Tony Abbott

For a year that’s almost certain not to feature a federal poll, notwithstanding ever-present double dissolution speculation, 2014 has as much action in store as any Australian election watcher could reasonably ask for.

Three of our nation’s six state governments will face the verdict of the people before the year is through, while other curiosities on the electoral calendar promise to test the apparently shaky standing of the Abbott government more directly.

The first of these is the byelection to choose a successor to Kevin Rudd in his inner-southern Brisbane seat of Griffith, which was yesterday set for February 8 by Bronwyn Bishop in her capacity as Speaker. It’s been a mere eight weeks since Rudd’s surprise resignation placed this particular item on the agenda, but that’s been more than enough time to require that the original conventional wisdom about the contest be cast aside.

Although Griffith’s inner-city orientation makes it one of Labor’s most reliable seats in Queensland, the party has known it to be loseable since Rudd himself failed to carry it on his first attempt in 1996. The circumstances of the byelection also granted the Liberal National Party something of a head start.

Labor’s administration had no advance warning of Rudd’s intentions, whereas the LNP found itself ready to go with the candidate it had optimistically recruited to take the fight to Rudd in September, former Australian Medical Association president Bill Glasson. That was certainly how betting markets initially read the situation, with Sportsbet making an opening offer of $1.75 on Glasson against $2.10 for a then-unnamed Labor candidate, who has turned out to be Maurice Blackburn lawyer Terri Butler.

It also seemed safe to assume that the deck would contain a wild card in the shape of the Palmer United Party, fresh from polling over 11% in Queensland at the federal election and facing the apparently golden opportunity of an electorate primed for a protest vote by the inconvenience of a byelection.

Both those bets are now off, almost literally in the first instance — coincidentally or otherwise, Kevin Rudd’s resignation coincided precisely with the Abbott government’s end-of-year dive in the polls, which has been accompanied by a blowout in Sportsbet’s price on Glasson to $4. Clive Palmer has also surprised by staying out of the fray, arguing his considerable resources can be better marshalled elsewhere.

An entree to the Griffith byelection will be served a week earlier in the state seat of Redcliffe in Brisbane’s north, where embattled LNP member Scott Driscoll resigned for “health reasons” ahead of looming action to expel him from Parliament. Redcliffe went from being a Labor seat with a margin of 5.6% to an LNP seat with a margin of 10.1% amid the state election bloodbath of March 2012, but indications are the elastic will snap back far enough to give state Labor a desperately needed eighth parliamentary seat.

Last year’s astounding 26% swing to Labor at the Miranda byelection in New South Wales offered strong evidence that the rugby league states were moving back to equilibrium after their unprecedented anti-Labor backlash of previous years, an impression strengthened when a union-commissioned ReachTEL poll showed Labor leading in Redcliffe by 54-46.

Labor’s candidate for the byelection is Yvette D’Ath, who held the corresponding federal seat of Petrie from 2007 until her defeat last year. Her opponent, Kerri-Anne Dooley, ran as the candidate of Family First at the 2012 election, a choice that some saw as betraying a certain lack of confidence on the LNP’s part.

Also lurking in the background is the unprecedented prospect of a replay of last year’s botched Senate election in Western Australia. Many observers rate a fresh poll as a foregone conclusion, but it’s far from the only option available to a High Court still in the process of considering the submissions of various interested parties.

“… November will tell whether the Coalition government in Victoria becomes the first in Australia since 1998 to fail to win a second term.”

Certainly the Abbott government will be hoping for a more judicially creative solution, as it has nothing to gain from revisiting a result that delivered the Liberals a clear three seats together with another for a non-Left party, be it the Palmer United Party or the Australian Sports Party.

With the Coalition’s polling having soured particularly badly in Western Australia in recent months, there seems a strong chance that a re-match will produce a more conventional result of three seats each for the Left and the Right. That would mean re-election for both Labor’s Louise Pratt and Scott Ludlam of the Greens, and require that the Abbott government find one more crossbench vote to pass contentious legislation.

Then there are the three looming state elections, two near the beginning of the year and one at the end, which present a rather more mixed picture so far as the major parties’ prospects are concerned. While the election of the Abbott government seems likely to have represented a national high-water mark for the Coalition, it remains difficult to see Labor’s two remaining state governments surviving their looming dates with the electorate.

Polling suggests Jay Weatherill’s government in South Australia has at least some hope of hanging on at the election fixed for March 15, but new-ish Liberal leader Steven Marshall seems to offer enough appeal to activate the “it’s time” instinct among voters faced with the alternative of extending Labor’s tenure in office to 16 years.

If the prognosis for Labor in South Australia leans towards the bad, it’s long been downright ugly for Lara Giddings’ government in Tasmania. A swing of nearly 10% cost Labor three of Tasmania’s five seats at the federal election, and all indications are that this electoral sea-change is set to play through at state level.

Labor will be pinning its slim hopes on second thoughts about the Abbott government, together with the considerable challenge faced by the Liberals — led for the second consecutive election by Will Hodgman, son of the late federal and state parliamentary veteran Michael Hodgman — in stitching together a majority under the Hare-Clark electoral system. The latter factor allowed Labor to hold despite a collapse in support at the 2010 election, but that was in an environment where the only electorally potent minor party was the Greens.

The 2013 federal election, with its messy Senate result and halving in support for the Tasmanian Greens, suggests that things could be very different this time, and that Hodgman could emerge at the head of some manner of minority or coalition government even if his party fails to clear the hurdle of winning 13 of the 25 lower house seats.

Last but certainly not least, November will tell whether the Coalition government in Victoria becomes the first in Australia since 1998 to fail to win a second term. Denis Napthine’s government is blighted by unhappy parallels with Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, having misplaced a leader during its debut term and struggled with challenges posed by a precarious position in Parliament. Recent polling suggests a honeymoon boost for Napthine has faded away, with Labor resuming the solid although not insurmountable lead it had established under Ted Baillieu.

Despite the swing at the 2013 federal election, Victoria remains a reservoir of strength for Labor, a factor that is likely to gain salience as the Abbott government grapples with what’s increasingly looking to be a difficult first year in office.