Federal politics will soon kick into gear for 2024 with campaigning for the Dunkley by-election, likely to be held in late February or early March.
The by-election has been caused by the sad death of former Labor MP Peta Murphy, who succumbed to breast cancer at the end of 2023. It will be the third by-election since the election of the Albanese government in May 2022.
You can find more on the seat of Dunkley and the by-election in my seat profile on the ABC Elections site.
The by-election will be a test for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Labor Party, keen to retain what is a marginal seat despite its on-paper electoral buffer of 6.3%.
It will also be a challenge for the Liberal Party and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. After the Liberal Party’s historic loss at last April’s Aston by-election, the opposition needs a good result in Dunkley to confirm recent improvement in opinion polls.
But there are arguments for and against whether Dunkley will be a good test of the national electoral mood.
Being fought in Victoria, currently Labor’s strongest state, can Dunkley be viewed as representative of the national electorate? The 2022 federal election reduced the Liberal Party to just eight of 39 Victorian seats, since cut to seven seats by the Aston loss. Only two of those seats, Deakin and Menzies, are entirely suburban.
The Liberal Party has also performed badly in Victorian state politics, losing six of the last seven state elections. There was a swing to the Coalition at the November 2022 state election but the Liberal Party lost seats and has since been dealing with internal party recriminations.
Arguing for the by-election’s importance, Dunkley is the sort of outer-suburban seat the Liberal Party needs to start winning if it hopes to overcome the loss of once blue ribbon Liberal seats to Independents.
Dunkley includes some newer housing estates where interest rate rises have bitten. Across the electorate there are families who are feeling the effects of inflation.
Based on national opinion polls, there is not enough movement to predict the Liberal Party will win Dunkley.
But by-elections are an opportunity for voters to send a message when the government’s fate is not in play. Will the anti-government swing common at by-elections be large enough to deliver victory to the Liberal Party?
The swing needed is 6.3%, and Labor achieved a 6.4% swing the other way to win Aston. Covering the full period since Federation, the average anti-government swing is a little under 4%.
More recently there have been 52 by-elections since the election of the Hawke government in 1983. Of those, 28 were traditional two-party contests between Labor and the Coalition, the type of contest we will see in Dunkley.
Across the 28 two-party by-elections, the average anti-government two-party preferred swing was 3.5%. It was 4.7% against Labor governments in 17 contests, and 2.3% against Coalition governments in another 11.
Of the 28 by-elections, 15 were in government held seats and 13 in seats held by an opposition party. The average swing against government in government held seats was 5.4% compared to only 1.2% in Opposition held seats.
At the eight by-elections in Labor seats during Labor governments, the average swing was 8.2% compared to 2.3% in seven similar contests during Coalition governments.
The Labor Party had an astonishingly good result in Aston, in contrast to poor first term by-election results for Labor governments led by Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd. Under both Hawke and Rudd, Labor was further ahead in polls than the Albanese government at the time of its Aston victory.
Not that average swings are a useful measure given the wide variety of swings at by-elections. Swings are more about the time specific circumstances of a by-election and are not always comparable with an average calculated over several decades.
Larger swings than required in Dunkley afflicted the Hawke government at third term by-elections in 1988. The Adelaide and Port Adelaide by-elections, fought on the now forgotten issue of timed local calls for home phones, cost the government Adelaide and produced a double digit swing in Port Adelaide. Another double digit swing struck at the Oxley by-election later the same year. Labor’s position in all three seats was restored at the 1990 election when the Hawke government was narrowly re-elected.
Not so with the 16.2% swing that delivered a rare Liberal win in the ACT at the 1995 Canberra by-election. Labor recovered Canberra at the 1996 election, but it was a pallid highlight amidst the wreckage of the Keating government’s defeat.
Going further back in time to June 1975, the famous Bass by-election produced a Liberal gain after a 14.3% swing, accurately predicting the Labor Party’s fate under Gough Whitlam later in the year.
The biggest anti-government swing under a Coalition government was in the Brisbane seat of Ryan in March 2001. Labor won the seat after a 9.7% swing. John Howard famously described the result as not a repeat of Bass and Canberra, and the Howard government recovered Ryan and was re-elected to office at the 2001 election.
So will the by-election produce an average anti-government swing and see Labor retain Dunkley, or will we see larger swing that delivers victory to the Liberal Party?
Either way, the Dunkley by-election will set the frame for politics in the first half of 2024.
For more on the Dunkley by-election, see my profile of the electorate and candidates at the ABC website.
And for more on by-elections and results, read on in this post.
Read More »Background on Federal By-election Swings