The possibility of a resignation by Greg Wilton, ALP Member for the House of Representatives seat of Isaacs in Victoria, raises some interesting questions about the implications of a by-election during the remainder of this year.
Isaacs is an outer metropolitan electorate, won by Wilton in 1996 and retained in 1998. It includes the suburbs of Aspendale, Braeside, Carrum, Carrum Downs, Chelsea, Chelsea Heights, Cheltenham, Cranbourne, Edithvale, Lyndhurst, Mentone, Mordialloc, Parkdale, Patterson Lakes, Seaford and Skye.
In 1998 Wilton won the seat with 48.43% of the primary vote, 10% ahead of the Liberal vote. After distribution of preferences, the ALP member had 56.40%, a 4.84% swing over the 1996 result.
Isaacs includes parts of the State electorates of Frankston East and Carrum, both of which swung heavily to the ALP in last year’s State election. Extending eastwards to the safe Labor area of Dandenong, south-easterly to the Liberal-held Cranbourne, and northerly to Liberal-held Mordialloc and Sandringham, the electorate is a classic snapshot of the outer-suburban electorates that will be so important in the next federal election.
What would be the implications of a by-election in the next few months that produced a significant swing to the ALP?
- Dissatisfaction with the GST would be seen as the major cause, signalling serious political difficulties for the federal government.
- Speculation about the Liberal leadership would gather pace, with increased pressure on Howard to retire and hand the job over to Peter Costello. Costello would have to decide whether to stay loyal to Howard and risk becoming party leader in opposition, or whether to “do a Keating” and challenge his leader.
- Kim Beazley’s leadership would be strengthened and the Opposition would become more confident about its chances of winning power.
By contrast, a swing to the Liberal Party, or a no-change result would send different signals to the major parties:
- The government would consider the result as an endorsement of its economic direction and a sign that the GST storm can be weathered.
- Costello’s leadership ambitions would be put on hold until after the next election.
- Kim Beazley would come under increasing media scrutiny and internal ALP pressure to offer more than an anti-GST policy. Criticisms of Beazley’s leadership strength – whether he has the “ticker” – would escalate.
Either way, a by-election in Isaacs during 2000 would present both sides of politics with intriguing political possibilities. Such by-elections have been important in the past. In 1995, a massive swing against the ALP in Canberra presaged the electoral wipe-out of 1996. In Victoria, by-elections in Gippsland West and Mitcham in 1997 were the first signs of voter dissatisfaction with the Kennett government. In 1975, the Bass by-election was a fore-runner to the ALP’s electoral rout that followed Whitlam’s dismissal.
A cautionary note: By-elections can also mislead, as Malcolm Fraser will attest. The Flinders by-election in December 1982 that elected Peter Reith was interpreted by many as a positive sign for the coalition government, but it was soundly defeated 3 months later after Bob Hawke assumed the Labor leadership. The poor quality of the ALP candidate in the by-election was also regarded as a significant influence.