‘Kill Bill’ strategy fails as odds on Labor government Shorten

Super Saturday byelections in Australia result in gains for opposition parties

 Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and Labor candidate for Longman Susan Lamb at a polling station at the Caboolture State High School in Moray, north of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten and Labor candidate for Longman Susan Lamb at a polling station at the Caboolture State High School in Moray, north of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/EPA

 

The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull tried to play it down, but there was really no spinning the fact his Liberal-National government won none of the five byelections held on what was called super Saturday.

“There’s not a lot to celebrate for the Labor Party. There’s certainly nothing to crow about,” Turnbull said.

But Labor won four of the five seats and the minor Centre Alliance won the other. Labor leader Bill Shorten was not quite crowing, but he saw things differently to Turnbull.

“Labor did well. I think that’s a fair statement, that’s not being arrogant,” he said.

Two weeks ago, Turnbull characterised one of the byelections, in the Queensland seat of Longman, as “between me and Bill Shorten as the prime minister and the opposition leader”. It was part of the government’s “kill Bill” strategy of relentlessly targeting Shorten, based on polls saying he was a drag on Labor’s vote.

Labor’s primary vote in Longman was 42.2 per cent, the Liberal-National candidate got 25.5 per cent. Operation kill Bill was an abject failure.

Tanya Plibersek, Labor’s deputy leader, said talk before the byelections of Shorten’s position as party leader being under threat was created by News Corp publications “because they want us to lose the next election”. Whether the speculation was real or not, it’s gone now.

Labor campaigned on retail politics – health, education and local issues. The prime minister said it was all about Labor’s supposed high taxes plan. “Bill Shorten is going to come after them and take their money,” he said. The voters either did not believe Turnbull, or perhaps thought some things were worth paying higher taxes for.

Backfired

In the South Australian constituency of Mayo, which the Liberal Party has held for all bar two years of the seat’s existence, Rebekha Sharkie of Central Alliance got 58.1 per cent of the vote after preferences. The Liberals’ gambit of running the daughter of a man who held the seat for 24 years backfired spectacularly.

Sharkie used similar campaigning tactics to Labor. “We are unashamedly about the interests of South Australia, ” she said. “We did it without a huge amount of money and by putting the community first.”

The late Boston Democrat Tip O’Neill is credited with coining the phrase “all politics is local” decades ago. Both Labor and Centre Alliance are putting that knowledge to good use.

The last time an Australian government won a seat from the opposition was in 1920 when Irish-born Labor MP Hugh Mahon (who had been jailed alongside Charles Stewart Parnell in Kilmainham before making his way to Australia) accused King George of “bloody and accursed despotism”. Mahon was expelled from parliament for sedition and lost the resulting byelection.

Liberal minister Christopher Pyne invoked Mahon’s spirit, if not his name in trying to say there was nothing to see here. “No one should be punching the air in the Labor party about keeping the 100-year tradition going that governments don’t win byelections.”

But on the basis of the byelection results, Labor will win the general election due within 10 months comfortably.