The lowdown on the Canning byelection

Andrew Hastie (left) is hoping to retain the Western Australian seat of Canning for the Liberal Party. AAP/Sarah Motherwell

Following the death of sitting Liberal Party member Don Randall, a byelection will be held on September 19 for the federal seat of Canning.

Randall won Canning outright at the 2013 federal election, with 51.07% of the primary vote and a two-party-preferred margin of 11.8%. The Liberal Party has held the seat since 2001. However, Randall’s personal vote was estimated to be around 5%. Additionally, a protest vote is expected as voters mark their dissatisfaction with the Abbott government.

Over the weekend, the media were speculating on the repercussions of a significant swing against the government, including the possible removal of Treasurer Joe Hockey from his portfolio.

Two-and-a-half weeks out from polling day, Natalie Mast sat down with elections expert William Bowe to discuss the 12 candidates, the major parties’ campaigns and the key issues in Canning.

Q: Two-and-a-half weeks out, what are you seeing in the polling data?

A: We’re seeing a lot of headlines about polls showing it at 50-50, but if you look at them carefully, they’re more favourable for the Liberals than that. Pollsters are better at measuring what people are going to do with their primary vote than trying to work out what people will do with the preferences.

Two polls from ReachTEL have shown the Liberal Party with a primary vote of 47%, and if that’s right they’re going to bolt home. However, ReachTEL has 80% of preferences from minor parties flowing to Labor, which is not believable. If Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie gets 47% of the primary vote, he’s going to win by about 55-45.

Q: How large a swing will Labor need to attain to worry Tony Abbott’s leadership and possibly trigger a cabinet reshuffle?

A: I think if the Liberals can limit the swing to below 8%, they can spin that. About 4% could be attributed to the loss of Randall’s personal vote, with another 4% attributed to the usual midterm anti-government sentiment.

Canning is probably quite a fortuitous electorate for the Liberals to be facing a byelection in because it’s got a reasonably old and settled population profile. It’s also not an ethnically diverse electorate. Voters born overseas tend to be from the UK, South Africa and New Zealand.

As an electorate, Canning can be seen as divided into two main urban sectors – Mandurah and Armadale – with a smaller number living in the sort of semi-rural hinterland. Mandurah has a significant retiree population who don’t tend to be all that volatile in their voting behaviour. Armadale, though, is a different story, because it’s fairly blue-collar and has a lot of first-home buyers.

Q: How important is national security as an issue in the byelection?

I’d be really interested to know that, but I don’t.

The unresolved question for me is: is there any limit on how tough Abbott can be on national security without it backfiring?. Presumably there comes a time when the electorate says “now hang on a minute”, and the advantage passes to Labor who can oppose what the government is doing without the public accepting that Labor is soft on terror.

My feeling is that the Abbott government has narrowed itself to very few lines of attack – national security and union corruption – and it has overreached on both of them. So, using these issues becomes counter-productive, and it has too narrow a front to attack on. It can’t draw on a broader narrative that includes the economy and voters’ hip-pockets.

The Liberals are obviously aware of this, and they’ve launched a discussion on reducing income tax rates. But how can they sell tax cuts without dismantling the rest of their argument about restoring the budget?

Q: We have two fairly unknown candidates representing the Labor and Liberal parties. Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie has already survived a media storm surrounding his time served in Afghanistan. What can you tell us about the candidates?

A: I don’t think that media attention on Hastie and his time in Afghanistan was ever going to hurt him – certainly not without any evidence that he was involved with the controversies that happened there.

I don’t think that Hastie’s preselection was unplanned. He is a good fit for the electorate. Given the Liberal Party’s focus on national security, his background as an SAS officer is a great sell. So I’d doubt that his emergence was entirely down to the local party branches.

For Labor candidate Matt Keogh, I think Julie Bishop’s jibe that he’s a “hipster lawyer” might bite a little. It’s easy to sell the message that sure, he may have grown up in the area, but he lives in the trendy inner suburb of Mount Lawley and he is clearly part of the Labor political class.

The focus on the candidates, and the stories about Hastie, has been good for the Liberals. The less the focus is on national concerns the happier they’ll be. Labor should not be diverted from making this byelection a referendum on the Abbott government.

Matt Keogh was described by Julie Bishop as a ‘hipster Labor lawyer’. AAP/Richard Wainwright

Q: The one issue that seems to be resonating with the electorate is crime, which is fundamentally a state issue. Hastie has cleverly linked this to the “ice epidemic”, which has recently been in the national news.

A: It’s probably a smart move in terms of coherent Liberal Party messaging. “Why do we want a former SAS tough guy? Because he stood up to the Taliban and he’ll stand up to criminals.”

It also integrates with the government’s broader image, because issues where the public wants toughness are the ones where the government still has the advantage.

Q: On the weekend the WA Labor Party resurrected its Metronet Rail System. Abbott is on record saying the government doesn’t fund rail projects. Presumably Bill Shorten will promise the support of a future federal Labor government for the scheme. Does Labor have the makings of a wedge issue here?

A: The Perth to Mandurah rail line was a great public policy success that everybody associates with the last state Labor government. Its main beneficiary was the Canning electorate.

Presumably Labor have thought this through and it’s not a coincidence that Metronet has been re-launched at this time. It would be very handy for parts of the electorate to have the Armadale line extended to Byford.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if a great part of the electorate could be mollified by the sort of big-ticket road funding that the Abbott government will be promising.

Q: Do you think the proposed China FTA is going to be an issue?

A: Western Australians are probably more likely to be supportive of the FTA given we see our economy as so dependent on China. So, there’s a tendency to think anything we can do to increase trade will be a good thing, even if it may be a bit rough around the edges.

Q: And an FTA will open up the markets for our dairy and meat exporters.

A: Yes. In 2007, WorkChoices didn’t resonate in WA because we were in a seller’s market for labour due to the boom. These sorts of labour market issues can play out quite differently here, where the economy is about resources and there isn’t so much manufacturing. So, the sentiment might be that we’re strong trading partners with China and need to do what we can to strengthen the relationship.

Q: That’s fine if you’re selling something. But now that WA’s boom is over, what about labourers? Will the “we don’t want Chinese workers coming over here stealing our jobs” argument play a part?

A: Well, yes, that sort of sentiment probably does resonate in a place like Armadale. As I said, it is blue-collar, it doesn’t have a large fly-in fly-out workforce as there aren’t a lot of people working in the mining industry there.

Also, unemployment is certainly becoming a problem in Armadale. I keep going back to Armadale versus Mandurah. They’re two different places with very different outlooks.

Q: Any concluding observations you’d like to make about the campaign so far?

A: Western Australia generally has Labor starting from a long way behind. Polling is showing a swing to Labor a couple of percent higher than the national average. The Liberals are at such a high watermark after the last federal election, and they’ve also been in power at the state level for a long time.

There’s a critical mass of people wanting to take a swing at the Liberal Party, either at the federal or state level. And if there is any anti-politician sentiment it’s less likely to be taken out on Labor.

There are an awful lot of factors at play here, which makes it really messy to analyse. But that also gives the leaders an array of things that they can use to spin the results.

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