The massive voter desertion of the Liberal Party in the previously safe seat of Wagga Wagga will take some explaining, writes Canberra correspondent John Passant.
I HAVE TWO WORDS to say to the Liberal Party: Wagga Wagga!
The loss of the extremely safe NSW State seat of Wagga Wagga is a disaster for the Liberals, both Federally and at a State level.
Of course, Wagga Wagga is a NSW State electorate. And yes, the by-election was held as a result of the resignation of the then Liberal member, Daryl Maguire, over corruption allegations. Let’s not forget the in-fighting between the Nationals and Liberals at the State level over running for the seat, either.
And, absolutely, there was the impact of what new Prime Minister calls the "Muppet Show" in Canberra. In a by-election, people feel more comfortable about sending a message to the government, without the usual risk of the government falling. On top of all that, Wagga Wagga's Liberal candidate may not have been the best one to win back lots of disaffected voters.
However, the first preference swing against the Liberals was around 29% at the time of writing. With a primary vote hovering around 25%, more people dumped the party than stayed with it. This massive desertion will take some explaining.
Tellingly, a poll carried out in the week the leadership debacle was happening in Canberra showed a huge loss in support for the Liberals in Wagga Wagga. The old cliché that disunity is death may apply, even if this was a NSW State by-election rather than a Federal one.
As argued before, there is a wider process going on with the rejection of neoliberal politics. The leadership bloodbath may have been the spark that saw people decide to move away from the Liberals, as Brand Liberal is now seen as toxic.
That spells problems for the Liberals at the next federal election. PM Scott Morrison can pretend all he likes he is the great healer, but a few developments since he won the Liberal leadership lottery suggest he is not.
First, he capitulated to the climate change deniers by dumping the NEG legislation and target. The moderates will be unimpressed. Second, it looks as if some of the women in the boys’ club that is the Liberal Party are going to start telling a few home truths about the culture of bullying that exists in the Liberal Party and in Parliament. Let’s hope that Lucy Gichuhi goes ahead with her threat and names in Parliament the thugs who bullied her in the leadership death rattle. If she doesn’t, we can only assume she has been bullied into silence.
And then there is Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, the architect of the regicide. He remains, as a consequence of his own groupthink blindness and tactical genius, a mere lord and not a king. On top of that, he has a few problems of his own.
There are still very serious doubts about his eligibility to sit in Parliament. The media battle between him and the sacked Australian Border Force head, Roman Quaedvlieg, suggests Dutton may have misled the Parliament. Adam Bandt’s no-confidence motion in Dutton as a consequence promises to liven things up when Parliament resumes today.
The au pair fiasco shows Dutton is a man who seems to reserve his compassion only for people with connections to the Liberal Party. However, when it comes to the sick on Nauru or Manus Island, or the 107 children still imprisoned on Nauru, with many Googling for ways to kill themselves, Dutton shows nothing but his cold dead heart.
But these specifics do not explain the long-term drift away from the two major electoral blocs — the Liberals and Nationals on the one hand and the Labor Party on the other. Not only was there an almost 30% swing against the Liberals; there was a greater than 4% swing against Labor. In 2015, the same Labor candidate won 28.1% of the first preference vote. On Saturday, that figure was 23.76% (at the time of writing.)
The results of the 2016 Federal Election showed a growing trend of people looking beyond the two major parties of government, with about 25% in the House voting for groups other than the Nationals and Liberals, or Labor. In the Senate, the figure was higher. In the Wagga Wagga State by-election, that figure was around 50%, with 25% voting for Independent, Joe McGirr, and 25% for other groups besides Liberal and Labor. It may be that the Wagga Wagga by-election highlights the growing trend away from the traditional major parties as a rejection, however inchoate, of neoliberalism.
McGirr had support from many Nationals, denied as they were the chance to vote for one of theirs by the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian. However, he has said that if he wins he will sit on the crossbench and not join the Nationals. McGirr is also an odd fit for the Nationals given his views on climate change. He understands the threat climate change poses – among other things – to the health of regional and rural Australia.
There has to be a State election in New South Wales on 23 March 2019. If, as appears a possibility according to Antony Green based on what happened in Wagga Wagga, the Berejiklian Government goes into minority government or even loses, the result will be a disaster for a Morrison Government heading into a what is widely predicted Federal May election.
The more immediate electoral disaster for the Liberals will be Malcolm Turnbull’s old seat of Wentworth. The by-election is likely to be on 6 October. Turnbull built up a personal following in the seat so that he held it by 17.7% on a two-party preferred basis at the 2016 Election or, an estimated 18.9% after a redistribution moved some less Malcolm-friendly areas out. After Turnbull was dumped, Reachtel/Australia Institute polling has it at 50/50 between Labor and the Liberals.
However, if someone like Kerryn Phelps does decide to run as an Independent, the picture may become murkier. Her initial results in the Reachtel/Australia Institute poll suggest that with 11% approval she would need to improve markedly on that to challenge the majors, but could still influence the outcome.
All of this political uncertainty means the Morrison Government will be searching for targets to unify itself and its supporters around. The rhetoric about refugees and asylum seekers is likely to increase. The racism of identifying so-called gangs in Melbourne and elsewhere will increase. Indigenous Australians will be under attack for being... Indigenous people. They will conflate even more Islam and terrorism.
On top of that, as well as cleaning the pension age barnacle off the Liberal Titanic, we saw last week Morrison is planning to ramp up the attacks on the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union for the "crime" of defending jobs, increasing wages and trying to ensure safety on building sites. Meanwhile, the crooks running the banks still walk our streets.
Far from loving all Australians, Morrison and crew will ramp up the hate for specific groups to try and save their electoral furniture. Let's make Wagga Wagga our response socially, industrially and politically.
You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassant. Signed copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.
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