It’s just as well that I was too caught up in
Victorian Liberal Party developments on Friday to do a preview of
Saturday’s Pittwater by-election. If I had, I would have joined Antony
and William
Bowe (the Poll Bludger) in
predicting a comfortable win for the Liberals’ Paul Nicolau.

Instead, independent Alex McTaggart won the seat with an extraordinary 39.8% of the primary vote, beating the Liberals
even before preferences and winning a comfortable 56%

This is a truly stunning result. By-elections do
sometimes produce big swings, but usually against governments, not
oppositions. The closest parallel I can remember is the Floreat
by-election in Western Australia in 1991, when Liz Constable won a safe
Liberal seat against a Chrichton-Browne candidate, but Constable was at
least an ex-Liberal. (She’s still there, too, although her seat is now called Churchlands.)

Antony Green has a very good post-mortem in this morning’s SMH. As he points out, McTaggart is now the seventh independent in the
New South Wales parliament, all but one of them holding what would
normally be safe Coalition seats.

The Pittwater result hurts the opposition in three
ways. Most obviously, it’s dreadful publicity for them. Secondly, it
will exacerbate internal tension in the Liberal Party, which threatens
more preselection chaos and potentially more independents. Thirdly,
it’s one more seat that they can’t count on in the 2007 election.

This last effect shouldn’t be exaggerated; despite
Liberal attempts to paint him as an ALP stooge, it’s hard to see
McTaggart actually voting to keep Labor in power should he hold the
balance of power. But the sheer number of independents is bound to
increase fears of a hung parliament, which may induce more people to
support Labor in the interests of stability.

However, the Coalition needs a swing of about nine
per cent to even make that an issue, so they’ll need to improve an
awful lot on Saturday’s performance.