Kevin Rudd’s retirement from Federal politics gives the Liberals an opportunity to take his seat of Griffith at a by-election this Saturday 8 February. However, although Rudd only won Griffith by a narrow 53.0-47.0 margin at the 2013 Federal election, there are good reasons to be sceptical about the Liberals’ chances of gaining this seat.
No government has won a seat held by the opposition at a Federal by-election since 1920. Occasionally, governments have won opposition-held seats at state by-elections; however, these cases usually involved a minority or bare majority goverment fortifying its position in parliament. This happened in Victoria after the 1999 state election left Labor needing to rely on three Independents for support, and they won two by-elections in opposition held seats to strengthen their position. Since the Coalition already has a clear majority of seats in Federal parliament, this reasoning will not apply.
The polls have changed, and Labor now has a clear lead over the Coalition, after losing the election by 53.5-46.5. The current BludgerTrack update is showing an overall swing of 6% against the Coalition, but this swing is almost 8% in Queensland. Given point (1), it is very difficult to see the Liberals winning this seat against the strong national and Queensland swings to Labor.
Rudd’s personal vote effect had already deflated at the 2013 election. In 2010, Rudd held Griffith with 58.5% Two Party Preferred (2PP); this made Griffith easily Labor’s safest 2010 Queensland seat. The 5.5% swing Rudd suffered in Griffith in 2013 compares poorly with the statewide swing of 1.8%, and Griffith is no longer even close to being Labor’s safest Queensland seat. As a result, Labor should not lose many votes from Rudd’s retirement.
To summarise, given Rudd’s personal vote deflation, the current polling and the historical record of by-elections, it would be a major surprise if Liberal candidate Bill Glasson won this by-election. It is far more likely that there will be a significant swing to Labor.
Do By-Elections Matter?
As noted in point (1) above, when a government is in a weak parliamentary position, a by-election can matter. In these cases, the loss of a government-held seat, or the gain of a seat held by the opposition, can significantly change the balance of power in parliament. However, when there is already a clear majority for a party, by-elections do not matter very much. It is a long time until the 2016 election, and it is highly unlikely that the Griffith result will have a long-term impact on party standings.