Aston recurs

“Now I die and vanish,” you would say, “and all at once I am nothing. The
soul is as mortal as the body. But the knot of causes in which I am entangled
recurs and will create me again.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

If you hang around for long enough, as Nietzsche obscurely realised, things come round again. So it is with by-elections. Aston, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, was already the site of a notable one back in 2001. Now here it is again, with an even more remarkable result on Saturday, when Labor won the seat, vacated by the retirement of Alan Tudge, with a swing of a bit over six per cent, two-party-preferred.

As you’ll certainly have heard if you’re in Australia, this is only the second time in history that the government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and the first in more than a century. That’s a slightly misleading statistic, as is the much-touted “average” swing to the opposition in by-elections of 4.6%. You can read Peter Brent’s careful discussion of the subject in his preview of Aston last week and in his post-mortem yesterday.

Briefly, both are misleading because the majority of contested by-elections are in government-held seats, so there’s usually the loss of a government MP’s personal vote as well as an anti-government movement. And both our perceptions and (to a lesser extent) the averages are biased by the small number of really dramatic swings that presage disaster for a government (Bass 1975, Canberra 1995).

Most by-elections are much more mundane and, as Brent says, those “in which governments attract a two-party-preferred swing do indeed happen.” And the media’s habit of obsessing over them is mostly unjustified; as I pointed out in 2020, “they have almost no predictive power. Whether a government does well or badly in by-elections tells you very little about its prospects at the following election.”

With all that said, the Aston result is still dramatic. Needing a swing of 2.8% to win the seat, Labor got more than twice that – despite the fact that it had already picked up a swing of 7.3% in last year’s federal election. It was reasonable to assume that whatever Tudge’s personal vote might once have been, there was not much of it left.

But the Liberal Party had a lot of things going against it as well. The middle-eastern suburbs of Melbourne were just the place where Labor did particularly well in last November’s state election. Tudge’s scandals did not leave with him; the Robodebt royal commission has kept unpleasant memories alive. And instead of preselecting a local who would be a good marginal seat campaigner (as they had in 2001), the Liberals ran a high-flyer from, of all places, inner-city Brunswick.

Pleased with themselves for having, for once, chosen a talented woman, the Liberals failed to notice that she was a poor fit for the task she had been given. And the fact that she was identified with the hard right/News Corp view of the world suddenly became more significant in the last week of the campaign when the state Liberal Party rejected its leader John Pesutto’s attempt to take a stand against far-right politics. It wasn’t hard for Labor to get people to join the dots.

But there’s a bigger underlying problem here – in fact there’s a couple of them. One is the fact that, as across most of the developed world, the suburbs are growing. Places like Aston were once the edge of the metropolitan area, where voters were mortgaged to the hilt and had no time for fancy stuff like tolerance and multiculturalism. Now they’ve become much more mainstream, and extremist politics just doesn’t appeal to them.

And this is the second problem: that the Liberal Party is doubling down on its hard right position just as its demographic basis is slipping away. We know why, too; we’ve explored it here a number of times. Its membership has aged and narrowed to the point where it is grossly unrepresentative of its voters (and a fortiori of the uncommitted voters it needs to attract), and its branch structure has become degraded to such an extent that it is vulnerable to takeover by fanatical pressure groups.

Add as an overlay the pathologies of News Corp, which (as the Dominion lawsuit in the US dramatically reveals) has created a market for delusions that it dare not stop feeding, and the party’s position becomes even more dire. Many in its leadership know perfectly well that they need to tack towards the centre for electoral survival, but they are beholden to people who either don’t share that knowledge, or don’t care.

For the moment, Labor is thanking the electoral gods for having delivered it such dysfunctional opponents. But it too should be concerned: firstly because the lack of an effective opposition will hurt the quality of its performance, and secondly because some of the same dynamics are at work on its side of the aisle as well.


4 thoughts on “Aston recurs

  1. A third element is that the Vic Libs have been out so long that there is little reason for an ambitious young person to look at them. Careerist politicians are problematic, but they are usually keen to dump disastrous policies. Vic Labor had similar problems after the Split, and was only fixed by national intervention

    Liked by 1 person

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