Labor MP David Feeney has pre-empted a High Court decision on his citizenship, quitting parliament and triggering a byelection in the Victorian seat of Batman.
Labor fears it will lose the seat to the Greens in a contest that will be a major distraction for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in the early part of the year. In 2016, Feeney held Batman against the Greens only 51-49% in two-candidate terms after a big swing against him.
Feeney, whose position was referred to the High Court late last year, confirmed on Thursday that he still could not produce the paperwork to demonstrate he had renounced British citizenship, which he claimed to have done in 2007, ahead of entering the Senate. He won his house seat in 2013.
“I have taken legal advice indicating that the material that has been located to date is insufficient to satisfy the High Court that I did, indeed, renounce my rights ten years ago. I am unable to disprove that I am a dual citizen,” he said in a statement to a news conference in Melbourne, at which he did not take questions.
The court’s deadline for Feeney to produce documents was 4pm Thursday – just an hour after he announced his resignation.
Feeney is not recontesting the seat. “The Labor Party I love deserve a candidate that is able to give the months and the years ahead 150% of their effort, their commitment and their passion. … I don’t believe I’m able to offer this. That tells me that it’s time for me to stand aside for a Labor candidate that can and will,” he said.
Labor sources have said for weeks that he would not be the candidate in a by-election, believing he would further reduce the chance of holding the seat.
It is speculated that ACTU president Ged Kearney will be Labor’s candidate in the byelection. She had no comment on Thursday. Kearney is already preselected for the seat of Brunswick for the Victorian election later this year.
Kearney is left-aligned, and under Victorian factional arrangements Batman goes to the right. But to maximise its chances in the seat, the party needs to put up someone who will appeal to voters inclined to go to the Greens.
The Greens candidate in the byelection, which is likely to be held in March, is Alex Bhathal, a social worker, who has contested the seat several times before.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale told a news conference: “It stinks that [Feeney] has decided to resign right now. What has changed between the parliamentary year last year and his decision to resign at this time?
“Here we have David Feeney, who has known all along he hasn’t got the paperwork to demonstrate he did the right thing to make sure he’s not a dual citizen, sit on that, receive a salary. And now at a minute to midnight as he’s about to have to argue his case in court, he resigns.”
Di Natale said issues in the byelection would include the proposed Adani coal mine in Queensland, refugees, electoral and donation reform, and climate change.
He predicted a Labor shift on the Adani mine. “Expect to see a backflip coming soon because they know the electors of Batman don’t want to see that mine being built.” This week Shorten was cool on Adani when questioned at the National Press Club.
The Liberals are not planning to run in the seat.
Shorten said in a statement that Feeney’s “decision is the right one and spares the valuable time and resources of the High Court”.
“Labor will put forward a strong candidate at the upcoming Batman byelection, who’ll stand up for the things that matter to Australians: protecting penalty rates and local jobs, protecting Medicare and schools, keeping taxes lower for ordinary people, and building a strong economy that delivers for all,” Shorten said.
Late on Thursday afternoon, Shorten was having talks with Kearney in his office.
For Bill Shorten, Tuesday’s National Press Club speech was the easy start to what could be a tougher year than 2017. The address had a popular “announceable” – a proposed National Integrity Commission – and it homed in on fertile electoral ground: cost-of-living pinches, flat wages, and high health insurance costs.
But it left a heap of gaps to be filled in on what precisely are Labor plans to ease the pressures many people are feeling, and questions about its ability to convince voters that it can in fact relieve them.
Politically, Shorten could hardly go wrong with the integrity commission, pitched to tapping into the epidemic of mistrust that’s corroding the political system.
Shorten was blunt: he didn’t know of any particular instances of corruption that are demanding address. It is about restoring “people’s faith in their representatives and the system”, restoring “trust, accountability and transparency in the public sector”.
In other words, the commission is an institutional response to what has become a hugely bad vibe in our democracy.
Malcolm Turnbull on Tuesday left open the possibility of endorsing an integrity commission of some sort, while pointedly noting “obviously, in anything like that the devil will always be in the detail”.
Within his ranks there is resistance to doing something robust. Barnaby Joyce, for one, thinks it could unnecessarily restrict ministers. “You’ll be terrified to make a decision that’s different to your department,” he said, with perhaps revealing frankness.
For a long time the major parties did not believe that the objective circumstances required a federal ICAC. Now it is a matter of the public mood. And once Shorten decided to embrace the idea of a commission – probably with one eye on the looming Batman byelection, where the Greens pose an existential threat to the ALP – the government finds itself pushed towards doing the same.
But come election time, votes won’t turn on an integrity commission. They will turn on such issues as cost of living, discontent with flat wages, and health. The parties don’t need focus groups to tell them that, though no doubt the groups are sending the message.
As did Tuesday’s Essential poll (which had Labor leading 54-46% in two-party terms). The numbers show Shorten is playing to ALP’s strengths: 40% trust Labor most to handle industrial relations, compared to 27% who favour the Liberals; 39% trust Labor most to ensure the quality of Australia’s health system but only 28% nominate the Liberals.
People’s perception of a squeeze on their living costs is stark. Asked “in the last two years, do you think your and your household’s income has gone up more than the cost of living, fallen behind or stayed even with the cost of living”, 51% said fallen behind, 28% said stayed even, and 14% said gone up more.
