Countdown to Canning byelection: interview with Poll Bludger William Bowe

The Liberal Party created a narrative for candidate Andrew Hastie that helped reduce the role of national politics in the byelection. AAP/Rebecca Le May

We’re on the eve of the Canning byelection and the nation’s interest has turned from viewing Saturday as a poll on Tony Abbott to being a test of both new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Political analyst Natalie Mast spoke with “Poll Bludger” William Bowe about what Monday’s leadership spill will mean for the vote in Canning.


Q: How has the polling changed since the weekend?

A: It is early days yet, although we have had the first national opinion poll for voting intention under Malcolm Turnbull and it has come in at 50-50. This particular pollster had it at 54-46 in favour of Labor during the declining period of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership. That’s an immediate 4% shift in favour of Turnbull.

As sugar rushes go, I’m a little surprised that that’s not bigger. It’s probably a little bit less than when Kevin Rudd became leader again in mid-2013. Gillard went from being about 55-45 behind to 50-50. We want to see more than one poll and we want that poll to have been conducted a few days later after the dust has had time to settle. The poll we’ve seen is consistent with a feeling of general relief, and perhaps not quite yet the euphoria you may have expected given that a person of Turnbull’s popularity is now in the position.

Q: There were early predictions of a 10% swing to Labor. What do you think that might look like now under a Turnbull government?

A: The million-dollar question is: we’re getting that honeymoon rush to Turnbull and the Liberal Party now that the poison has been drawn with respect to Abbott being prime minister. So, are the byelection dynamics the same as the opinion poll dynamics? Does that automatically transform the Liberal Party’s situation into a 5% improvement in Canning? Or is there a different atmosphere in respect to the byelection?

I think a lot of people in Canning might feel a little insulted that this has been sprung on them a week out from the byelection. This was Canning’s moment in the sun – when the whole nation has been watching them and waiting to check their pulse – and they have now been told, “Well, it turned out you didn’t matter as much as you were told you did.”

They were going to be given an opportunity to cast their verdict on a prime ministership, but that’s been pre-empted. It may be that the voters of Canning are in a crankier mindset.

Also, the process of going to vote in a byelection puts the voter in a very different position to an opinion poll when they’re being asked to reel off the top of their head how they think they’d vote today. When an opinion poll respondent gets a call this is the first time they’ve been asked to consider this matter. The people of Canning have had a lot more time to think about this matter.

Having said that, the Liberal Party has gone from having an unpopular leader to a very popular one. I don’t see how that can fail to transfer into a favourable movement to them, notwithstanding that there’s a little bit of negativity in there as well. Every opinion poll from Canning from before Tuesday can be put in the wastepaper bin now; we really need to see some fresh polling. My guess is that the Liberals were hanging on; now they’re going to get a more comfortable win.

Q: Because of all the attention on the national leadership, Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie has had a pretty easy ride. But he did have a bump in the middle of the campaign when he refused to deny he was a creationist. How important do you think that has been?

A: I don’t think it is important in this particular electorate. It’s not the type of electorate that has a negative reaction to people’s religious beliefs even if the people aren’t religious themselves. In an electorate where you have more people who are tertiary-educated, more people who are professionals, these are the sorts of demographics that are missing from the Canning electorate.

They don’t think same-sex marriage is terribly important in this area. It’s not that kind of post-materialist area where voters are concerned with things to do with personal expression, religious beliefs, the need to have someone who is a rationalist rather than a religious person.

Q: What have the Liberal Party been campaigning on?

A: Like Labor they’ve been campaigning on “local issues”, which really means state issues, so there’s that element of perversity there. The candidate Andrew Hastie keeps wanting to talk about the ice epidemic and law and order. A lot of the Liberal Party campaign is: “Let’s make this as local as we can, let’s make it oriented on bread-and-butter local community issues and the calibre of the two candidates and who you want representing you.”

This is to take everything away from all of the things that have been destroying the Liberal government, which is the unpopularity of Tony Abbott, the disaster of the 2014 budget and all the various things that led to the leadership change earlier this week. They did a very strong job of making the conversation surrounding the byelection things which the Liberal Party can potentially win on.

It has surprised me the extent to which the campaign has been about the candidates. They could have selected someone a lot blander who has a less clearly identifiable image within the public mind, and then the void would have been filled by all of the national-level issues that would have communicated to all of the voters in Canning: “Here is a referendum on Tony Abbott/the federal government.”

