A rarely-mentioned feature of the second half of the Howard era was the paucity of byelections. There were a couple, but none involving the Coalition, which has not contested one since Aston in July 2001. This might be some kind of record.

It was indicative of great discipline in the previous government — no member dared resign mid-term — and also two Liberal decisions not to contest unwinnable seats. This decision in Cunningham in 2002 led to the election of the Greens’ Michael Organ. In both Cunningham and Werriwa in 2005 Liberal abstention allowed the myth of Howard’s electoral indestructibility to continue its loopy trajectory.

In each case the most likely result would have been modest swings to Labor, but the two-party vacuum allowed excitable commentators to suggest that — you never know — Howard might have won this seat, such was his electoral prowess.

This year, Brendan Nelson wants a “Super Saturday” to get them all out of the way — Higgins (Peter Costello), Mayo (Lord Downer) and Gippsland (Peter McGauran). (Shouldn’t Father of the House Philip Ruddock be on that list?) With the Rudd government soaring in the polls, Nelson reasonably expects to do badly.

Howard was still honeymooning when Labor forced the disastrous Lindsay poll in 1996, and in 1999 we saw the newly installed Bracks government in Victoria storm home in byelections, including in Jeff Kennett’s former seat of Burwood.

In addition, if voters don’t like the reason for the byelection they often punish the wrongdoers. This happened in Ryan in 2001 and Cunningham. So unless the government’s popularity dives in the next few months, we should expect Labor to do well in these byelections overall – maybe even achieve a swing or two.

But are any of the three seats vulnerable? Mayo nearly elected the Democrat John Schumann in 1998, but that was probably a flash in the pan. Higgins also has a very safe margin.

But McGauran lost 5% of his margin in a redistribution before the 2004 election, and then got it back with an anti-Latham swing which was only partially reversed in 2007. Maybe there’s some more slack to go in Gippsland, and the current margin is just 6%.

As well, country folk have a penchant for Independents.

Gippsland might be one to watch.

Peter Fray

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