MUNGO MacCALLUM. Holy by-election, Batman, this could be serious!

Feb 26, 2018

Well, that depends on where you sit. In the effective numbers in the House of Representatives, it actually won’t make any difference whether Labor’s Ged Kearney or the Greens’ Alex Bhathal fills the vacancy – given the voting record of the Green incumbent Adam Bandt, Malcolm Turnbull has no hope of securing an extra crossbencher on anything that matters.  

But of course if Bhathal gets over the line, it will be seen as a big victory for her party and a huge fillip to their chances in similarly vulnerable ALP marginals. And Labor and Bill Shorten, of course, have the most to lose – a once safe Labor seat surrendered to the insurgent rival, not only a dismal result in itself but an ominous portent for the next general election.

That would give the Greens good reason to rejoice, but Turnbull would find it hard to join the celebration over Shorten’s discomfiture – he could hardly gloat when his own mob did not even put up a candidate and in fact saw the constituency move even further to the left.

It is all very well to inveigh against Kearney, who is far more authentically and convincingly progressive than the multi-faceted Shorten, but the Liberal orthodoxy has always been that while Labor is to be fought and resisted, the Greens are the pits – dangerous extremists who should have no place in the parliament unless their votes can be suborned, in which they can be regarded as what Lenin once called useful fools.

And it was for this reason that Liberal preferences saved the now resigned David Feeney in the 2016 election; he was behind Bhathal on primaries, but won narrowly after the final distribution. However Kearney will not have that lifeline; the Libs have said they are out of the ring to husband their resources, but it may also be a tactical move to embarrass and humiliate Shorten.

And if that is the case, it must be said that Shorten has fallen straight into the snare. The ALP has presumably picked Kearney not just for her unquestioned talents and visibility, but to counter the Green onslaught from the left – as Turnbull keeps reminding us, many of her policies coincide with those of her chief rival.

This may persuade some of Bhathal’s followers to switch to a candidate with a major party, one that could actually secure government, but it begs the question: what happens to the 20 per cent who voted Liberal in 2016? Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives will carry the flag for the right, but who ever gains preselection is unlikely to get anywhere near 20 percent.

And in any case, while conservatives may have been prepared to preference Feeney – a stalwart of the Victorian right – they would have trouble moving over to Kearney. There are likely to be a lot of informal votes, and others may not bother to turn up at all. Given that Bhathal gained over 36 percent in primaries in 2016, a swing of 10 per cent towards her, momentum will be on her side.

Although Kearney has rightly been billed as an ALP star candidate, in this fight she may well be the wrong one. And that misjudgement may be the game changer that stalls Shorten’s seemingly irresistible push, and gives Turnbull the relief he so desperately needs.

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