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2019.02.16, Saturday

Canning by-election: Mid-range swing a 'good result' for Turnbull

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Liberals’ dumping of Tony Abbott in favour of Malcolm Turnbull appears to have helped contain the swing to give the government an easy win in the Canning byelection.

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A contest that started as politically charged ended as something of a damp squib. Late Saturday night the two-party swing against the government was around 6.5%, substantial in normal circumstances but considerably less than earlier knife-edge polls had threatened.

With around 70% of the vote counted, the primary vote for Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie, an ex-SAS officer, stood at about 46%. Labor’s Matt Keogh was on about 36%. The Greens were polling around 6%. The Palmer United Party vote has collapsed from just under 7% in the 2013 election to about 3%. The byelection resulted from the death of the former Liberal member Don Randall, who held the seat with an 11.8% margin.

The confusing cross currents caused by the leadership change mean that not a great deal can be read in national terms into the 6.5% swing – although it is above the 5% average against governments in byelections since 1949.

A Fairfax-Ipsos poll in Canning taken just before the leadership change and published on Monday showed an anti-government swing of almost 10%. At that stage the byelection was seen as crucial to Abbott’s future, with a bad result likely to lead to a move against him. But Turnbull, who knew he had the numbers against Abbott, decided not to wait.

After he was deposed, Abbott supporters claimed Canning had been on track under him for a better outcome than some of the public polling had suggested. They also claimed this as one reason the challenge was brought on before the byelection.

But although the government seemed set to retain Canning even under Abbott, the former prime minister was poison in the electorate. Labor centred its campaign on his unpopularity. When he was removed, the ALP campaign was inevitably deflated. The Liberals ran a locally centred campaign.

Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop, flanking Hastie at the Liberals’ victory celebration on Saturday night, said it was “a most impressive outcome”. She had spoken to Turnbull, who sent his best wishes to Hastie.

Keogh, speaking to his supporters on Saturday night, said “We may have lost the battle of Canning … but we did win the first war – we did get rid of Tony Abbott”.

In his victory speech, Hastie said: “This campaign was always about the people of Canning and their concerns. It is quite clear that the people of Canning don’t care about Canberra politicking or tricky games and it is worth noting that London and Moscow are actually closer together than Perth and Canberra themselves.”

Keogh said the normal swing when a member had died was about 2.5% – but Labor was looking at swings of 6%. He said people were upset by the government’s broken promises and cuts, and thousands of people had voted Labor for the first time. “The voters love Bill [Shorten], despite what you might read in the newspapers,” he said.

Shorten campaigned extensively in the byelection; Abbott paid three visits, the last a week ago. Turnbull was there once. Hastie quipped at Saturday’s celebration: “We shared a train ride from the city to Mandurah, and I watched him walk the full length of the train and back talking to people. If that’s any guide to how he’s going to operate as the prime minister, the AFP security detail have a big job ahead of them.”

Hastie also thanked Abbott, saying he was “grateful for his support and guidance”.

Shorten said the byelection was always going to be an incredibly difficult fight for Labor.

“The Liberal Party sacrificed Australia’s prime minister to hold the seat of Canning,” he said. Labor’s campaign had turned a safe Liberal seat into a marginal one.

“Voters in Canning have sent Malcolm Turnbull a clear message: the Liberals changing leaders changed little. This evening’s result is a strong rejection of the Abbott/Turnbull government’s cuts and broken promises.

“This result is a strong endorsement of Labor’s commitment to Australian jobs and our concerns about details of the China free trade agreement,” Shorten said.

The comfortable Canning win provides a good start to Turnbull’s prime ministership, which takes a major step forward with the announcement of his ministry on Sunday. The revamped ministry will see Scott Morrison replace Joe Hockey as treasurer and more women on the frontbench, including in cabinet.

Listen to the latest Politics with Michelle Grattan podcast with guest, Arthur Sinodinos.

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