After all the hype about how the Bennelong by-election would be a close result, that Labor’s star candidate Kristina Keneally was sweeping the electorate off its feet, it turned out to be comfortable victory for Liberal John Alexander. On two party preferred figures there was only a 4.97% swing to Labor and John Alexander won with 54.75% of the two-party preferred vote.
Many commentators on both the left and the right have highlighted if this swing was replicated at a federal election the Coalition would lose 23 seats. However, in by-elections there is normally a swing against the government and in a federal election Labor would run dead in seat like Bennelong. The two-party preferred swing in the Canning by-election in 2015 was 6.55%.
It is certainly not all over for the Coalition just yet. Malcolm Turnbull looks to finishing the year off on a high by winning two by-elections brought on by the dual citizenship saga and has seen the passage of same sex marriage through the parliament.
His leadership now appears secure in the near future, socially conservative Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells on Sky News said that any backgrounding against the government should cease and its time for the Liberals to unite.
Malcolm Turnbull was certainly eager to claim the win as his own by appearing on stage with John Alexander at his victory party as he had done with Barnaby Joyce two weeks earlier in New England.
The result is a major blow to Bill Shorten who was present in Bennelong almost every day in the week up to polling day. His personal popularity has always been low and its clear his presence did not have the desired effect on the result.
There is also much debate about whether the selection of Kristina Keneally as Labor’s candidate was a mistake given her baggage as New South Wales Premier. It is now speculated her consolation prize will be taking Sam Dastyari’s Senate seat.
Labor also now has their own dual citizenship issues with two of their MPs David Feeney and Josh Wilson could see themselves fighting by-elections where in their seats of Batman and Fremantle the Greens would be a good chance of winning. It could actually be the Labor Party who see their numbers in parliament reduced due to the citizenship saga.
The by-election was also the first test for Australia Conservatives who had a high-profile candidate in Joram Richa whose brother Chechade Richa runs the popular conservative Facebook page Verum Media. However they were only able to obtain 4.3% of the primary vote and most of that came from the Christian Democrats who obtained 3.1% and who had a swing against them of 3.3%.
Bennelong is a socially conservative seat as it was one of the 17 electorates who voted no in the same sex marriage postal survey, so it was where there was potentially a lot of votes for Australian Conservatives to pick up given John Alexander voted yes.
Although this result if replicated could see them win an upper house seat in New South Wales at the 2019 state election it is nowhere near enough for them to gain Senate representation at the federal level. There is clearly still a lot of work for Australian Conservatives to do if they are to really give the Coalition a scare at an election and drag them in more conservative direction.
However probably the most positive aspect of the by-election result was that Labor’s race baiting by accusing the Turnbull Government of being Chinaphobic did not work. It first emerged as a defence against the attacks on Sam Dastyari’s Chinese connections but even after Dastyari resigned they continued this line of attack based on the government’s proposed foreign influence laws.
Bennelong is a seat which has a 21% Chinese voting population and 50% of voters speak a language other than English at home. There was a Chinese pamphlet circulated on social media during the campaign which claimed the Liberals were discriminating against Chinese-Australians.
But thankfully the voters of Bennelong were able to see through this and delivered this comfortable result for Alexander and the Liberals. Of course, this probably won’t see Labor abandon playing the race card in future elections as resorting to identity politics and cries of discrimination is something the left do frequently.
The end of the political year appears to have brought a change in fortunes for the Coalition and Malcolm Turnbull. It is further proof of how volatile and unpredictable federal politics has become. But Labor is still comfortably ahead in the polls, but if Turnbull is able to make some sound political decisions in 2018 and Bill Shorten’s shortcomings continue to be exposed then the next election could prove to still be a competitive contest.