THE LIKELY DEFEAT of the Liberal candidate at yesterday’s by-election in the seat of Fisher means that for the second time in two weeks, Labor has claimed majority government in a mainland state; rigged boundaries may have saved Labor at an election early this year but a win in a safe Liberal seat, vacant after the death of a popular Independent, makes this detail redundant. It also confirms the start of a national swing back to the ALP.
It’s hard to imagine a more innocuous, yet pivotal, by-election.
Popular Liberal-turned-Independent Bob Such — re-elected for four years in March, only to be diagnosed with a brain tumour and pass away soon after — left behind what was universally regarded as an otherwise very safe Liberal electorate; the SA Liberals, in turn, were expected to cruise to victory in the ensuing by-election, held yesterday, putting enormous pressure on turncoat Martin Hamilton-Smith and the biased “Independent” Geoff Brock, whose sleight-of-hand deal while Such was on his sick bed propped Labor up in minority government despite garnering less than 47% of the two-party vote at the state election.
So much for the prepared text.
It appears that Labor has scored a stunning win in the Fisher by-election, aided by preferences from an Independent endorsed by Such’s widow; at the close of counting last night and with the provisional distribution of preferences completed, Labor’s Natalie Cook was leading the Liberals’ Heidi Harris by a 51-49 margin, and the only question mark around these numbers — which, if resolved, would favour Labor — centred on a reporting error by the Electoral Commission and the suggestion that with the purported anomaly corrected, Labor’s lead over the Liberals would almost treble.
Some 22% of voters in Fisher voted early, and these ballots will be counted over the course of the coming week. Even so, observers seem to concur that these will at best for the Liberals maintain the present Labor lead, or narrowly favour the ALP.
Two weeks ago, the ALP governed in minority only in the ACT and SA; now, it has acquired majorities in Victoria and South Australia, with an imminent state election in Queensland looking increasingly ominous for the LNP.
But unlike last weekend’s humiliating result for the Liberals in Victoria — which I maintain was decided on state issues — it is impossible to suggest that the result in Fisher was not influenced, in significant degree, by voter disaffection with the Abbott government.
Compounding the result in Fisher for the Liberals is that a 12-year-old Labor government secured a swing of close to 10% in what would ordinarily be regarded as a safe Liberal seat. I simply can’t think of a precedent for such a result. It is almost a political absurdity.
In my article yesterday, I gave a comprehensive critique of what is wrong with the Abbott government as it stands; and to the extent tangible evidence is required to support the case I presented, it appeared via the ballot box at the hands of voters in Fisher yesterday.
One thing that is beginning to become clear is that there is a national movement toward Labor now solidifying, at the very least in the states: and as much as state factors will influence this movement to varying degrees depending on the unique circumstances of each jurisdiction, the Coalition is failing to consolidate its position in any state or federally, with the only likely election win in the offing for the Liberals anywhere in the next few years set to occur in NSW in March — albeit with a swing of 7-10% to the ALP there too.
And in the case of South Australia, we have discussed the deficiencies in the Liberal operation and, specifically, what needs to be done to revitalise the ranks of its parliamentary wing: I do note that former leader Iain Evans has resigned his seat of Davenport, with a by-election due there on 31 January; it is not too late for others — especially Vickie Chapman in the ultra-safe seat of Bragg — to follow suit, the result yesterday notwithstanding.
My comments this morning are intended to be brief, not least because a final result in Fisher won’t be declared for some days, although it seems disingenuous to suggest it will be anything other than a Labor win.
But I wanted to include some reference to it on account of the discussion of federal issues we had here yesterday; it has been long thought that a government of one political persuasion in Canberra faced by state governments predominantly composed of the other was mutually advantageous to all of those administrations at the ballot box; it remains to be seen, however, whether this holds good over the next few years as at least one other state ALP government (Queensland) before the 2016 federal election is plausible, with another in WA to perhaps follow in early 2017 unless the Barnett government rights the state of its ship.
The point is that if ever there was an environment for a federal government travelling poorly to poison its state-based siblings, that time is now: and yesterday was a graphic illustration of this. After all, the usual “kick the bastards” protest vote that appears at by-elections, if it was aimed at Jay Weatherill’s state government at all, was overwhelmingly counteracted by other baseball bat-wielding voters determined to take aim at Canberra.
There are two points to make in closing.
One, the episode merely underlines the critical importance of the Abbott government getting…itself…together in short order; voters are more than willing to take aim at any available target to punish the kind of mistakes the federal government has been making, and whilst it is too early to speak of a “rising tide” of Labor support or similar, just how far that tide rises — and how much Coalition territory it inundates — will be determined by the Liberals in isolation from anything Labor might or might not do.
And two, no longer reliant on two Independents to prop his government up and despite announcing he will retain the pair as ministers, it would be fit and proper for Weatherill to now set Liberal Party traitor Martin Hamilton-Smith adrift: to cut the bastard loose, and leave him marooned as the isolated irrelevance he deserves to be.
I don’t like criticising my party, but will do it when indicated in the name of impartial comment; those who run off and jump in bed with Labor, however, deserve the belting they receive in review, and one of the more satisfying pieces published in this column, dealing with Hamilton-Smith, did precisely that.
It would be a small satisfaction, in view of yesterday’s result, for the karma truck to now pay Mr Hamilton-Smith a visit.
In the bigger scheme of things, however, the by-election is no laughing matter: the latest in a series of very potent warnings was delivered to the Liberal Party in stark terms by the voters in Fisher.
It is more food for thought for Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin over the summer as they mull which way to move when Parliament reconvenes after the silly season early next year.