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.