On health, 83% agreed “the government should do more to keep private health insurance affordable”.
Shorten didn’t hold back on the problems. “The wages system is not delivering, and it’s not just cuts to penalty rates, or the exploitation of labour hire,” he said. “Enterprise bargaining is on life support.”
Workers needed pay rises. Labor would “put the bargaining back into enterprise bargaining”.
The minimum wage was no longer a “living wage”. “Our goal should be a real, living wage – effectively raising the pay of all Australians, particularly the 2.3 million in the award system.”
“Yes, we must always be mindful of the capacity of industry to pay. But let me make it clear: we need to fix the disconnect between wages and productivity.”
Much of the detail of how all this is to be done is yet to unfold. Labor has flagged that it would attack the ability of companies to unilaterally terminate agreements. It promises to restore Sunday penalty rates and have a national push to close the gender gap.
But if it wants to significantly raise the “living wage” that could be a big policy challenge and certainly lead to tensions with business, which was twitchy after Shorten’s speech.
Meanwhile medium-sized businesses (with turnovers of more than A$2 million and under A$50 million annually) are still on tenterhooks waiting for Labor to clarify what it will do with the company tax cuts already legislated for them. Shorten in the question-and-answer session said Labor would finalise its position after the budget. It was the first time he had spelled out this timetable.
On health, Labor knows that it can get people’s attention by empathising with their discontent about the rising cost of private insurance, but remains vague about how it would tackle the issue.
Shorten said he put the big operators on notice that “business as usual doesn’t work”.
“If you are getting a $6 billion subsidy from the taxpayer yet you’re making record profits, yet the prices are going up and the exclusions are going up, well that’s a problem.”
The opposition was working though “options” and would talk to the funds. Certainly there needed to be “better monitoring of exclusions”, he said.
Shorten’s reference to subsidies triggered some speculation that Labor might cut the rebate for private health insurance. This was ill-based and quickly quashed. After all, as Labor pointed out, if you’re talking about containing costs to consumers of private health cover, you wouldn’t be reducing the rebate.
Turnbull will deliver his 2018 opening-salvo speech on Thursday. He has chosen to make it in regional Queensland rather than in Canberra, getting out of the beltway and bypassing the national media pack.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has pledged a Labor government would set up a National Integrity Commission in its first year – not because of any known corrupt conduct, but to restore people’s trust in the political system.
Shorten said the body – which has been canvassed for years without being adopted by either major party – would operate “as a standing royal commission into serious and systematic corruption”.
The remit of the commission, with extensive powers and costing an estimated A$58.7 million over the forward estimates, would cover MPs and their staffs, the Commonwealth judiciary, the governor-general, Commonwealth public servants and statutory office holders, and businesses and people who transact with the Commonwealth.
Its commissioner and two deputies would each have fixed five-year non-renewable terms, and be appointed by parliament on a bipartisan basis, with the body overseen by a parliamentary committee.
Shorten said: “I’m not putting this policy forward because I’m aware of any corrupt conduct – if I was, I would report it. I’m doing this because I want to restore people’s faith in their representatives and the system.”
“I want the National Integrity Commission to be a clear, concrete and impartial mechanism to restore trust, accountability and transparency in the public sector.”
The commission was announced in Shorten’s Tuesday National Press Club address, in which he also put private health funds and employers on notice and made cost of living a central theme.
He said Labor was looking at “options” to contain health premiums, including better monitoring of the increasing range of exclusions from coverage that was “turning health insurance into a con”. “Business as usual is not cutting it,” he told the funds, especially the big ones.
In Tuesday’s Essential poll, more than eight in ten people agreed with the proposition that “the government should do more to keep private health insurance affordable”.
He said the minimum wage was “no longer a living wage”, and enterprise bargaining was “on life support”. “It’s never been easier for business to take the drastic option, nuclear option, detonate negotiations, terminate agreements and threaten to send workers back to award minimums unless they accept a cut to their wages and conditions,” he said.
“We need to revisit the living wage”, and Labor would “put the bargaining back into enterprise bargaining”. For example, companies should not be allowed to unilaterally terminate agreements.
Shorten declined to state what Labor would do about the tax cuts legislated for companies with turnovers up to $50 million, beyond reiterating that it would not disturb those for firms with up to $2 million turnover.
Shorten’s embrace of an integrity commission puts pressure on Malcolm Turnbull over the issue. Speaking in anticipation of Shorten’s formal announcement, the prime minister said the government was reviewing the recent report from a Senate committee on such a body. “We haven’t ruled it out” but “it isn’t something to embark on in a rushed or ill-considered way”, he said.
The Senate committee, chaired by Labor and reporting in September, said the national integrity framework should be strengthened “to make it more coherent, comprehensive and accessible”. It suggested the government consider establishing an agency “with broad scope and jurisdiction to address integrity and corruption matters”.
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who was dismissive of the need for a new body on Sunday, remained critical on Tuesday. “Why it concerns me is this: when you make a decision that your department doesn’t agree with, such as maybe investing in a country road, you end up before ICAC and if that’s the case you just take away the capacity for a government to govern.
“You’ll be terrified to make a decision that’s different to your department,” he said.
“If you’re corrupt you’re going to get busted, you’re going to get caught and you’re going to go to jail. We found out Sam Dastyari without ICAC.”
The Greens welcomed the integrity commission promise but stressed the need to also reform the political donations regime – a point Shorten also made.
