When it comes to elections, bookies are perhaps an even better form guide than the plethora of public and private opinion polls that generate a blizzard of media coverage.
This applies to Saturday’s five by-elections as much as any other.
Let’s set aside the by-elections in Perth and Fremantle. With the Liberals’ cowardly and lazy refusal to contest, the Labor candidates there could be caught in flagrante with a goat and still win.
Mayo in South Australia could have been interesting, but Centrebet, Betfair and William Hill have Rebekah Sharkie, the former MP who stuffed up her citizenship status, as odds-on, with Liberal Georgina Downer a rank outsider. That is a shame: Downer answered her party’s call by returning from Victoria to fight Mayo with her magical Downer name, but that is counting little against a de facto incumbent who, despite her turning more coats in party affiliation than there are coats in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s wardrobe, has gained a reputation as a hard worker for her electorate. Downer shouldn’t be blamed if she loses (but she will be): the South Australian Liberals should have started working the seat as soon as Jamie Briggs lost it in 2016, and it defies political credulity that there was not a local Liberal candidate selected and on the ground well before the High Court had its say on Sharkie’s eligibility to sit.
It can only be hoped that Downer, who is not only likeable but highly talented in her own right and would be an excellent MP, does not take the fall for the poor judgment and complacency of the state party. She deserves better than to be scapegoated.
If the bookies are right, the two genuinely-contested seats of Braddon in Tasmania and Longman in Queensland are the seats to watch. In Braddon, Centrebet, William Hill and Betfair have the displaced Labor MP, Justine Keay, marginally but firmly in front of the 2013-16 Liberal MP, Brett Whiteley as the campaign clock ticks down. The betting money runs counter to the sentiment on the ground: a former Tasmanian Liberal minister who knows the electorate intimately said, ‘if a good campaign means anything, Whiteley should win’.
If Labor wins Braddon, therefore, it will be against the run of play. In March’s state election the Libs scored 54 per cent of the primary vote. Whiteley is a popular and competent local former state as well as federal MP. By contrast, Keay hasn’t set the world on fire in her journeyman Canberra stint, distinguishing herself only by her section 44 implosion. Bill Shorten has so little confidence in her that Labor pork-barrelled Braddon as if there is no tomorrow, even if Shorten himself struggled to get interest in his own fundraisers.
Longman has had the most media attention, presumably because sub-tropical Caboolture and Bribie Island are a tad warmer than wintry Devonport and Burnie: travelling Canberra political journalists don’t like the cold. Section 44 culprit, Labor’s Susan Lamb, is behind in the polls and betting markets. All three agencies put her uncomfortably behind LNP candidate and former state MP, Trevor ‘Big Trev’ Ruthenberg. In Longman, however, we have an epic battle of Dumb and Dumber: Lamb with her citizenship snafu and the pathetic way she blamed her estranged mother for her plight, and Ruthenberg with his laying claim to a military decoration that wasn’t his. Whether or not Ruthenberg exaggerated by mistake, he highlighted that whoever they elect, Longman voters aren’t getting a future cabinet minister or shadow minister.
The wild card of Longman is how big the One Nation vote is going to be, and the size of the flow of ON preferences to the LNP will be decisive (and we won’t even mention GetUp putting a former neo-Nazi high on its Longman how-to-vote card). Thanks to typically diligent Labor dirt-digging, it appears the One Nation candidate, Mathew Stephen, is the sort of tradesman more usually chased on A Current Affair. Added to his flame-dyed Leaderene, Pauline Hanson, going troppo on a European cruise as the campaign entered the home stretch, it remains to be seen whether ON’s vote will crash from its 2016 high water mark of 16 per cent. If it does, Labor remains in with a shot and you should take the bookies’ odds.
My prediction is the opposite of the betting markets’. The Liberals will win Braddon but just lose Longman. And if you think the Libs are a cert for both, just consider this fun fact: earlier this week Tony Abbott was dispatched to campaign with Big Trev, because Abbott remains popular in Queensland. Malcolm Turnbull would not deign to call in his nemesis if the LNP wasn’t looking shaky. There’s no way Abbott would have been allowed to come if Turnbull, who now loathes Abbott, was certain of a win.
Most media commentary has featured what the by-elections mean for Shorten’s leadership, given his string of appalling gaffes and judgment calls in recent months, and with Anthony ‘Albo’ Albanese looking unusually spiffy. The general consensus is defeat in one or both can finish Shorten, but I beg to differ. Expectations of Liberal wins have been so talked up, and both his Longman and Braddon candidates such crocks, that Shorten supporters can and will spin the plucky Bill going down to a gallant defeat against insuperable odds.
If Labor manages to hold one of the two contested seats Shorten can even say he salvaged a win of sorts. A 1-0 result, in itself, will not give Albo what he needs to force the leadership issue, and if Albo’s firm ‘no’ on Thursday truly is ‘no’, even a 0-2 result won’t dislodge Shorten – to the private relief of Coalition strategists who would much rather face a general election with the ghastly and unpopular Shorten in post than Albanese with a new leader’s honeymoon glow.
What isn’t being talked about is the effect of these by-elections on Turnbull’s leadership. Between the media and imprudent Liberal MPs like the never-short-for-a-word Christopher Pyne, expectations of a 2-0 result for Turnbull breaking the by-election trend of a century have been talked up very high indeed since the first, very favourable Longman and Braddon polls were posted back in early June.
So high, in fact, that Turnbull arguably must win both Braddon and Longman to maintain the momentum he had since the Budget and Shorten’s chronic Mr Bean-itis set in. Many Liberals – MPs as well as overconfident supporters – expect nothing less.
If one or both are lost, after the initial polls had the Liberals/LNP so strongly in front, angry questions will be asked about Turnbull’s wisdom of choosing a long campaign that allowed Labor back into the race and, in Longman, accepting a LNP candidate who is as mediocre and bumbling as his opponent. A short, sharp campaign would have done the trick: his fear of an unfavourable result before Parliament rose for the winter may yet cost Turnbull dearly.
A net poor result for Turnbull will not cost him the Liberal leadership. Simply, there is no-one – repeat, no-one – ready to step up who would be acceptable to both the party room and the electorate. But it would stop the Coalition recovery in its tracks, and convince Coalition marginal seat MPs they are still on the Lemming Express to Lemmingville.
And if in the event of a 2-0 or even a 1-0 victory Turnbull contemplates rushing to Yarralumla to try his luck with a September or October general election, he should think about the fate of another Malcolm, Malcolm Fraser. In 1982 the Liberals’ Peter Reith unexpectedly won the Flinders by-election in Victoria. Fraser took that as a sign the Coalition was recovering after a rocky two years and could win a snap poll in early 1983. But instead, his divided, plodding government was swept away by a new, popular leader in Bob Hawke.
The Australian’s acerbic commentator Jack the Insider summed up this so-called Super Saturday in his excellent but realistic by-election preview this. ‘The most undesirable and entirely avoidable waste of people’s time and money in Australian political history’, he wrote and who can disagree? Four more by-elections caused by the incompetence of MPs and their culpable party organisations who, if they win on Saturday, will claim the result as vindication of their brilliance and righteousness.
This is a pointless tossers’ picnic.
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