Super Saturday: The 'Insiders' by-election scramble

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Prime Minister Turnbull poses for selfies with Liberal candidate for Mayo, Georgina Downer, prior to her defeat (Screenshot via YouTube)

The message from Saturday's elections is not a glowing endorsement of one party over another, but of voter disenchantment and fury, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

LET US START with the basics: Australian governments do not win by-elections.

A century has passed and those in power tend to face a battering from the electorate in a manner that they would not necessarily face in a general election. By-elections furnish voters with moments of bloodletting — a means to punish governments who have deviated from their message.

"Super Saturday", one of those absurdly deceptive titles given to a fairly mundane political process, involved five by-elections straddling the Australian electorate. It was a reminder of folly and silliness — the result of a Parliamentary crisis involving the dual national limitations of Section 44 of the Constitution. At one point, it looked like half of Parliament would be vacated by ineligibility.

The Turnbull Government had been optimistic in nabbing a seat or two. In this pigs-might-fly scenario came a hope that they might mortally wound the political leadership of Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. This involved fanning the flames of a fictional leadership contest within the ALP, between Shorten and the Member for Grayndler, Anthony Albanese.

It was not to be. Labor retained four seats of the five. The Coalition failed to nab a single one. Shorten, whose weakness has always been a certain absence of authenticity, has managed to quash any suggestion of a challenge.

The post-election laundry list was drawn up on ABC’s Insiders by Katharine Murphy of The Guardian, who opined that the Coalition had blundered with poor choices for candidates in Queensland; the ALP had a superior ground campaign strategy and was better resourced; when One Nation does well, the Liberals do poorly, and so that story goes.

But the journalist talk-fest that tends to be Insiders (the title, in itself, suggests tepid establishment talk rather than trenchant critique) fell short of a full admission that the Australian press corps had botched its remit. This was, by Murphy’s own admission, theatrical journalism, analysis of stage props rather than substantive performance. The ground had somehow gotten away.

Super Saturday was a set of by-elections on two sides of the continent. In the Western Australian seats of Fremantle and Perth, calm and a general lack of excitement prevailed. The Coalition did not even bother to run candidates. All the spunk, drive and unpredictability, it seemed, was reserved for Longman (just north of Brisbane), Mayo in Adelaide’s outer and Tasmania’s Braddon.

Longman was one seat that had the punditry in states of speculative bliss. Queensland will, as it so often has proven in the past, determine the next Federal election. A good Government showing would have certainly staved off suggestions that the LNP in that State was declining in influence. Their choice of candidate – the bulky, clumsy Trevor Ruthenberg – proved disastrous. 

Ruthenberg’s clay-footed campaigning was charmless and unimaginative; and when it was imaginative, voters sensed deception. This was more than helped by Ruthenberg's claim that he had received the Australian Service Medal. (It had, as a matter of fact, been the Australian Defence Medal.) “I’m not a military impostor,” he retorted in wounded defence. “I did serve in the military.”  A primary vote of a mere 28 per cent was his reward.

In Braddon, the coarsely endearing, environmentally concerned fisherman, Craig Garland, was the difference, with his preferences moving to Labor’s Justine Keay with decisive effect. His 11 per cent suggested a hashed reading by the Liberal operatives on how best to capitalise on Garland’s past. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz’s efforts to drag out Garland’s 24-year-old assault conviction sank like a lead balloon.

Georgina Downer, a hereditary politician who, it appears, assumes that familial ties are a good substitute for political talent, presumed that the seat of Mayo was hers for the taking. 

In the aftermath of her defeat, her father Alexander Downer spoke out at the attacks on their family, claiming that Rebekah Sharkie’s supporters had

“ ... brought such horrible hate to our district.”

The emotional tremor of electoral proprietorship was showing — Mayo was, after all, their district. “Our family have been nation builders,” he claimed, with misplaced pride. “Nation building is in our blood.” 

The voters thought otherwise — unmoved by the Downer rhetoric that the ultimate winner, Sharkie, was an outsider lacking the necessary blood ties to establishment politics. Undeterred, daughter Downer is determined to claim the seat that was her father’s in the next election. Some Liberal Party operators smelling a climatic change in Australian politics would do well to think otherwise.

The underlying note of these elections is not necessarily a glowing endorsement of one major party over another. It is one of disgust, disenchantment and fury. The Australian political class, ever estranged, has only been alienated further from the voter base.   

Labor was never in the scrape it was portrayed to be in, but the fall in the primary vote for the major parties is the telling factor that can only be heartening for smaller parties and independents keen to make those necessary inroads into the hollow state of Australian democracy. For Mayo to remain so defiant in re-electing Sharkie is a sign that independents with smaller resources can persuade, even in the most reserved of electorates. In Braddon, Garland, on a shoestring budget, came from splendid obscurity to threaten. 

Democracy is not all a mug's game run by establishment parties. The Government has been given a warning of some substance, but such is the nature of rule: those in power, ideologically captive, will continue to their inevitable demise. 

Even now, senior Coalition frontbencher and Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, is adamant: the Turnbull Government will forge ahead to convince the Senate to accept company tax cuts. 

“We will attempt to pass these company tax cuts in the Spring Session and we’ll work with the Senate crossbench to make it happen.” 

Shorten had, at least, one viable message that lodged itself during the campaign: we need better hospitals, not bigger banks.

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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