First-term Liberal MP Julia Banks has quit the Liberal Party and moved to the crossbench, presumably with an eye to contesting the next election as an independent. The furious reaction from her party has been predictable and, for the most part, understandable.
At the 2016 election Labor took thirteen House of Representatives seats from the Coalition. Just one, Chisholm, went the other way. Naturally enough, Banks is convinced her efforts and unique skills were responsible, while her former party believes its treasure and toil had something to do with it.
What is certain is that she would not have been elected had she not run under the Liberal banner. Nor would her win have been possible if her predecessor, Labor’s Anna Burke, had not retired.
Before the 2016 election, I noted in these pages that retiring MPs trigger “a collapse in party support; the more popular the MP, the bigger the effect.” For this reason, “the marginal Victorian Labor seats of Bruce (where Alan Griffin is retiring) and Chisholm (with Anna Burke bidding adieu) will be worth watching.” Burke, elected in 1998, and speaker during the final year of the Gillard (and, briefly, Rudd) Labor government, was a very popular local member.
Victoria swung to Labor by 1.6 per cent in 2016, but Chisholm moved to the Liberals by 2.8 per cent, electing Banks. (Bruce, where Griffin had not enjoyed such a high personal vote, went to Labor by 2.3 per cent.)
A good indicator of relative personal popularity is to look at the difference between the House of Representatives vote and the Senate vote in different seats. This table ranks the seats where the House vote exceeds the Senate by the greatest margin in 2013 (the last election Burke contested, and the starting point for the swings mentioned above). Burke sat at third place (and Griffin at ninth).
Of course, in every seat at every election a multitude of factors come into play; it’s possible, for example, that Chisholm voters were particularly attracted to Malcolm Turnbull. A comparison of House of Representatives votes for 2016 non-sitting Victorian Coalition candidates doesn’t suggest that Banks has any special vote-pulling power.
Although she might be a household name among people addicted to politics, she’s largely unknown outside this bubble. But now she’s an independent she can change that by pushing herself into the evening news, extracting concessions on legislation, issuing demands and generally standing up for her electorate.
Two other class-of-1998 Melbourne Labor MPs are pulling up stumps next year as well. Jenny Macklin, former deputy Labor leader and cabinet minister, is leaving Jagajaga. With a 5 per cent margin it’s a very long shot for the Liberals, but the absence of Macklin (who appears above Burke in the 2013 table) is likely to trigger a noticeable drop in Labor support in Jagajaga relative to the general swing.
And Michael Danby is retiring from Melbourne Ports, which at the next election will be called Macnamara. Demographic changes have gradually made it less safe for Labor, and the next election could see a three-way contest with the Liberals and the Greens.
Along with Chisholm, which will once again be without a sitting major-party MP, that makes three Melbourne electorates worth watching in 2019. •