2002_01_january_oped by-elections

Labor leader Simon Crean has won support, particularly within Labor ranks, for forcing Duncan Kerr to serve out his full term in Parliament.

Kerr announced his intention to leave Federal Parliament to contest a seat in this year’s Tasmanian state election after which he could expect to be made a Minister in the Labor Government in the likely event of Labor being returned.

He made his announcement just six weeks after being elected to the Federal Parliament and after failing to get a position on Labor’s frontbench. Kerr was a Minister for Justice in the Keating Government.

Crean got praise because his move saved the expense of a by-election and saved angering the voters of the Tasmanian seat of Denison by forcing them to go to the polls again such a short time after the November election – even though at the time of Kerr’s announcement Crean made a statement supporting Kerr.

This week’s effort saves Crean from being put to an early test and copping an unwelcome swing against him. There was a chance of Labor losing the seat. A 9.5 per cent swing would cause it to fall. That is almost exactly the swing suffered by the Liberal Party in the Ryan by-election in March last year in similar circumstances – a front-bencher dumped goes of selfishly to pursue other interests. In that case it was Defence Minister John Moore.

By-elections in these circumstances usually result in a heavy penalty for the party of the retiring member. Werriwa (NSW) in January 1994 cost Labor 6 per cent; Bonython (SA) in March 1994 cost Labor an 8 per cent swing; Canberra in March 1995 cost 16 per cent (and the seat). There are exceptions. Carmen Lawrence saved Labor in Fremantle in March 1994, getting a 1 per cent swing to her. When Paul Keating left Blaxland in 1996, the voters were so relieved that they gave the in-coming Labor candidate a swing in favour of 6 per cent.

If a candidate dies, it is different, even if the Government is unpopular. In Aston, the by-election caused by the death of the popular Peter Nugent result in a swing of just 3.7 per cent against the then unpopular Howard Government.

In the past 20 years, it has become far more common for Members of the House of Representatives to resign, rather than die in office. There have been 133 by-elections since federation. Of those, 65 were caused by death; 66 by resignation and one each by expulsion and disqualification.

That is roughly a 50-50 split between resignation and death. But in the past 20 years or so, it was much more imbalanced. Of 31 by-elections since then, 29 were caused by resignation and only two by death.

Until 1981, the general pattern was for MPs to serve the term out or be carried out in a box. Only 35 per cent who left the House resigned, and many of them were for reasons of age, sickness or selection to the judiciary. After 1981, 97 per cent of those who left the House resigned.

It is clear that many MPs no longer see being a parliamentarian as a life career, but rather as something to take up after having had some career experience and to leave while still having the prospect of a further career ahead.

That view of parliamentary service has been applauded by many. Moves to limit the number of terms a person can serve and calls for people with life experience to enter Parliament have been common. But these calls are inconsistent with a view that someone must serve out the term no matter what. Opportunities to take up a further career do not neatly arise at election times. They often crop up mid-term.

Last year South Australian state MP Nick Xenophon proposed that resigning MPs be made to pay the cost of the by-election, unless a court certified it was reasonable for health or family reasons. A by-election costs $125,000 which is a lot for one person to pay, but quite trivial in the context of Commonwealth revenues of more than $100 billion. It is $1 a voter. Cost should not be an argument. Neither should inconvenience. Voting does not take long. But political parties are now scared of the wrath of people being asked to spend a few minutes voting.

Some lateral thinking is needed. Why not do away with by-elections? Instead, let the party holding the seat, nominate a new Member, just like in the Senate. After all, it is not as if the MP has been selected personally to represent them. He or she has only got the seat through the party. There have only been three independents elected as independents since World War II. If an independent resigned, there might have to be a by-election.

By-elections serve no useful service. It would be a rare day that a Government with a one-seat majority faced a government-determining by-election. And even if that did happen, there seems little merit in having the electors of just one electorate tip out a government mid-term.

A present, though, it seems as if Labor’s fear of a by-election, will condemn Kerr to three years on the backbench. He will not have his heart in it. So he will be serving his electors as a disgruntled prisoner of the Labor machine.

He would have made a better contribution in Government at the state level. Kerr quite reasonably takes the view that politics is about making a difference to society. It is pretty hard to be doing that from the Opposition backbench unless one is on a promotion curve. Kerr sees that as a dim prospect, so why shouldn’t he get out to make a more useful contribution elsewhere.

The same goes for Kim Beazley. If is absurd to have a man like Beazley on the Opposition backbench. Even John Howard said during the election campaign that in a national government he would have Beazley as a defence minister. Beazley could contribute a lot more outside Parliament on the lecture circuit, or in a university – unconstrained by the possibility of embarrassing his leader if he speaks his mind.

Further, one of the most important contributors to an MP’s fulfilment is whether his party is in government. So shortly after an election, there is bound to be some career rethinking.

This misplaced fear about the cost and inconvenience of by-elections is another example of leaders pandering to knee-jerk populism. If it has to be pandered to, abolish by-elections, but let’s not condemn people to sit it out on the back-bench when they have other things to do.

Incidentally, the seat that Kerr wanted to contest in the Tasmanian election is also Denison with identical boundaries as the federal seat. But in state elections it is six-member electorate under the Hare-Clark system. Since the last election three of those six have left the Parliament. Their replacements were determined, not by by-election, but by count-back of the votes at the original election. One cannot do that in single-member seats, but it shows that by-elections are not the only way. Indeed, they are more suited to the 18th and 19th centuries when the MP was not in a party straight-jacket, but exercised some intendance on the floor of the House.

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