Who was the real winner in the Super Saturday by-elections? Picture: Jenny Evans
Who was the real winner in the Super Saturday by-elections? Picture: Jenny Evans

One question will decide PM’s fate

OPINION

SHORTLY before the polls opened on Saturday for the by-election battle that was set to determine the fate of at least one current or prospective prime minister, someone asked me a very simple question.

It was the most obvious and critical question of the campaign and it went straight to the heart of the whole political maelstrom that has been engulfing Australia for the past decade. To answer it correctly would be to predict the outcome of the next general election and who would lead the country in a time of unprecedented international turbulence.

But it wasn't asked by a factional powerbroker or an electoral analyst or a media commentator or a political expert. It was asked by a laconic, mild-mannered, footy-loving, suburban dad who just happens to be my brother-in-law.

The family had come up to stay for the weekend and by way of breakfast chitchat he had politely inquired of my thoughts on the Super Saturday poll. After patiently listening to my labyrinthine analysis of the local issues at play, the apocalyptic state of politics generally and the dire implications for Bill Shorten if the ALP lost Longman or Braddon, he asked with a slightly confused furrowed brow: "So why does Malcolm Turnbull want to win?"

And that, dear people and pundits of Australia, is the million-dollar question.

 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supports Liberal candidate Brett Whiteley in Braddon. Picture: Chris Kidd
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull supports Liberal candidate Brett Whiteley in Braddon. Picture: Chris Kidd

 

People like to see politics as a science - in fact universities even have whole departments called "Political Science" - but in fact it is really just an art form, which is why all those departments are located within the faculty of the arts.

There is a lot of funny logic in politics, mostly because politics is not very logical at all. It is driven by passion, personal ambition and raw animal instincts. For example, the Liberals rolled Tony Abbott - who took them to government with a landslide election victory - after he lost 30 Newspolls in a row. Meanwhile they have stuck with Malcolm Turnbull - who almost lost them government at the last election - even though he has lost something like 37 Newspolls in a row. Indeed, everyone just seems to have collectively decided to stop counting.

Meanwhile the ALP knifed Kevin Rudd after just one bad Newspoll simply because nobody liked him very much and he had hurt some people's feelings.

It is worth keeping all this in mind when you listen to some of the panicked commentary about the weekend's by-election results, which are extraordinary only in the sense that they are so thoroughly ordinary that they stick out like dogs' balls in today's crazed political climate.

The first thing to remember is that Super Saturday wasn't really that super. Only two of the five seats were actually contests between Labor and the Coalition - Longman and Braddon. And so when there is talk of Labor holding all four of its seats in play, it is worth noting that the two in WA were so unlosable that the Libs didn't even bother to contest them.

The fifth electorate, the South Australian seat of Mayo, was once blue-ribbon Liberal but had already fallen to the Nick Xenophon Team at the last election and their candidate held on to it, even though the Nick Xenophon Team had imploded in the meantime.

 

Centre Alliance candidate for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie held on to the seat. Picture: AAP Image/David Mariuz
Centre Alliance candidate for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie held on to the seat. Picture: AAP Image/David Mariuz

 

That whole phenomenon is weird enough to deserve a column in itself but for now let's just say this is entirely in keeping with the massive exodus away from mainstream parties we have seen here, in the US, the UK, France, Canada and just about everywhere in the Western world. By way of example, the ALP's primary vote in Mayo was just six per cent - yes, that's 6.06 per cent - far lower than even the Greens, who got almost nine per cent. So, you know, sh*t be crazy.

The second thing is that no Australian government has won a by-election from the opposition in almost a century. The last time it happened - in 1920 - was more that two decades before the Liberal Party was even invented.

In short, under the two-party system that we take for granted today, it has simply never ever happened.

The most curious thing about this fact is that everyone seems to be running around reminding people of it ad nauseam while completely forgetting it at the same time.

And so for people to be suggesting that it is somehow remarkable for Labor to hold on to seats it already held in a by-election against a government it has beaten in the polls every single time for well over a year is, in itself, remarkable. Indeed, the most remarkable thing is that there was ever a possibility that Labor was going to lose.

By-elections are supposed to be opportunities for oppositions to steal seats off the government - not just hold their own. It is worth remembering that when Labor failed to win the Liberal seat of Aston in 2001 with a 3.66 per cent swing this was considered a terminal blow for then-leader Kim Beazley. Now Bill Shorten is being hailed as a hero for merely failing to lose a seat to one of the most lacklustre and unpopular governments in history.

