Yesterday’s announcement by former cabinet minister Alan Tudge of his resignation brings into view the first by-election of the Albanese government, for the highly marginal Melbourne seat of Aston. The date is yet to be determined, but will presumably be set later this month or early the next for a date in April or May. Tudge held on by 2.8% last year in the face of a 7.3% swing, part of a pattern of poor results for the Liberals in traditional areas of strength for the party in the city’s eastern suburbs that was repeated at the state election in November, together with a swing the other way in Labor strongholds in the west and north.
Aston has a place in by-election folklore as the seat that signposted the Howard government’s return to electoral health in April 2001, when Tudge’s predecessor Chris Pearce defended a 4.2% margin against a 3.7% swing. Labor held the seat for the first two terms after its creation in 1984, but it became progressively stronger for the Liberals after the Victorian landslip that cost Labor nine seats in the state in 1990. Pearce’s retirement in 2010 raised Labor hopes that the seat might provide a gain to balance expected losses in New South Wales and Queensland, but Tudge held out against a 3.3% swing by 1.8% and increased his margin at each of the next three elections.
My results page for the seat for the federal election can be viewed here, and features an interactive booth results map that opens if you click the “activate” button at the bottom of the page. As can be seen, Labor won most of the booths around Boronia in the electorate’s north-east, but not be enough to balance the Liberals’ dominance in Wantirna to the west and Rowville in the south.
Tudge’s announcement was inevitably met with a flurry of speculation as to who might run for the Liberals, with suggestions that Josh Frydenberg might use the seat as a vehicle for a comeback soon shot down. There has been no mention that I’m aware of as to who Labor might endorse, but The Australian reports the unsurprising news that senior Liberals want a “high-profile female candidate”, which they will presumably secure without recourse to a problematic rank-and-file preselection, which are rarely held for by-elections.
Samantha Maiden of news.com.au wrote on Twitter yesterday that the Liberal front-runner was Roshena Campbell, barrister, Melbourne councillor and wife of News Corp journalist James Campbell, but The Australian’s report names a number of other contenders: Cathrine Burnett-Wake, who served in the state’s Legislative Council last year but failed to win preselection for the November election; Sharn Coombes, a criminal barrister; Andrew Asten, a former staffer to Tudge; and Irene Ling, director of a property investment company.
Given the state of the polls, the by-election presents Labor with a seemingly golden opportunity to bag a handy seventy-eighth seat, and the Liberals with the corresponding danger of a morale-sapping loss. However, Antony Green offered some counterpoints to David Crowe of The Age, noting the Liberal vote was suppressed in the seat by the low profile kept by Tudge during the election campaign as a result of his ministerial difficulties and campaign resources being concentrated elsewhere. I would also add that history is against Labor to the extent that it has tended to have disappointing results in by-elections held the year after taking office:
• The Parramatta by-election of 22 September 1973 followed a bumpy opening year for the Whitlam government, so its failure to poach the seat was perhaps not a surprise. Nonetheless, the 7% swing to the Liberals was presumably in excess of expectations. The winning candidate was a young Philip Ruddock, later to move to the safer seats of Dundas and Berowra and to achieve a high profile as the Howard government’s Immigration Minister.
• Despite the stratospheric popularity of Bob Hawke during his first year as Prime Minister, Labor failed to make ground in any of the six by-elections held in that time, suffering a particularly disappointing failure in the marginal Brisbane seat of Moreton, where the Liberals were defending a margin of 1.6%.
• Labor was generally thought to have a shot in Gippsland when Peter McGuaran vacated it in the wake of the Howard government’s defeat, but a dominant position in opinion polls again failed to translate at a by-election, with Darren Chester retaining the seat for the Nationals with a surprisingly robust swing of 6.1%.