Inside Story

Saturday’s two big contests, the morning after

Voters swung to Labor in Batman and South Australia, but with very different results

Tim Colebatch 18 March 2018 2540 words

Labor leader Bill Shorten and Labor candidate for Batman Ged Kearney celebrate her by-election win in the inner-Melbourne seat of Batman last night. David Crosling/AAP Image

Updated 10pm Sunday night

One result should not have been a surprise, but it was to most people. The other — well, if anything else had happened, it would have been pretty weird, but then the whole spectacle of the three-team contest was pretty weird.

Let’s start with the less important one. The Batman by-election result should make it clear to party bosses that it matters who they choose as a candidate. We’ve seen it happen in rural electorates like Indi, which the Liberals lost because their MP was Sophie Mirabella. And now we’ve seen it in inner-suburban Batman, where Labor’s biggest problem was that its MP was David Feeney.

At the start of the campaign, I argued that the replacement of Feeney by Ged Kearney “could swing several percentage points of the vote from the Greens to Labor” and probably outweigh the damage to Labor from having no Liberal preferences. The punters obviously didn’t agree, because, according to one bookie, 99 per cent of them bet that the Greens would win the seat. But it turned out as I forecast.

By Sunday night, after the Australian Electoral Commission had counted pretty well everything it could, the two-party swing to Labor appeared to be 3.25 per cent, giving it a clear victory with 54.3 per cent. (We have corrected the official figures for an obvious error, of which more in a moment.) Important to note: of that swing, 2.35 per cent came on first preferences, but the other 0.9 per cent came in preferences from other candidates.

In fact, Labor did far better on preferences with the Liberals not standing than it had done in 2016 with the Liberals handing out how-to-vote cards in its favour. Most voters these days prefer to choose their own preferences, the ballot paper tells them which candidate is from which party, and they pick ’em as they please.

Three things made the difference this time. The first was in the polling booths in the Greens’ heartland: in Northcote, Thornbury, Fairfield, Clifton Hill and Alphington, the inner-suburban booths south of Bell Street. In 2016, with Feeney as its candidate, Labor won just 40 per cent of the two-party vote at these booths. On Saturday, with Ged Kearney as Labor candidate, it won 44.3 per cent.

In some booths, the swings to Labor were so large as to be almost incredible. The Northcote West booth at Northcote High officially recorded a two-party swing of 34 per cent from the Greens to Labor. In Northcote West?? I used to live across the creek from Northcote West, and it was Greens territory before the Greens existed. Call in the stewards!

(After this story first appeared, a steward called — fellow pollwatcher Ben Raue, who runs the excellent website The Tally Room. Ben pointed out that the official figures showed the Greens won 57 per cent of first preferences at the booth, yet only 37.5 per cent of the two-party vote. Since that is mathematically impossible, we have concluded that the officials entered the Greens and Labor data for Northcote West in the wrong columns. No one from the commission was available to comment. All figures quoted here are corrected for the obvious error.)

It was a different story north of Bell Street, especially in Labor’s own heartland of working-class Reservoir. The Greens lost in 2016 because they failed to make up enough ground there; the further from Melbourne you went, the lower the Greens vote.

On Saturday the Greens won a swing of 1.8 per cent in the northern half of the electorate, but that was far outweighed by the swing to Labor in the southern half. Feeney was probably less of a liability in the working-class homes north of Preston and Reservoir. It’s also possible that Bill Shorten’s oddly timed announcement last Tuesday — that if elected, Labor will end cash payments to shareholders who don’t pay tax — cost it significant votes among the migrant pensioners in these suburbs.

Second, the overall swing in the booths on Saturday was 1 per cent to Labor. But on Saturday night and Sunday, officials also counted more than 23,000 pre-poll and postal votes, and there the swing to Labor was 5.5 per cent. These votes would have been mostly cast before Shorten’s dividend announcement, and it may be that the much smaller swing at the booths on Saturday was partly due to that.

And third, even with no Liberal standing, two-thirds of minor-party supporters gave their preferences to Labor. None of them scored well: the third place-getter was Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, who won just 6.4 per cent of the vote (and preferenced Labor). It just confirmed that Liberal preference directions are really not that important; voters can find their way to where they want their votes to go.