On Sunday, Premier Will Hodgman called the Tasmanian election for March 3. Tasmania uses the Hare Clark system for its lower house, with five electorates, each with five members. The electorates use the same names and boundaries as the five federal Tasmanian electorates of Bass, Braddon, Franklin, Denison and Lyons. A quota for election is one-sixth of the vote, or 16.7%.
At the March 2014 election, the Liberals won in a landslide, with 15 of the 25 seats, while seven went to Labor and three to the Greens. The Liberals won 51.2% of the vote, to 27.3% for Labor and 13.8% for the Greens. The Liberals won four of the five Braddon seats, three each in Bass, Franklin and Lyons, and two in Denison.
With all polls showing a substantial swing against the Liberals, they are likely to lose their fourth Braddon seat and third Franklin seat. If the Liberals lost another seat, they would lose their majority.
Psephologist Kevin Bonham expects the pivot seat to be the Liberals’ third Lyons seat. If the Liberals lose this seat, they are likely to lose their majority. If they win it, they will probably retain their majority.
Other than the established parties, the populist Jacqui Lambie Network (JLN) has a realistic chance of winning seats – its main chance would be in Braddon.
Both Hodgman and Labor leader Rebecca White have ruled out governing with the Greens’ support. A large bloc of Tasmanians detests the Greens, and the three previous governments that involved the Greens have had major problems. If Hodgman and White stick to their promise after the election, and the Greens hold the sole balance of power, the next parliamentary term could be messy.
In most polls, the Liberals are leading Labor. The people who detest the Greens have in the past swung towards the major party most likely to win a majority. If this behaviour is repeated at this election, the Liberals could get home. On the other hand, the unpopularity of the federal Coalition government should help Labor.
In December, White announced that a Labor government would remove poker machines from pubs and clubs within five years. I think this is good politics, as it differentiates Labor from the Liberals on an issue that neither major party had tackled in the past. I previously wrote that left-wing parties that differentiated themselves from conservative parties performed better in 2017 elections.
The Tasmanian upper house will not be up for election on March 3. The 15 upper house members have rotating six-year terms; every May, two or three electorates are up for election. Labor and left-wing independents currently have an upper house majority following a November byelection win by Labor.
The last three Tasmanian elections have been held on the same day as the South Australian election (March 17 this year). So, the election date is good news for people interested in elections, as it avoids a clash.
Xenophon’s party leading in Galaxy polls of three South Australian seats
There is no sign of any drop in support for Nick Xenophon’s SA-BEST. According to Galaxy polls conducted January 11-14 for the corporate sector, SA-BEST had 37% in Liberal-held Hartley, which Xenophon will contest, followed by the Liberals with 32% and Labor with 21%; Xenophon led 57-43 after preferences.
In Labor-held Mawson, SA-BEST had 38%, the Liberals 25% and Labor 22%. In Labor-held Hurtle Vale, SA-BEST had 33%, Labor 29% and the Liberals 23%.
Galaxy also polled the federal South Australian seat of Mayo, where SA-BEST member Rebekha Sharkie could be disqualified over the dual citizenship issue. Sharkie would easily retain by a 59-41 margin against the Liberals, from primary votes of 37% Sharkie, 33% Liberal and 18% Labor.
ReachTEL 52-48 to federal Labor
A ReachTEL poll for Sky News, conducted January 25 from a sample of presumably about 2,300, gave Labor a 52-48 lead by respondent-allocated preferences, a one-point gain for the Coalition since a late November ReachTEL.
Primary votes were 36% Labor (steady), 34% Coalition (up one), 10% Greens (steady) and 8% One Nation (down one). The remaining 12% very likely included some undecided voters who were prompted to show which way they lean. As usual, media sources have not given full primary votes. Bonham says this poll would be about 54-46 to Labor by 2016 preference flows.
Malcolm Turnbull’s ratings improved; 30% gave him a good rating (up six), 37% an average (up two) and 32% a poor rating (down eight). Bill Shorten’s ratings were 31% good (up one), 32% average (down four) and 36% poor (up three). Turnbull led Shorten by 54-46 as better prime minister, up from 52-48 in November. ReachTEL’s forced-choice “better prime minister” question usually gives opposition leaders better ratings than other polls.
I think Turnbull’s ratings have improved in parliament’s absence because the public is less exposed to the hard-right Coalition backbenchers.
By 44-32, voters opposed cutting the company tax rate for businesses with a turnover of more than A$50 million. By 39-20, voters thought trade deals were good for employment. However by 49-20, voters thought Labor should oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership if it did not protect jobs.
Essential 54-46 to Labor
In this week’s Essential, conducted January 26-28 from a sample of 1,028, Labor led by 54-46, a one-point gain for Labor since last fortnight.
Primary votes were 36% Labor (down two), 35% Coalition (down two), 10% Greens (up one) and 8% One Nation (up two). As noted last Friday, Essential will appear fortnightly instead of weekly this year.
Essential asked whether the Liberals or Labor would be better at handling various issues. Labor’s position improved on economic management (from Liberals by 15 in June 2017 to Liberals by ten), interest rates (Liberals by ten to Liberals by four) and political leadership (Liberals by eight to Labor by two). The Liberals improved on water supply (Labor by five to Liberals by one).
48% (up four since November) thought Australia’s political and economic system is fundamentally sound, but needs refining, while 32% (steady) thought it should be fundamentally changed, and 8% (down two) thought the system was already working well.
