Whither Werriwa

The Poll Bludger does not make it his business to commentate on the political state of play outside of election season, so here at least the "whither Labor?" stuff will remain on ice until 2007. As far as this corner of cyberspace is concerned, the big story to emerge from today’s retirement announcement by Mark Latham is that a by-election looms for his south-western Sydney seat of Werriwa. Whoever ends up winning will become the fourth successive member for Werriwa to take their seat after a by-election, a tradition going back to 1952 when young Sydney barrister Edward Gough Whitlam added 12.4 per cent to Labor’s margin after the death of member Hubert Lazzarini. Werriwa remained Whitlam’s home until he quit politics after leading Labor to a second successive electoral disaster in 1977. John Kerin, who held the seat of Macarthur for Labor at the 1972 and 1974 elections before being swept away in 1975, won a by-election on 23 September 1978 with a swing of 12.1 per cent, similar to that achieved by Whitlam 26 years earlier. Kerin would go on to serve successfully as Primary Industry Minister in the Hawke Government and unsuccessfully as Treasurer in the period when Paul Keating sat on the back-bench after his failed first challenge in 1991. For some reason he saw fit to re-contest the seat at the 1993 federal election but moved to the back-bench immediately afterwards and bowed out from politics before the year was through. Then came the turn of Mark Latham, who easily survived a 6.3 per cent swing to the Liberals at a by-election held on 29 January 1994.

The Constitution and the Electoral Act are silent on the timing of by-elections, such that the government could theoretically not hold one at all if that were of any advantage to them. Since this is never the case, there seems no reason to doubt that what the Australian Electoral Commission describes as the "guiding principle" regarding such matters will be observed, namely "to hold the election as early as possible so that the electors are not left without representation any longer than is necessary". Since Latham has yet to hand his resignation to the Speaker, and in view of the wide discretion allowed to the government in setting the date, it is still hard to say when that might be exactly.

While a great deal has been written on the subject of who might replace Latham as Labor leader, the Poll Bludger has heard nothing about who might be in contention to replace him as member for Werriwa, but does not doubt that intensive manoeuvering is already under way. Presumably the Carr-for-Canberra idea is dead and buried, as the possibility of him filling the vacancy is nowhere being canvassed. Whoever gets Labor’s nomination, the precedent of Cunningham in 2002 suggests there is no certainty they will carry the seat. Thus will the new Labor leader arrive in the job facing a potentially dangerous early test of electoral strength, although it is likely their honeymoon effect will prevent a replay of Cunningham where Labor lost a safe seat to the Greens a year after the struggling Simon Crean took over.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.