Gippsland by-election post-mortem

This entry will shortly be expanded with a considered analysis of the result, the general thrust of which will be that the surprisingly large swing to the Nationals indeed sounds warning bells for the Rudd government, however keen Labor partisans might be to mark it down to local factors. Below is a localised breakdown of the two-party preferred result, grouped into the three municipalities covered by the electorate.

NAT ALP Swing to NAT
# % # % 2008 2007
Latrobe City 12,470 56.4 9,634 43.6 10.3 -2.7
Traralgon 7,025 61.3 4,442 38.7 11.0 -3.4
Morwell 2,073 45.9 2,444 54.1 8.4 -2.7
Churchill 836 44.0 1,063 56.0 8.5 -0.6
Rural 2,536 60.1 1,685 39.9 8.1 -1.7
Wellington Shire 12,554 67.7 5,987 32.3 5.3 -2.6
Sale 3,588 65.0 1,929 35.0 3.6 -3.8
Maffra 1,545 67.6 741 32.4 8.0 -3.7
Rural 7,411 69.1 3,317 30.9 5.4 -1.7
East Gippsland Shire 12,796 66.6 6,429 33.4 4.4 -0.8
Bairnsdale 4,230 66.0 2,175 34.0 2.3 0.6
Lakes Entrance 2,399 69.2 1,068 30.8 9.6 -1.3
Paynesville 1,125 67.6 539 32.4 5.8 -1
Orbost 1,042 69.1 467 30.9 2.3 -2.4
Rural 4,000 64.7 2,180 35.3 3.6 -1.4
TOTAL 71,630 63.2 41,920 36.8 6.6 -1.8

Episode one: Perspective. Labor has suffered a sobering 9.3 per cent slump on the primary vote and a two-party swing comparable to that of the September 1973 Parramatta by-election, which rebuffed the Whitlam government and brought Philip Ruddock to parliament. What’s more, Antony Green notes that Labor entered that campaign burdened by the Whitlam government’s proposed second airport at Galston. The Hawke government faced six by-elections in its truncated first term, picking up a 0.5 per cent swing in Richmond and suffering swings ranging from 1.2 per cent to 5.0 per cent in the other five. There are also state precedents such as Labor’s wins in Burwood and Benalla in the wake of the Kennett government’s defeat which suggest governments should be able to convert honeymoon opinion poll leads into votes at by-elections. As the above table demonstrates, most of the damage to Labor was done in the Latrobe Valley – hypotheses to follow shortly.

Episode two: Nationals versus Liberal. The by-election was the first time the Liberals contested the seat since 1987, so yardsticks for the Coalition parties’ relative performance are hard to come by. The best one available is the state upper house election in 2006, the only recent race involving the three parties competing separately without significant sitting member factors in play. In the equivalent booths, the Nationals and Liberals were evenly matched, with 25.4 per cent and 25.3 per cent respectively. The by-election by contrast has seen the Nationals almost double the Liberal vote, 40.4 per cent to 20.7 per cent. The combined Coalition vote is up a remarkable 12.2 per cent, giving merger opponents in the Victorian Nationals still more to work with. Labor scored 33.7 per cent for the 2006 state upper house, against 27.0 per cent at the by-election.

Episode three: West versus east. The corollary of Labor doing especially badly in the western part of the electorate is that they did less badly in the east, outside of localised outbreaks at Lakes Entrance (Chester’s home town) and Maffra. This is easy to explain: East Gippsland has a high concentration of older voters (21.0 per cent over 65 compared with a national 13.3 per cent), a sure predictor of low electoral volatility. By contrast, Latrobe’s age profile is almost perfectly consistent with the national average. It might nonetheless have been expected that discontent over the failure of the budget to increase the base level of the pension would have generated a backlash here, which may indeed have occurred to some degree.

Episode four: Climate change. In opposition, climate change worked for Labor as a symbol of Rudd’s modernity and Howard’s obsolescence. In government, it is becoming increasingly evident that Labor faces a stern political challenge in matching deeds to words against the backdrop of an eerily familiar oil shock. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Latrobe Valley, whose brown coal power stations provide Victoria with 85 per cent of its electricity. The 10 per cent swing here is a reminder that voters in low-income areas do not take kindly to bearing the sharp end of visionary government reform programs, as the Pauline Hanson phenomenon demonstrated last decade. Interestingly, the Liberals hit Labor hard on the issue in their television advertising, but the Nationals don’t seem to have mentioned it. It is likely the Liberals succeeded in driving Latrobe Valley voters away from Labor with this attack on Darren McCubbin, who had mused that local droughts might have been linked to coal-fired power, but that Darren Chester was as much the beneficiary as Rohan Fitzgerald.

