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The Cunningham by-election: the perverse results of

By Graham Young - posted Wednesday, 23 October 2002


In the wake of the Cunningham by-election result, Liberal Party Federal Director Linton Crosby claimed that Labor lost because Simon Crean was not a "conviction politician". There is not much truth in this claim. In fact, the Cunningham by-election result has some unpalatable messages for the professional carpet-baggers who infest and infect parts of all of the major political parties – Liberal, Labor, National, Democrat and Green.

If conviction were all that was needed to win a by-election, then how does Crosby explain the Liberal Party’s 2001 result in the Ryan by-election? That seat had a margin of safety similar to that in Cunningham and was lost with a similar swing against the incumbent party. That result was worse for the Liberal Party than Cunningham is for Labor because the seat went to the Opposition, not a party on the cross benches broadly aligned with the party losing the seat. Was John Howard a different man then, or are electors concerned about factors other than "conviction"?

Other factors were certainly at play in Cunningham. The major reason Labor lost Cunningham had nothing to do with Crean’s performance at all, and everything to do with the Liberal Party’s decision not to run in the by-election. If they had, the Liberals would have probably scored in the vicinity of 30 per cent of the vote, perhaps more on the back of the Bali bombing. This would have reduced the Greens vote and taken them out of a position where they would have received a flow of second preferences. With the Greens vote exhausting, the preferences would have flowed to Labor, handing them a victory, but with a reduced margin. This was smart politics, but the sort of deviously smart politics that has nothing to do with "conviction".

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But the Liberals’ tactic would not have worked if the Labor vote hadn’t been substantially down. The reasons for this are almost identical to the reasons that the Queensland Liberal Party’s vote was down. In both cases there was a history of branch-stacking in the local area with party head-offices trying to force their chosen candidates onto the locals. In the case of Ryan the local candidate actually won the nomination, but he had to take his party organisation to court for the right, and a lot of damage had been done to the Party’s brand by the highly public activities of the wannabe Liberal candidates. And despite being a local, having no connection to rorting, and facing an inferior candidate, he still lost, proving that party perceptions trump candidate qualities most times.

There is one major difference with Ryan. Ryan was a protest against a government, as are most by-elections. Cunningham was a protest against the Opposition. This is unusual in a strong two-party system, but not so unusual in a multi-party system as votes ebb and flow between a number of parties. What Cunningham underlines is that our two-party system is in a state of flux. The Green vote there is another example of the One Nation phenomenon – a minor party which suddenly morphs into a major party on a populist platform and by providing a vehicle for a protest vote against a major party. (Not that I am suggesting moral equivalence between the Greens and One Nation). Party carpet-baggers take note – there are much fewer safe seats than there used to be, and those that are safe will not take kindly to be treated as chattels to be traded between mates and matesses. Early retirements by sitting members are also out. Handing a seat over at a general election is turning into a greater certainty than handing it over at a by-election.

And in the same way that One Nation spelled trouble for the Coalition, the Greens spell trouble for Labor. The Greens are a "conviction" party, in the way that a party that doesn’t want to be the government and gets most of its representation in proportionally elected upper houses, can afford to be a "conviction" party. They don’t have to appeal to 50-per-cent-plus-one of the population, so they can target a generally unpopular message at the significant minority that provide their actual votes.

Not long after the Ryan by-election, Howard won the Aston one. He didn’t do this by "conviction" either. Partly it was a result of back-tracking on those of his policies that were electorally unpopular so as to buy off the disaffected who were moving to Labor. (It was also the result of getting a lot of other things right, like the preselection process). This is not an avenue open to Crean. Trying to buy off the disaffected voters represented by the Greens will get him into more trouble than now as it will push him away from the centre.

Surveys continue to show, including this week’s Newspoll, that the issues that people rate the highest are not those of national security or the environment – the agendas respectively of Liberal and Green. Rather they are health and education. Crean needs to address those if he wants to do well at the next election. Moving in the Greens direction would take him off message.

Politics is often about perception rather than reality, which is where the Greens really cause problems for Labor. Cunningham is likely to return to Labor at the next election, assuming the Liberal Party fields a candidate, just as Ryan did to the Liberals. But in the meantime the Greens will have a House of Representatives seat and have created the perception that they might win more in a general election.

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In our focus group research last Federal Election, we found that voters were more willing to vote for an independent or minor party in circumstances where they thought they had a real chance of winning. Cunningham provides a "proof" that the Greens have a real chance of winning seats. For reasons connected with the smaller electorate size, it is easier for niche parties to win state seats. There was always a real possibility that the Greens could win some seats in the coming New South Wales and Victorian elections, and this has been enhanced by the "proof" provided by the Cunningham result that they are winners.

And if they win state seats this will be further "proof" that they can win more federal seats, and even potentially hold the balance of power. As a result it is possible that Crean will go into the next election not only against a background of continuing terrorist attacks, which will probably help the government, but with the charge that the only way he can win is with the support of the Greens. Or worse, that he will need them to govern in a minority government.

In this context, Crean can’t have been happy to hear Bob Brown crowing that the by-election result was proof that Australians didn’t want to send young men to fight in Iraq. If innocent Australians continue to be killed by terrorists anti-war talk is not going to be popular with middle Australia, let alone the One Nation, blue collar conservatives who hold Howard in power. But that’s the sort of problem you have to face when you have a genuine commitment politician on one of your flanks. He also won’t be happy with talk of an early election in Victoria, a state which could be the most Greens-friendly, because he needs time to work out how to outflank them.

So the lessons of Cunningham are that political parties need to be open and broadly based, centred on the local electorate; and that politics needs to be played with guile. Somehow Crean has to work out how to marginalise the Green vote in the two years before the next federal election. I don’t like his chances. There is a market for their policies, and while it is not sufficiently large to win an election in its own right, it is large enough to end up denying Crean a win. Paradoxically, John Howard will be hoping for more Greens Members of Parliament.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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