#BatmanVotes: Machinations behind the by-election

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Batman by-election candidates Alex Bhathal and Ged Kearney with the Caped Crusader (screen shot via @InsidersABC).

Dr Binoy Kampmark discusses the Batman by-election winners and losers in light of internal party politics, which cloud election campaigns.

IT WAS unsatisfying and unsatisfactory.

For the faithful, less attuned to political nuance, the election result for the Federal seat of Batman would have delighted. But the scenario could have been seen a bit differently. 

It might, for instance, have involved neither of the major contenders. The Greens might have been put out to pasture for their internal squabbles and weakened candidate Alex Bhathal; Labor may have been exiled – at least briefly – for having had a political machine that had kept former Senator David Feeney in harness. Here was a chance for Batman to thrive with a candidate free of neurotic disposition and political confusion. 

Voters in this Victorian seat were tipped to reflect on a range of issues. There were the mining antics in distant Queensland. There was the cost of living. A certain luxury, even pomposity, attended the campaigns. Australia’s destiny, we were told, was in the balance. Not even the conservatives were willing to run a horse in this race. This was chic, progressive indulgence.

In the end, the spoils went to a candidate considered by most to be solid and distinctly not Feeney. For one thing, she comes from the left faction of her party, a point that was bound to appeal to arguably the most leaf-leaning seat in the country. Ged Kearney did not just win but scooped a 3.6 per cent swing away from the Greens. Labor had bucked the electoral inner-city trend and survived.

It was a campaign bungled by the Greens. The party was also due for a fresh candidate — Bhathal had, after all, started to wear thin on her sixth campaign, having become something of a stubborn barnacle determined to have her day in Canberra. For some voters, this may have been seen as determination. For others, it could have been viewed as the continuation of folly without experience. 

Internal politics did not play out well for her. The scourge of bullying made an appearance. In politics these days, the mere accusation of harassment or bullying is bound to sink a campaign or sully a candidate. 

In January, 20 Greens party members lodged a weighty 101-page complaint with party officials citing intimidation, bullying and branch stacking. 

Bhathal, in denying the allegations, insisted that the

“ ... people of my community have known me for 30 years, they’ve known me as a mum at the local school, as a committed volunteer, as a social worker.

The leader of the Greens, Senator Richard Di Natale, whose presence was never going to ignite, saw conspiracy and speculation. Labor’s victory, he surmised, was sealed by a deal with conservative parties. Never mind how people voted in Batman. Never mind how democracy works — the good Senator having argued earlier the same day that the by-election in Batman was an epitome of democracy. According to Di Natale, Labor had tricked, plotted and twisted itself to victory.

It took some hours of sobriety for Di Natale to reflect that some of the problems might well have been party related, though he did his level best to rubbish those who had dared leak to disrupt the cause: 

“It is absolutely clear that we have to get our own house in order if we’re going to win back traditional Green voters who were turned off by the leaking and sabotage from a few individuals with a destructive agenda.”

 

Rather than considering the troubling nature of the leaks, Di Natale suggested a hunt for the perpetrators — effectively shedding any pretext that whistleblowers might be protected. 

“We need to find out who they are, and I think the party’s going to look at that and there will be an investigation.”

Those found “deliberately leaking to the media in an effort to undermine — not just the candidate but obviously the Federal team” would be duly expelled.

Such vengeful huffing caught the eye of Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching who observed with resigned inevitability: 

“Every party has internal drama but you can’t solve a bullying saga with more bullying.”

Labor was undeniably fortunate. Bill Shorten had not made things easy for Kearney, having fashioned various bullets for himself. He has been unclear on the Labor Party’s stance on the Adani coal mine in Queensland. He had announced a policy to abolish cash dividend imputation credits. Kearney was left having to tell voters at a town hall meeting (on Wednesday, 14 March) that this was “good policy”, though the ALP would – she reassured several troubled retirees – assess its effects.

What mattered here was probably less the Greens than the fact that the Labor candidate was not Feeney. As a sitting member, he duly suffered disqualification for being a dual citizen. To compound his case, he had shown himself incapable of finding proof that he had, in fact, renounced his British citizenship.

Feeney made idiocy a standard station. In addition to not getting his citizenship house in order, he put his own party in a pickle by not declaring a $2.3 million house during the 2016 Election campaign. Furthermore, he made party members who backed him seem startlingly incompetent by proxy. Little wonder that the Greens smelled blood, gaining a 9.6 per cent swing and falling a mere 2,000 votes short.

Politics, in contrast to such fabulist notions as those held by André Malraux, is not about justice. It is often about survival and calculation, a vicious cutting scrap that muddies rather than cleans. Labor should have lost given the party’s previous record with Feeney but freshness in the battling form of Kearney saved their day.

The distinction between valuable candidate and error-ridden political party is often lost in Australian politics — a battle all too often reduced to the mindless drudgery of major parties. Give the Australian electorate a chance — informed and valued, it will send many a candidate in Canberra packing.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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