By-elections aplenty

A detailed look at the biggest by-election bonanza since federation, following yesterday’s decisive High Court ruling against Labor Senator Katy Gallagher.

A Super Saturday of five federal by-elections, perhaps as soon as June 16, is now in prospect after four MPs resigned from the House of Representatives yesterday. The result will be the biggest day of by-elections since federation, the previous record being held by simultaneous by-elections for Corangamite, Hughes and Richmond in 1984. The hardest intelligence I’m aware of as to when the by-elections might be held is from The Australian, which reports the date “could be pushed back to July”. This would “set up an electoral showdown weeks out from Labor’s national conference in Adelaide from July 26 to 28, where Mr Shorten will come under pressure on border protection, industrial relations and energy”.

All of this has been precipitated by a High Court disqualification that will not lead to a by-election, namely that of Katy Gallagher, Labor’s Senator for the Australian Capital Territory. Since Gallagher is a Senator, her vacancy will be filled by a recount of the votes from 2016, which amounts to a guaranteed win for the second candidate on the Labor ticket, David Smith. Local website RiotACT describes Smith as “director of the ACT branch of Professionals Australia, the union representing people such as scientists, engineers and technical staff”.

Gallagher came to the Senate when she filled Kate Lundy’s casual vacancy in March 2015, and did not take steps to renounce the citizenship she derived from her British-born father until April 2016. This was not registered by the British Home Office until August 16, by which time she had retained the seat at the election held on July 2. Gallagher argued her election was valid as she had taken “reasonable steps” to renounce before nominating, protecting her from Section 44’s “allegiance to a foreign power” provision. Consistent with the tenor of its earlier findings, the court ruled that this argument could only fly if foreign law presented an “insurmountable obstacle”.

The four MPs whose resignations followed soon after include three from Labor and one aligned to Nick Xenophon, and all have announced their intention to run again at the by-elections. Then there is the separate case of Perth, where Tim Hammond announced his retirement plans last week, for reasons unrelated to Section 44. Hammond is yet to tender his resignation, as he said last week he first wished to tie up loose ends. My preliminary election guide for Perth can be found here (and that for the Western Australian state by-election in Darling Range can be found here; click the header links below for similar guides to the four electorates in question.


Two of the seats where by-elections loom are highly marginal, the most finely poised being Longman at the northern fringe of Brisbane. Susan Lamb won this seat for Labor on a 7.7% swing in 2016, unseating two-term Liberal Liberal National Party member Wyatt Roy, who had held the seat since 2010, from the ages of 20 to 26. Lamb is acknowledged to be a British citizen through her late father, who was born in Scotland. She has perhaps evinced the most sympathy out of those entangled by Section 44, after she tearfully explained to parliament that her difficulty partly arose from her estrangement from her mother, making her unable to meet the British Home Office’s requirement that she provide her parents’ marriage certificate. The Courier-Mail reports Wyatt Roy has ruled out seeking preselection.


The other tight tussle is in the seat that covers north-western Tasmania, including Burnie and Davenport, which has changed hands at five out of seven elections going back to 1998. Braddon was won for Labor in 2016 by Justine Keay, who held dual citizenship through her British-born father until she applied for renunciation on May 9, 2016. This did not take effect until July 11, over a week after her election. Matthew Denholm of The Australian reports the Liberal member Keay defeated in 2016, Brett Whiteley, may be in contention for preselection again. Whiteley was a member for Braddon in the state parliament from 2002 until his defeat in 2010, and unseated Labor’s Sid Sidebottom in the federal seat in 2013.


Labor’s Josh Wilson holds his seat by a 7.5% margin over the Liberals, who are presumably unlikely to contest. Those talking up a contest must thus rely on the Greens, who won the state seat of Fremantle at a by-election in 2009, but the larger federal electorate is altogether less friendly for them. Wilson was born in England and only applied to renounce his British citizenship a few weeks before the closure of nominations in early June 2016. His position illustrates the practical dilemmas Section 44 can entail, as Wilson was a last minute substitute after it emerged that the original Labor candidate, Chris Brown, had failed to disclose spent convictions dating from his youth. Given the circumstances, Section 44 as interpreted the High Court would have rendered it practically impossible for Labor to preselect any candidate with foreign entanglements.


In yet another blow for Nick Xenophon’s operation, Rebekha Sharkie now faces a difficult task in defending the party’s sole House of Representatives seat. English-born Rebekha Sharkie initiated her renunciation process on April 19, nominated at some point before the deadline of June 9, and her renunciation was registered only on June 29. Her win in Mayo came at the high tide of Nick Xenophon’s political fortunes, and at the expense of a Liberal member, Jamie Briggs, who had recently lost his junior ministry position after a DFAT official complained he had acted inappropriately towards her in a bar in Hong Kong. There would appear to be a strong chance that Sharkie’s Liberal opponent this time will be Georgina Downer, whose father Alexander Downer held the seat from 1984 to 2008. A report in The Australian earlier this week suggested cross purposes in the party as to whether Sharkie should be persuaded to join the Liberal Party, or if the seat should remain cued up for Downer.

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.

39 comments on “By-elections aplenty”

  1. I think I know how the libs can do better at the by-elections: Their message should be “If you want to tell Labor to find another leader – if you don’t think Bill Shorten should have the chance to be PM – then don’t vote for Labor.” Labor will make it a referendum on the unfairness of the budget and government, but it the libs make it a referendum on Shorten they’ll do a bit better (or at least labor won’t do as well – the independent and informal vote might be very high.

  2. My guess is that Labor will easily retain both Fremantle and Perth, and will most likely retain both Longman and Braddon (though I’d guess that Braddon is the more likely of the two, given that Longman is on such a knife edge, and, well, it’s Queensland).