Episode five: State factors. Talk of a sharp anti-Labor swing in the Latrobe Valley should sound a familiar note for election watchers. This is because the area proved the sting in the tail of Labor’s state election night triumph in November 2006, which was marred by the surprise loss of Morwell to the Nationals and Narracan (mostly in the neighbouring federal seat of McMillan, which significantly failed to swing at last November’s election) to the Liberals after respective swings of 7.0 per cent and 9.5 per cent. Local discontent over water issues was seen to be to blame: defeated Narracan MP Ian Maxfield complained that “the Liberal and National parties ran an incredibly effective scare campaign by claiming that we were sending sewage to Gippsland and taking fresh water into Melbourne”. Sure enough, the Liberals returned to the theme during the by-election campaign with television ads that prominently featured an image of John Brumby.

Episode six: Labor versus Labor. Another reason given for Labor’s poor state election performance in Morwell was dissent in the local party, leading many prominent members to quit in protest against an MP said by one to have surrounded himself with a “Left clique”. There was further talk of disunity ahead of the by-election, with 2007 Gippsland candidate Jane Rowe seen to have been elbowed aside in favour of Darren McCubbin. Given that neither appeared a match-winner in their own right, Labor would have done better to have stuck with Rowe who could at least have built upon her existing work in last year’s election campaign.

Episode seven: Night of the living Nationals. The big winners are unquestionably the state Nationals and especially their leader Peter Ryan, who holds the seat of Gippsland South and until recently employed Darren Chester as his chief-of-staff. So far on Ryan’s watch, the Nationals have held their own at the 2002 state election (while the Liberals lost 22 seats and 8.3 per cent of the primary vote), and defied predictions to retain party status in 2006 after winning two extra seats in the lower house (cancelling out losses caused by electoral reform in the upper house). Ryan was the only party leader at state or federal level who was anywhere to be seen in the parties’ television ads (UPDATE: Okay, not quite – there was one Kevin Rudd read-to-camera), where he presented a local face unencumbered by association with unpopular actions of current or recently deposed governments. The Liberals by contrast had Peter Costello campaigning in the electorate, which might not have been such a good idea.

Episode eight: Night of the dying Coalition merger. There was talk going into the by-election of the Nationals and Liberals running a joint candidate to push the Victorian parties down the same merger road being followed in Queensland. The result has surely vindicated the state party’s decision to follow its own course. There are now a number of reasons to suppose that what’s good for the Queensland goose might be less good for the Victorian gander. Firstly, the by-election result gives force to the idea that competing Nationals and Liberal candidates can maximise the total Coalition vote where there is compulsory preferential voting and thus little preference leakage – which is crucially the case at Victorian state level, but not in Queensland. Secondly, the near-parity of strength among the two Coalition parties in Queensland has rendered them unmarketable at state elections due to confusion as to who their candidate for premier is. As this doesn’t apply in Victoria, the Nationals can serve the broader Coalition cause by absorbing protest votes in rural and regional areas.

Episode nine: Local factors. Those of us watching at a safe distance were bemused by the focus on the parish pump issue of Traralgon’s post offices, but that town indeed swung savagely against Labor even by Latrobe Valley standards.

UPDATE: Reading back, I note that apart from one “oil shock” reference, I have spent little time here discussing the decisive issue of petrol prices – mostly because I can only offer statements of the obvious. It should also be noted that Peter McGauran might not have taken much of a personal vote into retirement, with complaints heard he was spending too much time in Melbourne. Meanwhile, Andrew Landeryou hears the Coalition ran an unsustainably expensive campaign, as suggested by the remarkable number of Nationals and Liberal television ads floating around.

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.

229 comments on “Gippsland by-election post-mortem”

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  1. The problem for Nelson next election, if he’s still around, is that he will have to answer some very hard questions like – “Given that Rudd couldn’t stop petrol prices rising how will you do it?” “How will 5c a litre drop help the average person?” “How will you ensure prices of groceries will come down?” Oh really, you can’t?

