The byelection in Stuart Robert’s old seat of Fadden is becoming a proxy battleground for the fortunes not only of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton but also for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. At stake is the sort of leadership on key challenges Australians will support.
Normally a poll in a seat with a rock-solid record of voting Liberal would hardly rate a mention. What makes this contest remarkable is the cloud under which Robert quit after holding the seat with a 10.6 per cent margin just over a year ago. This creates a vulnerability for his party to retain it as convincingly.
At the launch for the campaign of Labor candidate Letitia Del Fabbro on Tuesday night, held at the Runaway Bay Community Centre in the heart of the Gold Coast seat, Albanese said the odds were against his candidate. He said they all knew “how hard this mountain is to climb”. The prime minister noted “the extraordinary rollout” at the hall, as good an indication as any that the party is putting a huge effort into the campaign.
Dutton is very wary. He says all byelections are tight contests and “the Labor Party will have all sorts of dirty tactics and smear campaigns”. Whether this provides enough cover from Robert’s legacy for his candidate, Gold Coast councillor Cameron Caldwell, will only be resolved when voters trudge off to the polling booths on July 15.
The opposition leader’s problem is Robert is not facing baseless smears but quite serious allegations on several fronts. The robo-debt royal commission is due to hand its findings to the governor-general next week. The expectation is the government will release them publicly the following week, days before the byelection. They are guaranteed to dominate the headlines.
Robert’s evidence before that inquiry was sensational enough when he admitted to lying about the scheme because, in his words to Commissioner Catherine Holmes, “as a dutiful cabinet minister, ma’am, that’s what we do”.
Albanese said his candidate “wants her community to be represented by someone with integrity” and that “we need to remember why we’re having this byelection”. He said Robert suddenly resigned without explaining himself to parliament after “having presided over the most shocking and cruel failure in the history of Australian politics”.
Historically, the reason for a byelection can have a dramatic influence on the result. Labor lost the byelection for its safe seat of Canberra in 1995 and the Liberals lost their stronghold of Ryan in 2001. In both cases, government ministers quit in controversial circumstances. Voters expressed their displeasure only to return home, as it were, at the next general election.
Robert was no longer a government minister but after the boilover result in the Aston byelection, where another controversial Morrison government minister, Alan Tudge, quit, no one can blame Dutton for being as nervous as he is.
Midweek there was another bombshell when the minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Government Services, Bill Shorten, drew attention to evidence submitted to the joint committee of public accounts and audit about Robert’s alleged involvement in corruptly organising payments for himself from the lobbying firm Synergy 360.
Robert strenuously denies any wrongdoing, but a former business partner of one of Synergy 360’s executives, Anthony Daly, in a signed statement covered by parliamentary privilege, said the lobbying firm proposed a structure to allow Robert to profit from them winning government contracts for their clients.
Shorten was asked at his news conference if these revelations were timed to cause maximum damage to the Liberals ahead of the Fadden poll. He said reports about Robert and multimillion-dollar government procurement contracts began surfacing last November and the timing of Robert’s unexpected resignation was not in his hands.
Shorten, like Albanese, ran an argument feeding into the sort of sentiment that can swing byelections. He said, “If people are wondering why they are voting on July 15 on the Gold Coast … they should ask Mr Robert and the LNP why they are having a byelection.”
Labor’s national president, Wayne Swan, who has wide experience running election campaigns, fully expects the Liberal candidate to win, aided by a history of non-engagement from Fadden’s many older, well-heeled voters. But the prime minister and the state Labor Party are keen to seize the opportunity to run a campaign that would be noticed more broadly on the coast, its hinterland and in Brisbane. There is a strong view the ALP needs to put in a huge effort to improve its standing with Queensland voters at the federal level. The Liberals, under the banner of the Liberal National Party of Queensland, have at least six marginal seats that are vulnerable.
Albanese, as is his habit, used FM radio to reach younger voters even more disengaged from politics than the suntanned older burghers. The crew on Hot Tomato had their version of Monty Python’s skit on the legacy of the Romans. They asked the prime minister what he has ever done for the Gold Coast.
Albanese was quick to reel off millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure investment on his previous watch in the Gillard government, including the “biggest light rail investment in Australian history”, the $465 million for the coast’s trams that have carried 70 million passengers. This was something, he says, the LNP opposed.
But governments can’t expect too much gratitude. The prime minister is now under pressure to fund stage four of the project, which he says is being given due consideration but has not been committed.
Meanwhile, Dutton is hitting the cost-of-living issue. It’s hard to know if his heart is in it after Aston, but campaigning from Western Australia this week, the opposition leader again accused the prime minister of failing to deliver his plan to reduce energy bills by $275 a year. He continues to ignore the 2025 time line – and even that claimed breach of faith has suffered a severe blow thanks to Albanese’s allies in the Palaszczuk state government.
The Labor premier has used windfall revenues from increased coal royalties to offer the biggest contribution of any of the states to energy bill relief, a joint effort with the federal government. Under the scheme all Queensland households will automatically receive a $550 cost-of-living rebate on their electricity bills from July. About 600,000 households identified as vulnerable by the premier will benefit from a higher, $700 rebate.
Dutton includes spiralling interest rates as another broken promise, but Albanese may have just got lucky on that, too, with the latest inflation number in the 12 months to May coming in much lower than expected, at 5.6 per cent. It is still above the Reserve Bank’s 2-3 per cent target range, but it certainly increases pressure on the RBA to at least pause its cycle of interest rate hikes.
Perhaps encouraged by the continuing decline in support for recognition of First Nations people in the constitution, Dutton is trying to set up the byelection as a test for support of the Voice among Queensland voters. The latest Newspoll reported the strongest “No” vote in the state, with 54 per cent against. He says a lot of people in Fadden will want to send “the prime minister a very clear message that they are not happy with his Canberra Voice proposal, and they’re not happy that he’s continuing to keep details from Australians in relation to how the Voice will operate”.
However, there are concerns in the Liberal Party that if the Voice goes down, as the trend in the polls increasingly suggests, it could be a Pyrrhic victory for Dutton. While support is eroding across the demographics, it is 10 per cent higher among women than men and highest among voters aged 35 and under.
An Essential poll this week found Dutton coming third behind Albanese and Greens leader Adam Bandt as the leader viewed more favourably by women and people under 55. In other words, his stance is doing nothing to win back the seats lost to a string of female independents who are campaigning hard for recognition to be enshrined in the constitution.
Of course, it is difficult to say what the defeat of the referendum would do to Albanese’s standing with voters. He has invested so much political capital in it – ruled more from his heart than his head, according to one political strategist who has known him for a long time. “He has given himself no wriggle room,” was the strategist’s view.
The latest batch of opinion polls suggests no correlation between support for the government and declining support for recognition. The average lead for Labor is close to 12 per cent and has remained in double digits since May last year, despite a slide in Albanese’s approval in Newspoll and Essential. He is still well ahead of Dutton, but his lead is narrowing nonetheless.
Perhaps it is not too late to save the referendum if it is recast in its original aspiration. Constitutional lawyer Greg Craven wrote in The Weekend Australian that “the Voice is driven by the enduring principle of fairness”. It is about the soul of our country, about solidarity with First Nations people, giving them the dignity of recognition and the willingness to address together the spiritual and material gap between us.
The headwinds for the referendum are more like a blizzard but Albanese says he believes a majority of Australians will see it as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to “enrich and uplift our nation”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 1, 2023 as "Fadden the pig on market day".
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