There were large, favourable changes in perceptions of how the economy and unemployment have performed over the last year, compared to February 2016. There was relatively little movement on other economic issues.
51% (down two since August) thought their income had fallen behind the cost of living, 28% stayed even (up three) and 14% gone up more (down one). Private health insurance continued to be very negatively perceived, with the questions last asked in September.
Essential asked whether sports were exciting or boring to watch. Tennis was easily the best with a net +13 rating, followed by swimming at a net +3 and AFL football at a net +2. Twenty20 cricket had a net -7 rating, rugby league and soccer both had a net -15, Test cricket a net -24, rugby union a net -32, and golf was at the bottom on a net -54.
Far-right Czech Republic president re-elected
In the a presidential election runoff held January 26-27 in the Czech Republic, the far-right incumbent, Miloš Zeman, defeated his opponent, Jiří Drahoš, by a 51.4-48.6 margin.
Liberal John Alexander defeated Labor’s Kristina Keneally in the Bennelong byelection by a 54.2-45.8 margin, a swing to Labor of 5.6 points since the 2016 election. Primary votes were 44.1% Alexander (down 6.3), 36.3% Keneally (up 7.8), 6.9% Greens (down 2.2), 4.5% for the Australian Conservatives, and 3.2% Christian Democrats (down 3.2).
Up to 16,000 postals are still to be counted, and these will further increase Alexander’s vote, probably pushing his lead out to 55-45.
The easy win for Alexander restores the Coalition’s 76 seats in the lower house, returning it to a two-seat majority (76 Coalition vs 74 for all others).
In Bennelong, Newspoll and Galaxy had Alexander respectively at 50% and 51% two-party-preferred in polls conducted in the final week, while ReachTEL gave Alexander a 53-47 lead. In this case, ReachTEL was better than Newspoll and Galaxy.
Before the byelection, I said that, given the inaccuracy of seat polls, Labor could win, or there could be a thumping Liberal victory. Unlike the Alabama Senate byelection, this time the vote of the right-wing candidate was understated.
In New England, there was a large swing to Barnaby Joyce following a Section 44 disqualification, so Labor’s consolation in Bennelong is that it received a swing that would have easily won it a general election. Nevertheless, given the polling that suggested a close contest, this is a disappointing result for Labor, and will boost Malcolm Turnbull’s standing within the Coalition.
At the 2016 election, the Christian Democrats won 6.4%, so the overall vote for the Christian right (Australian Conservatives and Christian Democrats) was 7.7%, up 1.3 points.
Bennelong voted marginally against same-sex marriage (50.2-49.8), but this result does not suggest a massive number of same-sex marriage opponents are turning to the Christian right. Alexander had supported same-sex marriage.
Queensland poll critique, preference flows, and how the LNP saved Jackie Trad
The table below shows the final three Queensland election polls, and how they compare with the election results.
Kevin Bonham estimated Labor won 51.2% of the two-party vote, virtually unchanged on 2015. A poll result within one point of the actual outcome is in bold.
ReachTEL asked for statewide One Nation support, while Newspoll and Galaxy only asked in the 61 (out of 93) seats One Nation contested. ReachTEL may have been close had One Nation contested all seats. Newspoll was very close on all primary votes, while Galaxy was a little high on the major parties, and a little low on the Greens and One Nation.
Tim Colebatch wrote in Inside Story that One Nation preferences flowed to the LNP at a 65% rate, while Greens preferences went to Labor at a 76% rate.
This data is based on the distribution of preferences, which includes preferences from other candidates in the One Nation and Greens totals. It is likely the flow from One Nation primary votes to the LNP was higher than 65%, and the flow from Greens primary votes to Labor was higher than 76%.
I believe Newspoll and Galaxy expected a One Nation flow to the LNP of about 60%, while ReachTEL used respondent-allocated preferences. The final ReachTEL poll was thus better than Newspoll or Galaxy on two-party-preferred terms. However, earlier ReachTEL polls consistently had the LNP ahead by 52-48, before the final poll became more in line with Newspoll and Galaxy.
31% of overall votes were won by parties other than the big two, but Colebatch says One Nation and Greens preferences effectively cancelled each other out.
84 of the 93 seats went to the primary vote leader. Of the other nine, Labor lost three it led on primary votes, but won four it trailed on. The LNP lost two seats to the Greens and Katter’s Australian Party that it led on primary votes.
Labor’s left-wing deputy premier, Jackie Trad, became treasurer after the election. She would almost certainly have lost her South Brisbane seat had the LNP recommended preferences to the Greens ahead of Trad.
Primary votes in South Brisbane were 36% Trad, 34% Greens, 24% LNP. Trad won 62% of LNP preferences, giving her a 53.6-46.4 win over the Greens. Had the LNP put the Greens ahead of Trad on its how-to-vote cards, rather than the reverse, the Greens would have very probably defeated Trad.
Belated Western Australian election poll critique
I was expecting a statewide two-party count in all Western Australian seats for the March 11 election, but this has not occurred.
Antony Green estimated Labor won 55.5% of the two-party vote, a swing to Labor of almost 13 points since the 2013 election. I have used this estimate in the table below.
All polls asked for One Nation support statewide, when One Nation did not contest many seats. This error led to the change in Queensland for Galaxy and Newspoll.
