Kevin Rudd spars with Bill Glasson during the 2013 election campaign
The first major test of Bill Shorten’s leadership is clearly going to be the Griffith by-election due early next year. Most commentators are expecting the Liberal candidate Dr Bill Glasson (for a doctor he is) to do well. I’d like to add my name to the list of pundits that share this expectation and like all of them I’d also like to refuse to specify what exactly I mean by ‘do well.’ This should give me scope to boast that I was right so long as the result falls within a radius of, say, 25%.
Putting gutlessness masquerading as real predictions to the side, here is a real one: Labor will win Griffith. Of those few noble and brave commentators courageous enough to make a real prediction, most seem to be going the other way. Their rationale for doing so seems to be as follows: Kevin Rudd only just managed to keep Glasson out in September and without out a political colossus like Rudd holding the line Glasson should walk it in.
The problem with this logic is twofold. Firstly the Coalition was sweeping to a national landlslide when Glasson gave Rudd a run for his money back in September whereas Abbott’s polling has since collapsed. This will have little bearing on the result in 2016 but the Griffith by election won’t be in 2016 it will be in early 2014 and if the country is unimpressed with the Abbott government then the good burghers of Griffith may well use the by-election to send the government a message.
The other, much larger problem is that imposes general election trends onto a by-election. At a general election people are voting to choose a government, if they really don’t want Labor in power then they’ll make sure they vote Liberal but in a by-election like this the equation is significantly changed. The question becomes, do the good burghers of Griffith want to give the Abbott government more power and an inflated ego? In more than eighty years no incumbent government has successfully pinched a seat off the opposition at a by-election. The most recent attempt was Gippsland in 2008. Kevin Rudd was at the time the most popular Prime Minister in history and presumably outgoing Nationals MP Peter Mcguaran had a decent personal following but instead the nationals romped home with an increased majority. Prior to that you need to go back to the 1988 Groom by-election to find another example of an incumbent governor contesting an opposition by-election and in 1988 Labor didn’t even make the final count.
I don’t anticipate history will be rewritten when Glasson contests the Griffith by-election , I expect Labor will win, but Glasson will do very well.
All that being said, Glasson would be a good chance at the 2016 election. The equation then will suit Glasson: Do people want Bill shorten to be Prime Minister? Doubtless some of them will but the idea is less palatable than giving a secure government a bit of a kick. That’s when the absence of Rudd’s personal vote will help Glasson. In 2016 Griffith will probably go close to mirroring the national 2pp vote so if there is a big swing against the government like in 2010 or 1998, then it should be very tight but if Abbott is returned handsomely like Fraser in 1977 then Glasson is home and hosed.