By Malcolm Mackerras

Just in case readers have noticed my absence I have just spent seven weeks in the United Kingdom visiting relatives. On the side I also studied British politics and in my next article I shall comment on the most interesting feature of current UK politics, the election of a new Labour leader to replace Ed Miliband who resigned immediately in the wake of Labour’s general election disaster. The result is expected to be announced on Saturday 12 September. Pundits are predicting that the new leader will be Jeremy Corbyn, member of the House of Commons for Islington North, and the new deputy leader will be Tom Watson, member for West Bromwich East. 

Meanwhile, much has happened in Australian politics but I wish to comment on four subjects only, the same-sex marriage debate, the election of a new Speaker of the House of Representatives, the situation of Dyson Heydon and the forthcoming by-election for Canning (WA) on 19 September.

My view on same-sex marriage is that this is a subject that should be settled by the federal parliament, not by the courts (as in the US) and not by a plebiscite, as currently being proposed for Australia. The idea of having an entirely unnecessary $50 million plebiscite is inherently absurd. It seems to me the main reason we might have one is so that opponents can block the change through a popular vote. So they hope! Another motive might be that Tony Abbott does not want to suffer the humiliation of having HIS ONLY TERM (otherwise known as the 44th Parliament) carry legislation to which he is personally strongly opposed. If there ever is a plebiscite I shall write on my ballot paper: “This is a ridiculous waste of Taxpayers money”.

While I was away Bronwyn Bishop resigned as Speaker of the House of Representatives and she was replaced by Tony Smith, the Liberal member for Casey in Victoria since 2001. Both developments gave me pleasure. I have known Tony well since December 2004 when he became chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters of the federal parliament. While in recent times he and I have clashed over reform of the Senate electoral system that has not diminished my personal regard for him. I confess to another (rather sneaky) reason for my gladness at his elevation. He will be distracted from his lobbying for the Senate electoral system he favours while leaving me free to lobby for the Senate reform I favour!

Dyson Heydon got into trouble while I was away. That fact was a political win for Labor but Labor should drop the subject now. He has made the (quite correct) decision to continue as head of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption and, apart from the rare commentator from the hard left, commentary has been solidly on side with Heydon’s decision. I have no doubt that public opinion is just as solidly on Heydon’s side.

The two-party preferred percentages in Canning at the September 2013 general election were 62 Liberal and 38 Labor. I am predicting a 9% swing to Labor so I predict that 53% of the two-party preferred vote will favour the Liberal candidate, Andrew Hastie, and 47% the Labor candidate, Matt Keogh. That would bring the vote shares roughly into line with those of the August 2010 general election when Labor had an unusually good candidate, Alannah MacTiernan, now federal member for Perth. At the 2016 general election Hastie will enjoy a big win, in part because the new boundaries will strengthen the Liberal vote and partly because Hastie will then get the personal vote benefit from being the sitting member.

However, an unusual situation has arisen. There will be 16 federal electoral divisions in Western Australia next year compared with 15 at present. The new seat of Burt will comprise 35,612 electors from Canning (the most strongly Labor polling places), 36,855 from Hasluck, 18,130 from Tangney and 3,166 from Swan, for a total of 93,763 electors. I predict the new seat will, at the 2016 general election, elect Keogh as its first member. So there will be something in it for both big parties. For the Liberal Party it will be “a win is a win is a win” with a new, high quality member in a safe Liberal seat, Canning. For Labor it will be a respectable performance with a new, high quality member in what will, over time, surely become the safe Labor seat of Burt.

For me the most interesting feature of this by-election is non-political. The first year in which I followed politics closely was 1952 when the members for Lyne, Flinders, Werriwa and Bradfield died, creating by-elections in March, October, November and December of that year, respectively. It just happens that each of Lyne, Flinders, Werriwa and Bradfield has had a subsequent by-election caused by a resignation. This illustrates an interesting truth. In the “good old days” politicians were dedicated to their vocation so they were quite likely to create vacancies due to death. By contrast today’s good health for young men, combined with current careerist attitudes, mean vacancies are almost always caused by resignation.

So Canning is an exceptional case. When a government-held seat has a by-election caused by a death does it make it more likely that the government will retain the seat? I think so but I cannot prove it. All I can say is that Canning is the eleventh federal by-election of the 21st Century, of which nine were caused by resignations and two by deaths. In the only other case of a by-election caused by a death (Aston in July 2001) the Liberal Party retained the seat with a similar kind of vote distribution to that which I now predict for Canning. Aston, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, was created in 1984 and won by Labor in 1984 and 1987. It has subsequently become a blue-ribbon Liberal seat. Canning looks to me set to follow in Aston’s footsteps.

 (Malcolm Mackerras is a visiting fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Canberra Campus.)