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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Darren England/AAP; Cameron Caldwell/Facebook, Author provided

Stuart Robert has kept well away from the byelection to choose his parliamentary successor, but Labor has made sure the controversial former member hasn’t been forgotten.

Just over a week out from Saturday’s vote in the Gold Coast seat of Fadden, Robert received a pasting from the Robodebt royal commission (although not, he says, a referral for further action). Labor hopes the voters care. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is banking on their attention being on other things.

Dutton was glad to see the back of Robert, just as he was to have another discredited former minister, Alan Tudge, resign from parliament.

But Tudge’s departure came at high cost. The Liberals lost the seat of Aston at that byelection, which underscored the depth of Dutton’s difficulties in Victoria.

Fadden could deliver a blow or a boost to Dutton. He can hardly afford the former and desperately needs the latter.

Unlike Aston, which became marginal in 2022, Fadden sits on what is considered an impregnable 10.6% margin. Both sides are convinced it will stay in Coalition hands, so it’s all about the size and direction of the swing.

We shouldn’t over-read the results of byelections. Some matter, others don’t, but in today’s fevered politics, their results have impact in the moment.

In Fadden, both Labor and the Liberal National Party have had meaty issues on which to campaign.

Read more:
Robodebt royal commissioner makes multiple referrals for prosecution, condemning scheme as ‘crude and cruel’

Labor has made the most of the discredited Robert, who faces other integrity questions separate to his role in Robodebt. Despite the welter of bad publicly about the former MP, some in Labor believe voters’ thoughts will be squarely on their own personal circumstances.

The Liberals have going for them the cost-of-living pressures. They are also seeking to exploit concern over crime, targeting the state Labor government, which has lost its pandemic gloss and faces an election next year. The Liberals are urging voters to send messages to both federal and state Labor.

The Voice to Parliament is not featuring.

Both sides are focusing on the local. The Liberals’ Cameron Caldwell is a long-time councillor with a small-business background. He has a bit of history – prior to the 2012 Queensland election he was dropped as a candidate after a complaint that he had, some years before, attended a “swingers club” (dressed in a pirate outfit). He said he was there with his wife for a drink. Dutton, campaigning in Fadden on Thursday, promoted Caldwell as a “local champion”.

Labor’s candidate, Letitia Del Fabbro, is a nurse educator at Griffith University. Like Mary Doyle in Aston, Del Fabbro ran at last year’s federal election, which means she had already done the spadework by the time the byelection came.

The field of 13 includes candidates from the Greens and One Nation.

The byelection matters for Anthony Albanese but less than it does for Dutton.

An anti-Labor swing – presuming it wasn’t too large – could be written off as what normally happens in byelections. The average byelection swing against governments, when both major parties contest, is 3.6%. Polling analyst Kevin Bonham points out that in byelections in federal opposition seats the historic average swing is only about 1% to the opposition.

Although the government could dismiss a modest swing, Labor hardheads would see it as a warning sign of the cost of living starting to bite in political terms. Labor knows the politics of that issue will only get tougher for the government in coming months.

A swing against Labor might be more alarming for the Palaszczuk government.

The Liberals, fearing the impact of another bad showing, have run the bigger campaign. Queensland is Dutton’s home state, where the Coalition held up at the 2022 election. Dutton is reportedly happy with the party’s efforts in Fadden, with the Liberal National Party machine running a competent campaign.

While the LNP organisation is in solid shape, there are bleak stories elsewhere.

The faction-ridden shambles in the NSW division took its toll in the 2022 election. Then federal minister Alex Hawke, in cahoots with Scott Morrison, delayed preselections for their own purposes, with disastrous results. Recently Dutton, Liberal National president John Olsen and party director Andrew Hirst wrote to the NSW organisation telling it to come up with a preselection timetable. Reportedly this caused some tensions.

Jason Falinski, a prominent moderate and one of the MPs defeated by a teal independent candidate at the federal election, is the new NSW president. He’s committed to improving the division, but it has a long record of being stubbornly committed to its own infighting.

The troubles with the Liberals in Victoria are centred on the state parliamentary party but spread through the division. Already on their knees after being routed at the state election, the Victorian Liberals have been torn apart over Moira Deeming, now expelled from the parliamentary party. Triggered by her attendance at the Let Women Speak rally, which Nazis gatecrashed, the imbroglio has hugely damaged state leader John Pesutto and divided the rank and file, where Deeming has strong support. It spilled over federally when last month the Liberals’ federal women’s committee called for Deeming to be reinstated.

Tasmania is the only state with a Liberal government, but the party is chaotic there too. The government was thrown into minority when two MPs defected to the crossbench in protest at its support for an expensive new stadium. The premier, Jeremy Rockliff, faces discontent from the grass roots.

In Western Australia there is an enormous rebuilding job from wipeouts at the state and federal elections.

One of Dutton’s problems in trying to knock heads together in NSW and Victoria is his own unpopularity in the south. But without the state machines being in better shape, the chance of electoral progress will be dragged down.

Outspoken Tasmanian federal Liberal MP Bridget Archer this week again called attention to something else the Liberals need – for Morrison to leave parliament.

Morrison came out of the Robodebt commission particularly badly. There is general agreement he has not quit earlier because he can’t get a decent job. The commission’s findings will put another negative on his CV.

Dutton would be delighted to have the former PM move on. That would, however, mean another byelection, with its opportunities and risks.

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Grattan on Friday: Fadden byelection is Dutton’s immediate hurdle but party reform is the bigger challenge –