Bennelong may prove a damp squib, but 2018 will fire things up again
There’s been a lot of speculation in recent days that the frenzy of efforts in Bennelong indicates that the contest remains incredibly tight.
I’ve got no argument with that, partly because it’s pretty clear that it is incredibly tight. Newspoll this week had the race at 50–50. A new ReachTEL poll today had it at 53–47 to the government, which at this point is fair reason for nerves from either side. Both parties appear to be briefing journalists that although the Liberal Party is ahead its lead remains narrow.
But there’s another reason for the frenzy, which is that neither side is precisely sure what a win would actually look like.
It was just over a month ago that John Alexander resigned, and at that point some party polling [$] had the government facing a 3% swing against it, holding the seat 56–44.
Then Labor did its big reveal, announcing that it would force the voters of Bennelong to choose between a former TV star/tennis star and a former TV star/premier. Almost immediately afterwards, Galaxy had the race at 50–50, while ReachTEL had it at 53–47 – exactly where it is today (though Labor has since gained 1.2 in primary votes from the Liberal Party).
The outcome of all this is that the political classes are widely expecting a Liberal victory broadly in line with the ReachTEL polls. And in the odd way of elections, this has therefore become a bit of an anchor. If the result comes in within cooee of 53–47, it probably won’t be seen as much of a verdict on anything.
But because both leaders have had torrid times of late, and because the polling has jumped around so much, that’s not a certainty. Neither Malcolm Turnbull nor Bill Shorten can guarantee that a particular result won’t be turned against them by MPs dissatisfied with their leadership styles. Both men are therefore after every vote.
Should the final tally be treated as some indication of national sentiment, though? It’s very hard to say. You can mount a case that a 6% or 7% swing against an incumbent who has been forced to resign should be a big deal. (Received wisdom says this does not usually result in a swing against.) Labor will no doubt point out that Malcolm Turnbull was very keen to crow about the swing his way in New England, so why shouldn’t he have to explain a swing the other way?
In reality, nobody knows what a by-election means. At any time, they are strange beasts. In this one, Kristina Keneally’s charisma and fame changed the contest, and that won’t happen in a national vote. For much of the campaign period Turnbull’s leadership was being questioned. Then, near the end, Shorten endured a bad time. The Dastyari effect remains unclear. Also, is this a vote on what’s best for Bennelong, or a vote on who should be prime minister?
For these reasons, I suspect that anything outside a genuinely dramatic result will be forgotten very quickly. A “genuinely dramatic result” would mean a real scare for the prime minister – think a long night of uncertainty – or a result very similar to the last election, showing that all of Turnbull’s woes have yielded nothing real to Labor.
So, as ever in politics, we’re talking expectations. There is one other set of expectations I want to dwell upon briefly.
Malcolm Turnbull has done a series of interviews this week. This is an annual ritual for most prime ministers. It allows them to pay off debts they have accumulated to journalists (there are always promises of interviews floating in the ether) and to offer their framing of the year just past and the year to come. Turnbull has used this blitz to draw a line under the various difficulties of 2017, and to emphasise that 2018 will be all about the economy, and tax cuts. Specifically, the PM says he has now dealt with the three big “barnacles” of energy policy, citizenship and same-sex marriage.
Prime ministers are always saying things they hope to be true, in the belief that they will convince others to see things their way. So I can see why Turnbull would want to make that case.
But precisely because Turnbull often falls back on this trick (“the court will so hold”), he is even more prone than most to overreaching. Citizenship, because of both major parties’ refusals to sort this out like adults, remains completely unresolved, with open questions over MPs from both sides (though mostly from Labor). As the ABC’s Sabra Lane observed earlier this week, Labor’s opposition to Turnbull’s energy policy appears to be hardening, which could spell trouble for the prime minister’s attempts to get the states on board. Marriage is the most clearly resolved of the three, and even there you have a potentially difficult debate over religious freedoms to come.
I should add that Tony Abbott last night promised to respond to the prime minister’s recent comments that he regretted setting a Newspoll benchmark – but will do so only after the Bennelong by-election.
And so, right now, it seems most likely that the Bennelong by-election will fade away quite quickly. The interminable 2017, however, looks set to drag on, and on, and on.
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