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For Tony Abbott, the outcome of next month’s byelection in WA is likely to decide if he sinks or swims as prime minister. By Sophie Morris.

Canning heat for Abbott in byelection

WA Premier Colin Barnett shapes to push Tony Abbott into the pool during a 2013 visit to the Canning electorate.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

When Alannah MacTiernan, then a state Labor politician, was doorknocking homes south-east of Perth in the late 1990s, it was impossible to overlook voters’ interest in Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

Lest you are tempted, on this basis, to judge the residents of the suburbs of Kelmscott and Armadale, in the federal electorate of Canning, MacTiernan leaps quickly to their defence.

“I do think we overuse this word ‘xenophobia’ and people from the latte set sometimes misunderstand what is going on,” says the federal Labor MP and former state minister.

“People were interested in Hanson because she was articulating a concern they had. Their concern was there were going to be a lot of people coming in to the country who were a lot smarter than them and their kids. And their kids were not going to get jobs.”

Since then, many of these people have FIFOed their way through the mining boom, but as it comes to an end, the angst about jobs is back. Call them Howard’s battlers or even Tony’s tradies, these are the people who are set to pass judgement on the Abbott government at the Canning byelection, which has been called for September 19, following the unexpected death by heart attack of Liberal MP Don Randall.

The Liberals have preselected 32-year-old SAS officer Andrew Hastie, a veteran of Afghanistan. Labor is expected to this weekend endorse 33-year-old Matt Keogh, president of the Law Society of Western Australia and a member of the party’s Right faction. There will be an array of other candidates, including from the Greens and the Palmer United Party, though the Nationals have opted not to run.

The outcome in the sprawling suburban seat, which takes in the coastal hub of Mandurah, about an hour’s drive south of Perth, could seal the fate of the prime minister.

Again this week, Abbott’s leadership has been buffeted by a series of damaging cabinet leaks. First there were the revelations of a thin agenda at cabinet’s Monday night meeting, prompting the prime minister to once again take his ministers to task for leaking. Then someone promptly leaked farcical briefing notes, instructing ministers to respond to questions about leaks by saying the cabinet was “functioning exceptionally well”.

Quite apart from the overt chaos in the government, there was also a sense in Parliament House this week that the most important conversations were happening behind closed doors. As one Labor MP, who lived through the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd turbulence, remarked: “It may be a long time before we learn just how significant this week was.”

“This is a fight that we need to win.”

Not since 2001 has a byelection loomed as such a test for a prime minister. In that year, leading up to a federal election, the Howard government faced polls to replace MPs in two seats. In March 2001, Labor secured a 9.69 per cent swing to win the blue-ribbon Brisbane seat of Ryan following the retirement of former Liberal defence minister John Moore. It was a massive upset and rattled a Coalition that was lagging in the polls.

The Coalition hopes that Canning will be more like the byelection that followed, in July 2001, in the outer-Melbourne seat of Aston, triggered by the death of sitting Liberal MP Peter Nugent. The Liberals suffered a 3.66 per cent swing against them, but retained the seat by a narrow margin. The next day, Howard declared: “I believe that the government is well and truly back in the game. If there were an unstoppable momentum for Labor to win the federal election, they’d have rolled us over in Aston.”

Whatever the outcome, it will be open to interpretation, with Liberal MPs positing that the Coalition needs to do considerably better than just holding on to the seat for Abbott’s leadership to be safe. Government MPs will look at the size of the swing in Canning and calculate what it would mean in their seat and for the Coalition’s hold on power.

On Tuesday this week, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop was billing the byelection as “our opportunity to fight back”, even as a Newspoll of 508 Canning voters showed a 10 per cent swing against the government, eroding its 11.8 per cent margin in the seat. “Western Australia has always been a fortress for the Coalition,” Bishop told the Coalition’s party room meeting. “This is a fight that we need to have. This is a fight that we need to win.”

