Hot on the heels of Barnaby Joyce’s disqualification by the High Court, there is now a second Section-44 related by-election on the way following Saturday’s resignation announcement by John Alexander, the Liberal member for Bennelong. As in Joyce’s seat of New England, reports suggest the government will act quickly to get the by-election over and done with, which could mean writs being issued today for a pre-Christmas poll on December 16. Whereas the New England by-election looks like being nothing more than an expensive diversion that will shortly restore Joyce to his place in parliament, Bennelong is a loseable seat, as John Howard memorably discovered on the occasion of his government’s defeat in 2007.
As you can see on the sidebar, I now have guides up for both the New England and Bennelong, although the latter as yet has no detail to relate concerning candidates other than Alexander. For some perspective on how much danger the goverment is in, the chart below compares results in federal and state by-elections that were contested by both the Coalition and the Labor going back to the 1980s with the state of play in opinion polls at the relevant time. Results in both cases are conceived in terms of swings to the government party, which in the case of opinion polling is determined either through the most recent Newspoll or, where available, my own poll trend measurement.
The red line constitutes a line of best fit for the available data, which suggests that there is indeed a relationship between polling and by-election results, even if it’s far from ironclad. The Turnbull government has been looking at an adverse swing of around 3% in poll trend measures for some time now, which translates into a typical by-election swing of around 8% – not quite enough to erase Alexander’s margin in Bennelong of 9.7%. However, it today’s 55-45 result from Newspoll is more indicative of the government’s true form, the anticipated swing lands right on the mark. A comparable feat was achieved by Labor at the by-election for the Brisbane seat of Ryan in February 2001, at which a Liberal margin of 9.5% was barely accounted for by a swing of 9.7%.