  2. ‘we don’t assume the economy will continue at its own momentum, it will only continue if we continue to do the right things, keeping the budget in surplus, keeping interest rates low, keeping them at 30-year lows.’

    These are the words Rat Man actually spouted before the 2004 election. They came back to haunt him in 2007.

    Rudd played a similar game – but was smart enough to limit his words to downward pressure.

    I remember when Ratty said “Working Families have never been better off” there was an audible gasp in parliament – that was the day he lost the election.

  3. LTEP’s transcript shows what Rudd was talking about, it was to acknowledge that prices were higher to show that the Howard government was out of touch. The power of this was something the media never understood.

    All of this is really about the media’s relationship with the Rudd government than the electorate’s.

  4. “How will 5c a litre drop help the average person?”

    Well….they’d be paying 5c less per litre than they’re paying now.

  5. That works out at about 3 bucks a tank – very handy. I feel much better about that now. LOL. “And how do you propose to pay for this Nr. Nelson?” What services will I have to go without?”

  6. Back on topic

    The swing against the Labor party on primaries is -8.48% and falling.
    The swing against the National party on primaries is – -8.45% and rising.


  7. #156:

    Well….they’d be paying 5c less per litre than they’re paying now.

    … for about 24 hours.

    If people are prepared to buy petrol at $1.60 and it suddenly goes down one-off by 5c to $1.55, the oil companies will find an excuse to raise the price by 5c faster than you can say “Working Families”. They’ll hide it in among the daily fluctuations in barrel price. Within a day or so petrol will be back up where it was, only this time the oil companies will be pocketing the extra.

    The only ones out of pocket will be taxpayers who will find their country’s treasury about $2 billion short. That shortage is about theonly permanent result of dropping 5c off the excise.

  8. MDMConnell that’s certainly not true. There’d be absolutely nothing to stop the petrol companies from swallowing up that 5c and it’s exactly what would happen. Almost all research in the area shows that cutting excise would have negligible impact on prices. In essence all you’d be doing is losing revenue with nothing to gain.

  9. BB

    I wonder if pensioners realise that a 5c a litre drop in excise equates to them getting an extra $20 a week?

  10. Howard used that argument too LTEP. It’s one of the few things you could believe him on. That’s how it works, look at the early learning centres and how they up their fees when the government tries to help the average family with extra cash for child minding.

  11. A 5c reduction off $1.60, times say 100 litres a week, gives a saving of $8 a week. Not even a sandwich and a milkshake, as they say.

    Plus it leaves a big hole in the federal surplus.

    That Nelson sure is a real deep thinker.

  12. Nelson isn’t being asked the hard questions yet. When he is he’d better have the answers otherwise he’s going to look very foolish.

  13. -8.42% each now. Oh dear it looks like the Nats will have a bigger swing against them than Labor on primaries.

    Do you think I could get a job in the MSM?

    Spins off into the ether…. 😛

  14. [Dario, you appear to be looking for a “hair to split” where there isn’t one. Both Rudd and Howard said remarkably similar things.]


  15. Is there a Newspoll tomorrow?
    Predictably THE AUSTRALIAN was trumpeting Gippsland as some huge blow to Rudd and his government, any excuse will do to prop up Brenda!

  16. The last newspoll was 13-15 June 2008 and they have been putting them out every two weeks – so yes there should be one tomorrow. 🙂

  17. Did anyone see Mark Reilly on 7 Noos? Apparently the budget sell failed, Mark tells us, when it was first announced so Swan has had to remind everyone of the benefits again. Also it is an attempt to lift Labor’s flagging popularity. Mark consistent I guess. If he can make it a negative report for Labor he will.

  18. There’s a says about being careful what you wish for, you might get it.

    Perhaps what Rudd et al need to do is hit people between the eyes with the consequences of them getting what they wish for. Something along the lines of:

    People: We want cheaper petrol

    Government: Sure, well we take 38 cents in excise per litre. You tell us how much of that you wanted knocked off and we’ll tell you how much your (answer according to audience):

    ….. mortgage and credit card interest will go up
    ….. pension/middle class welfare payment will drop
    ….. hospital waiting lists will increase by
    ….. some/all of the above

    People: Sod the environment! We don’t want to pay more for electricity and petrol and we want to keep our gas guzzling 4WDs too

    Government: Okay, but you do realise that:

    … food will go up, assuming you can find any, because as probably the country that will be most affected by global warming we soon won’t be able to grow much ourselves

    ….. you’ll be paying through the nose for insurance because of more storms,

    ….. water will cost you 5/10/20/? times more because most of it will have to come from expensive to run desal plants

    ….. etc, etc, etc,

  19. One factor which doesn’t seem to have been mentioned much as a driver of the swing to the coalition in Gippsland is that at the by-election, people weren’t faced with the choice of voting for or against Work Choices.

