View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Abbott on the nose in Canning but Liberals a nose in front

Andrew Hastie addresses Liberal volunteers while Tony Abbott looks on. Matt Dawson

Julie Bishop, deputy Liberal leader and the most senior minister from Western Australia, has a special interest in the tough Canning byelection contest. Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie, a former SAS officer, is her “vice-captain’s pick”.

Bishop told POST Newspapers, a suburban weekly that circulates in her electorate, that she first met Hastie in Afghanistan in 2009 when she sat at a table with him.

Hastie has been a party member in her seat of Curtin, and she encouraged him to seek the Canning preselection. Asked by the paper whether he was a captain’s pick, Bishop quipped: “How about a vice-captain’s pick?”

Bishop is investing intense effort in Canning, where the government is desperately trying to keep the focus local, all about its ex-military man, while Labor seeks to make it a referendum on Tony Abbott.

Labor candidate Matt Keogh and deputy leader Tanya Plibersek pose with the local party faithful at their office opening this week. Matt Dawson

With a fortnight to go, campaigners on both sides expect the Liberals to win the September 19 byelection, caused by the death of popular Liberal member Don Randall, who held the seat on a margin of 11.8% – part of it a strong personal vote.

Polling so far has shown the battle very close, with an edge to the Liberals.

The half-joke among some in Labor is that its best result would be a Liberal win accompanied by a substantial swing to the ALP, because a Liberal defeat might lead to Abbott being replaced by a more formidable leader.

But there’s no evidence for the claim reported from ministerial sources this week that Labor is running dead. It will try hard, even if it spends less than its opponents. If the ALP did poorly, fresh criticism would quickly come on Bill Shorten. Abbott said on Friday that Shorten, in the electorate on Thursday, had “certainly been very active in Canning for someone who is allegedly running dead”.

Both Labor and Liberal campaigners this week report strong anti-Abbott feeling among the public. At Wednesday’s opening of the Liberal campaign office in Mandurah, where Abbott appeared with Hastie, some among the faithful were freely discussing the leadership, and confirming voters’ dislike of Abbott.

Tony Abbott makes his way through Liberal volunteers in Mandurah. Matt Dawson

Given this, why would Abbott have been in Canning this week for his second visit? He’s in a cleft stick. To stay away would have simply meant giving Labor the opportunity to highlight his absence.

When he and Abbott appeared at Wednesday’s news conference, Hastie, 32, jumped in when Abbott was asked whether it intrigued or irritated him that Labor might prefer him leading at the election rather than Malcolm Turnbull.

In a political equivalent of taking the bullet, Hastie said: “I don’t have time to take counsel from the east coast Twitterati. There’s a significant disconnect between what people are saying over in the east and what is happening here in Canning.”

Abbott is much taken with Hastie who, with his military background and strong conservative values, ticks Abbott’s favourite boxes. Quite a bromance there, Liberal sources say.

While Labor is playing on the unpopularity of Abbott and Premier Colin Barnett, it is also trumpeting one “local” advantage – its candidate, 33-year-old lawyer Matt Keogh, was born and bred in the electorate, though he hasn’t been living there in recent years (but has just moved back).

Hastie has been confronted with questions about two incidents from his military past – neither involving any blame for him – and about his father’s creationist beliefs and his wife’s posting (but not authoring) a blog relating to homosexuality, which he explained was part of her job when she was working as a church receptionist.

Stories about the military incidents have almost certainly worked for rather than against Hastie, who is likely to benefit from a “patriotism” factor.

Tanya Plibersek and Matt Keogh talk to local Labor members. Matt Dawson

The byelection has attracted a field of a dozen candidates. Clive Palmer is running an executive of his Mineralogy company, Vimal Sharma. The Greens candidate, Vanessa Rauland, is a lecturer at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute (CUSP). There are candidates from the Liberal Democrats, the Pirate Party, the Animal Justice Party and Family First.

The ballot paper draw benefits the Liberals. Palmer United Party is on the top and is preferencing down the ticket, advantaging Hastie, who appears above Keogh. The order also means the Liberals get the benefit of the “donkey” vote – from voters who just start at the top and work down.

The medley of issues includes community security, which is getting a lot of attention, and jobs. The latter is potent given that the electorate houses fly-in-fly-out workers who are hit with the end of the mining boom.

One issue of particular interest is the China-Australia free trade agreement. Labor research has found considerable concern about the agreement’s labour market implications. When Finance Minister Mathias Cormann was doing TV interviews on a Canning street on Wednesday a motorist wound down his window and shouted: “keep the Chinese out of Australia”.

But the government is seeking to turn Shorten’s claim that there should be more safeguards for Australian workers back onto the opposition leader. Shorten is in a difficult position because a number of Labor figures have been speaking out in favour of the agreement and its benefits for Australia. Federal Labor is not seeking to block the agreement so at some point Shorten will have to shift ground, but probably not before he milks fears to the maximum in the byelection.

If Canning remains in government hands but with a big swing, the question will become how the Liberal backbenchers, particularly those in marginal seats, read that result. Will it produce relief (a win is a win) or alarm, and what implications will it have for Abbott’s leadership?

In the opinion of one Liberal source, the interpretation put on it by Bishop, who will have experienced more of the on-the-ground feeling than any other minister, will be critical.

Listen to the Canning by-election special episode of the Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast here, or on iTunes.