    Much like the special elections going on in the US over the last few months, the results probably won’t matter much in the long run, given that voters there will be voting again within months. If there is a decent swing TO the government in any of the seats (particularly in Braddon and/or Longman), then it might presage a late swing back to the Libs a la 2001, but polling over the last year and a half would suggest that this unlikely.

    Moreover, Section 44 by-elections have without fail returned the incumbent (Sharkie in Mayo may yet buck this trend), indicating that regular voters are less concerned about dual citizenship than the Constitution tells that they should be.

  3. I believe the Braddon by-election will be the one that could be close, since the former Liberal member Brett Whiteley might decide to re-contest the seat.

    Also the state Liberals seem quite confident about winning back Braddon. Because it was reported in the Mercury Will Hodgman said bring the Braddon by-election on. They did do quite well in Braddon at the recent state election.

  4. The Liberals did well in Braddon in the 2014 state election (slightly better than in 2018), and then Labor won it at the 2016 federal election. It seems people vote differently at state and federal elections.

    This probably makes sense because state and federal governments have different roles. Plus at the state level you often get Labor-Greens minority govts and Liberal majority govts, whereas at the federal level you get Labor majority governments and Lib-Nat minority governments (and the Nats don’t even run in Tasmania).

  5. The voters of Braddon, like much of Tasmania, would be largely of British heritage and with incomes below the Australian average. Both these factors might be helpful to Justine Keay at this time.

    Braddon is certainly a marginal electorate but on the mainland it would probably be a fairly safe Nationals seat. The two largest population centres, Burnie and Devonport, are both somewhat smaller than say Dubbo or Armidale.

    It says something for Labor’s appeal in Braddon that they are competitive with the conservative side of politics.

  6. Mal, just call a general election and we dont have to have these byelections. Plus you’ll get in before the redistributions take effect.

  7. If a general election was called at this point, it would be hugely messy redistribution-wise because they’ve already started, so there would be an ungainly (and so far never-used) situation where in the ACT and Victoria the seat with the biggest enrolment would be cut in half, and in South Australia the two with the smallest enrolment would be squashed together. Messy for everyone, and best avoided.

  8. Actually Frickeg, I believe the Vic and ACT scenarios would be that the two adjacent electorates that have the combined highest voters (in the ACT that’s easy, both of them) are combined and then split into three (in the ACT they’d become Fenner, Canberra and Canberra-Fenner, which is essentially what the redistribution’s going to do anyway).

    The Libs won’t want the election before the redistribution is complete, at least not in SA, as they don’t want Barker and Grey merged, even temporarily.

  9. The Libs might however be tempted to go between the SA and Victorian redistributions coming into effect, because, while the new seat will be an ALP seat (it is the ALP strongholds of the west and north of Melbourne that are growing most), the proposed redistribution also is unfavourable to the Libs in other places and thus going before it is finished could help them.

  10. Besides, if I remember correctly, although the redistributions are due to be completed at different dates in July they don’t take effect until they’re tabled in Parliament. Because Parliament takes July off, they’ll all be tabled at the same time during the August sitting.

  11. I’ve had a look at the Act and it looks like I was incorrect: under s 73(1) the Commission’s determination takes effect when its Notice is published in the Gazette: the Commission says it’s aiming for 13 July in the ACT and Victoria and 20 July in SA.

  12. So we have William with his biggest by-election bonanza and Kevin’s super Saturday.

    My guess is no change, given previous S44 by-elections. Longman though, will be interesting.

    I assume a sophomore effect (for newly elected members) will be in effect.

  13. Given that the members for Fremantle, Braddon and Longman had to resign because they fell afoul of S.44 should ensure their easy re-elections. Although I caution a little on Braddon is a little bit more doubtful if the former Liberal member decides to run again and the State liberals did quite well in the recent state election.

    Perth will be retained by Labor, however the voters there aren’t going to be too impressed by their MP resigning before the election.

  14. The One Nation preference flow in Longman at the 2016 Federal election when their votes were distributed were 56.79-43.21 in favour of the ALP.

    If One Nation’s vote holds up in the by election and there isn’t much change in the PV of the 2 major parties this could be enough to swing the seat to a LNP gain.

    Would be very surprised if Labor received a similar favourable preference flow this time around in Longman from One Nation. Could be the seat that changes hands.

  15. The interesting thing with Longman is that it will be held under the old boundaries with the new ones taking effect at the next election.

    So if the redistribution moved you into Longman you don’t get to vote and if you were moved out you do need to vote.

  16. I don’t understand the apparently permanent surprise that by-elections are held on the old boundaries.

    It seems the only logical possibility. The members of the current parliament represent the electorates as they were at the last general election.

  17. Applying the boundaries from the election when the current parliament was elected and thus filling the actual gap in representation is indeed the correct way. I agree it should not be surprising.

    Filling new boundaries would, in most cases, mean both some areas got double representation and some got none, both of which are unacceptably unfair. In the occasional case it would be only one of either of those options.

  18. Longman may be difficult because (if I remember correctly) ON (9.42%) preferenced against Wyatt Roy at the 2016 election and Lamb had the Donkey Vote.

    This time ON will probably help the LNP in order to stick it to the ALP.

    Who gets the Donkey vote may decide the seat. Of course many voters may not turn out to vote which can also affect the result if, say, LNP voters are not too interested (and vice versa).

  19. The internal polling for the Libs in WA must be really dire if they’re not going to contest Perth with just a 3.3% margin. I can understand them not contesting Fremantle, but they got a bigger primary vote than Labor in Perth at the 2016 election.

    Like I said, their internal polling must be really dire.

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