The Canning by-election will test the leadership of both the PM and opposition leader.
The untimely death of the federal MP for Canning, Don Randall, has robbed the Liberal Party of one of its best marginal seat campaigners, and Western Australia of a strong advocate in Canberra.
It has also provided the Labor Party with an unexpected opportunity to win a healthy swing – possibly a winning one – at the approaching by-election. Can Labor rise to the challenge?
Mr Randall might not have been cabinet minister material, but he was a politician in permanent campaign mode. That is why, after narrowly winning a no-holds barred challenge from Labor’s Alannah MacTiernan at the 2010 federal election, he had stretched his winning margin to comfortable 11.8 per cent in 2013. The seat was his for as long as he wanted.
This will be only the second federal by-election held in WA due to the death of the sitting member since 1945. The first happened after the wartime Labor prime minister and member for Fremantle, John Curtin, collapsed and died in office.
Labor retained the seat with schoolteacher Kim Beazley senior, who served in the House of Representatives for the next 32 years.
In fact the party of a deceased member has held on in the vast majority of cases around the country, which means the Liberals, in theory, will start as favorites to win again.
If only it were that easy.
By-elections traditionally produce a swing against the government of the day. Voters most often accept the invitation to send a (protest) message to the government, especially if it holds a comfortable working majority.
In the case of Canning, however, Mr Randall had built-up a strong personal following, thanks to his energetic campaigning. No-one really knows how big it was, which is a source of great nervousness for the Liberals and hope for Labor.
The pressure is now on the major parties to endorse strong candidates; factional hacks needn’t apply. That is why names such as the retiring Liberal state director Ben Morton, and Labor’s Matthew Keogh, who is WA president of the Law Society, have been mentioned early as possible contenders.
Unlike a general election, which is conducted in presidential mode with the candidates being seen and not heard, by-election contenders will be thrust into the spotlight. They need to be able to handle the pressure, including from the media. A high-profile slip during the campaign could well be fatal.
The risks for Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Liberals start with the fact the contest has come out of the blue. There has been no time to lay the groundwork for a positive campaign. And at this stage there is no clear indication what issues might resonate in this outer metropolitan and regional seat south-east of Perth.
Mr Abbott and Labor leader Bill Shorten must appear during the campaign to display their leadership credentials. But don’t expect the prime minister to be drawn into a debate on a possible increase in the GST or other charges. He’ll be happy to remind voters how his government ‘stopped the boats’ and ‘axed the (carbon) tax’, but attempts by his opponents to exploit his decision to withdraw support for wind turbines might not be as productive as in an inner-city electorate.
Mr Shorten’s successful push at the ALP national conference to ‘turn back the boats’ might well be timely. But he would be advised to soft pedal the same sex marriage issue, because of the location and demographic. If voters are to back Labor, it won’t be on issues held dear by the middle class professionals living closer to the CBD.
The vote for the Greens could well be decisive in a close finish. And they could just be the direct beneficiary, rather than Labor, of a slump in primary support for the Liberals. That would be a blow to Labor and a signal that the party must do more to regain the trust lost during the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership shambles between 2007 and 2013.
WA Labor’s representation in Canberra is at a near-record low. Three out of 15 seats in the lower house and three out of 12 places in the Senate represents a modest base. A key factor for this parlous state was the poor deal WA was handed by federal Labor, with the mining tax row the shining example.
Federal Labor not only lost the trust of the mining industry and thousands of traditional Labor voters, it also lost the confidence of the WA parliamentary Labor Party. Remember state leader Mark McGowan suggesting Julia Gillard and her frontbenchers were not welcome to ‘help’ during the last state campaign?
That was more than two years ago. Can voters be convinced the party has kissed and made up?