MUNGO MACCALLUM. Interminable campaign comes to climax

At last the fateful day is looming – the interminable campaign for the five by elections no-one wanted (except, of course, the media) is finally coming to a climax.

Or, in the case of at least two of them, an anti-climax: the ritual re-election of Labor in Perth and Fremantle is not in contention, given that the Libs declined to take part.

And unless the polls are way off the mark, Georgina Downer’s quest to regain her hereditary seat of Mayo will mark a humiliating defeat for both her and for Malcolm Turnbull, who has heroically but vainly defended the countess’s right to rule.

But pragmatically, Turnbull and his troops have put their money and resources into the other two, Longman and Braddon, and here they have a real chance. Braddon, in fact, looked like a shoo-in; Labor is on the nose in the apple island and with the relative smallness of the electorate, and the early numbers favoured the Liberal candidate Brett Whitely comfortably,

But as time and attrition took over, Labor’s Justine Keay clawed her way back, and is now well and truly back in the race after a somewhat unpleasant and negative campaign which was at least as much about the leaders as the candidates Turnbull has been targeted for being a millionaire banker, a banker just like Whitely once was, while Shorten has been attacked for just about everything. If Keay gets up, it may require tweaking to the Kill Bill strategy as we move towards the real election.

Longman may be even more problematic: Queensland is, as always, different. Trevor Ruthenberg (“Big Kev,” as Turnbull perhaps enviously calls him) was looking good until it appeared that he had misspoken about a military decoration. He may well be forgiven, but the slew of somewhat odd people on the ballot paper (one of whom is a convicted neo-Nazi, to go with One Nation, the Liberal Democrats and the DLP – no shortage of choice on the far right) may easily push him over the line, with a little help from Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham.

Or more rational preferences could yet favour Labor’s Susan Lamb. None of the results will change the government – not immediately. But there could well be major consequences, which is why people are starting to talk seriously about Bill Shorten.

The mood is little similar to the feeling at the start of 1983.After 8 years of Malcolm Fraser, the electorate was just about ready for change and Bill Hayden was poised to lead Labor back to government. But there were many in the party still very nervous. Hayden should have won in 1980, but didn’t; and perhaps more significantly Labor fell short of the Flinders by-election at a time when Hayden needed to maintain his momentum.

There was confidence; the polls still showed the ALP ahead, but perhaps not quite enough. And, crucially, there was the obvious alternative: Bob Hawke. This, of course, is the big difference. Anthony Albanese is a popular and in some ways a charismatic figure, but he is no Bob Hawke. And you can bet the Libs have compiled an extensive dirt file on him, so the existing Kill Bill strategy can be seamlessly morphed into Obliterate Albo as soon as needed.

So quite apart from the political cost in switching leaders at all, there is no guarantee  that Albanese would get Labor automatically over the line. But having said that, Shorten is in some ways more vulnerable than Hayden ever was.

The previous Labor leader (and subsequently Governor-General) was regarded as a touch unpredictable, even unstable. But no one doubted his decency and sincerity, and these are the qualities that Shorten is seen to lack. This has been the case for most of his career: Faction Man, as David Marr perceptively christened him, has generally been in wheeling and dealing, nurturing his own ambition.

He had been forgiven for it to date because he has also been delivering a record number of Newspoll leads, in spite of everything that has been thrown at him. But on a personal level he has been going backwards, a drag on the party, and this is where he needs to perform.

Shorten has lost two earlier dual citizenship by-elections in Bennelong and New England. Although both are regarded as reasonably safe coalition seats, they have both fallen in recent memory, and Shorten’s failure to make a decent dint in them was a matter of concern. But now, partly through his own bravado over the whole constitutional mess, he has to defend Labor seats.

This should be a doddle: the government has not won an opposition seat in a by-election for almost a century. But the fact that not one but two are now on the edge is concentrating minds wonderfully. After all, Labor needs to win Liberal and National seats to gain office – not very many of them, but a decent handful are definitely needed, and more to make things safe from the vagaries of crossbenchers.

Obviously if a couple of its own seats fall in all but unprecedented circumstances, not only does it make things harder in a general election – it suggests that if Shorten cannot even hang on to his own seats, he may be effectively unelectable. People whose judgement I respect have always thought so, in spite of the polling. However badly Turnbull stuffs up — and it has been both long term and spectacular – the feeling is that when it comes to crunch in a one-on-one confrontation, Shorten will fall short.

Albanese has advantages Shorten does not – he is seen as honest, loyal and unfailingly affable – hell, he even has a beer named after him. Making him leader would be a popular move; after all, he won the people’s vote over Shorten in 2013, and Shorten had  to rely on his factional parliamentary allies. But there is a huge caveat: in 1983 Hayden, seeing the mood against him, submitted peacefully for the good of the party. Shorten is hardly known for such altruism.

Perhaps it won’t come to this – perhaps Labor will win both Braddon and Longman and it will be Turnbull making excuses and demanding that everybody moves on. But after many months of apprehension and procrastination, the crisis has to be faced. For Bill Shorten, next Saturday night may wll be the loneliest night of the week.

 

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