The question, as always, is why.

 

The Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten speaks to media with newly elected member for Longman Susan Lamb. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt
The Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten speaks to media with newly elected member for Longman Susan Lamb. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt

 

Ironically, Shorten was right when he said the fight in Braddon and Longman wasn't about him versus Malcolm Turnbull. The truth is it was about him versus Anthony Albanese.

Both historically and statistically, Labor was always going to win both seats. But poll after poll showed that Albo would have won them better - a difference of 51-49 and 55-45, which is a mouth-watering gap for any pollster.

As it turned out, the Libs got absolutely caned in the Queensland seat of Longman after running a dud candidate who had "made a mistake" about his military medals, something the great Graham Richardson - still the best political mind in Australia - rightly said was a nuclear-scale disaster.

In keeping with the anti-mainstream trend of current politics, the LNP haemorrhaged votes to One Nation - they lost 9.4 per cent and One Nation picked up 6.5 per cent, almost doubling the minor party's vote. And, just like 2016 in the same seat, those One Nation votes appeared to flow largely to Labor - which is unsurprising given the once pragmatic Shorten's conversion to the rampant populist style of the hard left and hard right.

But, to be fair, the incumbent Susan Lamb did have a very sympathetic story to tell about the citizenship debacle that had put her in this position in the first place and Labor's anti-company tax cut campaign was simple and effective. She got a solid 4.6 per cent boost to her primary vote which was well deserved.

 

Susan Lamb celebrates her by-election win. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Peled
Susan Lamb celebrates her by-election win. Picture: AAP Image/Dan Peled

 

Even so, the two-party swing of 3.7 per cent was basically bang-on average for a by-election. Certainly far from a landslide.

This brings us to Braddon, a notoriously marginal seat that Labor was as surprised to win in 2016 as it was when it held it on Saturday. There the swing to Labor was 0.27 per cent. I will repeat that: 0.27 per cent - and this against a government that has been trailing in the polls for 37 weeks and in a nation where the average by-election swing against the government since World War II is 3.8 per cent.

Not only that, the average swing against a government shoots up to 4.9 per cent where a by-election has been triggered by a resignation, as these ones were, leaving both results falling well short of the norm. Certainly they are a long way from wasting a good bottle of champagne.

The reasons for Shorten's premature evacuation of corks from bottles is twofold and as usual both come from a failure of politicians on both sides to manage expectations.

Many Labor faithful both inside and outside the parliament are alarmed by Shorten's infinitely flexible principles and dogged unpopularity and were desperately hoping for an excuse to roll him. The catch is that under tough new rules that can only happen with either a petition from two-thirds of the caucus or an automatic leadership spill following an election loss. The hope was that losing Longman and/or Braddon on Super Saturday would be enough to trigger that spill.

Meanwhile, the Libs - especially the ever-embattled moderate Turnbull supporters - allowed themselves to believe that they might actually pull off a once-in-a-century political miracle and give their leader some sorely needed electoral cred.

Sadly this great rush of blood to the head has resulted in a great gush of blood at the ballot box, where both the pro-Albanese and pro-Turnbull forces look like losers when in fact Shorten has barely hung on by the skin of his teeth.

But this brings us back to my brother-in-law's remarkably salient question: Why did Turnbull even want to win in the first place?

 

 

And, Bill Shorten also lends his support to Susan Lamb. Picture: Liam Kidston
And, Bill Shorten also lends his support to Susan Lamb. Picture: Liam Kidston

 

Anthony Albanese hits the election trail with Susan Lamb. Picture: Lachie Millard
Anthony Albanese hits the election trail with Susan Lamb. Picture: Lachie Millard

 

If, as was almost universally expected, a Shorten loss would have resulted in him being replaced by the infinitely more popular Albanese then surely this would have been Malcolm's worst nightmare. Indeed, Turnbull's only hope to win the next election is that he faces off against the even more unpopular Shorten, against whom he is still the preferred prime minister by almost 20 percentage points and for whom Newspoll this week changed not one iota despite his supposed "thumping" by-election victories.

The only political figure I saw who had noticed this was the Queensland LNP MP Andrew Laming, who said on Monday: "The best thing about an otherwise sorry weekend is that we now know, thank goodness, that we are facing Bill Shorten."

As things stand, he and my brother-in-law are currently the smartest people in the country.