Reading the Griffith by-election tea leaves

I don’t know if anyone expected the Liberal candidate, Dr Bill Glasson, to win the Griffith by-election, but the odds were certainly against his doing so. The last time a government won a seat from the opposition in a by-election was close to a hundred years ago, in 1920, and that was a tad fixed. The Hughes Nationalist Government had a Labor MP expelled from the House of Representatives for having been disloyal to the Crown, given that he had given an oath to be loyal when he appeared in the House to take his seat. The expelled MP, Hugh Mahon, contested the seat as a Labor candidate again, but did not win. You can find out more about Hugh Mahon from the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, here.

Since the by-election occurred because the incumbent MP and former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, had resigned, you might wonder how much of Kevin Rudd’s personal following would flow on to the Labor candidate, Terri Butler, who somewhat resembles Mrs Rudd (but even Ms Butler did not seem to think that was an advantage to her). And, since anyone who reads the Fairfax Press and watches the ABC would think that the Abbott Government was doing disastrously, one might wonder also whether or not the electors of Griffith would be delivering the supposed ‘electoral backlash’.

With about three-quarters of the vote counted, the outcome looks rather like a re-run of the general election in October 2013. Glasson with 44 per cent was ahead on first preferences in 2014, as he was also in 2013. The Greens pulled about 10 per cent of the vote at both polls, and most of that will go on to Ms Butler, who attracted 39 per cent. These percentages are strikingly similar to the outcome in October last year, with the Liberals getting a little more on Saturday and the Labor Party a little less. There were eleven candidates at the by-election, and you can deduce that the other eight shared the remaining 8 per cent. Palmer’s United Party polled one per cent this time to three per cent a few months ago.

The allocation of postal and absent votes and the distribution of preferences will take several days, and the current guess is that the outcome in two-party-preferred terms is a swing of about one per cent, or a little less, against the Labor Party. The seat has had boundary changes every ten years ago, though it stays around the south of Brisbane’s CBD, and you could say that from having been a decently safe Labor seat, the safest in Queensland before last October, it is now only marginally safe for the ALP. It is the sort of mixed inner-city electorate of which every large city has  more than a few.

What happened there? Well, there was a swing of more than 5 per cent against Labor last October, and it’s hard to know how much of Kevin Rudd’s supposed personal following survived then, let alone how much flowed on to Ms Butler on Saturday. Dr Glasson, not just a medico but a well known and respected one (he has been both State and Federal President of the AMA), was a hard-working candidate who probably just kept campaigning once the October election was over, given the great likelihood that Kevin Rudd would find something else to do. I don’t know what it is — Mr Rudd has been completely out of the news since his resignation in mid-November.

And while he (KR) talked of ‘climate change’ as the most important issue in human history since Moses came back with the tablet, ‘climate change’ and big-picture issues seemed conspicuous by their absence in Griffith. Ms Butler’s campaign key seemed to be almost aggressively local: Like other parents, we want our children to have good local schools and quality, affordable childcare. So far as I can tell, Bill Glasson followed her example: he would deliver for the people of Griffith. What he would deliver wasn’t so clear.

I can’t see any sign of an electoral backlash, either in State or Federal terms, let alone both. What would pass as  evidence? The usual post-result rhetoric was, however, much in evidence. Ms Butler said the result should be sending a clear message to the Prime Minister, which went like this: It’s a result that says that notwithstanding Tony Abbott’s star candidate, people have had enough of the secrecy and people are deeply concerned about the LNP’s cuts. People are not happy with Mr Abbott. The Abbott Government is not the government that people were expecting when they voted in September.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten weighed in with They tried to turn it into a local council election, but I think voters are unimpressed by the Abbott Government and weren’t inclined to put another Abbott Government MP as their representative. I guess you have to say something.

So far as I know the Prime Minister hasn’t said anything in public, but there can be little doubt that it is a good result for him and his Government. It looks as though the turnout will prove to have been been a lot lower in the by-election, but (a) a lower turnout is common enough in by-elections, as is a higher level of informality, and (b) on the face of it the lower turnout is unlikely to have made much difference to the outcome.

By-elections are special events and it  is almost pointless generalising from them. But there’s no sign here that Mr Abbott and his Government are upsetting the people of Griffith, whatever might be the case elsewhere.



Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Peter Donnan says:

    Interesting, before an election, that one promises to serve out one’s term if elected and upon being successfully returned, expresses great humility and gratitude about being honoured to serve the voters of this electorate.

    Those who have served in high office often find in galling to return as a backbencher. My recollection is that Gough Whitlam came back and served on the Opposition benches but Peter Costello did not.

    A point that Kathy McGowan made last year was that there should be a close correlation between electors’ general views and the local representative.

    This humble, mumble, chumble rhetoric about being so honoured to serve the electorate should be seen for what it often is – humbug.

  • DaveW says:

    Yes, interesting by-election, especially with today’s poll alleging a drop in favour for the Campbell Gov’t (and attributed to the anti-bikie laws). I guess federal and state politics aren’t that connected (or the poll is misleading).

    Ms Butler’s website is very simple and loaded quickly. Although she doesn’t say much, she does make it clear that she is against Tony Abbot and for:
    “- Fast broadband access for local families and business
    – Affordable childcare
    – More health services for local families.”

    Dr Glasson’s website is very complex and loaded very slowly out here in the boonies. With some searching, though, I did find his priorities:

    “Some of my priorities are:

    Improving frontline health services and delivering on our commitment to establish Hummingbird House, a children’s respite and hospice facility at Kangaroo Point

    Creating more local jobs by reducing taxes and regulations on small business and increasing their ability to compete – which will be helped by the Government’s new competition review

    Boosting Aged Care services in Griffith to allow older residents to stay at home longer and receive the care they deserve – the Australian Government’s recent announcement of a $2.3 million boost to local Aged Care services is a good start

    Reducing the cost of living by scrapping the Carbon Tax – making households $550 a year better off

    A stronger, safer community through more CCTVs, and support for sporting and community groups”

    Dr Glasson is far more specific about his goals and how he would achieve them than Ms Butler; and since, I either agree or don’t disagree with them, I would probably have voted for him. After checking their respective Wiki entries and Butler’s blog, I certainly would have voted for Glasson. He’s had quite a distinguished career and Butler is clearly a political hack. That’s quite a change for me – I used to always reflexively vote Labor even when I had quite a decent LNP MP (John Moore).

  • GenghisCunn says:

    Don, I had the dubious privilege of being represented in West End both by Prime Minister Rudd and Premier Bligh, both former colleagues. Rudd’s vote share increased in 2010, mainly because West End and South Brisbane, probably the two most left-wing districts in Brisbane, were moved to his electorate. More recently, increased accommodation and the populace attracted to West End are probably moving the seat against the ALP.

    From my limited dealings with Butler, I don’t think that she’s at all like Therese Rein. When Kevin overworked himself in the Goss era, Therese would put him to bed for a few days. I several times had to take out letters etc which needed Rudd’s signature. Therese was initially hostile, but I got a very good impression of her, very earthed, lots of energy and initiative – I don’t know how KR would have coped without her. I haven’t seen the same in Butler, whose election literature included a lot of nonsense.

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