Swings, Roundabouts and Pigs' Heads


Saturday’s by-election in Gippsland delivered Labor a sobering 9.3 per cent slump on the primary vote and a two-party swing comparable to that of the September 1973 Parramatta by-election, which rebuffed the Whitlam Government and brought Philip Ruddock to Parliament.

The result is substantially worse for Labor than any of the six by-elections the Hawke Government faced in its truncated first term, which ranged from a 0.5 per cent swing to Labor to 5 per cent against. It also goes against State precedents such as Labor’s wins in Burwood and Benalla in the wake of the Kennett Government’s defeat, which suggested new governments should be able to convert honeymoon opinion poll leads into votes at by-elections.

So, what made this by-election different? And what does it signal for Labor? A number of factors contributed to the results.

Geography. Most of the damage to Labor was done in the La Trobe Valley, located in the far west of the electorate, with a trend of steadily diminishing swings further to the east. The swing of 10.3 per cent in the La Trobe local government area compares with 4.4 per cent in the Shire of East Gippsland, which was itself inflated by Nationals victor Darren Chester’s very strong performance in his home town of Lakes Entrance.

One explanation is that East Gippsland has a high concentration of older voters (21 per cent over 65 compared with a national 13.3 per cent), a sure predictor of low electoral volatility. By contrast, La Trobe’s age profile is almost perfectly consistent with the national average.

The singularity of the trend nonetheless argues against the idea that the result was entirely down to petrol and grocery prices, the effects of which have been felt evenly throughout the electorate. It might also have been expected that discontent over the budget’s failure to increase the base level of the pension would have bitten especially hard in the east, but the swing pattern does not support this.

All of which tends to emphasise the significance of the main competing explanation, namely …

Climate change. In opposition, climate change worked in Labor’s favour, as a symbol of Rudd’s modernity and Howard’s obsolescence. In government, it is becoming increasingly evident that Labor faces a stern political challenge in matching deeds to words against the backdrop of an eerily familiar oil shock.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Latrobe Valley, whose brown coal power stations provide Victoria with 85 per cent of its electricity. The double-digit swing here is a reminder that voters in low-income areas do not take kindly to bearing the sharp end of visionary government reform programs, as Pauline Hanson and One Nation demonstrated in the 1990s.

Interestingly, although the Liberals hit Labor hard on the issue in their television advertising, the winning Nationals focused on petrol, pensions, roads and Chester’s local credentials. It is likely that the Liberals succeeded in driving Latrobe Valley voters away from Labor, but that Chester was as much the beneficiary as Liberal candidate Rohan Fitzgerald.

Night of the living Nationals. Many observers have suggested that the Liberals did well to top 20 per cent in a seat they had not contested since 1987, but closer analysis of the region’s recent electoral history suggests otherwise.

The best available yardstick is upper house results from the 2006 State election, the only recent race in which the three parties competed separately without significant sitting member factors in play. The Nationals and Liberals were very evenly matched in booths corresponding with Gippsland, polling 25.4 per cent and 25.3 per cent respectively. The by-election by contrast saw the Nationals almost double the Liberal vote, 40.4 per cent to 20.7 per cent. Labor polled 33.7 per cent on the state upper house figures, compared with 27.0 per cent at the by-election.

These figures are particularly gratifying for State Nationals leader Peter Ryan, who holds the seat of Gippsland South and until recently employed Darren Chester as his chief-of-staff. So far on Ryan’s watch, the Nationals have held their own at the 2002 state election (while the Liberals lost 22 seats and 8.3 per cent of the primary vote), and defied predictions to retain party status in 2006 after winning two extra seats in the lower house (cancelling out losses caused by electoral reform in the upper house).

Unlike Labor and Liberal leaders at both the State and federal level, Ryan was able to present a local face in Nationals advertising unburdened by association with unpopular actions of current or recently deposed governments. The Liberals, by contrast, had Peter Costello campaigning in the electorate.

… and of the dying Coalition merger. There was talk going into the by-election of the Nationals and Liberals running a joint candidate to push the Victorian parties down the same merger road being followed in Queensland. The result has surely vindicated the state party’s decision to follow its own course.

There are now a number of reasons to suppose that what’s good for the Queensland goose might be less good for the Victorian gander. First, the 12.2 per cent increase in the combined Nationals and Liberal vote gives force to the idea that competing candidates can maximise Coalition support where there is compulsory preferential voting and thus little preference leakage – which is crucially the case at Victorian state level, but not in Queensland.

Secondly, the near equal strength of the two Coalition parties in Queensland has rendered them unmarketable at state elections due to confusion over who their candidate for premier is. As this doesn’t apply in Victoria, the Nationals can serve the broader Coalition cause by absorbing protest votes in rural and regional areas.

Water. Talk of a sharp anti-Labor swing in the Latrobe Valley should sound a familiar note for election watchers. The area was a sting in the tail of Labor’s state election triumph in November 2006, which was marred by the surprise loss of Morwell to the Nationals and Narracan to the Liberals after respective swings of 7.0 per cent and 9.5 per cent (Narracan is mostly in the neighbouring federal seat of McMillan, which significantly failed to swing at last November’s election).

Local discontent over water issues was seen to be responsible: defeated Narracan MP Ian Maxfield complained that "the Liberal and National parties ran an incredibly effective scare campaign by claiming that we were sending sewage to Gippsland and taking fresh water into Melbourne". Sure enough, the Liberals returned to the theme during the by-election campaign with television ads that prominently featured an image of John Brumby.

Labor infighting. Another reason given for Labor’s poor state election performance in Morwell was disunity in the local party, with many prominent members quitting in protest against an MP said by one to have surrounded himself with a "Left clique". There was further trouble in the lead up to the by-election, with 2007 Gippsland candidate Jane Rowe seen to have been elbowed aside in favour of Darren McCubbin. Given that neither appeared a match-winner in their own right, Labor would have done better to have stuck with Rowe, who could at least have built upon her existing work in last year’s election campaign.

The hyper-local. Those of us watching from a safe distance were bemused by the focus on the parish pump issue of Traralgon’s post offices, but the town indeed swung savagely against Labor – even by Latrobe Valley standards. It should also be noted that outgoing Nationals MP Peter McGauran might not have carried much of a personal vote in his final election, with complaints heard he was spending too much time in Melbourne.

This is an edited version of a post from The Poll Bludger.

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