go.  But it won’t be easy for the Liberal-National Coalition, as it’s got to make hard decisions about public spending and employment laws, among other things, even with the Labor Party hardly looking like a viable alternative.

Neither side looks like taking much out of the North Sydney by-election, which happened earlier this month.  Triggered by the resignation from Federal Parliament of former Treasurer Joe Hockey, it resulted in a fairly comfortable win for the Liberals.  There was a swing against them, but because Labor didn’t contest the by-election, conclusions weren’t so clear.

There were also more candidates contesting the by-election than had contested the seat at the last Federal election, in 2013.  As such, the vote went all over the place!  The Liberals had a swing of about 12-13 per cent against them on primary votes, and Independent candidate Stephen Ruff came second with 18-19 per cent of the vote, while the Liberals finished about 60-40 ahead of Ruff after preferences.

The big swing against the Liberals should’ve been troubling for them.  But there wasn’t really an appealing alternative candidate to North Sydney, so the swing seems less damaging.  And with more candidates running, even excluding Labor, voters can look elsewhere if they wish.

The rise in candidates contesting North Sydney made me think of a by-election in Victoria long ago.  It followed the resignation of Pat McNamara, who’d previously been leader of the Nationals and Deputy Premier in Victoria.  At a state election in 1999, McNamara won the rural seat of Benalla fairly comfortably from Labor candidate Denise Allen.  She was actually the only candidate running against McNamara.  When he resigned the following year, several candidates ran in the resulting Benalla by-election against the Nationals and Allen, who again stood for Labor.

With the Nationals out of favour in Benalla, there was a swing against them both on primary votes and after preferences, and Labor won.  However, probably due to the larger field of candidates than in the previous year’s election, Labor’s primary vote also dropped.

Benalla voters clearly had doubts about Labor, although they were unhappier with the Nationals.  It might be that at the previous year’s election, with only the Nationals and Labor to choose from, voters unhappy with both options basically made their choice by first rejecting the option that they disliked more – hardly an inspiring way to vote.  But Labor still finished first on primary votes, ahead of the Nationals, before winning the by-election on preferences, and you can’t fault that.

The Benalla by-election result back then makes me think that this month’s North Sydney by-election, had Labor run, might’ve seen swings on primary votes against the big political players.  When more candidates contest an election, voters have more choice, and if they’re unhappy they can naturally look elsewhere.

However, if there are lessons from this by-election in North Sydney, they’re really for minor players, be they minor parties or Independent candidates.  These lessons are important ahead of next year’s Federal election, especially if voters are unhappy with both the Coalition and Labor.

With Labor skipping the by-election, I’d have expected the Greens to win over people who’d otherwise voted for Labor in North Sydney.  After all, it’s a wealthy electorate with people tending to care more about issues like human rights and environmentalism, as they don’t worry about losing their jobs or their homes.  But support for the Greens barely changed, and their candidate finished behind Ruff.  Are the Greens now less strong than before?

Mind you, because the vote went all over the place, I wouldn’t strictly conclude that Ruff won over those who’d have otherwise voted for Labor.  If Ruff chooses to run as a candidate in North Sydney at the next election, would his vote from the by-election rise or fall?  With Labor having no chance of winning North Sydney, would voters unhappy with the Liberals support an alternative like Ruff?  Most North Sydney people didn’t vote for him in the by-election, so would they even consider him at the next election?

Voters usually don’t support Independents unless they feel like they really know them.  It’s not enough just to have “Independent” or the letters “I-N-D” after your name on a ballot paper.  If voters don’t feel familiar with minor players, even disliking the major parties won’t necessarily sway them.

Federal Independent MP Andrew Wilkie was widely known, as an intelligence analyst, before his election in 2010.  He’d contested several elections before finally winning a seat, and now looks like he’ll hold it for some time.  Having a high profile also helped the late Peter Andren in 1996, when he was elected as a Federal Independent MP.  He was a television newsreader in central New South Wales, so people in that region knew who he was, and he held his seat comfortably until his death.  Of course, countless Independents have lost elections despite being widely known, but being known often helps.

The lessons from North Sydney seem clear.  Minor political players in particular should heed them before the next election comes.