In WA, all polls underestimated Labor and the Greens, overstated One Nation, and had the combined Liberal and National vote about right. Labor performed better after preferences than expected.
As in Queensland, ReachTEL’s earlier polls in WA were worse for Labor, before its final poll fell into line with Newspoll and Galaxy.
The Liberals’ John Alexander has comfortably won the crucial Bennelong byelection, preserving the Coalition’s parliamentary majority and giving Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull a significant boost going into 2018.
Alexander, who faced the high-profile Labor candidate Kristina Keneally, a former New South Wales premier, has a two-party swing against him of about 5.6% on counting so far. This gives Alexander a 54-46% two-party vote.
Addressing the party faithful, Alexander told Turnbull: “This is a renaissance of your leadership”. The Bennelong win follows the strong government victory in the recent New England byelection.
An exuberant Turnbull said: “Thankyou Bennelong”. He declared that Alexander, a former tennis champion, was “winning yet another great title”.
Turnbull told Liberal supporters Alexander had said to Bennelong voters, “I have been your champion, now let me be your champion again”, and they had said: “Yes, John Alexander, you are Bennelong’s champion just as you have been Australia’s champion”.
The Liberals have had a swing against them of about 6.3% on primary votes; the swing to Labor on primaries has been around 7.6%.
The result – with a swing around the average for byelections – is a major relief for Turnbull, who would have faced deep trouble if the seat had been lost.
Alexander said: “This is an extraordinary moment for us. … It’s been a real battle”.
In the last days of the campaign, Labor said it did not expect to win the seat, which had a 9.7% margin, but it hoped to run the government closer than it has.
On Saturday night, Labor was making the most of the swing by translating it to a national election result.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told Labor supporters the voters of Bennelong had given Labor “an election-winning swing at the next election”.
“This was not an ordinary byelection,” he said. “Normally in a byelection the former member does not run again.” Given Alexander’s personal vote, the entire swing was “attributable to Malcolm Turnbull and his rotten policies for this country”.
If Labor could replicate this swing at the election, “24-28 government seats will fall”, Shorten said. “Labor finishes 2017 with the most remarkable wind in its sails.”
He said in 2018, Labor “will be courageous and we will stand up and put people first”.
Keneally told the Labor campaign workers this had been “an extraordinary result”.
She said unfortunately she was not there to claim victory but “I am here tonight to claim success for the Labor movement”.
Turnbull “owns this result”, Keneally said. “The verdict is in, the message is clear, we have had enough of your lousy leadership.” Thousands of people who had previously voted for the Liberals had rejected the government, and Labor had been “energised” by the result, she said.
Labor was texting journalists saying such a swing would take out cabinet ministers Peter Dutton and Christian Porter.
Leader of the House Christopher Pyne said of the Shorten and Keneally speeches: “The level of delusion was epic”. He said the result would improve when the prepolls and postals were counted.
The byelection was sparked by Alexander resigning in the citizenship crisis.
Both Turnbull and Shorten had campaigned hard in the electorate.
In a seat with a very high proportion of Chinese voters, the byelection campaign was particularly bitter.
Labor accused Turnbull of “Chinaphobia” in the wake of the government’s attacks on Labor’s Sam Dastyari and its move to crack down on foreign interference in Australian politics.
Dastyari, under pressure for his closeness to a Chinese benefactor and for promoting Chinese interests, announced earlier this week that he would resign from parliament. Keneally has not ruled out seeking to fill the Dastyari vacancy in the Senate.
The government resurrected Keneally’s history as NSW premier, seeking to link her to disgraced Labor figures Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, both of whom are in jail.
Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, in its first electoral outing, had a vote of about 4.5%, with preferences flowing strongly to Alexander.
The government will now have the numbers to refer the citizenship of several Labor MPs to the High Court, while successfully resisting having any of its own MPs referred.
Pyne said Shorten faced a potential four byelections next year.
The minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, said this was a good win for Turnbull and urged an end to the backgrounding against him.
The stakes in Saturday’s Bennelong byelection could hardly be higher. While both Liberal and Labor camps predict John Alexander will hold on against the ALP’s Kristina Keneally, a government defeat would be calamitous for Malcolm Turnbull, leaving the Coalition with a minority on the floor of the House of Representatives.
In the event of a very narrow win by Alexander – who has a handy 9.7% margin – how the result was interpreted would become important in whether Turnbull lost serious skin.
The byelection is certainly not risk-free for Bill Shorten – after several bad weeks, he needs a strong Labor performance if he’s to end the year with some momentum.
The likely impact of the “China factor” has been been much talked about in the byelection lead-up because the seat has a high proportion of voters with a Chinese background. About 21% of the Bennelong population have Chinese heritage (compared with 5.2% in New South Wales generally), and around 16% of the voters. Bennelong is the top electoral division for percentage of Chinese-Australian voters, based on the 2016 Census.
The “China factor” is a potent cocktail of issues: the behaviour of Labor’s Sam Dastyari, who has now announced he is quitting parliament; the government’s legislation cracking down on foreign (notably Chinese) interference in Australian politics; and the ALP’s shrill byelection rhetoric about “Chinaphobia”.
It is not clear how these issues will have gone down with the Bennelong Chinese, diverse in themselves, or how they’ll rate compared with other drivers of their votes, including Alexander’s earlier efforts at sandbagging his support among members of the Chinese community.
