The by-election in the inner northern Melbourne seat of Batman is the third in a matter of months to have arisen from Section 44 of the Constitution and its ban on dual nationals serving in parliament, and the first involving a Labor member. Whereas Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce and Liberal member John Alexander successfully recontested in New England and Bennelong after the High Court declared their seats vacant, David Feeney has forestalled a seemingly inevitable ruling against him by retiring from parliament.
Feeney's difficulty related to British citizenship rights through his father, who was born in Northern Ireland. When the House of Representatives register of members' citizenship status was published in December, it emerged Feeney had no evidence to support his claim to have renounced his British citizenship shortly before he ran for the Senate at the 2007 election. The matter was referred to the High Court, together with that of Labor Senator Katy Gallagher, but Feeney pre-empted its finding on February 1, conceding at a preliminary hearing that he was unable to provide evidence of his renunciation from British or Irish authorities.
Whereas Barnaby Joyce and John Alexander had enough personal support to face their electorates with confidence, David Feeney was wounded by a disastrous campaign at the 2016 election, when he barely held out against Greens candidate Alex Bhathal. Labor's fear of losing the seat to the Greens was compounded by Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe's win in a by-election for Northcote in November 2017, located entirely within Batman, on a swing of 11.6%. The Liberals did not field a candidate in Northcote, and are more than likely to sit out Batman as well.
Batman will be contested for Labor by ACTU president Ged Kearney, who was anointed as Labor's candidate by Bill Shorten shortly after Feeney announced his resignation on February 1. Before the by-election came on the radar, the Greens had already preselected Preston social worker Alex Bhathal as candidate for the next election, setting her up for her sixth run at the seat since 2001. However, it was reported in Crikey on January 31 that elements in the local party were moving to have her disendorsed if not expelled from the party. The dispute related to the preselection for Northcote, in which Bhathal backed Lidia Thorpe over Darebin councillor Trent McCarthy.
Batman covers Melbourne's inner north-east, from deep green Northcote and Thornbury to older, migrant-heavy, solidly Labor-voting territory around Reservoir in the north. The Greens have emerged as the dominant party in the south, with Bell Street serving as a near-perfect dividing line between Greens and Labor booth majorities in 2016. The Greens primary vote has increased at every election since it first ran in 1996, but its progress on the two-party hit a bump when the Liberals started putting them last on their how-to-vote cards in 2013.
The electorate has existed in name since 1906, but was first centred further south around Fitzroy, with the Bourke electorate covering what were then Melbourne's northern outskirts. The boundaries were broadly similar to those of today from 1922 to 1949, when the northern end formed the new seat of Darebin, renamed Scullin in 1969. When parliament next expanded in 1984, Ivanhoe and Heidelberg went to the new seat of Jagajaga, Scullin moved further to the north, and Batman resumed looking more or less as it did before 1949.
Labor first won both Batman and Bourke with its historic victory in 1910, and its grip on Batman has loosened only twice since: when the United Australia Party won it for a term in the 1931 landslide, and when Sam Benson was expelled from the ALP in 1966 over his support for the Vietnam war. Benson was re-elected as an independent in 1966 on Democratic Labor Party and Liberal preferences, but the seat reverted to Labor type when he retired in 1969. Darebin and Scullin were likewise safe for Labor throughout this period.
The last time the Liberals came was in 1977, when future Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe held on by 3.4% on his debut. Howe picked up big swings in 1980 and 1983, and was boosted nearly 8% by boundary changes in 1984. He was succeeded in 1996 by Martin Ferguson, a former ACTU president and dominant figure within a Left faction that also included his brother, Laurie Ferguson. Ferguson was at first a factional ally of Julia Gillard, but emerged as a key backer of Kevin Rudd during her prime ministership. He was also noted as a friend of the mining industry as Resources Minister, and has remained as such since retiring from politics.
David Feeney succeeded Ferguson at the 2013 election, having first been elected to the Senate in 2007. Despite his influence as a Right powerbroker, Feeney had been struggling to find a winnable seat going into the 2013 election, by which time his third position on the Senate looked a lost cause. His move on Batman faced resistance from local Left elements who backed the rival claim of Mary-Anne Thomas, but Feeney prevailed by 383 votes to 247 after the votes of local members were combined with those of the party's central selection committee.
Feeney's campaign for the 2016 election began with the revelation he had failed to declare a negatively geared $2.3 million property in Northcote on the register of members interests, prompting further unwelcome media attention on his once close association with controversial former Health Services Union identity Kathy Jackson. As the dust began to settle, Feeney copped another round of bad press whe he had to plead ignorance over the fairly substantial election issue of the schoolkids bonus during an interview on Sky News. After barely surviving a 9.6% swing to the Greens at the election, he was dropped from the outer shadow ministry.