Altona message is clear: Brumby Government is on the slide
Governments don’t like by-elections. They tend to occur at most inconvenient times, and they nearly always result in an anti-government swing.
Sometimes they can even result in a loss of a hitherto safe seat either to the main opposition party.
In more recent times, independents and Greens have been the beneficiaries of these contests especially when the other major party makes the strategic decision not to field a candidate.
Because of the monotony with which anti-government swings occur, premiers and prime ministers are quick to declare that by-elections are an imperfect guide to what will happen at the next general election.
It may well be that the sorts of swings that can occur in by-elections are rarely recreated in a general election.
The usefulness of by-elections as a guide to how the electorate is feeling about their government should not be overlooked, however.
Some by-elections stick in the memory because they were indeed early indicators of a government in trouble, and that a government-changing general election was imminent.
Two Victorian by-elections that occurred in 1997 are a case in point.
In February that year, a former Labor candidate, Susan Davies, ran as an independent in the previously safe Liberal seat of Gippsland West. Although she polled slightly less primary vote than she did at the general election held the previous year, she was the next preferred candidate of the other minor party and independent candidates.
More ominously for the Liberal party, their candidate’s primary vote fell by 16 percent.
Ms Davies went on to win the seat with a two-party vote of 50.3 percent – a two party swing against the Kennett government of 13 percent.
Then, in December, the Liberals lost the seat of Mitcham. This time the Liberal candidate’s primary vote fell by 23 percent, while the two party swing was 15.6 percent.
The premier at that time, Jeff Kennett, tried to dismiss these outcomes as typical of the volatility to be expected from by-elections.
The thing was, these results were actually indicators of a serious electoral problems for Mr Kennett whose government actually enjoyed a massive majority thanks to the land-slide the Liberal and National coalition had won in the 1996 election.
By 1999, that majority crumbled as voters deserted the Liberals in the eastern suburbs and the regional cities. The result was the election of the Bracks Labor government.
Does the Altona by-election result compare with Gippsland West or Mitcham? At one level, perhaps not. In the case of Gippsland West and Mitcham, the government candidate was actually defeated.
The only bit of good news for John Brumby in the Altona contest was that the Labor candidate, Jill Hennessy, did at least win the seat (even if she had to go to preferences to do so).
The swings are different, too, although in at least one instance, not by much.
The anti-government swings in 1997 were 13 and 15.6 percent respectively. At 12.3 percent, the anti-government swing in Altona was less, but only just.
There is another aspect of this result that ought to be ringing alarm bells in the government.
This is the third western suburban by-election during Mr Brumby’s premiership where an anti-Labor swing in excess of 10 percent has occurred in the party’s heartland. One of those was the 16.6 percent swing suffered in Kororoit in 2008.
That outcome was between Labor and the independent Les Twentyman. Had Twentyman come third in the count, his preferences would have flowed to Labor and the swing against the Liberals would have probably been closer to 3 percent.
There is no such ambiguity in the Altona outcome. The big swing – and 12 percent is a big swing – has been won by the Liberal party and not via any interlocutor such as an independent or the Greens.
Altona is an excellent result for the Liberal party and its beleaguered leader Ted Baillieu, whose performance during the campaign was far from flawless.
Mr Baillieu can now be assured of being leader at the next election, and his troops ought to be gaining confidence in their cause.
Meanwhile, the Brumby government is on the slide. It seems to have lost its ability to manage the policy debate. Recent opinion polls have indicated a fall in voter support, and now this has been confirmed by the Altona by-election. Suddenly the November 27 election looks that it might be a close affair after all.
Dr Nick Economou is a senior politics lecturer and head of Politics at Monash University. He is an authority on Australian politics.
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