I think the Liberal Party have done a really good job of making people not perceive the byelection that way, but making them think about the candidates as a basis on which people might make the decision to vote Liberal.

Q: How has Labor candidate Matt Keogh performed?

A: I don’t want to be too critical of Matt Keogh but he’s probably the kind of thing I had in mind when I said the Liberal Party could have presented a blander candidate. Keogh might have a very good political career ahead of him, but for the time being he kind of looks, feels and sounds like a member of the political class.

I think Julie Bishop had an amusing line when she called him a “hipster lawyer”. That was a good bit of local knowledge at work, as a person who understands the social geography of this place – Matt Keogh lives in Mount Lawley, which is Perth’s equivalent of a café latte kind of area. Bishop used that to negate the advantage that he was presenting for himself, which was that he grew up in the Armadale area.

Labor could have sold that line very successfully if Bishop hadn’t drawn attention to the fact that he doesn’t live in the electorate anymore, and furthermore that he’s not in the prevailing class of people who are in Canning. He’s not the kind of blue-collar worker that you get in an area like Armadale. So if he does have a connection with the electorate it’s a pretty tenuous one.

Against that the Liberals are able to sell the idea that, okay, Andrew Hastie doesn’t live in Canning, but part of that reason is that he’s been living in Afghanistan. Are you going to hold that against him? The answer is no. He doesn’t live here when he is in Australia but people do understand that if you’re in the defence force you get very little discretion as to where you live. So the Liberal Party have negated the issue of not having a local candidate.

As well as that, I don’t think Keogh has been able to present a narrative of himself, of who he is. There’s no story surrounding Keogh, whereas there’s a really clear and potent story surrounding Hastie. It might not be to everyone’s tastes, there will be some who react against him appearing to be a Christian conservative.

But, nonetheless, the story is out there that Keogh just looks a little bit like a political operative and I think he’s lost that battle. If the opportunity was there in the byelection campaign, which it may not have been, for him to reverse that impression, then I think he’s failed to turn that around.

Q: The other big political question we’ll be facing this weekend is: who’s going to be in and who’s going to be out of Turnbull’s cabinet? How do you think Western Australia’s parliamentarians are going to fare?

A: It’s an interesting question because the Liberal Party in Western Australia really punches above its weight because it won so many seats at the last election. I think they would have 18 Western Australian parliamentarians out of that party room of 100, which is well out of proportion to the share of population.

And that was reflected at first in Tony Abbott’s government in that there were three Western Australians in cabinet positions. But, since then, we’ve seen David Johnston get demoted from the defence ministry. So the question is: does Western Australia get refunded for the cabinet position it lost when that occurred? I think, if that’s the case, the most likely scenario that I can see is that Michaelia Cash, who is currently a junior minister, gets promoted into cabinet. She’s been an extremely strong performer and I believe there has been talk of her taking over immigration. So I suspect that’s the greatest likelihood.

The other junior minister from Western Australia is Michael Keenan. He is interesting in that he was a Turnbull loyalist during the years in opposition. He got promoted to the shadow cabinet under Turnbull’s leadership, and then he got demoted back down to the junior shadow ministry when Abbott became the leader. So his career trajectory very nicely shadowed Turnbull’s, as people who have a loyalty to a particular party figurehead often do.

So the question might be now that Turnbull’s back in the job, does Keenan get promoted again? I wouldn’t think so, though, because there are a lot of people knocking on the door for a cabinet promotion. Probably too many; that was one of Abbott’s many failings. I think he didn’t do enough to refresh the cabinet and to throw the lifeline to ambitious people, and to give them a leg up. So there are probably too many people clamouring for Keenan to get a look in, and I think Cash has left the stronger impression out of those two people.

The other rising figure within the Liberal Party is Christian Porter. He was promoted to parliamentary secretary in the end of 2014 and, of course, he was a very senior figure in the state government before he made the switch to federal politics at the 2013 election. He was treasurer and attorney-general, and he’s from a law background, so the attorney-general position would be a good fit for him.

But given, as I said, all of the people who are clamouring for a position, I think it might be a bit too much for Porter to hope that at this early stage he’s going to go two spots above the ladder. But maybe he will get a position in the junior ministry filling the Western Australian vacancy, perhaps, that gets created by Cash getting promoted into the actual cabinet, if indeed that what’s happens.


These are edited excerpts from the interview, which includes a discussion of the minor parties’ role in the byelection. The interview can be heard in full below:

Canning byelection: interview with Poll Bludger William Bowe. CC BY-ND34.3 MB (download)