Inside Story

Why is Labor contesting Fadden?

History isn’t encouraging, but perhaps the government is playing a long game

Peter Brent 13 July 2023 979 words

The devil they know? Opposition leader Peter Dutton interrupting prime minister Anthony Albanese during question time in March. Lukas Coch/AAP Image

There’s a federal by-election on this Saturday in the safe Liberal National Party seat of Fadden (Queensland, margin 10.6 percentage points) following the retirement of the scandal-prone MP Stuart Robert, and the most important question is: why is the Labor Party running? What’s in it for them?

As I never tire of pointing out, by-election results tell us nothing about the next election. Because the stakes for electors are so small — nothing as important as who will govern for three years — they can vote on other things. Such as “sending a message.” Candidates can make much more difference at by-elections than at general elections.

So they are not dry runs for the main event, and any “momentum” generated by a result is illusory and short-lived, strictly limited to the reporting bubble.

But by-elections are invested with all sorts of magical properties by the political class, and so they can often matter, a lot, particularly when it comes to the fortunes of political leaders.

The Longman (Queensland, margin 0.8) by-election in July 2018 played a very large role in ending Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership. The result, a 3.7 per cent swing to the opposition, was routine and unexciting; not so Aston, Victoria (margin 2.8) in April this year, which delivered a 6.4 point swing to the government that opposition leader Peter Dutton is still feeling today.

Three years ago this month, at the Eden-Monaro (NSW, margin 0.9 per cent) by-election, Anthony Albanese faced his own first “electoral test” as Labor opposition leader, and it came very close to being a similar disaster.

Triggered by the resignation of the popular member Mike Kelly, it was held in the early months of the Covid pandemic when prime minister Scott Morrison, his summer troubles behind him, was recording the highest approval ratings of his career (in the high 60s). Those voters ended up giving only a small swing to the government, and Labor candidate Kristy McBain won with a 0.4 per cent margin.

Labor was very lucky to hold Eden-Monaro. The electoral commission’s ballot draw alone, with McBain above the Liberals’ Fiona Kotvojs, was probably worth more than 0.4 per cent. So was the decision of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party to advocate (on how-to-vote cards) preferences for McBain before Kotvojs.

McBain’s candidacy itself was a very fine pick; before nominating she was mayor of Bega Valley Shire, which comprises a large chunk of the electorate. Like many political identities, her profile had risen during those disastrous 2019–2020 fires. The booths in that part of Eden-Monaro swung to her, the rest swung against. And Kotvojs, who had run in 2019, was hardly an inspired choice. A much stronger candidate, NSW Liberal MP Andrew Constance — still a rock star because of his criticism of Morrison during the fires — was in the mix for a while but didn’t make the final cut.

Back to this Saturday, though, with the hullabaloo following Dutton’s presiding over the first opposition by-election loss to a government since 1920 still ringing in the ears. The defeat damaged his leadership, and it is a brave person who would predict Dutton will still be leading his party in 2025.

It’s the exact bullet Albanese dodged in Eden-Monaro July 2020.

But all is not lost for the opposition leader, for the Labor Party is offering him a chance at redemption.

Fadden’s margin is 10.6 per cent. No government has contested an opposition-held seat with a margin of that size since Bob Hawke’s Labor ran in Groom (Queensland) in 1988. Its candidate didn’t even make it to the two-candidate-preferred count.

That’s not saying much, because in recent decades governments have been reluctant to run in opposition seats. The Howard government sat on its hands for all six (where margins ranged from 6.4 to 15.1 points). The new Rudd government fielded a candidate in Gippsland (Victoria, margin 5.9) in 2008, copped a nasty 6.1 per cent swing, and ignored the next four (margins ranging from 7.1 to 13.5).

Tony Abbott’s Coalition government ran in Griffith, Queensland, in 2014 (margin 3.0), and got a pretty good 1.3 point swing, but not enough to win it. Under Turnbull the government ran in Braddon, Tasmania (2.2) and the aforementioned Longman.

And Labor thinks it has a chance of a 10.6 point swing this Saturday? Obviously not. Even if it did snatch the seat, it would be lost again at the next general election. (Aston is different: with the benefit of incumbency Labor stands a better-than-even chance in 2025.) Is Albanese high on his own supply, assuming there’ll at least be a decent swing to Labor and the media will coo and fawn again, make life even easier for him and destabilise his opponent?

Or is a longer game afoot? The chances of a second by-election win in a row are astronomically small. A Liberal National victory would revitalise the opposition leader somewhat, and there’s actually a decent chance Fadden will swing substantially his way. And that would stiffen Dutton’s faltering standing. Is that what the prime minister wants? Does he just like having Dutton around?

Albanese seems to take “narrative” nonsense less seriously than most political leaders. The least inspiring opposition leader in memory, he stuck to his guns and refused to placate the commentariat’s demands for shock and awe. Small and steady won the race.

He probably would prefer to face Dutton than any of the likely alternatives (deputy Sussan Ley is the most likely) at the next election. Still, politicians don’t usually take steps like this, no matter how much sense they make in theory. They prefer an easy life in the short term.

Labor is running heavily on robodebt, the Liberal Nats on the cost of living. How will the competing “send a message” messages pan out?

Fadden will be in the headlines on Sunday, though we don’t know the font size yet. Any repercussions for federal leaders will take longer to play out.•