The view from Billinudgel

Labor has the most to lose in the Batman by-election
Ged Kearney might be the right candidate in the wrong battle


Holy by-election, Batman. This could be serious!

Well, that depends on where you sit. In the House of Representatives, it actually won’t make any difference whether Labor’s Ged Kearney or the Greens’ Alex Bhathal fills the vacancy – given the voting record of Greens incumbent Adam Bandt, Malcolm Turnbull has no hope of securing an extra crossbencher on anything that matters.

But if Bhathal gets over the line, it will be seen as a big victory for her party and a huge fillip to its chances in similarly vulnerable Labor-held marginals. And Labor and Bill Shorten, of course, have the most to lose: a once-safe Labor seat surrendered to the insurgent rival would not only be a dismal result in itself but would also have ominous portent for the next general election.

A Bhathal victory would have the Greens rejoicing, but Turnbull would find it hard to join the celebration over Shorten’s discomfiture – the PM could hardly gloat when his own mob did not even put up a candidate and in fact saw the constituency move even further to the left.

It is all very well to inveigh against Kearney, who is far more authentically and convincingly progressive than the multifaceted Shorten. However, the Liberal orthodoxy has always been that while Labor is to be fought and resisted, the Greens are the pits – dangerous extremists who should have no place in the parliament unless their votes can be suborned, in which case they could be regarded as what Lenin once called useful idiots.

It was for this reason that Liberal preferences saved Labor’s now resigned David Feeney in the 2016 election; he was behind Bhathal on first preferences, but won narrowly after the final distribution. However, Kearney will not have that lifeline: the Libs have said they are out of the ring to husband their resources, but it may also be a tactical move to embarrass and humiliate Shorten.

If that is the case, it must be said that Shorten has fallen straight into the snare. The ALP has presumably picked Kearney not just for her unquestioned talents and visibility but also to counter the Green onslaught from the left. As Turnbull keeps reminding us, many of her policies coincide with those of her chief rival.

This may persuade some of Bhathal’s followers to switch to a candidate with a major party, one that could actually secure government, but it begs the question: what happens to the 20 per cent who voted Liberal in 2016? Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives’ candidate Kevin Bailey will carry the flag for the right, but he is unlikely to get anywhere near 20 per cent.

While conservatives may have been prepared to preference Feeney – a stalwart of the Victorian Right – they would have trouble moving over to the more left-leaning Kearney. There are likely to be a lot of informal votes, and others may not bother to turn up at all. Given that Bhathal gained more than 36 per cent in first preferences in 2016, which represented a swing of 10 per cent towards her, momentum will be on her side.

Although Kearney has rightly been billed as an ALP star candidate, in this fight she may well be the wrong choice. And that misjudgement may be the game changer that stalls Shorten’s seemingly irresistible push, and gives Turnbull the relief he so desperately needs.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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