The result relieves the pressure on Bill Shorten’s leadership, which would have been intense had Labor lost Batman because of the ill-timed release of an otherwise good policy. Shorten may not be a great electoral asset to Labor, but please show us the evidence that he is the liability some people claim. There was none of it in Labor’s win on Saturday.

Did the Greens lose because a few dissidents went to the media with their complaints about Alex Bhathal over supposed bullying and so on? It obviously hurt her campaign, and must explain some of the swing to Labor, but I seriously doubt that it mattered to enough voters to make the difference. It does remind us, however, how vulnerable the Greens are to being torpedoed by a small number of unhappy lefties — or a large state branch of them.

The Batman by-election was a story that might have been. Like the Bennelong by-election, it will soon fade into oblivion.

The more important election on Saturday was in South Australia, where the Liberal Party finally won a state election, after the Supreme Court intervened by ordering the state electoral commission to draw boundaries that would ensure that the party with the biggest two-party vote won the election. At this point, the seat count is twenty-five Liberal, nineteen Labor, and three independent.

Labor had won the previous four elections, even though in three of them, the Liberals had won the biggest two-party vote. There were good reasons for this: some notionally Liberal seats were held by independents, and even by a National Party MP, who supported Labor, making the two-party measure dubious. A lot of the Liberal vote was also in rural seats where Labor had barely existed, whereas Labor won a lot of seats narrowly in suburban Adelaide.

Whatever the merits of all that, the Liberals were long overdue to win a South Australian election, and this turned out to be it. Of all the commentary before the event, I thought the best line was from Tasmania’s very acute pollwatcher Kevin Bonham, who noted that the last state government to spend more than sixteen years in office was that of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It was time, ladies and gentlemen.

What made this election so unusual was that it transferred government from Labor to the Liberals, while the votes — at least, those so far posted — were moving in the other direction. On Antony Green’s estimates of the two-party vote on the new boundaries, the redistribution changed a 22–23–2 result in 2014 (that’s Labor/Liberal/independent) into a 20–26–1 status quo for this election. The Coalition only had to hold enough of its ground to secure twenty-four seats, and it would gain a majority.

And it was a status quo election. In my mind, the only seats that have clearly changed hands are Florey and Mount Gambier, in which a Labor and Liberal MP respectively lost preselection, ran as independents, and defeated the endorsed candidates. Having proved their point, will they stay independent, or return to the fold?

Of the twenty-five seats our friend Antony called as Liberal at the close of Saturday night’s telecast, several are not yet certain. In central Adelaide, the Liberal lead is just 0.2 per cent, in Newland 0.9 per cent, and in King, the only seat that appears to have changed hands, 1.2 per cent. Pre-poll and postal votes normally favour the Liberals, but can also favour Labor sitting members. But an overall Liberal victory is certain, whatever the precise outcome.

Yet in the twenty-eight seats that came down to a Labor–Liberal contest, and for which the SA Electoral Commission has released two-party counts, there was an average swing to Labor of 1.5 per cent.

That will no doubt erode somewhat when officials start counting pre-poll and postal votes tomorrow. And for what it’s worth, the two-party-preferred vote in 2014 was Liberal by 53–47. But it’s likely that Labor will end up gaining a swing at the election that cost it office.

That’s significant, because it shows that the electorate’s embrace of the Liberals is provisional, without the sweeping mandate given to Barry O’Farrell in New South Wales in 2011 or Campbell Newman in Queensland in 2012. This is more like Ted Baillieu’s narrow election victory in Victoria in 2010, which was soon dissipated by policy uncertainty and party infighting, leading to a return to normal — Labor government — in 2014.

In South Australia too, Labor governments are normal. In the past fifty years, the Liberals have had just thirteen years in power, and only once won re-election, in the 1990s. The South Australian Libs excel in party infighting, whether ideological or personal, so we’d better wish Steve Marshall luck as he takes over as premier.

The last man to lead the SA Libs to power, Dean Brown, was cut down by his lieutenant John Olsen before he had even finished his first term. And, of course, Ted Baillieu had to walk the plank to make an early departure as premier of Victoria. It’s a risk in parties that are more used to being in opposition.

