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Terri Butler Wins Griffith By-Election For ALP; Status Quo Result Sees 0.68% Swing To Liberals

Terri Butler will become the new Labor member for Griffith, following her by-election victory in the Brisbane-based electorate vacated by former prime minister Kevin Rudd.


At the close of counting tonight, Butler had recorded a two-party-preferred vote of 52.33%. This is a swing against the ALP of 0.68% since the September 2013 general election.

The ALP’s primary vote fell 1.38% to 38.98%, the first time it has ever fallen below 40% since the electorate was created in 1934.

The Liberal National Party candidate, Dr. Bill Glasson, polled 43.57% of the primary vote, an increase of 1.35%. He received 47.67% of the two-party-preferred vote.

The Greens candidate, Geoff Ebbs, polled 10.19% of the primary vote, an increase of 0.01%.

The other eight candidates polled poorly, amassing a total of 7.25% between them.

Claiming victory, Terri Butler told supporters that the result “sent a strong message” to Tony Abbott to keep his “hands off our Medicare”. She said voters had also reacted to budget cuts by Queensland’s Newman government.


Accompanied by Attorney-General Senator George Brandis and Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, Bill Glasson told LNP supporters: “We’re not conceding tonight but it’s obviously going to be difficult to get across the line.” However, his long, rambling speech to campaign workers had concession and valedictory written all over it.

There are reportedly around 10,000 or more postal and pre-poll votes which will not be counted until next week. They may narrow the result further but are unlikely to change the outcome.

  • Listen to Senator George Brandis, Campbell Newman and Bill Glasson (22m)
  • Listen to Terri Butler’s victory speech (15m)

The Meaning Of The Griffith By-Election

by Malcolm Farnsworth

Liberal and Labor spokespeople were quick to “spin” the result of the by-election tonight.

The ALP claimed victory and said the result was a warning to the Abbott government. The new Labor member for Griffith, Terri Butler, told reporters that voters had told her the Abbott government wasn’t what they expected.

Liberals, on the other hand, said Abbott would be buoyed by the result which saw a further swing against the ALP in the aftermath of difficult decisions on the car industry and SPC Ardmona.

The truth is that in politics a win is a win is a win. Elections are about getting bums on seats and the ALP has ensured that it will still have 55 bums on the green leather when the House of Representatives meets next week for the first session of 2014.

We have been told ad nauseum in recent times that a government has only once taken a seat off the Opposition in the history of what is now 147 by-elections since 1901. That was in 1920 under highly unique circumstances. Oppositions have occasionally lost seats to independents and minor parties but overall it is absolutely true that a win for Glasson tonight would have been a big story indeed. Instead, memories of the by-election will fade quickly.

The swing against the ALP of 0.68% is statistically insignificant. The result is best viewed as a repeat of last year’s result. Both elections had 11 candidates, yet the two results are remarkably similar. Overall, it was a vote for the status quo.

The result is also not surprising because the electorate has basically been a Labor seat since Ben Humphreys won it in 1977. The ALP has now won Griffith at 14 of the past 15 elections, losing it just once in 1996 when the Keating government was defeated.

However, the ALP has little to crow about. There was a swing to the Coalition. On current figures, the ALP’s primary vote has fallen 14.11% since 2007. Its two-party-preferred vote has fallen 9.99% in the same period.

For the first time ever in Griffith, the party recorded a primary vote of less than 40%. At the close of counting, it was 38.98%. This is the third successive decline in the ALP’s primary vote since Kevin Rudd won the seat with 53.09% in 2007. It fell to 44.08% in 2010 and then to 40.36% last year.

The ALP’s national primary vote last year was 33.38%, its lowest since the 1930s. The Griffith result is not as bad as that but the the trend is in the same direction. And this comes after a federal election in which the ALP managed to win just 7 seats on the primary vote, compared to 51 seats for the Coalition. The existential issue for the ALP remains the question of its declining base vote.

It’s intriguing to note that the Greens vote fell 5.21% last year to 10.18%. Tonight, it sits on 10.19%, whilst the ALP shed a further 1.38%. The electorate seems to have confirmed its general election decision in the case of both parties.

The government is correct to point out that it is unusual for an opposition to go backwards in a by-election. Given recent polls show the Coalition struggling, it’s worth asking why the ALP slipped back further tonight, albeit whilst still winning.

The reasons are unclear. It may be the result of losing Kevin Rudd’s personal vote – a mere 1%? It may be annoyance at being forced back to the polls by a member who resigned just nine weeks after being re-elected. On the other hand, a defeated prime minister is likely to be forgiven for departing the political scene.

The swing may be related to the decreased turnout. Whilst we don’t have an accurate figure as yet, it appears that the voter turnout rate may be around 75-80%, compared to the average 93-95%.

The ALP will claim its win is a warning to Abbott but this is nonsense. When it had every reason to expect a swing against it, the government has improved its position.

But a victory is always better than a defeat. If Butler turns out to be a diligent local member she may be able to lift the primary vote in future elections. Better to be an incumbent in these circumstances.

The Labor strategist Bruce Hawker repeatedly pointed out tonight that Griffith is now in the top 20 of the highest income electorates in the country. He said the electorate is gentrifying. That may be so but it simply highlights the difficulty Labor faces with voters across the nation. This by-election provides no evidence that the ALP knows how to stem the tide.

The Labor supporters who have sought comfort in the “one-term Tony” slogan and portray the Abbott government as struggling and at risk are, at the very least, utterly premature. The electorate cast its judgment on the Rudd-Gillard years five months ago and there’s no sign in this by-election that they regret their decision. It’s reasonable to assume that voters will continue for some time to cut the government some slack as it goes about its business.

The ALP will return to parliament next week with 55 members and a new face. They won.

The Coalition will not see Bill Glasson sitting on the government backbench. They lost.

But the ALP will still be confronted by a government with a floor majority of 29. And long after the Griffith by-election has been forgotten, the real electoral battle for this year will be shaped by what Treasurer Joe Hockey produces in his May budget.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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