17 April 2024
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Queensland Libs do well – disaster elsewhere

Malcolm Mackerras
28 March 2024

The month of March 2024 saw four by-elections for seats in Australian lower houses of parliament. In my private conversations and emails before each polling day, I correctly predicted the winner in all four cases. However, I was so lacking in confidence in respect of Ipswich West (Qld) and Dunstan (SA) I thought it wise not to put my predictions into public print. And there was no point in forecasting a Labor win for Inala. Such a prediction would be of little more value than predicting Vladimir Putin to win in Russia. So, I decided to put into public print my forecast for Dunkley only. I did that in my article of 12 February “Labor will win Dunkley”.

My analysis below is in chronological order and all statistics are in two-party preferred votes. I begin with Dunkley which was a very good win for Labor.

General Election, 21 May 2022

Peta Murphy (Labor)               53,865 votes              56.27%

Sharn Coombes (Liberal)        41,857 votes              43.73%

Margin                                     12,008 votes

Mackerras By-election Prediction, 2 March 2024

Jodie Belyea (Labor)               46,000 votes              52.27%         Down 4.00%

Nathan Conroy (Liberal)         42,000 votes              47.73%         Up 4.00%

Margin                                       4,000 votes

Final By-election Result, 2 March 2024

Jodie Belyea (Labor)               48,019 votes              52.70%        Down 3.57%

Nathan Conroy (Liberal)         43,093 votes              47.30%        Up 3.57%

Margin                                       4,926 votes

My first comment on the Dunkley by-election is that the result was predictable. Most well-informed pundits made essentially the same prediction as I did. My second comment is that this situation is without precedent – subject to what I write below.

This is not the first time that the candidate for the modern Liberal Party gained votes at a federal by-election caused by the death of a Labor member while Labor was in office. It is the second time. The first case was the Fremantle by-election resulting from the death of Labor Prime Minister John Curtin on 5 July 1945. The by-election was held on 18 August 1945. It was won by Kim Edward Beazley (Labor) but there was a 14% swing to the Liberal candidate, Donald Cleland. Beazley’s margin was 14,129 votes, down massively from the margin Curtin had achieved at the August 1943 general election landslide Labor win. Labor under Ben Chifley went on to a biggish win at the September 1946 general election - but clearly Fremantle is not a satisfactory precedent for Dunkley.

On the other hand, one can look to the conservative side of politics and take the case of the first Aston by-election held on 14 July 2001. The popular Liberal member Peter Nugent had died, and the Howard government seemed to be in very great trouble. The Liberal candidate, Christopher Pearce, won the seat with 50.6% of the two-party preferred vote compared with Nugent’s 54.2% at the previous general election in October 1998. So, the swing against the incumbent government was only 3.6% (the same as in Dunkley) and such a low swing was seen as a good omen that Howard would enjoy a third general election win later that year.

The strikingly low Dunkley swing is rightly seen as a good omen that the Albanese government will enjoy a second general election win in May 2025. But Peter Dutton’s position is nowhere nearly as difficult as was the position of 2001 Labor leader Kim Christian Beazley (son of the Beazley member for Fremantle noted above) who had already lost the 1998 general election, that being Howard’s second win. For Dutton, therefore, he can afford to lose in May 2025, but he cannot afford to lose again in May 2028. If he does lose that election, he would become the Liberal Party’s equivalent of Labor’s Beazley junior.

The above is a description of the more-or-less semi-distant past from which the future is speculated. Now let me discuss the present – the two by-elections in Queensland on Saturday 16 March and the one South Australian by-election last Saturday. In the case of Queensland my statistics are nearly final. For Dunstan (SA) I say merely that Labor has won the seat.

The Queensland by-elections were unambiguously bad results for Labor. Steven Miles lost Ipswich West on a swing to the LNP of 17.9% and (arguably) nearly lost Labor’s strongest Queensland seat of Inala on a swing of 21.3%. These by-election results combine with the most recent Queensland opinion polling to tell me that I am on track to be correct in my long-standing prediction that the LNP will win the October 2024 state election. See my article of 11 December last year “My Australian predictions for 2024”

Last Saturday there was a by-election for the inner-metropolitan Adelaide seat of Dunstan caused by the resignation of Steven Marshall (Liberal). He was the Premier of South Australia from March 2018 to March 2022. Labor needed a swing of only 0.6% to take Dunstan which on my SA pendulum was the Liberal Party’s most marginal seat. At the general election on 19 March 2022 there were 12,135 votes for Marshall and 11,875 for Cressida O’Hanlon (Labor) who has contested the by-election for Labor - and has won the seat.

My prediction – that O’Hanlon would win the seat – was the conventional private conversation prediction among Adelaide pundits, all of whom asserted that Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas is still in honeymoon mode after two years in office. To that I added my own knowledge of what former Liberal premiers are like. They place their own convenience ahead of every other consideration. The interests of the party do not matter to them. Thus, Sir Eric Willis (NSW) lost a general election in May 1976 and resigned his marginal seat of Earlwood in June 1978. Labor won the by-election in July 1978. Then Jeff Kennett (Victoria) lost a general election in September 1999 and the first thing he did was to resign his marginal seat of Burwood. Labor won the by-election in December 1999.

Finally, SA Liberal Premier Rob Kerin lost office at a general election in February 2002 but stayed in his seat of Frome. He should have retired at the expiration of that 50th Parliament but chose to lead the Liberals again in March 2006. He resigned his marginal seat of Frome (which then included Port Pirie) in November 2008. Early in 2009 the Frome by-election was won by a pro-Labor independent, Geoff Brock, who has been a thorn in the side of the Liberal Party ever since.

This should be understood. All that happened last Saturday was that Labor won a by-election in a natural Labor seat. The seat of Dunstan was long held by Labor leader Don Dunstan in the days when it was called Norwood. Hence the new name of Dunstan. This by-election was quite un-necessary but reflects an unfortunate feature of modern politics. In the good old days, politicians would “retire” at the expiration of a parliamentary term. Most politicians still do that. But if you are a former premier or prime minister you can resign your seat and the media will help you by saying the MP has “retired”. I would say the member has “resigned”.

Finally, last Saturday there was also a general election in Tasmania. When every vote has been counted and every seat determined I’ll contribute another article to Switzer Daily analysing the results.

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