On Monday morning, ABC TV News Breakfast co-presenter Virginia Trioli announced that last Saturday’s Wentworth by-election amounted to “the biggest swing against the government in recorded political history”. That is a current refrain. But it is not true.
It is possible to make this claim only if the Wills by-election of April 11, 1992 did not happen. But it did — even though the successful candidate was later ruled ineligible to sit in the House of Representatives. Certainly, in April 1992 the electors of Wills regarded their votes as real.
The similarities between Wills and Wentworth are remarkable. On December 20, 1991, Paul Keating defeated incumbent prime minister Bob Hawke to take the Labor Party leadership and the prime ministership. Hawke resigned from politics the following February, bringing about a by-election in Wills.
Back then, Wills (in Melbourne’s northern suburbs) had a significant working-class base. The area had been adversely affected by the reduction in protection for a number of traditional industries as well as the recession of the very early 1990s. The by-election attracted 22 candidates, of whom only one was well known: Australian rules football identity and media personality Phil Cleary, who stood as an independent.
Cleary won 33.5 per cent of the primary vote to Labor’s Bill Kardamitsis’s 29.4 per cent. After preferences, the margin was 65.7 to 34.3 per cent — a swing against the Keating government of over 23 per cent. The Wills by-election was, and remains, the biggest swing against an incumbent government in Australian political history.
On Insiders last Sunday, presenter Barrie Cassidy mentioned the Wills result in his interview with Labor frontbencher Tony Burke. However, when the matter was taken up later in the program, panellists Dennis Atkins, Fran Kelly and Peter van Onselen were in agreement that this by-election was not “official” (in Kelly’s terminology). There was also agreement that the result has been struck from the record.
This is not the case. For example, the 45th Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, 2017 lists Wills among all the by-elections held since 1901. It merely records that Cleary was disqualified in late November 1992 and re-elected at the March 1993 general election.
In politics, precedent counts for little. Yet it is worth remembering that throughout much of 1992 it was accepted by many commentators that the Keating government was doomed and that John Hewson would soon lead the Coalition to victory. This was anticipated by some to be “the unlosable election”. But Hewson lost the March 1993 election to Keating, who was not a popular PM.
So, in the year between the Wills by-election and the 1993 general election, Labor recovered. As Cassidy put it to Burke last Sunday: “When Bob Hawke left parliament in 1992 his seat was lost to an independent, Phil Cleary. He (Cleary) got a higher primary vote than Kerryn Phelps got last night. Twelve months after that, Labor went on and won an election. It’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?”
Well, for Labor it should be. And, as Burke made it clear, so it is. When discussing by-elections in the modern era, it is common to refer to the anti-government swings that occurred in Bass in northern Tasmania (June 1975) and Canberra (March 1995).
In the former, the victory of the Liberal Party’s Kevin Newman was followed by the Labor Party’s loss in the December 1975 election. In the latter, the victory of the Liberal Party’s Brendan Smyth was followed by Labor’s loss in the March 1996 election. The anti-government swings were 14 per cent and 16 per cent respectively.
But not all large anti-government swings in by-elections are followed by defeats in general elections. Take, for example, the seat of Dawson in northern Queensland.
Sir Robert Menzies stepped down as Liberal Party prime minister on Australia Day 1966. He was succeeded by Harold Holt.
A by-election was held in Dawson in late February 1966, following the death of the sitting Country Party (as it then was) member. Labor preselected a good candidate — Rex Patterson. In the by-election, Patterson achieved a 12 per cent swing and won. Less than a year later, Holt led the Coalition to a huge victory over Labor in the December 1966 election. Patterson held on in Dawson until Malcolm Fraser’s decisive victory over Labor’s Gough Whitlam in 1975.
The message here is that it’s unwise to read too much into by-elections. The most comparable case studies involve Wills and Wentworth. In both cases, a high-profile independent prevailed over a party that had dumped a prime minister who happened to be a popular local member.
In a sense, Cleary did better than Phelps. He obtained 33.5 per cent in the primary vote to her 29.1 per cent — despite having six more candidates on the ballot paper. Also Cleary got 65.7 per cent of the two-party preferred vote to Phelps’s (likely) 51.1 per cent. He got a swing of over 23 per cent; she got a swing of under 19 per cent.
There is another difference between the two by-elections. Hawke accepted his removal from office by his colleagues with grace and was not a presence — or a visible absence — in the Wills campaign. Not so Malcolm Turnbull. On September 14, he became active in the campaign when he tweeted from New York that Scott Morrison should refer Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to the High Court.
Clearly Turnbull believes that Dutton is not eligible to sit in parliament. Then the former prime minister refused to even issue an unequivocal email/tweet in support of Liberal Party candidate Dave Sharma — despite the fact that he had backed him for preselection. This amounted to a very public rejection.
The outlook for the Coalition has been bleak since Turnbull lost 14 seats at the 2016 election. Clearly Bill Shorten and Labor are clear favourites to win in 2019. However, it is not over. And the Dawson and Wills experiences suggest that not too much should be read into the Liberal Party’s defeat in Wentworth last Saturday.