by Dr Nick Economou

The political year is back in full swing. Australia’s state and federal parliaments have resumed, and general elections are imminent for Tasmania and South Australia. Indeed, Victoria is to go to the polls in November.

In Canberra, meanwhile, parliamentarians have regathered amidst revelations that top secret defence documents were obtained by a member of the public who purchased a set of filing cabinets from a second hand office furniture store to find that they were filled with classified material. Thus the year got off to something of a farcical start.

The sense of farce is set to continue, mainly because the first part of the year is going to be dogged yet again by the controversy surrounding the citizenship qualifications of a number of national parliamentarians. In 2017 this matter saw the resignation of a slew of parliamentarians from the minor parties and then, a bit later, from both the Liberal and National parties. During this phase of the controversy Labor somewhat sanctimoniously chided all and sundry for their administrative tardiness as it basked in the fact that citizenship disqualification had thus far been a problem for its opponents.

One of the dangers of self-righteousness is that it can very quickly look like hypocrisy. Over the summer break the pressure on Labor member for Batman, Mr David Feeney, became too much for him as he was unable to provide evidence to back his claim to have sought to expunge his entitlement to British citizenship. Mr Feeney has since resigned from the parliament.

It is difficult to overstate the damage Mr Feeney has caused Labor and its leader, Bill Shorten. Feeney’s negligence in attending to the matter of his citizenship entitlement must have occurred despite requests from the party organisation for him to attend to this matter. It was this belief that Labor was on top of the citizenship question that prompted Shorten to declare his confidence in the bona fides of all his parliamentary colleagues. Feeney’s actions has left Shorten looking like he was either being deceptive or foolish.

Of greater immediate concern for Shorten, however, is the fact that Feeney’s departure precipitates a by-election in Feeney’s seat. The seat of Batman was narrowly won by Labor in the last general election mainly with the help of preferences from the Liberal candidate. Batman was very nearly won by the Greens party, and with a by-election now imminent and with the Liberal party indicating that it intends not to run a candidate, there has never been a better opportunity for the Greens to win Batman.

Labor is clearly aware of this and has scrambled to shore the seat up by finding a really good candidate – and former ACTU secretary Ged Kearney, who has been re-selected for the seat, is by any standard a good Labor candidate. Her union connections allow Labor to try to run a campaign based on bread-and-butter issues such as employment, industrial relations and wages and conditions thereby trying to avoid the Greens’ preference to talk about foreign policy, asylum seekers and the environment.

The Labor strategy thus relies on voters in Batman taking some time to consider the quality of the candidate rather than simply responding to party identification when voting. This may be the flaw in the strategy, as there is a possibility that Ms Kearney may not be as well known amongst the constituency as Labor strategists hope. The days are gone when large numbers of working people were members of unions, and when unions were much more militant and so those who led unions were household names.
There is also the question as to the extent to which the northern parts of the electorate have been gentrified to the extent that the southern areas have been. The extent of the impact of gentrification on voting behaviour, and its impact on support for the Greens, was in sharp display in the recent by-election for the state seat of Northcote. The recreation in the northern suburbs of the socio-economic transition from a blue-collar, low income earning, ethnically diverse community to well educated, quite affluent and quite upper middle class that has occurred in the southern area of the seat spells real trouble for Labor, regardless of the candidate.

It would seem that there is a real possibility that Labor will lose Batman to the Greens, and that this, in turn, will put enormous pressure on Bill Shorten’s leadership of the Labor party. Ms Kearney could well be significant collateral damage as well. If she fails to win Batman she might reflect on the fact that, back in 2010, she had the chance to get pre-selection for this seat upon the retirement of the former sitting members Martin Ferguson. Had she nominated, she would have won the seat and she would be in the federal parliament now.

The political year thus starts with the federal Labor opposition under significant pressure thanks to the apparent indolence of one of its former members over the matter of his citizenship status. The citizenship affair that threatened to be so damaging to the Coalition and the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has now turned full circle to pose a threat to Mr Shorten. An intriguing by-election is now imminent, the outcome of which could be quite damaging to the ALP.

Dr Nick Economou teaches politics at Monash University’s Clayton Campus. He is a regular expert commentator on Radio and Television on matters of politics.

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