By Nick Economou
On Saturday 28 July by-elections will be held in five federal electoral districts across the country.
Four of these by-elections were caused as a result of the “citizenship crisis”, and one by an early retirement of a recently elected member of the lower house (Labor’s Tim Hammond in the seat of Perth).
Four of the five by-elections will involve sitting Labor members seeking to defend their seats (the other seat is to be defended by former Nick Xenophon Team, now Centre Alliance members Rebekah Sharkey).
The scale of these elections has prompted commentators to dub 28 July as “Super Saturday” and, indeed, the contests have the potential to reverberate through the national political community.
The interesting thing about Super Saturday, though, is that it is the Labor opposition and its leader, Bill Shorten, who are under the greatest pressure as these by-elections loom. A poor performance by Labor in any of the four seats the party is defending would be a disastrous outcome for Mr Shorten.
As has been widely canvassed, by-elections are usually an opportunity for voters to give the government a bit of a kicking.
Against this historical context, the performance benchmark Mr Shorten and Labor need to achieve on 28 July is actually quite substantial. At the very least, Shorten’s Labor party must not lose any of its seats to the government.
Indeed, a grim defence of all sitting members may not in itself be a sign of success, as the expectation would be that an anti-government swing would translate in to a swing to Labor in all seats including the marginal ones.
It is clear that Labor is rather worried about these by-elections especially in the Tasmanian seat of Braddon and, of arguably greater significance, the Queensland seat of Longman. Both seats were won by Labor from the Liberal party at the general election in 2016, and so any swing against Labor in these seats would be interpreted as a sign that the opposition might struggle to win the next general election.
The result in Queensland would be particularly important. Queensland has been a very weak state for Labor in federal elections even though state Labor does quite well in Queensland state elections.
An inability to gain marginal seats in Queensland has been a major factor in preventing Labor from winning national government. Labor simply must win seats like Logan, so any sign of weakness in the Labor performance at the by-election could be the catalyst for major instability within the opposition.
The obvious target for that instability would be Bill Shorten.
With at least one leadership rival in the form of Anthony Albanese gaining press attention for a speech seeking to resurrect the notion of class-crossing consensus politics as the preferred model for as future Labor government, there is already a hint of positioning to exploit any post-by-election opportunity to re-visit the party leadership.
Another sign of instability emerged with the press reporting some dismay amongst a handful of back-bench Labor MPs about the way Mr Shorten handled a question put to him about the repealing of tax concessions for businesses with a $10 million turnover.
That small business interests would be angered by Shorten’s policy to repeal such concessions is to be expected. Small business is hardly a core Labor constituency.
The real significance of this incident lies in the willingness of members of the Labor Caucus to feed press stories about intra-party discontent with Shorten’s leadership in relation to a proposal that should not really be that offensive to the party membership and/or the party’s partisan electoral supporters.
The implication is thus clearly one of a move on behalf of at least some within the Labor party to replace Shorten should the opportunity arise – and that’s where the by-elections come in to play. Now it should be remembered that Shorten’s by-election track record hasn’t been that bad to date. Although Labor did really poorly in the Bennelong by-election, its ability to hold off the Greens in the seat formerly known as Batman was a stunning success.
Shorten’s problem here is that such successes are fleeting. The next challenge is always just around the corner and the decision by the High Court to disqualify a number of Labor members on the grounds that they breached Section 44(i) of the constitution is particularly difficult in the light of Shorten’s previous assurances that no Labor member would be caught up in this controversy.
These by-elections are fertile ground for the voters to punish Labor for its indolent pre-selection process, and Mr Shorten for his tendency to indulge in hyperbole.
If they do indeed register a minor swing away from the government or, indeed, a swing to the government resulting in Labor losing seats to the Liberal party, two things will probably happen as a result. First, Mr Shorten will be challenged as Labor leader. Second, Malcolm Turnbull will rush to call a general election.
Indeed, the prime minister would be wise to go to the polls as quickly as possible to lock Shorten in as opposition leader.
Clearly a lot will be riding on the July 28 by-elections.
Dr Nick Economou teaches politics at Monash University’s Clayton Campus in Melbourne.