December 16, 2017, was billed as judgement day for the Turnbull government, but the Bennelong by-election turned out to be nothing of the sort. Just days prior, Newspoll had the Liberals and Labor each on 39%, and 50% respectively after preferences. About four days later, on December 14, YouGov put the Turnbull’s party on 40% and Shorten’s at 38% on primary votes; after preferences that became 51% to 49% respectively. So, at the very best, Liberal John Alexander was expected to scrape back, just. Had that not happened the Turnbull government faced the loss of its slender majority.
The two major parties threw everything, up to and including the proverbial kitchen sink, at the campaign. Shrewdly, the Liberals decided to make their focus a “local” one, centred on the highly regarded Alexander, the former tennis star forced to the polls after falling foul of Section 44. Campaign appearances, billboards and other printed material featured Alexander, your ‘local member’, with not a mention of Malcolm Turnbull and his government.
Meanwhile, the Labor Party decided to import former NSW Labot premier Kristina Keneally as its star candidate. Labor’s heavies in Sussex Street may well have imagined this to be their masterstroke. With daily coverage in the media and highly publicised involvement by Bill Shorten and other luminaries, the Labor campaign appeared to be on a roll. Yet things did not go according to plan. Keneally could not suppress lingering memories of Eddie Obeid, Jo Tripodi and Ian McDonald, all corruptocrat ministers in her state government. In the campaign’s final days the Labor campaign hit the rocks.
Labor supporters were caught handing out material to young children at a local school. Other Labor campaign workers were exposed as seeking to take advantage of dementia sufferers at a nursing home. Such incidents might not have been decisive in isolation, but the sequence of negative news reports in the campaign’s last days and hours were unhelpful, to put it mildly. In addition, the forced resignation of Senator Sleaze, aka Sam Dastyari, occasioned collateral damage to Labor due to the reluctance of Bill Shorten and other senior figures to face reality and take prompt action against a man whose hijinx have been a public disgrace.Indeed, one the morning after the vote, Dastyari’s factional ally and apologist Tony Burke remained ropeable about his little mate’s ouster, telling the ABC that Malcolm Turnbull’s attacks had gone too far and how Liberals can count on more of the same by way of payback.
The Turnbull government had the wit to mercilessly exploit Shorten’s twisting and tangled prevarications on Dastyari’s fate, noting that he was dragging his feet rather than putting the boot in. In Sussex Street, and amongst those beholding to the bosses, factional alliances excuse a multitude of sins — up to and including what was often described during the campaign as Dastyari’s seeming fealty to a foreign power.
Then, stupidly, Keneally thought she could win kudos in the Australian-Chinese community by accusing Turnbull and his government of “China-phobia”, even going so far as to identify a streak of anti-Chinese racism that brought thoughts of Pauline Hanson to the organ that serves as her photo-op/sound-byte mind. She must have thought Bennelong locals of Chinese origin would cheer her every word. The reality was quite otherwise. China should take note.
In contrast to Keneally’s media-courting and media-driven campaign, Alexander ran a lower profile, parish-pump effort — and it worked! As of December 18, two days after the contest, Alexander had obtained 45.11% of first preferences, while Keneally commanded 35.77%. After the distribution of preferences, John Alexander ends up with 54.96% to Keneally’s 45.04%.
On election night, Bill Shorten made much of the 5.43% swing against the Liberal Party, claiming that such a shift nationwide would deliver a swag of some 20-odd seats to Labor. This was true enough, but the pre-Bennelong expectation of a swing in the region of 10% proved a chimera. Labor lost amid an otherworldly excess of optimism.
Meanwhile, Turnbull took credit where none was due. Even more than Alexander he was likely the most relieved man in the country when the results were tallied, his leadership endorsed for the moment by a largely unearned reprieve. Not that he noticed. In the apparent belief that his advocacy of gay marriage favourably impressed what used to be his party’s conservative core constituency, and now with a byelection win under the belt, he was the Turnbull of old at the microphone on election night. Loud, egomaniacally confident and wreathed in that familiar sense of his own magnificence and inevitability, he was an entirely different PM from the surly, aggrieved and defensive creature who snarled at voters on election night 2016 for pushing the Coalition to within one seat of a new home on the opposition benches. On Saturday, mercifully, there was no need for threats to sool the Federal Police on opponents and critics.
In both the opinion polls quoted above, the Australian Conservatives were estimated to have the support of 7%. On election night, they gained just 4.33% as against 3.11% for the Christian Democrats. At the last general election in 2016, the Christian Democrats gained 6.4%. We might therefore assume a large proportion of former Christian Democrats have migrated to the cause of Cory Bernardi and his breakaways. But whereas the actual vote for the Christian Democrats more or less matched the opinion poll figures, that for the Australian Conservatives showed a marked shortfall. We may infer that many who might have indicated support for the Australian Conservatives migrated back to the Liberal Party in the shape of John Alexander.
If there is a lesson for Bernardi, it might well be this: being an avenue of protest for disaffected Liberals isn’t going to be enough. Bernardi quit the Liberals for a reason — many, actually. Unless he is prepared to hold his former party’s feet to the flames, to highlight its abandonment of principle in the embrace of Labor-lite policies, his Conservatives will never replace the Liberals as the Vote-1 option for those who grasp, to cite but one example, that pumping electricity prices to world highs with green subsidies and the ceaseless pleasuring of rent-seekers can only shutter industries, beggar families with obscene overheads and spawn blackouts.
To sum up, if the Bennelong by-election had been a referendum on the Turnbull government, just as Shorten pitched it, the Liberals would have been hard pressed to scrape home — very hard pressed indeed. Labor would have chalked a significant gain and the Australian Conservatives, too, would have seen a surge.
Congratulations to John Alexander, who can celebrate a personal victory. But his return to the House signifies next to nothing beyond the boundaries of his electorate.