Inside Story

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Super Saturday fever

The starter’s gun has gone off, provoking its own blast of controversy

Peter Brent 25 May 2018 1127 words

Retail politics: the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie campaigning with help from Bob Katter in the unpredictable Adelaide seat of Mayo. Kelly Barnes/AAP Image

Last week the Australian Electoral Commission sent a letter to the speaker of the House of Representatives giving 28 July, the last day of Labor’s national conference, as the “optimal” date for five Super Saturday by-elections. This week the speaker told parliament he was accepting the advice and would issue writs for that date. Labor reacted in fury, dragging the AEC into a Senate estimates hearing, where things got very heated.

Was the choice of this date a conspiracy or a stuff-up?

In its purest form, the conspiracy scenario would involve that figure who emerges from time to time, the “crash through” Malcolm Turnbull (“crashing” is not even contemplated), the one instantly recognisable to anyone who had dealings with him before he entered politics. He of the Grech Affair; the prime minister who believed it made sense, weeks before the 2016 election, to threaten state governments with a restoration of their income-taxing powers.

This is the Malcolm who learnt in business that convention-followers finish last, the man who will do anything, pull any trick, to maximise his chances of political success. In this scenario, speaker Tony Smith and electoral commissioner Tom Rogers are simply told what’s what, no ifs or buts, just get it done.

At the opposite end of the continuum is the scenario in which the importance of the date simply didn’t register with the relevant AEC employees as he or she drafted the advice. Not everyone obsesses over these things. Instead, the AEC was motivated by exactly the reasons it gave, namely to maximise the time available both to change the nomination process to guard against further section 44 transgressions, and to educate the parties and candidates.

The third reason in the letter to the speaker, avoiding school holidays, seems weaker. We have had federal elections during school holidays before, and by-elections as recently as last December’s in Bennelong. Still, from the AEC’s point of view, that rationale would have assisted its argument.

The government, upon receiving this advice, couldn’t believe its luck and Smith was told to accept.

A tweaked version might involve the AEC fully realising it is raining on Labor’s conference but deciding it’s not a relevant factor in its considerations. Or not an important one, perhaps, as any date in July or August would interfere to an extent with the conference.

So which is it? I don’t know, but lean towards the stuff-up.

Needless to say, it would have been inappropriate for the government to urge the commission to recommend that date for that reason, and unforgivable for Rogers to be influenced by such an approach. He is an independent statutory officer, after all, not a public-service head. And given the likelihood that Labor will take office this year or next, it would have been doubly unwise.

Perhaps the AEC can also be criticised for prioritising its own convenience over that of the voters in those five electorates by leaving them without MPs for over eighty days. But with the spectre of the debacle leading to the 2014 WA special half-Senate election in AEC minds, and a facile, voracious, tweeting media ready to pounce on the most trivial error, it’s understandable that the commission might be trying to minimise the possibility of error. And if the commission remains controversy-free and held in high esteem, it might argue, then that’s good for the country as well.

Still, events this week haven’t encouraged public confidence in our electoral system.

And so to the by-elections themselves.

The Liberals have let it be known they won’t be contesting Fremantle in Western Australia, where Labor’s Josh Wilson has fallen foul of section 44 of the Constitution. Fair enough; they would have no chance of overhauling Labor’s 7.5 per cent margin, especially with the member, elected in 2016, recontesting.

But they’re also sitting out Perth (the only non–section 44 resignation, by Labor MP Tim Hammond), which seems rather unadventurous given its 3.3 per cent margin. Liberal senator Dean Smith is attempting to have the decision overturned.

Some observers are eyeing Braddon in Tasmania, where Labor MP Justine Keay has resigned, as a possible Liberal gain because of the state election result in March, where the Libs received a thumping 59.3 per cent of the primary vote to Labor’s 32.9 per cent. (Tasmanian state and federal electorate names and boundaries are one and the same.)

There are worse ways of spending your time than applying results in one sphere to the other (the contrast can be interesting), but as a predictor of likely federal results a state election is totally useless. That doesn’t stop it being an unbreakable habit of political observers and players.

Remember the Howard era, characterised by Coalition wins at federal level and huge Labor triumphs stateside? Perhaps the most dramatic example was when Queensland voted 60–40 in state Labor’s favour in February 2001, and 55–45 for the federal Coalition in November that year, a fifteen-point difference. Similar story three years later in the same state: 44.5–55.5 in Labor’s favour (state election in February 2004) and 57–43 for the Coalition (federal election in October). (All numbers two-party-preferred.)

So stop it everyone, please.

The identity of the Liberal candidate for Braddon, former member Brett Whiteley, is a better reason for the Liberals to be hopeful. And Tasmanian voters tend to move to the beat of their own drum.

The fourth contest is in Longman, Queensland. Recontesting MP Susan Lamb took the seat off the LNP’s Wyatt Roy in 2016 thanks to One Nation how-to-vote cards. One Nation cards will again be influential on Super Saturday; exactly how influential will depend partly on the number of volunteers it can round up.

Until the LNP preselected Trevor Ruthenberg this week, it was being reported that they were having trouble finding contenders. It would be tempting for aspiring members to sit out this probable loss and wait for the general election, when there is a better chance of the electorate returning to the LNP.

And finally to Mayo, in South Australia, where the daughter of former opposition leader and foreign minister Alexander Downer, Georgina, is running for the Libs against the resigned incumbent, the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie. The ballot paper will this time be missing the magic words “Nick Xenophon” next to Sharkie’s name. (Update: maybe not.) Two known unknowns will be the extent of Sharkie’s popularity in the electorate, and how much Liberal MP Jamie Briggs dragged down the party vote in 2016.

By-elections usually swing against sitting governments. Mayo is the most unpredictable of all, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Labor ends up taking it — only for it to fall to a Liberal at the next general election.

Which probably wouldn’t be Downer. ●

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