Belated Werriwa overview

So about this by-election then. Tomorrow the voters of Werriwa return to the polls due to the retirement of former Labor member Mark Latham, whose life story does not need repeating here. Nor does the make-up of the electorate, which has changed little since the federal election guide entry was composed last year.

When Latham pulled the plug on January 18, two questions emerged – who would be the Labor candidate, and whether the Liberals would bother. Local lawyer and Campbelltown mayor Brenton Banfield was reckoned to be the best-credentialled Labor contender, and many were unimpressed by the manner in which he was bumped aside. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 12, Alan Ramsey quoted (at length, naturally) from a detailed testimony by Banfield ally John Dowling that was mailed to branch members. Dowling complained that factional heavies assured Banfield he would not have to face a preselection vote, but withdrew their support when focus groups suggested he could fall victim to negative campaigning over his legal work for sex offenders. Banfield was persuaded to step aside and the nomination instead went to Australian Workers Union official Chris Hayes. Most saw this as a less-than-inspiring outcome.

In early February, newspaper reports quoted “Labor insiders” anticipating a 10 per cent swing to the Liberals, enough to deliver them the seat. This was obviously nonsense, as indicated by the Liberals’ ultimate failure to field a candidate. Laurie Oakes offers a far more plausible story in this week’s Bulletin:

Polling by the major parties after Latham quit showed quite clearly that the Liberals would be wasting their time if they entered the by-election contest. There was no resentment over Latham’s departure. Werriwa voters accepted that the former leader was entitled to pull out because of his health problems. In summary, the view was: ‘The poor bugger copped a walloping. His health suffered. He wants to spend time with his family. That’s fair enough’. And there was an added consideration: ‘Anyway, Howard’s got a big enough majority. He doesn’t need to win this one’.

With no threat from the Liberals, Labor’s remaining fear is of a repeat of the 1991 by-election in Wills or the 2002 by-election in Cunningham, respectively lost to independent Phil Cleary after the retirement of Bob Hawke and the Greens’ Michael Organ after the retirement of Steve Martin. Many in the party expressed concern that the unpopularity of the state government and the large field of 16 candidates might provoke unpredictable behaviour from voters. Significant local issues include the recent Macquarie Fields riots which took place in the electorate, and the Carr government’s hugely unpopular closure of the local Orange Grove shopping centre which benefited Labor patrons Westfield but left a number of locals without jobs.

One major difference with Cunningham is that this is not historically strong territory for the Greens, who have nominated 19-year-old Ben Raue. By general acclaim the candidate best placed to pull off an upset is Deborah Locke of the unregistered People Power party, a former fraud squad detective whose whistle-blowing was credited with bringing about the Wood Royal Commission into police corruption. Locke’s candidacy has generated valuable publicity including a Sunday Telegraph back cover and a 2GB interview. Stephen Mayne of Crikey reports that “the three independents who will be handing out HTVs across the electorate, former Labor branchstacker Sammy Bargshoon, Ned Mannoun and James Young, have all decided to give their preferences to Locke ahead of the other key contenders”, since they mutually agree she has the best chance of winning.

The best-known of the remaining candidates are Joe Bryant, a former Blacktown deputy mayor, and James Young, a Liberal Party member and former staffer to Jackie Kelly. Bryant took great pride in being described as a “Liberal trojan horse” by former Labor premier Barrie Unsworth when he ran for election two decades ago, and the Blacktown City Sun reported on March 8 that he “became a well-known local figure for his fight with the Commonwealth Bank”. Young is considered likely to absorb much of the homeless Liberal vote, and like Bryant he will deliver a solid flow of preferences to any non-Labor contender who emerges from the pack. Also worth noting is Sam Bargshoon, who turned against Labor after being burned by the Orange Grove closure and scored 4.9 per cent of the vote when he ran against Latham last year.

For all that, a Labor win would have to be considered the likely outcome. Writing in the Canberra Times on March 1, Malcolm Mackerras noted the following differences between the current circumstances and those of the Cunningham by-election:

First, the sudden and wholly unexpected nature of (Latham’s resignation) means there is not likely to be any high-profile independent candidate waiting in the wings. Here there is a major difference with Cunningham, where speculation that Labor MP Stephen Martin would resign was rife for six months before he actually did resign. Second, there are interesting sociological differences between Cunningham and Werriwa. These suggest that Cunningham is the sort of Labor seat where the Greens might fluke a one-off win. By contrast, Werriwa is not in that category of safe Labor seat … (the parliamentary library’s “relative socio-economic disadvantage” index) for Werriwa is 950 (in 17th place out of 150) compared with 1014 for Cunningham (at 104) … The third reason I expect Labor to win Werriwa lies in the difference of party leader. Simon Crean was leader at the time of Cunningham, Kim Beazley at the time of Werriwa.

These perceptions have been further strengthened by recent political developments. The rise in interest rates and the government’s decision to send more troops to Iraq, blamed for their recent slump in the opinion polls, have given traction to Labor’s appeal for voters to “send John Howard a message” by voting for Labor directly. Most persuasive of all to the Poll Bludger’s mind is the number-crunching done by Bryan Palmer at Oz Politics which suggests that historically speaking, Labor’s vote is likely to fall little if at all from the 52.6 per cent recorded by Mark Latham at the federal election. My own calculations suggest that Labor picks up roughly 20 per cent of the non-Labor vote as preferences at by-elections which are not contested by the Coalition, although this fell as low as 15.7 per cent at the Cunningham by-election. Even on the latter figure, Labor would need to fall to about 41 per cent if they were to lose the seat. This would entail the loss of 11 per cent from their primary vote at the October election, substantially greater than the 6.2 per cent decline that cost them Cunningham. Accordingly, it is the Poll Bludger’s considered judgement that Labor can rest easy.

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.