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How to misinterpret by-election results

2 Jul 2008
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Massive swings against Labor? Well, not really, writes BRIAN COSTAR.

FEDERAL and state by-elections in Australia are like the coconut shy at the county fair - everyone wins a prize, or can convince themselves that they have.

That said, the responses to last Saturday’s by-elections for the federal seat of Gippsland and the Victorian state seat of Kororoit have been breathlessly extreme.

We are told that the Rudd government is “reeling” from the “backlash” it suffered in Gippsland, where it took a “savage swing of 6.5 per cent.” The reaction to the Kororoit result has gone even further - some accounts would have us believe that the Brumby Labor government is set for certain defeat in 2010.

Let’s get real. On Friday 27 June the National Party held the seat of Gippsland; on Sunday 29 June the National Party still held the seat of Gippsland. On Friday 27 June the Labor Party held the seat of Kororoit; on Sunday 29 June the ALP still held the seat of Kororoit.

The largest factor influencing the final vote in each by-election was the entry of a competitive third candidate who had not contested the previous general election. In Gippsland this was the Liberal Party’s Rohan Fitzgerald; in Kororoit it was a high-profile independent, Les Twentyman.

The result in Gippsland was totally predictable. The Liberal candidate polled 20 per cent, about 16 per cent of which came off the National and Labor vote. Why Labor? Because there are people who won’t vote National but will vote Liberal if given the chance - a chance they haven’t had in Gippsland since 1983. Another 4 per cent came from the voters for two small conservative parties that didn’t run this time.

According to the latest count, the final vote in Gippsland is Nationals 62.3 per cent to Labor 37.67 per cent. This was a good result (+6.4%) for the Nats, and so it should have been. In the current climate the party that has held the seat since 1922 was not going to let it slip away. They had a good local candidate, ran a good campaign and spent money on it. But that swing also depended on the Liberals marshalling preferences for their Coalition partner.

Meanwhile, an observer reading most of the comment on the by-election for the Victorian state seat of Kororoit could be forgiven for thinking that we had abolished preferential voting. Yes, the Labor candidate’s primary vote dropped 14 per cent on the 2006 result, but this was hardly surprising when Les Twentyman offered himself as a left-of-centre alternative to the ALP in one of its ultra safe seats. The obvious source of his vote was among those who had voted Labor in 2006, particularly given that the Liberal vote - a paltry 16 per cent - offered such slim pickings.

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that, in order to calculate a two-party preferred figures during the count, the Victorian Electoral Commission settled on the Labor candidate, Marlene Kairoz, and Les Twentyman as the most likely frontrunners. On that basis, Labor has won the seat with 51.09 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, but that won’t be the final result. The Liberal candidate is just ahead of Twentyman who, like the Greens, is directing his preferences to Labor and looks like having those preferences distributed.

If that happens, and if about 85 per cent of those who voted Green or for Twentyman follow their how-to-vote cards, the final result will be around:

Labor 73.9 per cent
Liberal 26.1 per cent
Swing from 2006 = 1.6 per cent against Labor

The Liberal Party has more to be worried about from this result than Premier Brumby.

• Brian Costar is Professor of Victorian Parliamentary Democracy in the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology.

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Published year only: 
2008
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