Andrew Bolt and Glenn Milne might want Peter Costello to hang around and replace Brendan Nelson – the 7% solution? – but the efforts of Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile mean the Coalition’s Government in Exile on the backbench are being encouraged to move on sooner rather than later. Now Nick Minchin has joined other Liberal grown-ups like Andrew Robb in suggesting it’s time.

Which begs the question, should Costello depart even if his seat might succumb to the apparently ever-rising tide of ALP support. In particular, is there room for another McKew-style glamour candidate to snare an upset win?

The psephologists think not. Both Malcolm Mackerras and Possum Comitatus observe that Higgins is no Bennelong. Higgins is blue-ribbon Liberal, with different demographics than Bennelong, which was drifting away from John Howard before McKew arrived to accelerate the shift. With Costello winning 54% of the primary vote, and 57% 2PP in November, he confined the Ruddslide to a 1.7% swing against him. Higgins is richer, more homogeneous, more… whitebread, perhaps, and more electorally stable.

A former Victorian Labor figure agrees, but with a significant caveat. The demographics of Higgins, they point out, are slowly changing due to urban infill, while the doctors’ wives phenomenon may play out differently in the absence of Costello. Costello, recall, was adept at a sort of crypto-progressivism, what might be called anti-dog whistling that suggested he was significantly more moderate than Howard, without ever actually doing too much to back that up. A new Liberal will have difficulty managing that feat.

Given a fall in the national Coalition vote of 11% suggested by the polls, a Liberal candidate could be forced to preferences, exposing them to the vagaries of independent candidates (can S. Mayne build on his 1,600 votes?). A high-profile Labor – or independent – candidate, preferably female, possibly gay, could ride the wave of approval of Rudd’s apology and ratification of Kyoto to victory. Chances? Maybe 30-40%.

Question is, what sort of profile? The ABC, having been strip-mined by the ALP for candidates, surely can’t furnish another one. But there’s other high-profile media figures who might be game. One with an AFL background, perhaps. Alternatively, a local activist with strong community ties might have sufficient on-the-ground recognition to appeal to local bluebloods.

A local Labor MP, however, suggests everyone hold their horses and wait and see if and when Costello goes. By-elections are unpredictable, he says, and no-one on the ground has a proper feel for how they will go until voters start focussing their minds on it.

The tactical consideration for the ALP is that making a determined effort in Higgins may create unrealistic expectations. A swing to Labor, without a victory, might tarnish the current aura of Rudd’s electoral invincibility. Labor may, Mackerras suggests, decide not to risk it. This may potentially allow an independent to inflict damage on the Liberals with minimal risk to Labor.

Peter Fray

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