The wash-up from the Canning byelection

Andrew Hastie retained the federal seat of Canning for the government at a byelection on the weekend. AAP/Richard Wainwright

In Saturday’s byelection in the federal electorate of Canning, the Liberal Party retained the seat with a swing of 6-7% against the government. So what did we learn from the campaign? What are the result’s implications for both the new Turnbull government and the Labor opposition? Natalie Mast sat down with elections expert William Bowe to discuss this and more.


Q: What are your general observations on Saturday’s poll?

A: I struggle to extract anything headline-grabbing from it. I think it was quite a dull result. There was a danger zone for both parties – for Labor it was below 5%; for the Liberal Party it was pushing 10%. We ended up right in the middle of those two ranges at between 6% and 7%.

Both sides have got the lines that they can spin to explain the result. The result isn’t clear-cut enough to make any of those lines easier to nay-say, so I think the result will be forgotten quite quickly. For those of us who had the Canning byelection pencilled in as the crucial test of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, it ended up being an anti-climax in a number of ways.

Q: What impact do you think the “Turnbull factor” had on the vote?

A: I think Tony Abbott was headed for a swing of about 9%, and what we’ve ended up with is a swing of about 6-7%. That indicates that Malcolm Turnbull made around 2-3% of difference. This is probably a little bit on the modest side of what we might have been expecting, given the vast gap in popularity between Abbott and Turnbull.

On the other hand, it also makes sense that voters are extremely sick of coups against the prime minister, and there’s been a little bit of an allergic reaction against that. I think the view among Canning voters would have been “I’d have liked more time here to get a sense of how the Turnbull prime ministership is going to look once the dust has settled”, because for all we know this may be the beginning of Rudd-Gillard mark 2.

There’s a natural suspicion among voters that while they might be a lot more pleased with Turnbull being prime minister than Abbott, the Liberal Party itself is still on notice – that the jury is out on it – and I think a lot of people who had resolved to vote against the Liberal Party during the byelection campaign didn’t just snap back into action the moment Abbott was out the door.

Therefore, the effect was a little bit subdued. 2-3% wasn’t nothing – it was measurable – but it’s not that big honeymoon rush that you often get in opinion polls under these circumstances.

Q: Labor’s primary vote is up around 8.5%, off an admittedly low base. Where is the swing to Labor coming from?

A: The minor party vote collectively was down, which is interesting. The Greens’ vote fell, which is a pretty poor show for a byelection. You’d expect there to be that anti-major-party protest vote floating around at a byelection, particularly given the performance of the major parties lately – but it didn’t seem to be there.

The Greens had a few predators this time on the left – the Animal Justice Party and the Pirate Party were in the field, and that nibbled away at their vote a little bit. But, even so, they wouldn’t have expected to have fallen from more than 7% of the primary vote to a bit below 6%.

I think the Palmer United Party is a spent force now. The result was yet more of an indication of that. Palmer United put a bit more effort into this campaign than it had into other elections recently, but its vote still fell by more than one-half. I suspect that the Palmer United Party was picking up a lot of the disaffected Labor vote at the last election and what we saw at this byelection was that vote coming home.

Q: Do you think Labor candidate Matt Keogh performed well enough to earn preselection in the proposed new seat of Burt?

A: Matt Keogh has been spoken of for some time as someone who will eventually have a seat lined up for him. Canning wouldn’t have been a very tempting offer – even under Tony Abbott there were very few people actually anticipating that Labor was going to win. So I had always assumed that this was part of a broader strategy where Keogh gets to sell himself and raise his profile ahead of a more determined pitch for a seat later on.

The circumstances are ideal for that seat to be the newly created seat of Burt. There’s a redistribution in progress. We’re still at the draft stage, but you can reasonably safely assume that the new electorate will look like how it does in the draft. Burt will be a southeastern suburban seat which has Armadale at the southern end of it – Armadale being the area of the Canning electorate which is the most naturally favourable area of it for Labor and also the area that swung most heavily to Labor on Saturday.

So, Burt is a very promising seat for Labor going forward. On 2013 figures it is a very slightly marginal Liberal seat. But if Labor put the effort in to campaign there, then it should be extremely optimistic that it would win Burt at the next election.

And, conveniently, Keogh has just had a magical opportunity to raise his profile in the Armadale end of the electorate, and to project the fact that he is a local from that area – he grew up in Kelmscott. It would surprise me a great deal if Labor didn’t have some strategic plan to make Keogh the candidate for Burt next time.

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