  20. 175 Pedant – that’s true. We don’t know how many of those who voted Labor last time (2007) were naturally conservative voters who hated Workchoices and now have no reason to vote Labor. As I said in a post previously, I think the vote Labor received in Gippsland in 2007 showed just how on the nose the Libs were and mainly due to Workchoices.

  21. 175

    True. Not this time they didn’t but the next time they go to the polls they’ll have a chance to ask for workchoices to be resyored by voting condervative. In Gippsland they will bote conservative of course but anyone who thinks this sort of ‘swing’ might take place across the country has rocks in their head.

  22. On Saturday I was talking to a Nats worker (a dairy farmer, and perhaps not the sharpest needle in the pack). He said he thought the 5c reduction in petrol excise was ridiculous, because everyone knew that they’d rise by 20-30c next week or next month. But it was hurting him badly because he had to run his diesel machinery, and travel 60k to go to the shops.
    this sort of thinking is prevalent in the bush, and rightly so! If there is going to be economic pain, then it should be spread equitably through the community. A Labor candidate who promised to voice these concerns in caucus, even in the face of Govt policy, would have done better in the campaign.. That’s the sort of stronger voice rural voters need.
    That said, the truly appalling results for the ALP were in the Latrobe Valley. I think the Keith Hamilton clique should hang their heads in shame! But so should the Government for failing to show workers that changing over to clean energy is not destructive of jobs, but opens up new opportunities. And once again, ALP policy should have a clear priority that the pain from any change should be shared through the community, as should the gain.

    Summarising, IMO, the awful result in Gippsland was due to..

    1. Govt failure to reassure Energy workers 50%
    2. Personal vanity among senior ALP figures 30%
    3. Rural discontent with Petrol pricing 10%
    4. Anti govt by election swing 10%

    If there were to be a by election in McEwen, point 1 would possibly be replaced by the water pipeline but as much less significant, and point 2 would nonexistent

  23. Pedant @ 175 & Gary Bruce @ 178 –

    Perhaps, but it’s pretty clear that the Libs still hanker for Work Choices and they’d bring it back in a flash if elected. It may not have been a risk in the bye election, but it was still an opportunity to reinforce the message that it wasn’t wanted.

    Will Bishop be counselling caution after this result, or encouraging the party room to stick with WC because it’s clearly no longer frightening the punters?

  24. Pedant is quite right that workchoices played no part in the campign. perhaps the ALP negative advertising shouldhave concentrated on this, rther than the much more ancent history of school closures!

  25. Money they no longer have to spend at the next general election. Maybe we can sucker them into another huge spend at Mayo? Guess Call me Brenda is so shitscared of losing a seat and then the leadership he will foolishly, out of desperation, spend lavishly. BTW, heard on the ABC on the way in to work that the 82day(?) campaign was a very long one for a by election.

    Kina mentioned early on that maybe people like shooters, anti GST or whatever felt free to vote Coalition again.

  26. The carry on about it being an awful result, if i was a Labor strategist i would not worrry to much about this. It was a regional seat and a seat that traditionally votes Conservative, no matter what Labor would not have won and would have had a swing against it.
    To digress can someone tell me what hard decisions has the Government made since being elected? First Tannner says it and then Rudd, still trying to work out what hard decisions they have made. To suggest the hard decisions are a cause of the swing is fanciful.

  27. 159 and 160

    That is exactly what would happen to the 5c / litre BS. The same as the 8c / ltr subsidy we are supposed to be priveleged of in Qld.

    Those kind of political, vote me, expedient decisions are “fools gold” and those amounts of 5 & 8 cents really pale into insignificance when you recall the $7,000 first home buyers grants. It did not take the industry long to raise the price of a house by that amount because the Government was throwing it at them. Most of the builders thought they had won Tatts.

  28. Marky,

    The hard decision was to not get into a bidding war on petrol price tax relief. Cost Labor a realistic opportunity to contest Gippsland.

