Federal election 2016: OPINION – High risk for PM in a Herbert by-election

31 Jul 2016

The Australian July 29, 2016

Weighing up the risks versus rewards of going back to the polls in Herbert is no easy judgment for Malcolm Turnbull.

By-elections can be inherently dangerous for governments, even more so when a court order rather than a death or resignation is the reason for the fresh vote. It can look like a case of sour grapes, irrespective of the validity of the legal complaint.

The bookies have installed Ewen Jones as early favourite if a Herbert by-election does ensue. The government would love to grab an extra seat, bumping its tally to 77 and giving it some room to move in the House of Representatives.

The extra seat would also help the Prime Minister claim the election result was stronger than it is currently seen by many.

Plus winning such a by-election would be used to build momentum that Turnbull doesn’t have at the moment, with comparisons to the Aston by-election in 2001 that turned around the Howard government’s fortunes inevitable.

A poor result for Labor could also put Bill Shorten under early pressure. We know Anthony Albanese was circling before the better-than-expected election result for Labor.

These upsides don’t necessarily outweigh the risks in a by-election for Turnbull. Voters can turn cynical when it comes to court challenges forcing a new vote.

That’s what happened in Lindsay in 1996 when Labor’s defeated frontbencher Ross Free sought to beat Jackie Kelly a second time around, after her candidature was deemed invalid at the general election.

Kelly increased her margin, partly because voters thought Labor’s challenge was sour grapes. There have been other similar examples, including at the state level.

The biggest risk for Turnbull is that defeat in a Herbert by-election defines him as a failure, immediately after winning a majority at the election. It would give his detractors the narrative they need to continue to undermine his authority.

That’s the last thing the PM can afford after an election that saw the government lose so many seats and much of its mandate to be bold.