Making sense of the polls

Making sense of the polls

Liberals hold North Sydney despite a 13% primary vote swing against them

At the North Sydney by-election held yesterday, the Liberals won 47.5% of the vote (down 13.5% on the 2013 election), Independent Stephen Ruff won 18.8%, and the Greens won 16.1% (up 0.8%). The remaining 17.6% was split between ten candidates, none of whom reached the 4% required to regain their deposit. Palmer United was dead last with just 0.5% of the vote. Postal votes have not yet been counted, and the Liberals should perform better on these votes, mitigating the swing against them.

It is clear from the current primary votes that the Liberals will comfortably win North Sydney after preferences. The electoral commission abandoned its indicative preference count between the Liberals and Greens when it became clear that Ruff would finish second, and a preference count between the Liberals and Ruff has not started yet. I would expect roughly a 55-45 win for the Liberals over Ruff, though the Liberals expect a 58-42 win.

The primary vote swing against the Liberals can in part be explained by the retirement of a high-profile local member (Hockey) and resentment over needing to vote in a new election. State and local issues may also have influenced the result.

Nevertheless, the current swing against the Liberals is the biggest primary vote swing against a government at a by-election since Labor’s loss at the 1995 Canberra by-election. It is likely that at least some of the swing was because right wing voters disliked both Turnbull and the local Liberal candidate, and voted for the Independent Ruff or for another candidate as a protest. Ruff was also helped by the endorsement of Ted Mack, the only non-Liberal to have represented North Sydney; Mack won two terms as an Independent in 1990 and 1993.

If the Coalition loses the next election, the North Sydney result will be read as a harbinger of doom, but if the Coalition wins the next election, North Sydney will be quickly forgotten. By-elections cannot be easily interpreted in the context of national opinion polling because their results cannot in general change the government. The result for the Liberals at this by-election was much worse than expected given current national polling, but we still have no idea whether current polling is inflating the Liberal vote.

Given the absence of a Labor candidate, the Greens’ gain of only 0.8% is disappointing, and shows that they do not attract many natural Labor voters.