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.