And then there is the question of what impact these debates have on the rest of the seat’s voters.
The Fairfax poll found two-thirds of the electors supported the move against foreign interference.
Given the timing and the government’s ruthless exploitation of the Dastyari affair, it is easy to cast what is happening to counter foreign interference just in a short-term political context.
In fact, it represents a much bigger, more fundamental change in concerns about and policy towards Chinese influence in Australia.
As strategic expert Hugh White, from ANU, writes in his Quarterly Essay, published in late November, “Without America: Australia in the New Asia”: “Suddenly the Chinese seem to be everywhere [in Australia]. Areas of concern include espionage and cyber-infiltration, the vulnerability of major infrastructure, influence over Australia’s Chinese-language press, and surveillance and intimidation of Chinese nationals in Australia, including students.”
As well, of course, as the allegations “of attempts to buy influence over Australian politicians”.
White, it should be noted, draws a distinction between China’s capability and what it has actually done. Speaking to The Conversation this week, he said: “While it is wise to take precautions against China or other countries seeking to influence our politics in illegitimate ways, the government has so far not provided any clear evidence that Beijing is actively seeking to do so at the moment”.
The rise in government concern has manifested itself quite recently.
It was only in 2015 that the Port of Darwin was leased for 99 years to the Chinese company Landbridge. It was a decision by the Northern Territory government, but it was okayed and later strongly defended by the defence department’s officialdom.
It seemed then, and still seems, an extraordinary decision – and one that probably wouldn’t be made today.
The controversy around that decision served as something of a wake-up call, leading to moves to ensure more scrutiny of Chinese investment in infrastructure.
The government’s legislation, introduced last week, to counter covert foreign interference in Australian politics, ban foreign political donations, and set up a register of those lobbying for foreign interests has been driven to a substantial degree by rising concern from the security agencies.
China predictably has responded angrily, with harsh words and by calling in Australia’s ambassador in Beijing.
As White reminds, China will impose “costs” when there is pushback to its interests and behaviour. Currently, its reactions have been through diplomatic and media channels.
More tangible retribution, in the form of various irritants in the relationship, may be on the cards as the foreign interference legislation is considered – the only constraint being China not wishing to harm its own interests.
Obviously Australia doesn’t want to incur whatever costs China might eventually impose. But the price of avoiding costs, by not giving offence, has become too high to tolerate.
The effort to combat Chinese covert interference is not “Chinaphobia” despite Keneally likening it to the old “reds under the bed” scare. Nor is it an attack on our local Chinese community – some of whom are subjected to attempted Beijing influence – though in the heat of political combat it is being portrayed as that.
Turnbull has faced criticism even from his own side of politics, with former trade minister Andrew Robb lashing out after the government flagged he’d need to be on the proposed register of those working for foreign governments or companies.
Robb’s situation is contentious in itself. He went to work for Landbridge, lessee of the Darwin port, immediately after retiring from parliament at the 2016 election.
Robb says he does nothing for Landbridge within Australia, but is “employed to influence and to work with and to advise about doing deals in other countries”. He has bitterly condemned what he sees as “an attempt to use me as a convenient means of running a scare campaign against China”.
Despite Robb’s fury and his defence of his position, there was shock and unease among some former colleagues at such a rapid move to Landbridge, which would value highly his recent ministerial role and his networks.
His example points to the difficulty of identifying precisely what is appropriate or not appropriate for former politicians and bureaucrats in taking such jobs. Transparency is vital but beyond that there will be different views on where the line should be drawn.
The move to curb foreign interference and provide more scrutiny of activities on behalf of foreign interests is likely to stand as one of the most significant and indeed bold initiatives of the Turnbull government.
The legislation, which follows work Turnbull commissioned in August last year into foreign influence, interference and coercion, will be examined by the parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security before being debated next year.
In June, Shorten urged Turnbull to act on foreign donations and foreign interference and advocated a foreign agents register. Labor will object to some of the detail of the government package but – after the noise of Bennelong has passed – it would seem likely the broad initiative will receive bipartisan support.
With all election-day votes counted, Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore by a 49.9-48.4 margin to win the Alabama Senate byelection today. Once Jones is seated, Republicans will hold only a 51-49 Senate majority, down from their current 52-48.
Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton by a 62-34 margin in Alabama at the 2016 Presidential election, so in Australian terms, this result is a swing to the Democrats of 14.6%.
The massive swing was partly due to Moore’s faults. His extreme right-wing views probably made him a liability even in a state as conservative as Alabama. In November, I wrote that Moore’s alleged sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl, when he was 32, could damage him. Similar allegations against Moore were made by other women.
While Moore was a bad candidate, Trump and national Republicans can also be blamed for this result. According to exit polls, Trump’s approval with the Alabama electorate was split 48% approve, 48% disapprove, a large drop from his 2016 margin.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s poll aggregate, Trump’s national ratings are 37% approve, 57% disapprove, for a net of -20. Trump’s ratings have recently slipped back to near-record lows, probably as a result of the unpopular Republican tax plan.
This tax plan is unlikely to be derailed by Jones’ win. Different versions have already passed the House and Senate, and Republicans still have some time before Jones is seated to pass the same version through both chambers of Congress. The current Senate version was passed 51-49. Even if Jones is seated, there would be a 50-50 tie, which would be broken by Vice-President Mike Pence.