She said the Coalition’s small business incentives would be popular in the electorate, as would the jobs that could be generated by the China–Australia Free Trade Agreement.

Hastie, she said, was an outstanding candidate, who had fought for his country and would now fight for Canning.

His pitch for preselection had a distinctly khaki tone. “With current security threats such as ISIS, our country can surely benefit from members in our parliamentary team with direct experience of military conflict, who are mission-focused in helping to defeat the security threats we face,” he told preselectors, according to the Mandurah Mail.

The government is straining to return to its preferred theme of national security. Take, for instance, a press conference, called on Thursday by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, with Philip Ruddock and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, in parliament’s Blue room, which is usually reserved for significant announcements.

The topic was citizenship and the rhetoric was national security, but there was nothing they were really announcing, except that they were still consulting about it and were determined to keep Australians safe.

Oh, and by the by, there was a lot of support in their consultations already for citizens to speak English.

And perhaps that was the point of it. After all, the voters of Canning are a fairly culturally homogenous group – census data shows a lot of Brits, some Kiwis, a few South Africans, but not much else. As MacTiernan notes, some were receptive to One Nation’s messaging in the 1990s.

Labor's prospects

MacTiernan knows Canning well. She contested it in 2010, securing a 2.16 per cent swing, bucking a national backlash against Labor that reduced it to a minority government. She fell about 1760 votes short of winning the seat, but it was nevertheless an impressive result, considering Labor was on-the-nose nationally and under particular pressure in WA over its bungled mining tax and a rapid escalation in arrivals of asylum-seeker boats. Now she represents the seat of Perth.

She argues that Labor could claim the Canning campaign as a win, even if they don’t pick up the seat. “We’re aiming to get a very healthy swing,” she says. “If we can win it, that’ll be great. But we want to get a swing of 7 or so per cent, I think, to really show that it’s on.”

That sort of swing, if replicated nationally, could cost the Coalition government.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten is also talking down the prospects of a Labor victory, reminding caucus this week that it had been 50 years since a seat had changed parties following the death of an incumbent. In these circumstances, he said, the swing against the incumbent party was only about 2.5 per cent, or half of what it is if an MP has retired.

While the Liberals may run on national security, MacTiernan argues that jobs will be the central theme for voters and that Labor’s focus on education and teaching computer coding in schools will appeal to those worried about their kids’ future employment.

“Unemployment has gone up in WA,” she says. “Everyone has someone in their family who has lost a well-paid job. This has been a real shock in WA; for the first time in a decade you can’t just go from one job to another.”

It is also the first issue nominated by the mayor of Mandurah, Marina Vergone. “One of the major issues is high unemployment,” says Vergone, who was rumoured in recent weeks to be a potential Liberal candidate for Canning but says that, in her role as mayor, she is apolitical.

“In March unemployment was 8.4 per cent in the Mandurah region, compared to 5.2 per cent in the rest of WA,” she says, adding that most of all locals want someone like Randall, who will really champion the region and help it secure funds for local projects.

In her day job as an accountant, who also owns an engineering firm, Vergone sees that industry in the region is struggling. She is disappointed with Abbott’s promise that the work on offshore patrol vessels will begin in Adelaide, before other states have a chance to take part. “WA can certainly carry out that work and we need it,” says Vergone. The Austal shipyards, just outside of Canning, have cut hundreds of jobs this year.

Vergone also enthuses about locals’ commitment to reducing their carbon footprint. All city council buildings have installed solar power, including football clubs, bowling clubs and libraries. Figures from the Australian Solar Council show that half of Canning’s households have solar cells or hot-water systems.

Canning may not be the home of the “latte set” but MacTiernan believes it will be receptive to Labor’s ambitious renewable energy target, which she links to the goal of developing local industry and jobs.

As Abbott heads to Perth this weekend, he may well bring the voters of Canning some promises and rhetoric about local jobs. After all, it’s his job that is riding on how they vote in four weeks’ time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 22, 2015 as "Canning heat". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.