The Werriwa by-election result was no surprise to anyone, except perhaps
Stephen Mayne and a few People Power supporters. The by-elections that stick in
the mind of course are the interesting ones – Bass, Canberra, Mitcham,
Cunningham – so we tend to forget that most of them are pretty boring and
return entirely predictable results.

On the rare occasions that a major party gets upset, it tends to be either by
an established minor party with its own support base (like the Greens in
Cunningham), or by a well-known local identity (Phil Cleary in Wills). Neither
was present in Werriwa, so there wasn’t an upset. With no major party opponent,
Labor improved its vote slightly to 55.5%. James Young, the surrogate Liberal,
was a distant second on 7.8%. The minor parties filled most of the top half of
the card: the Greens, the donkey vote, Family First, the Christian Democrats
and One Nation ran respectively third, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth. In
sixth spot was Joe Bryant, another Liberal sympathiser. People Power came in
ninth, with 3.1%. (See the results here; and the poll bludger has a very good wrap here.)

John Howard, not surprisingly, has his own spin on the result: “If you look at
the swings to an opposition in a by-election, the primary vote since 1949, the
average is about 6.5%. This time it went up by 2.85 so … it was a below
average performance for an Opposition in a by-election.” (See here.) Really? Most by-elections swing against the incumbents, so the average swing
to the opposition is inflated by the fact that most by-elections are in
government-held seats. For an opposition-held seat, with a vastly increased
field, Labor did well.

In any case, primary votes aren’t what count, as Howard knows. If the
two-candidate-preferred vote against the surrogate Liberal means anything,
Labor got a swing of about 11% – way above the historical average. If (as I
suspect) it doesn’t mean anything, then there’s no comparison to make in the
first place and the PM, whose party was too gutless to field a candidate, would
be better advised to keep quiet.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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