By-Election Balls Up: Winners and Losers in Bennelong

John Alexander, from Wikipedia.

On the weekend recently past we were entertained by the latest episode in the long and rather tedious saga of Canberra’s ‘Who are your Parents and where were they born?’ game, which means we can now drop onto the AEC website and check the current scores.

The full back story for this latest round of the game most readers probably already know. John Alexander was found to be possibly tainted with a bit of Johnny Foreigner in his bloodlines, Labor dragged failed NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally, away from whatever victim she was currently feasting on, and much column width was wasted by all and sundry discussing how important this election was for the future of the Turnbull Government.

This much we should already know.

Where things start to become lazy is now during the post credit section. The booths have closed, the results are in and the journalistic elite are enlightening us with such profound bollocks as the fact if the 5% swing was repeated across the country in a general election that was held tomorrow, Turnbull would lose access to his social media accounts, four Mocking Birds and more seats then you can poke a stick at.

Profound stuff, and just the in depth analysis you have come to expect from the social class that needs to finish typing their articles in time for their 2pm yoga class.

However, let’s not mince words. There is not going to be a general election tomorrow, swings are not uniform, Turnbull would rather plunge Australia into the abyss than give up his selfie habit and the claimed 5% swing is actually both false and misleading. So with only a slight deviation, and allowing for the fact the AEC are still counting postal votes, let us have a sensible adult look at who the winners and losers of this by-election really are.

Tangent – Keneally, contesting for Labor in the bi-election forced on us by questions of John Alexander’s national loyalties, was born in Las Vegas.

No irony there.

So first up let us talk about the winners from this weekend, namely John Alexander and all his immediate staff. Swing or not, none of them will be forced to pack their personal items into cardboard boxes before shuffling off to a bitter-sweet farewell party down at the local boozer.

Terms for victory are quite clear. 50% of the two party preferred vote plus one more and victory is formally yours. Alexander achieved this and neither Keneally, nor the other 10 hats thrown into the ring can claim that.

Which also neatly moves us onto the losers, which quiet frankly are everybody else, with only the degree of their failure and humiliation being open to discussion.

But wait! Keneally gained a 5% swing! Surely that must be significant.

Well, no.

Swings are the lazy KPI’s of political journalists. They can offer useful hints during general elections and provide a quick and dirty answer to what has just happened. The problem is that they are a percentage of the total votes cast, not the total number of enrolled voters. This is important to understand as during by-elections, voter turnout is often significantly lower than during general elections.

Let us explain more by looking at the 2PP results from the weekend compared to the 2016 election.

In 2016 Alexander received 55,077 of the 2PP for 59.72%, against Lyndal Howison who picked up 37,154 votes and 40.28%. Well done John.

In our little by-election Alexander received about 44800 and 54.9% of the 2PP compared to Keneally who got approximately 36,700 2PP votes for 45.1%.

Or to put it another way, Keneally failed to convince more voters to preference her than were willing to preference Howison last year.

Alexander dropped roughly 10,000 supporters, but not because they switched sides. Instead they just didn’t bother getting involved.

So where did they go?

Overall attendance was down. In 2016 we had 97,173 votes. Last weekend, roughly 88,000, so about 9000 extra people decided they would rather argue the fine than tick the green boxes. There was also a significant jump in informal votes: roughly 6700, up from 4942. Now, your author has over the years played the role of party scrutineer on election night, and can claim with confidence that the vast majority of informal votes are cast deliberately. Most Australians believe the letter of the law in that it is compulsory to vote. It’s not. A more correct wording would be that it is compulsory to attend an election, but once you have been formally acknowledged by the nice people from the AEC, the Australian voter can do pretty much whatever he or she damn well likes with their little green and white bits of paper.

The majority of informal voters understand this, and the blank ballot sheet is their deliberate choice. Unfortunately there is a smaller percentage of informal votes that are legitimately stuffed up, but let’s be honest here, if you are too stupid to put numbers into boxes then you are probably too stupid to be offering valid additions to the narrative, and it would be safer for everyone if you just stayed home and kept watching the ABC.

So back to Bennelong, where we have a formal count of roughly 81,500 votes, down from 92,231. If you don’t think that is a significant number, that is an increase of non formal voters that is bigger than the total 2016 primary vote for the Greens.

Now we need to start making a few assumptions, mainly that pro-Labor voters would have seen this as an excellent chance to boot Turnbull’s Liberals and made sure they all voted. Hence, every single Labor-preferencing voter would have turned out for a net result of LESS total votes than last year.

Not really what the Newspolls have been suggesting, and Keneally WAS meant to be a star candidate. Just a tad embarrassing to be honest.

The other assumption is that the Brave Battler’s of Bold Bennelong became bored, boycotted ballots, bucked barracking on behalf of Bill and buggered off, forming part of the 10,000 odd that didn’t formally vote.

Slightly unlikely in this author’s opinion, but implying that Shorten and Keneally utterly failed to motivate their voter base. Also just a tad embarrassing.

So, if Shorten lost, then Turnbull must have won, right?

Well, no.

Alexander dropped votes. Where they went is tricky to assume. The Australian Conservatives running for the first time picked up about 3500 – slightly disappointing one might say – but the Christian Democratic Party (Fred Nile Group) dropped roughly the same amount. The Greens also dropped roughly the same amount of primary votes as Labor picked up, and the assorted novelty and single policy groups picked up the scraps.

The implications are interesting. Labor does not seem to have picked up any disgruntled Liberals, with their gains in primary voters seeming to come at the expense of The Greens, a trend to the right that may not bode well for that party in the future. To quote Sarah Hanson-Young, ‘Diddums’.

The Liberal vote dropped, but rather than transferring, just seemed to protest away into nothing. While Cory’s Great Conservative Hope – and in disclaimer, your author is very favourably inclined towards this party – seems to have failed to make great inroads it would seem that the DelCon movement so lovingly united by Miranda Devine is still not willing to forgive the Turnbull government, and, having been told that they didn’t matter by the Liberal Party, are still determined to protest by absenteeism.

In closing, apart from John Alexander himself who still has a job, there are very few people who should be coming out of this little test of Australian voter intentions feeling completely confident. The Greens lost votes to Labor, which may start to hurt then gravely in the Senate.

Shorten, Keneally and Labor failed to make any real inroads against Turnbull, suggesting that despite the Newspolls, Brand Bill is not seenas the solution to the country’s problems.

The Australian Conservatives underperformed. Given the 12 candidate ballot paper on offer, picking up over 4% of the primary was not a bad achievement, but ultimately they failed to prove to enough disappointed Liberal voters they are the new black. The Christian Democratic Party seems to be trending away into insignificance at the Australian Conservatives’ expense, while the Australian Liberty Alliance, once flagged as being a significant new force on the political landscape, didn’t even hit the 1% mark.

The big losers however seem to be Turnbull and the rest of his party. Turnbull promised big in Bennelong, and the party itself has been reported as spending significantly more than the ALP in campaigning. All this seemed to have the net result of about 10,000 previous supporters completely ignoring everything Turnbull said and simply not voting at all.

This is a significant problem for Turnbull. He is after all rapidly approaching his own petard of 30 Newspolls in a row. He has gone through the stage of voters disagreeing with what he has had to say and now seems deeply entrenched in the part where the voters are no longer even listening. There are variables of course. There is the fickle hand of fate and the randomness of the world stage that may still throw Turnbull a lifeline, but the usual rule of thumb is that once you reach this level of public disapproval you don’t come back.

Turnbull needed a big show of voter support in this by election and he didn’t get it.

We’re Your XYZ.