Jay Weatherill conceded defeat gracefully, without seeming to feel like a loser — and in a sense, he wasn’t. The real losers of this election were Nick Xenophon and Cory Bernardi.

Let’s start with Bernardi. He took over a party that admittedly was in a distressed state, Family First, rebadged it as Australian Conservatives with himself as the new management, and aimed to make it the central force among the disparate groups to the right of the Turnbull government. It got off to a bad start when Family First senator Lucy Gichuhi refused to join him — and ultimately joined the Liberal Party.

In Bernardi’s own state, the other right-wing parties gave him a clear path on Saturday. One Nation did not stand at all. The Liberal Democrats stood only in the upper house. The Conservatives fielded candidates in two-thirds of the seats, but won just 3.1 per cent of the vote — roughly half the vote Family First won in 2014. For the upper house, they won 3.5 per cent, and will probably lose one of their two seats.

Saturday’s result, coupled with poor by-election results in Batman and Bennelong, confirm that Bernardi’s dream of uniting Australian conservatives has failed to fly. He himself has a six-year Senate term, but Saturday’s figures suggest that South Australia at the next Senate election might elect two Liberal senators, two Labor and one Xenophon, with Sarah Hanson-Young squeezing home to keep the final Senate spot for the Greens.

The Australian Conservatives have not been able to attract enough conservative voters to be anything but another minor party. One Nation is by far the most popular conservative alternative to the Coalition.

But Nick Xenophon is the biggest loser. When he announced he was going back to South Australia, but that he didn’t want to be premier and didn’t want to be in a coalition government, we wondered if he was going through a brain snap, or was just desperate to spend more time at home. It’s a puzzle to work out what his real game plan was.

In his eighteen years in politics, Xenophon has been a class act as a crossbench politician. He would use shameless gimmicks to attract attention, but when he got attention, he was also witty, sensible, relatively honest — and concerned to use the little influence he had to get action on causes that matter: reforming gambling laws, increasing water flows in the Murray, and so on. So his support soared.

But what made him trade that in for a stumbling, improvised, policy-free attempt to become premier of South Australia (which, in the absence of any better explanation, I assume was his goal)? His campaign will be remembered primarily for a campaign ad that was probably the worst I’ve ever seen. It told voters: I am a gimmick politician, don’t expect serious policies from me, but hey, vote for me, and we’ll have fun.

They didn’t vote for him. In 2016, the Nick Xenophon Team got 21.3 per cent of the vote in South Australia, won Mayo and almost won Grey. On Saturday it won just 13.7 per cent — admittedly, running only in three-quarters of the seats — won nothing, and came close only in Heysen.

It was a long way from where they stood at the start of the campaign, when Xenophon led Weatherill and Marshall in the polls, and the party looked a good chance to lead the next government. Xenophon has blamed an ad campaign by the hotels lobby against his policy to remove poker machines; but while that must have done damage, it was probably worsened by the fact that he was not impressing voters as expected in debates, and his own advertising left the impression that he was funny but flaky.

If there is a way back for him, it is likely to be long, and to start with him eating humble pie in coming days. At federal level, a radical redistribution is under way to reduce South Australia’s seats from eleven to ten. But Xenophon’s safest path would be to return to the Senate — at the next election.

What difference a Liberal government will make to South Australia remains to be seen. Much of Labor’s renewable energy policy is already locked in, and besides, the polls suggest it is popular; Marshall is unlikely to tear it up. He has pledged to extend retail trading hours, which could certainly change the sleepy atmosphere that is both Adelaide’s charm and its limitation. Victoria’s long experience of retail deregulation suggests the gains outweigh the losses.

South Australia has been losing its talented young for a long time, especially to Melbourne. Australia’s laissez-faire attitude to corporate takeovers has seen Adelaide’s biggest companies absorbed into national or international firms based elsewhere. It’s become a branch office town — and yet, a rather beautiful one, between the hills and sea, with lots of lovely old homes, good food and coffee, quality universities, cheap housing and a history of doing things.

I wouldn’t be surprised if South Australia has better days ahead of it. But its future is over the page, and we can’t read about it until we get there. •