The last Democrat to win an Alabama Senate contest was Richard Shelby in 1992, and he became a Republican in 1994. Southern Democrats used to easily win Alabama and other conservative southern states, but these Democrats were nicknamed “Dixiecrats”, and were definitely not left-wing. Doug Jones may be the first genuinely left-wing Senator from Alabama.
The Alabama result will be a massive morale boost for Democrats, as many will think that if Democrats can win Alabama, they can win anywhere. This should allow Democrats to recruit strong candidates for the 2018 midterm elections.
According to the FiveThirtyEight poll aggregate, Democrats lead in the race for Congress by 47.2-37.5. If Democrats win the national popular vote by this margin next November, they should easily gain control of the House.
The Alabama result will make it more difficult for Republicans to pass legislation and get conservative judges approved. It also puts the Senate in play in November 2018, as Jones will not be up for election until 2020. Democrats now need to gain two seats in 2018 to take control, rather than three.
One-third of the Senate is up for election every two years, and Democrats won the 33 Senate seats up next year by a 25-8 margin in 2012. Republicans will only be defending eight seats, while Democrats defend 25. In these circumstances, two Senate seats are far easier to gain than three.
Most Alabama polls gave Moore a three-to-seven-point lead over Jones, with one at a nine-point Moore lead. The Monmouth and Washington Post polls (respectively tied and Jones by three) were the most accurate. Ironically, the Fox News poll was the most pro-Jones, giving him a ten-point lead.
Bennelong Newspoll 50-50
The Bennelong byelection will be held on Saturday, December 16. A Bennelong Newspoll, conducted December 9-10 from a sample of 529, had a 50-50 tie, a ten-point swing to Labor from the 2016 election. Primary votes were 39% Liberal, 39% Labor, 9% Greens, 7% for Cory Bernardi’s Conservatives and 2% Christian Democrats.
Newspoll is assuming that Conservative and Christian Democrat preferences are as favourable to the Liberals as Greens preferences are for Labor.
At the start of the campaign, more than three weeks ago, Galaxy had a 50-50 tie, while ReachTEL gave the Liberals a 53-47 lead. This Newspoll is the first publicly released Bennelong poll since then, though The Australian reported last week that internal Liberal polling had them leading 54-46.
In past elections, individual seat polls have been inaccurate. There is some chance of a Labor win in Bennelong, but there is also some chance of a thumping Liberal win.
Newspoll asked about Labor candidate Kristina Keneally’s performance when she was NSW premier. 19% thought she was one of the worst premiers, 15% below average, 26% average, 23% better than average, and 10% one of the best. The Liberals have attacked Keneally on her record as premier, but this does not appear to have worked.
The national polls below indicate the media frenzy over Sam Dastyari has had little impact on voting intentions. Often issues that excite partisan voters have little resonance with the general public.
Essential 54-46 to federal Labor
The Coalition gained a point in this week’s Essential, but this was due to rounding. Labor led 54-46, from primary votes of 38% Labor, 35% Coalition, 10% Greens, 7% One Nation and 2% Nick Xenophon Team. Essential uses a two-week sample of about 1,800 for voting intentions. Additional questions use one week’s sample.
Despite Labor’s strong lead in voting intentions, Turnbull’s net approval improved from -12 in November to -3. Shorten’s net approval also improved from -13 to -9.
71% thought it is important that sexual harassment claims in the film and TV industry are exposed, while just 17% thought exposing these claims could unfairly harm reputations. 55% thought the current media attention on sexual harassment would bring about lasting change in the Australian workplace, while 30% thought it would soon be forgotten.
Considering energy policy, 37% said costs should be prioritised (up nine since June), 18% thought reliability should be prioritised (down three) and 15% carbon emissions (down four).
This week’s YouGov, conducted December 7-10 from a sample of 1,032, had primary votes of 35% Labor (up 3 since last fortnight), 34% Coalition (up 2), 11% Greens (up 1) and 8% One Nation (down 3).
Although this poll would be about 54-46 to Labor by 2016 election preferences, YouGov’s respondent allocated preferences are tied 50-50, a three-point gain for the Coalition.
By 40-39, voters thought Turnbull should stand down as prime minister and let someone else take over, rather than remain prime minister. 28% said Turnbull’s decision to go ahead with the banking royal commission gave them a more positive view of him, 15% more negative and 52% said it made no difference.
39% expected Labor to win the next federal election, 24% the Coalition, and 14% expected a hung parliament.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari has succumbed to intense pressure to quit the Senate in the face of continued revelations that he had promoted Chinese interests.
Dastyari told a brief news conference, at which he took no questions, he had decided “the best service I can render to the federal parliamentary Labor Party is to not return to the Senate in 2018”.
He said his ongoing presence would detract from “the pursuit of Labor’s mission” and he wanted to spare the party “any further distraction”.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that in 2015 Dastyari tried to dissuade Labor’s then shadow foreign minister Tanya Plibersek from meeting a pro-democracy advocate during her trip to Hong Kong.
This followed an earlier revelation that Dastyari had tipped off his Chinese businessman benefactor, Huang Xiangmo – who is of interest to Australian security authorities – that his phone was likely tapped.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said that following their discussions, Dastyari had informed him he was resigning from the Senate. “I told him I thought this was the right decision.”
It is understood that Shorten had been in intensive talks with factional allies to resolve the Dastyari crisis. Labor had no power to force Dastyari out of parliament – and sources said he was reluctant to go.
