Institute for the Study of Social Change director Richard Eccleston.

Braddon by-election down to the wire, with much at stake for Shorten

Richard Eccleston’s opinion piece on Saturday’s Braddon by-election first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on July 26 2018.

This weekend’s by-election races are without precedent and, along with Longman, the Braddon poll in Tasmania’s North West will be a critical test of Bill Shorten’s electability.

By-elections have traditionally provided voters with an opportunity to protest and demand governments lift their game or face consequences at the next federal election. As a result it’s almost a century since a governing party has won a seat back from the opposition at a by-election.

Politics is all about expectations and momentum, which is why Shorten has everything to lose on Saturday and why the battle for Braddon is so important.

So what factors will be at play on Tasmania’s North West coast and how will the national political dynamics and local issues and personalities combine to shape the outcome?

Braddon takes in the North West corner of Tasmania, covering west coast mining towns, key farming regions and King Island. It is a classic working-class regional seat, with a Tasmanian twist.

Like most of Tasmania it was safe Labor country until the decline of traditional manufacturing and the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years it has become a marginal electorate, with the Liberal party successfully positioning itself as the champion of traditional industries and the jobs that depended on them.

For a generation Braddon has swung between the two major parties, usually depending on which party can most credibly respond to the economic concerns and vulnerabilities of households whose average income is only 68 per cent of the national average.

Labor held Braddon during the early years of the Howard government, but it was returned to the Liberals after Mark Latham’s disastrous campaign in 2004, only to be swing back to Labor under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Volatile electorate

This weekend the tight (according to polling) contest is between the Liberal’s “recycled” candidate Brett Whiteley and Labor’s Justine Keay, who was caught up in the citizenship crisis and whose reluctant resignation brought about the byelection.

Having been a state member for Braddon until 2010, Whiteley reclaimed the federal seat for the Liberals in 2013 with a large swing, only to lose to Keay at the last election with a 5 per cent swing.

All this suggests that the electorate is highly volatile and, given half the chance, voters would rather protest by staying at home or voting for a minor party – this is Jacqui Lambie’s home turf after all! Luckily for both major parties the popular Lambie declined to run in Braddon, choosing instead to hold out in the hope of winning back her Senate spot at next year’s federal poll.

In many ways 2016 was the high-water mark for federal Labor in Tasmania, when the party (with a helping hand from the likes of GetUp!) ran a strong campaign highlighting the impact of the federal budget on regional communities. This time opinion polls have Whiteley marginally in front, which can largely be explained by local factors.

The Liberals should be able to capitalise on Tasmania’s improving economy and growing business confidence. While much of the boom has been concentrated in Hobart, the ripples are finally being felt in Braddon where unemployment has fallen from 8 per cent in 2014 to 6.3 per cent in May this year.

Other factors that may play well for the Liberals in Braddon include the Coalition’s pragmatic (albeit expensive) response to Western Australia’s grievances with the GST carve-up, which will offset the impact of the new tax distribution formula on poorer states.

This year’s Tasmanian election in March proved the electors of Braddon are willing to support a government that can provide stability and economic growth, with the Liberal Hodgman government outpolling Labor by more than two votes to one. The relationship between state and federal voting patterns may have become more tenuous in recent years, but such an emphatic Liberal win only a few months ago must have Labor worried.

Perhaps the biggest risk of all for Labor is Keay’s arguably belated resignation from Parliament, having long argued she had taken all reasonable steps to renounce her British citizenship before she was elected. Keay resigned in May after an unfavourable High Court ruling regarding the similar case of Labor senator Katy Gallagher. While most voters think Section 44 of the Constitution is a nonsense, the Liberals’ relentless attack on Keay for failing to act sooner may sway some in Braddon.

Yet, while the Liberals have a good chance of winning back Braddon, Labor can’t be ruled out. History is on the ALP’s side and, despite growing concerns about Shorten’s leadership, the party has the momentum federally. Also, some of the independents running on Saturday, such as straight-talking commercial fisherman Craig Garland, have indicated they will preference Labor.

So once again Braddon is on a knife-edge. And, this time the election result could have major consequences for Shorten and the 2019 election.

Professor Richard Eccleston is a political scientist and director of the Institute of the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania.

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