Flat White

Boundary re-draws have a silver lining for the Coalition, if not the poor PM

16 April 2018

7:56 AM

16 April 2018

7:56 AM

In the world of political nerdery, nothing beats electoral redistributions. Who wins, who loses, new primary and two party-preferred margins, crunching previous results in obscure polling booths, and predicting future voting behaviour based on demographic changes in an electorate, most especially in the bits that are botoxed on or liposuctioned off by the Australian Electoral Commission.

The proposed redistribution of federal seats in Victoria, the ACT and South Australia, announced by the AEC in the last 10 days, is no exception. Two new seats were created, Fraser in the western suburbs of Melbourne and Bean in Canberra’s Nappy Valley of Tuggeranong.  Both will be strong Labor seats: given Big Mal’s leftwards journey, that a seat named after him will be safe Labor seems a fair cop.

One seat has been abolished: Port Adelaide.  ALP president Mark Butler will be looking for a new seat, which may involve knifing a sitting Labor MP. Always fun for politics tragics, if not Butler.

Looking state by state, give the ACT short shrift.  The People’s Republic of Canberra merely gives Labor an extra safe seat.  The only amusement is naming the new electorate Bean: presumably Labor will always preselect women for it, as a male MP inevitably will be known as Mr Bean.

Bar the abolished seat, South Australia on paper is status quo, but according to the guru Antony Green and the impressive Tally Room website, Labor seats are safer and Liberal seats more marginal.  Christopher Pyne’s seat of Sturt is still there, but Boothby’s precarious for up-and-coming Nicolle Flint, whose seat was openly coveted by Pyne when it looked like Sturt was going.

Victoria is where the real action is.  Besides the new seat of Fraser, Labor is the paper winner.  The seat of Dunkley covering Frankston loses most of its Liberal enclaves, and the “Federation” seat of Corangamite – with the new snicker-snicker name Cox (‘the honourable member for Cox will withdraw!’) if the AEC has its way – continues its inexorable move into the outskirts of Geelong and its low- and semi-skilled workers, welfare recipients and Surf Coast dole bludgers.  Tally Room calculates Dunkley as now one per cent Labor and Corangamite no two-party margin at all.

Additionally, some already safe Labor seats, like Calwell, have their hefty margins consolidated or increased and one Labor seat, Bruce, will be transformed from marginal to very safe Labor.  No wonder the ABC and Fairfax crow about not only the paper loss of the Turnbull government’s absolute parliamentary majority but that Bill Shorten and Labor are such big winners that one wonders if the drafting was done in ALP headquarters.

Not that Shorten’s satisfied.  Unlike John Howard, who even as PM stuck with Bennelong to the bitter end, even as successive redistributions made his seat increasingly untenable, Shorten is considering moving to Fraser, which has a margin of 19 per cent compared to his apparently wafer-thin buffer of just 11 per cent. Political cowardice, thy name is Bill.

Nevertheless, the overall picture for Labour is very rosy for the 2018 or 2019 poll.  But hold your horses, ABC and Fairfax: given the parlous state of the Coalition in this 30 consecutive-losing Newspoll world, is the redistribution going to matter that much anyway?

The short answer is no.  If the Labor swing’s on as expected this election, marginal Liberal seats like Boothby, Chisholm, Deakin, Dunkley, Corangamite and possibly Sturt, likely will be swept away in the red tide.  As always happens on change of government election nights, however, there will be lesser than expected swings in seats expected gone for all money: hard-working local Liberal members like Chris Crewther in Dunkley and Sarah Henderson in Corangamite certainly can’t be written off, and off-the-charts swings will cause seats to fall that were expected to be safe (watch, for example, Kevin Andrews’s seat of Menzies, where local Liberals are disunited over the Andrews succession and the veteran MP has stayed at least one election too many).

If there’s a silver lining for the centre-right in this redistribution, it’s not going to be felt in 2019, but in the election following.  Assuming Labor does win in the next year, that will be when prime minister Bill Shorten (a heroic assumption, but let’s make it for argument’s sake) seeks re-election.  Given that all governments seeking a second term since 1949 have gone backwards in seat terms, it’s reasonable to expect a healthy correcting swing in the Coalition’s favour (provided they don’t eat each other in Opposition, which is another heroic assumption).

In South Australia, the Liberals may well lose Boothby and Sturt this time, but recover them the next, with the benefit of some MP renewal thrown in.

In Victoria, particularly in Melbourne’s ‘leafy’ eastern suburbs and Port Phillip Bay sandbelt seats, the longer-term picture also is much brighter for the Liberals.  Currently safe Labor seats including Isaacs (held by Mark ‘Guthrie Featherstone’ Dreyfus QC MP), Simon Crean’s old seat of Hotham will become marginal, the renamed Melbourne Ports in Melbourne’s Borscht Belt even more so: all with margins well in range of high-quality Liberal campaigns and candidates. Current Labor semi-marginals, including Jenny Macklin’s Jaga Jaga and Bendigo, would also be fair game.

And the Liberals’ Michael Kroger will be delighted that the seat of Batman, which he appallingly abandoned to the Left in the recent by-election, has had its Labor-Greens two-party margin shaved even further. Batgirl Ged Kearney, don’t get too comfortable, the Northcote latte-belters are still coming for you!

Furthermore, the Victorian redistribution sandbags marginal Liberal seats including Deakin, Chisholm and LaTrobe.  Arguably, the AEC’s done a far better job to consolidate the prospects of endangered Liberal MPs than branch-stacking some say has been rife in some Melbourne branches and electorate conferences.

Everything considered, Liberals shouldn’t despair at what the AEC’s done in the ACT, Victoria and South Australia. Almost certainly, these boundary changes merely will consolidate a likely Labor win, not cause it.  But 2022 is a different story. That’s when the anti-Labor counter-swing can be expected, and there’s every chance that not only will the Liberals regain seats lost to the redistribution but pick up quite a few more besides.

Conversely, Malcolm Turnbull and his advisers can’t balance the redistribution for cruelling his chances of re-election.  He started his clumsy course down that road to perdition in the early months of 2016, squandered the formidable seat buffer he inherited from Tony Abbott in his shambolic 2016 ‘Mediscare’ election campaign and consolidated his doomwatch in the many months and Newspolls since.  The AEC won’t have manufactured the office-losing swing he’s facing, that’s all his and his advisers’ own work.

It may not do much for Malcolm unless he changes his ways and his government’s direction (and if he does so, he can yet pull his fat out of the fire), but at least Turnbull’s successor as Liberal leader, whether Abbott or anyone else, know the electoral calculus deserting Turnbull in 2019-19 will favour him in 2022.  As HMAS Coalition drifts ever closer to the rocks, and the populist siren song of Shorten continues to entrance jaded voters, that’s a hope worth despairing Liberals clinging to.

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