  29. Tanner and Rudd could be suggesting to us what the dopes think that Labor is responsible for higher petrol prices when it is not. Hard decisions are about higher petrol, no higher petrol is about scarcity of the resource and yet the government is hardly telling us and hardly educating us about Climate Change.
    Listening to Tanner tonight yep climate change will affect us all, correct Lindsay but what changes are occurring and what changes will occur if we do nothing.
    Stop saying it will hurt and instead tell us what changes are happening and will happen. Time to educate with ads and articles.

  30. GG, absolute bulldust. Labor would never have won the seat, it had a dud candidate and has local problems regarding personnel and branches.
    Instead Labor has been totally confused over petrol and being able to structure a policy response. I still for one do not know where they stand on the issue.
    Their response has been feeble. Instead of hedging bets how about stating the obvious, the resource is running out- simple. And start thinking of policies to ensure people can drive or can travel to places, gas, electric or hydrogen cars and public transport. Instead it is silly policies like fuel watch.
    No matter Labor would have lost the seat and had a swing against it.

  31. Gary Bruce Says: @ 146,

    {Honest John, who has proven here not to be that honest, seems to be agreeing with his alter ego. Maybe you can debate yourself Honest? }

    With so many persona’s, Gary, he should be able to do a “mass debate” which I surely think he has!

  32. i think the Mayo by election will tell us more of how Rudd is going in the electorate, i dont think labor have any hope of winning there, but it’s a more cosmopolitan seat and while the libs in K.I. and the old diehards in stirling etc will carry it for the libs i think it will show where labor truly stands a bit better, local issues aka the post office and the coal industry won’t be biting and the mind boggles at the landed gentry standing with a ute and working dog moaning about the bundy tax, if labor is careful in their selection process and run a good campaign they could give the libs a bit of a jolt, mind saying that, any electorate that votes in Lord Lunchalot with his smarmy, smug self satisfaction has got to be a bit sus–everytime i think of him i cant help but remember his squealing about how quickly he learnt french after Rudd’s fluency in mandarin was revealed, i think his quote at the end of his tirade said it all.
    what do you think Mayoferal?

  33. The message out of Gippsland is simple, educate the electorate on the changes you wish to introduce and why and if peoples’ jobs are at stake get in their and do something about it before it happens, by offering oppourtunities and never walk away until security in peoples’ lives is assured, actually never walk away at all.

  34. Excellent post from my old sparring partner LTEP at 150. A fair, balanced and truthful comment.

    I agree with you guys about the 5 cent cut in excise. The oil companies would be laughing. The building companies increased their house prices over the first home owners grant and now childcare centres are doing the same thing.

    I don’t like the childcare rebate for that exact reason. And I think the baby bonus is a bribe to have a kid for the wrong reasons. Maternity leave is another grey area.

    Surely we could do something innovative and creative to assist those people that the above policies intended.

    Maybe Brenda and her mob could properly adress those issues instead of their useless populist politics. Oh that’s right, they wouldn’t know how, they are conservatives.

  35. Will the Labor Party say anything about expensive by elections when in fact one of their own in Victoria quit just recently and we had a byelection on Saturday?

  36. How anyone can suggest that ALP ran a good campaign is beyond me. It was a bad result by any measure. But in hindsight, it might be the preferable election to lose. This will restore confidence in the conservative side, which shouldn’t have any. And it might wisen the government up a little and remove some of the cockiness.

  37. The only thing that may worry me about this by-election is that maybe the MSM might be getting through to the electorate with their garbage???

    Take fuel watch for e.g. An excellent concept. You should hear what the ACCC’s Samuels has to say about it. At the moment it’s as close to collusion as you can get. Petrol prices can vary as much as 20 cents on any given day. I have no doubt that fuel watch could deliver as much as a 3 cent cut in prices.

    But the MSM are succeeding in putting sh1t on it.

  38. judy

    I’d love to see Mia Handshin run for Mayo. Nicole needs a bit longer to get over the last election and she can do without another loss. There’s an awful lot of Greenie types in Mayo (remember the vote John Schumann got there). They need someone young and dynamic.

  39. Diogenes, thats what i mean by the labor party choosing a good candidate, i agree i think this would be the wrong try for Nicole, i don’t think she’d fit in with the old school, now Mia–thats a good thought, she’s clever and more confident and she oozes talent, hmmm wonder if the libs want to slot someone in to act as a seat warmer until Lord Lunchalot jnr is ready to run for parliament.

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