Dunkley: lessons out of the ordinary

The main lesson from the Dunkley by-election is not that with an average swing nothing much happened, but rather that there are a lot of lessons.

Let’s take the Coalition side first. The Liberal candidate got 6.6 percentage points more vote than last time. Sounds good, but . . . . Palmer’s UAP (5.5 percent last time); Hanson’s One Nation (2.8) and the Liberal Democrats (2.5) did not stand. 

So, there for the taking was 10.8 per cent of the vote on the hard right and the Liberals could only get a bit over half of it. And this is despite the Liberals’ hard-right campaigning – being attacked by criminal foreigners and having your ute taxed by greenie environmentalists – and lots of money being poured in by Advance Australia to put Labor last. And despite the fact it was a by-election which usually favours the Opposition. And despite the fact there was no Morrison baggage.

Clearly there is something wrong with the Liberals’ message. Yes, it was Victoria where the Coalition does badly, but that was factored in because we are comparing the 2024 performance in a Victorian seat with the 2022 performance in a Victorian seat.

Now it may be that a ute tax falsely conjured out a vehicle-emissions policy might work in Queensland as might Deputy Liberal Leader Susan Ley’s impetuously hysterical and racist statement: “If you do not want to see Australian women being assaulted by foreign criminals, vote against Labor”. But not in Victoria.

The Liberal dilemma has not been resolved by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton. How can they retain older, male and working-class voters and voters without tertiary education in the regions while not offending the more affluent, female, more highly educated, younger voters in the cities.

If Dunkley is any guide, you can’t. But Dunkley’s lesson is not that Dutton’s push for suburbia is lost. It might work in western Sydney, for example. But that for it to work it will require Labor to be on the nose which it is clearly not right now.

Indeed, Dunkley tells us that voters, as in the past, give new Governments a chance and a second term with a reduced vote: Whitlam; Fraser; Hawke; Howard; Rudd-Gillard; Abbott-Turnbull.

It is not that voters will not ultimately blame a government for economic woes, but they will not cast blame at a government until it has had at least a fair chance.

The other lesson for the Liberals is do something about the calibre of its frontbench. If Dunkley was about economics where was shadow treasurer Angus Taylor? Other than an occasional reactive carp against a government announcement, he has hardly been seen. Is he up to it?

And the comment I quoted above tells you all you need to know about Susan Ley as a serious policy campaigner.

Now to Labor. Labor was handed a gift from the Greens who, for good reasons, ran dead in the by-election. They lost four percent of the vote. It is the only reason Labor’s primary vote held up.

By-elections are proportionately more expensive than national or state elections. This is because the advertising spend to cover a seat like Dunkley means you often have to pay to cover a much wider geographic area, depending on the advertising market: online, TV, radio, print. It might be eastern Melbourne, or the whole of Melbourne, or the whole of Victoria.

The Greens obviously kept their powder dry for the main battle: inner-city seats at a general election. Similarly, with UAP and One Nation. And there was no candidate who could be described as Teal.

Advance Australia’s large $300,000 spend was pretty much wasted. It did not have people on the ground at polling booths. Another Dunkley lesson is that US-style misleading advertising and conspiracy theories do not work as well in Australia’s compulsory-voting system.

The primary vote for the major parties went up by 7.5 per cent in Dunkley. That was not because they performed better, but because of the very large reduction in competition from the minor parties. It will be different at a national election when they will be out in force. Moreover, they will have people on the ground, particularly the Greens and the Teals, in the inner city.

Labor’s rejigging of the Stage 3 tax cuts, was clearly a winning strategy. Good policy was more important than the cosmetics of “a broken promise”. Treasurer Jim Chalmers advocated it some time ago. He has been vindicated and his stature for political judgment (on top of his economic judgment) has risen.

This does not mean it is plain sailing for Labor until next year’s election. Far from it. Handing out tax cuts is obvious stuff. The real drivers of cost of living are not tax but housing and interest rates; scarcity-driven inflation; corporate gouging and opportunism in a competition-depleted economy; and health.

Labor has done a bit on health and is taking on the supermarkets – with any luck with the help of an ACCC which has had a spine transplant. Interest rates, of course, are beyond its power. So, in all, Labor got a bit of respite in Dunkley. But its housing policy, like the housing policy of the Coalition, Greens and Teals, is like stopping a tsunami with a retaining wall.

In the week before the election, it got its Help to Buy legislation through the House. It will help 40,000 people over four years with the Commonwealth joining the housing Ponzi scheme by injecting a bit of equity into the first-home purchase. Twice the population of Burnie, they boasted.

But to keep up with the mad level of immigration that we have had for the past 20 years, you need to house the population of Canberra every year, not every four years. It can never be done. And in the 67 pages of Hansard debate on the Bill last week, the words “immigration” and “migrants” did not appear once.

Until a major party in Government addresses that elephant in the room, over which it has total control, it can expect all of the pressures on housing, health, education and infrastructure generally to overwhelm it and make it impossible to satisfy the reasonable expectation of voters – and therefore to be thrown out.

Unless the things that caused the housing crisis are removed, the crisis will remain: high population growth; a tax system that favours investors against home-buyers; and lack of government owned and managed social housing. It is that obvious, but corporate donors make our policy-makers blind to it.

Crispin Hull

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 5 March 2024.

3 thoughts on “Dunkley: lessons out of the ordinary”

  1. Gee, Dunkley was a thrilling contest, everything was on the table. Except for mega migration, segregated schooling, crumbling infrastructure and services, the gas cartel, the real-estate incentives, the over-logged environment, the resources fire-sale, or anything else that might matter to Victorian voters. Just to rub it in, there was Immigration Shadow Dan Tehan, striding onto Sunday Insiders, to bravely promise voters – exactly nothing.

  2. I liked the build through the opinion piece, however, sometimes the message hits like a sledgehammer if it headlines the main points first. For example, the introduction could read,
    “Unless the things that caused the housing crisis are removed, the crisis will remain: high population growth; a tax system that favours investors against home-buyers; and lack of government owned and managed social housing. It is that obvious, but corporate donors make our policy-makers blind to it.”
    Then follow with the details. Well done anyway.

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