What we’ve learned from ‘Super Saturday’s’ federal by-elections

By Wesa Chau; Erin Watson-Lynn. University of Melbourne alumna and 2013 ALP Candidate for Higgins; Liberal Party Member, WA and Victoria

Key points:

  • Australian Labor Party candidates won four of the five federal by-elections held yesterday, with an Independent taking the fifth.
  • The Coalition government retains its one-seat majority in the House of Representatives.
  • In many ways, the results were expected because the last time an opposition lost an electorate to a government at a by-election was in 1920.
  • Significance: Primarily what the results indicate – or don’t indicate – about how voters feel about the Coalition government and Labor opposition, and their respective leaders, ahead of the next federal election in less than 12 months.

Braddon (Tas): Won by Justine Keay (ALP), who defeated Brett Whiteley (Lib).
Reason for by-election: Keay was forced to resign due to rules barring dual citizens from holding elected office.

Fremantle (WA): Won by Josh Wilson (ALP). The Liberal Party did not run a candidate.
Reason for by-election: Wilson was forced to resign due to rules barring dual citizens from holding elected office.

Longman (QLD): Won by Susan Lamb (ALP), who defeated Trevor Ruthenberg (LNP).
Reason for by-election: Lamb was forced to resign due to rules barring dual citizens from holding elected office.

Mayo (SA):  Won by Rebekha Sharkie (Centre Alliance), who defeated Georgina Downer (Lib).
Reason for by-election: Sharkie was forced to resign due to rules barring dual citizens from holding elected office.

Perth (WA): Won by Patrick Gorman (ALP). The Liberal Party did not run a candidate.
Reason for by-election: The ALP’s Tim Hammond resigned for personal reasons.

A Labor perspective: The ALP is on track to win the next general election

Wesa Chau is a former ALP candidate for Higgins, a University of Melbourne alumna, and the co-founder of Poliversity

The ‘Super Saturday’ by-election results are certainly a win for the ALP, which held onto all four of its seats.  This is significant because the by-elections are almost a ‘pilot’ run to test the narratives for the upcoming general election. Labor’s strong results highlight that the narratives are working.

The by-election results also highlighted three other significant things:

  1. Support for minor parties increased from the 2016 general election
  2. The primary vote to the incumbent increased in all five seats
  3. The inaccuracy and unreliability of opinion polls on a local electorate

The vote for minor parties was higher than the 2016 general election, suggesting a protest-vote from an increasing number of people unhappy with the major parties.

There was strong support in the South Australian electorate of Mayo for Rebecca Sharkie from the Central Alliance. Her performance was of particular interest because there was debate before the by-election about how a change from the Xenophon Team to Central Alliance might impact on the outcome.  The result in Mayo is evidence that discontent with the major parties was strong enough to deliver a win for Sharkie.

Another result worth noting is the strong vote to the Independent Craig Garland in the Tasmanian seat of Braddon, who captured approximately ten per cent of the primary vote.  How these votes are distributed through preferences could decide a winner in a general election.

By-elections in four out of five seats were triggered because of the dual citizenship of the incumbents at the time of their nomination.  It appears that the dual citizenship issue did not impact on the vote and that voters are sympathetic to MPs who are caught up in the rule.

This was also true in earlier by-elections in the New South Wales seats of Bennelong and New England, where the two incumbents won with strong results.

This leads to my third observation: local opinion polling appears to be quite inaccurate in predicting election outcomes.

Opinion polls are useful in gauging the national mood and hence a general election outcome, but inaccurate when it comes to a particular electorate and community.

I’ve always been concerned about how research and polling of voters are conducted. From the questions asked to the targeted demographics and subsequent analysis, there needs to be better ways to capture data and sentiments of the electorates. Political parties need to rely less on opinion polling to direct their campaign strategies and more on voter engagement.

A major positive I see for the people in the contested seats is that they will receive more money to support their health services, hospitals, universities, sporting grounds .. and even possibly a Tasmanian Australian Football League team!

A Liberal perspective: The more things change, the more they stay the same

Erin Watson-Lynn, Member of the Liberal Party in WA and Victoria

One might be forgiven for yawning their way through the ‘Super Saturday’ of by-elections; especially in in Western Australia, where constituents failed to turn up in numbers for their obligatory democracy sausage.

Of the five seats up for grabs, the Liberal party ran candidates in three: Mayo, Longman, and Braddon. Unsurprisingly, nothing won, nothing changed.

While Labor won ‘four from four’ (as Labor leader Bill Shorten claimed at Susan Lamb’s victory party) that it expected to win, it was hardly a contest for the two WA seats. The WA Liberal’s chose not to run candidates in unwinnable Fremantle, nor the arguably winnable seat of Perth which Labor previously held with just a 3.3 per cent margin. This was subject of internal division, with Senator Dean Smith unsuccessfully challenging state executive on its decision.

These by-elections were hardly as thrilling Saturday night TV as the last Super Saturday on March 17, when Labor unexpectedly retained Batman against the Greens and the SA Liberal’s won the state election (the Liberals also won blue-ribbon Cottesloe, but that drew little interest in the Twittersphere).

The other byelection that made for much more interesting TV viewing was in Darling Range on June 23. Liberal Alyssa Hayden won back the seat after a whopping 18.9 per cent swing against them in the last state election. Labor’s sitting member Barry Urban had resigned over fraudulently claiming to serve in the Balkans.

This was an important by-election when timed alongside the electorates of Fremantle and Perth. That the WA Liberals focused on winning Darling Range than dividing resources between it and Fremantle and Perth might demonstrate smart strategy in preparation for the WA election in 2021, testing the popularity of Labor after they wiped the floor last year. But I digress.

With the WA seats taken care of, it was Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia that were left for the Liberals to battle out against Labor.

In Longman, the seat was retained by Labor’s Susan Lamb against the LNP’s ‘Big Trev’, which is an unwelcome result for the Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull. But both major parties should see that it is the swing toward One Nation, that is the real challenge for the next federal election. Unlike in Western Australia where the hype far outweighed any success of One Nation, both the Queensland state election and this byelection demonstrate constituents’ lurch towards the minor party.

In Tasmania, Labor’s Justine Keay beat the Liberal Party’s Brett Whiteley, who lost the seat to Keay at the last federal election. Whiteley likened the campaign to ‘climbing Everest with no oxygen’. That Whiteley could not win back the seat for the Liberal Party held by just a 2.2 per cent margin two party preferred would be worrying to the government and reinforces Georgina Downer’s statement when she conceded defeat that, ‘a by-election is always tough for a government candidate’. Which brings me to probably the most high-profile by-election.

In Mayo, Independent Rebecca Sharkie retained her seat against the Liberal Party’s Georgina Downer. That an Independent won was unsurprising to the locals who reported to me that they feel largely ignored by the major parties. It is expected that Downer and her well-resourced campaign is back for good in the Adelaide Hills and we will see her at the next general election. Nevertheless it will be tough to win a seat from an Independent, but she has demonstrated that she can put up a fight.

If we learned anything other than the expected from these results, it is that Bill Shorten is here to stay and Malcolm Turnbull will not be calling the next general election any time soon.  At least this will give a much-needed break to the election-fatigued Australian public.

And so, while the colour palette of federal parliament remains the same as it did before the Section 44 and ‘family and politics don’t mix’ were front page news, indeed it seems, that the more things change the more they stay the same.

‘Key points’ by Cathy Harper, Election Watch Editor

Originally posted in Election Watch