The Pittwater by-election stands as a disaster of historic magnitude both for the New South Wales Liberal Party, which has lost its third-safest seat, and for the Poll Bludger, who has lost $25. Apologies are due to Alex McTaggart and to various journalists whose prescient remarks about the Liberals’ troubles received short shrift on this site.
In my defence, I was in good company – my assessment was echoed by Antony Green, whose recent Parliamentary Library background paper on New South Wales by-elections from 1965 to (early) 2005 provides historical perspective on the scale of the disaster. The paper notes that major parties have often declined to nominate candidates because they felt that leaving the field vacant for independents was the best chance of depriving their opponents of the seat. Until yesterday, the tactic had not been particularly successful. Antony lists 24 "one-sided" by-elections held in New South Wales between 1975 and 2004, to which two more were added at the triple M by-elections of September 17. Of these, the only defeat for a major party candidate was at last year’s Dubbo by-election, and this did not represent a loss for the relevant major party (the Nationals) because the previous member had also been an independent.
This should not come as a surprise, because newcomer independents traditionally win their seats on the back of major party preferences. Once they are privy to the advantages of incumbency it is not uncommon for independents to turn in results as good as that achieved yesterday by Alex McTaggart, but getting their foot in the door normally involves finishing second and then surging ahead on preferences from a third-placed major candidate. That McTaggart was able to skip this phase and outperform Paul Nicolaou on the primary vote underscores the magnitude of the catastrophe for the New South Wales Liberals.
As the Sun-Herald puts it, "the result has left poll specialists reaching for history books to find when a safe seat had swung so demonstrably against one of the major parties". In the Federal arena, the examples that spring to mind are Bass in 1975 (when Labor’s primary vote fell 17.5 per cent), Canberra in 1995 (when it fell 21.8 per cent) and Cunningham in 2002 (down 6.1 per cent, but with the result being a historic loss to the Greens). At State level, the Sunday Telegraph quotes Antony Green citing the Coffs Harbour by-election of 1990, when the National Party vote fell from 67.3 per cent to 37.4 per cent. But this was partly influenced by an increase in the number of candidates from two to seven, and the Nationals still won the seat by a two-party margin of 5.4 per cent.
Since my command of the subject is sketchy, I would be grateful if readers can help me put together a list of noteworthy State by-election massacres. Major disasters only please – as a rough guide, it will take a primary vote swing of at least 15 per cent to make the cut. To get the ball rolling, here are three examples that do spring to mind – note the home state bias.
Benalla, Victoria (13/5/2000). Locals were not pleased when Nationals leader Pat McNamara quit parliament not long after the unexpected defeat of the Kennett Government, and reacted by sending the party’s vote down from 57.4 per cent to 41.0 per cent and delivering the seat to Labor for the first time in its history. Unsuccessful Nationals candidate Bill Sykes would go on to narrowly recover the seat from Labor’s Denise Allen at the otherwise disastrous 2002 election.
Floreat, WA (16/5/1991). Now the member for the successor electorate of Churchlands, Liz Constable came to parliament in this safe Liberal seat at a by-election brought on by the death of Andrew Mensaros. Constable was the popular local choice for a Liberal preselection that instead went to the favoured candidate of controversial powerbroker Noel Crichton-Browne. She contested as an independent and scored an easy win with 49.0 per cent of the primary vote, with the Liberal vote falling from 63.3 per cent to 37.0 per cent in a field vacated by Labor.
Geraldton, WA (13/4/1991). Carmen Lawrence’s Labor Government was already reeling from the WA Inc fiasco when a botched reshuffle caused three dumped ministers to quit the Labor Party, depriving it of its parliamentary majority. Geraldton MP Jeff Carr quit parliament altogether, prompting a by-election at which the Labor vote fell from 47.6 per cent to 16.6 per cent, leaving the Liberal and National candidates to fight it out for first and second place. The narrow winner was Liberal candidate Bob Bloffwitch, who would go on to suffer an electoral meltdown of his own at the 2001 State election.
Surfers Paradise, Queensland (5/5/2001). Upon conceding defeat after the disastrous 2001 election, at which he had taken his party from 23 seats to 12, Nationals leader Rob Borbidge told supporters that his own seat of Surfers Paradise was among the casualties. This puzzled election watchers who correctly believed him to be about 5 per cent in front. It may have amounted to wishful thinking, as his resigned his leadership and parliamentary seat immediately upon his re-election. The resulting by-election reduced the National Party from a near primary vote majority (49.7 per cent) to the status of a minor party (8.0 per cent). Votes were lost to the first Liberal Party candidate in the seat since 1992, John-Paul Langbroek (21.2 per cent), and to Gold Coast mayor and independent candidate Lex Bell, who won the seat with 35.9 per cent of the vote. The result meant the end of the National Party as a force on the Gold Coast, although they still won’t admit it. The seat returned to the Coalition fold at the 2004 election partly because Bell had became mired in local scandals, but also because the Nationals left the field free to the Liberals, who again ran with Langbroek. Tip: Darryl Rosin.
Bass Hill and Rockdale, New South Wales (2/8/1986). The writing was on the wall for Barrie Unsworth’s Labor Government after the two by-elections marking the departure of his predecessor, Neville Wran (Bass Hill), and another MP in a safe seat, Brian Bannon (Rockdale). Unsworth used Rockdale to make the necessary switch from the upper to lower house a la John Gorton in 1968, but received the shock of his life when a 17.1 per cent dive in the primary vote combined with hostile independent preferences to bring him to within 54 votes of defeat. The result in Wran’s old stronghold was even worse, with a 22.2 per cent drop on the primary vote delivering a 103 vote victory to the Liberal candidate. Although Unsworth was swept from office at the subsequent State election in 1988, both Bass Hill and Rockdale reverted to type and were easily won by Labor. Tip: Geoff Lambert.