Alex Bhathal

Labor MP David Feeney’s decision to put his political career out of its misery yesterday can’t have come easy, but he had three distinct reasons to recognise that the writing was on the wall.

Feeney’s the-authorities-ate-my-homework explanation for the lack of evidence in support of his claim to have relinquished his British citizenship in 2007 was obviously not going to cut it with a High Court that has maintained an all-too-hard line on the black letter of section 44.

His second problem was that he plainly lacked the electoral support needed to survive a byelection arising from his own carelessness, in contrast to the recently re-elected Barnaby Joyce in New England and John Alexander in Bennelong.

Feeney had already been quite lucky enough to have escaped the backlash he faced in 2016 over his failure to declare a negatively geared investment property located within the electorate, escaping with a 1.0% margin after a swing to the Greens that fell just shy of 10%.

Last but not least, Labor was clearly not about to let Feeney put the matter to the test, with reports indicating he would, in any case, be dumped for preselection.

Even at the time of Feeney’s initial preselection for Batman in 2013, the decision to run a Right faction warlord in a green-left inner-city seat showed Labor at its expedient worst.

According to the rules of the Labor game, Feeney’s factional muscle entitled him to something more secure than his existing position at No. 3 on the Senate ticket — and Batman happened to become available in early 2013 when his predecessor, Martin Ferguson, announced his retirement after abandoning hope that Julia Gillard would be dumped in favour of Kevin Rudd.

Now that Feeney is moving on to a better place, his headaches have transferred to the Labor leadership, for whom a byelection in Batman represents a grave political danger.

Bill Shorten’s security as leader has been largely owed to opinion polls that showed Labor bouncing back strongly during his first term as leader, and have had him course for a handsome victory in the second.

However, a few bad byelection results could give rise to an alternative narrative: that the polls, if not outright wrong, are picking up soft support that won’t survive the glare of a real election — particularly if the Liberals don’t repeat their mistake of running a curiously unaggressive campaign against him, as they did in 2016.

This has already transpired to a small extent, with Barnaby Joyce winning bigger than anyone had predicted in New England on December 2 last year, and John Alexander comfortably seeing off a seemingly strong challenge from Kristina Keneally in Bennelong a fortnight later.

Those results will soon be forgotten if they haven’t been already, but it will be quite a different story if Labor manages to lose a seat it actually holds.

The popular view is that that’s exactly what will happen in Batman, largely thanks to the result of a state byelection held on November 18 in Northcote, which is located entirely within the boundaries of Batman.

The Greens won Northcote with a swing of 11.6% — massively in excess of the 1.0% swing that will be needed in Batman.

However, this came off a strong result for Labor in Northcote at the state election in 2014, reflecting the popularity of the then member, the late Fiona Richardson.

By stark contrast, Labor will go into the Batman byelection freed from Feeney’s dead weight.

Batman is also a much harder nut for the Greens to crack than Northcote, as it extends beyond the inner-city hipster belt to more conventionally working-class suburbs around Reservoir in the north.

Impressive as the Greens’ 5.6% winning margin in Northcote may seem, it was only around 1.5% more than they were able to manage in the corresponding booths in Batman in 2016.

Throw the northern end of Batman into the equation, and it would have been touch and go.

As such, everything depends on the quality of the candidates and the strength of the parties’ respective campaigns.

Reports suggest that Bill Shorten will shortly anoint ACTU president Ged Kearney — a much more formidable proposition than the party’s little-known contender in Northcote, Clare Burns.

Even before the section 44 ruckus, the Greens had already preselected social worker Alex Bhathal as their candidate for the next election, who has run in the seat on no fewer than five previous occasions.

As related by Guy Rundle in Crikey earlier this week, elements within the local party are moving to have Bhathal disendorsed if not expelled, for reasons that will seem obscure at best to anyone outside the loop.

If the Greens wish to signal that there is actually little to separate from them from Labor in terms of factional skulduggery, shafting Bhathal on the eve of an anticipated victory would seem an ideal way of going about it.

Should good sense prevail, however, the Batman byelection will develop into a keenly fought contest that could tip either way.

Peter Fray

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