In his statement, Dastyari strongly defended himself, saying he left parliament “knowing that I’ve always honoured my parliamentary oath”.
He said he had always acted with integrity “and I remain a loyal, patriotic Australian”.
Dastyari has been under sustained pressure to quit the Senate, with this week’s leak of his representations to Plibersek seen as part of the effort from within the ALP to get him out. On Monday two frontbenchers, Linda Burney and Catherine King, made it clear he should consider his position.
Sources said some people in Labor’s right had been concerned about the precedent set by Dastyari having to resign – given that he had not done anything illegal.
The government had maintained a constant attack on Shorten for not forcing Dastyari to leave, casting the issue as a test of Shorten’s leadership.
Dastyari’s resignation comes in the dying days of the Bennelong byelection, which a Newspoll in Tuesday’s Australian shows as being extremely close. The Newspoll has the Labor and Liberal parties on a 50-50 two-party-preferred vote, and each on a 39% primary vote.
The byelection follows the resignation of the Liberals’ John Alexander in the citizenship crisis; he is being challenged by former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally.
Keneally’s name has recently been mentioned as a possible replacement senator for Dastyari if she failed in her bid to win Bennelong.
Bennelong has a significant Chinese community, and the row about Dastyari and also more generally the concern about foreign interference in Australian politics, could have some influence in the byelection, although how those factors will play out there is unclear.
Dastyari entered the Senate in 2013. A former secretary of the NSW Labor Party, he has been a significant figure and numbers man in the NSW right faction. In parliament, he has been active on issues of banking and misconduct in that industry.
He said he would continue to be an active grassroots member of the Labor Party.
Shorten said that Dastyari could be proud of what he had achieved as a senator. “He has sought justice for the victims of banking misconduct, exposed the tax minimisations processes of international giants, pushed for a better deal for younger Australians and promoted an inclusive multicultural nation.”
Joseph Cheng Yu-Shek, the pro-democracy activist that Dastyari unsuccessfully tried to persuade Plibersek not to meet, told the ABC that Chinese authorities “operated a very powerful, very resourceful machinery trying to influence the policies of various foreign countries”.
“This machinery tries to cultivate ties with influential politicians, tries to persuade them to be friends of China, and as friends of China, they should avoid meeting enemies of China,” he said.
“If these situations become effective, the politicians concerned will be rewarded and then they will be pressured to do something even more compromising later,” he said.
Labor senator Sam Dastyari is under renewed pressure to quit after allegations that he repeatedly pressed the ALP’s then foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek not to meet an advocate for Chinese democracy in 2015.
ALP frontbencher Linda Burney told Sky News early on Monday: “It is now up to Mr Dastyari to consider his position … Sam Dastyari I’m sure is thinking very deeply about his role within the party”.
Shortly after, another Labor frontbencher, Catherine King, also said: “Sam needs to reflect upon his position”.
The new allegation comes after earlier revelations about Dastyari tipping off a Chinese benefactor who was of interest to Australian security services that his phone was likely tapped.
The latest report in the Fairfax Media said that in January 2015, Plibersek went to Hong Kong. There, her meetings included one with Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a prominent academic with Australian citizenship.
Dastyari “repeatedly attempted to warn Ms Plibersek that her meetings in Hong Kong would upset figures in the Chinese community in Australia”, the report said. He left messages on her phone and contacted her office multiple times, it said.
But he was unable to reach her directly, because she had left her mobile phone at home for security reasons – although his messages were passed on to her, according to the report.
A spokesman for Dastyari said the claims were “complete rubbish”.
The latest claims against Dastyari, which appear to have come from within Labor, are thought to be part of an effort to get him to resign from the Senate.
Dastyari’s links with China have become a severe embarrassment to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. The government is relentlessly pursuing Shorten over them.
After it was revealed that Dastyari alerted Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo about his phone being probably tapped, and audio emerged of Dastyari reflecting China’s line on the South China Sea, Shorten stripped him of his position as deputy opposition whip in the Senate.
Late last week, Shorten said Dastyari’s career was “going nowhere, fast”. Dastyari was doing no media on Monday morning, but his office said he wasn’t quitting.
Labor cannot force him to resign from the parliament – it could only throw him out of the party. But any move against him by Shorten is complicated by Dastyari being a leading member of the New South Wales right, whose support Shorten needs.
Plibersek’s office has consistently declined to be drawn about Dastyari’s representations. Rumours about these have been circulating in Canberra for some time.
A spokesman said Plibersek’s “itinerary in Hong Kong, including a meeting with a prominent pro-democracy activist, went ahead precisely as scheduled – I think that speaks for itself”.
The Fairfax story put forward “one suggested explanation” for the Dastyari representations – that he contacted her office following an inquiry from a Sydney Chinese-language media outlet, which was preparing a critical story on her meetings.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton accused Dastyari of being “a double agent”, saying “he can’t be in the Australian Senate and it is important that Linda Burney has called for him to go and now Bill Shorten should do the same”.
The latest controversy around Dastyari comes days after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced into parliament legislation to combat foreign interference in Australian politics. The government and the security agencies have become increasingly alarmed at the growing scale of this intervention.
But the new legislation, which includes a register for those lobbying for foreign governments and businesses, has sparked an angry backlash from China. It has also been criticised by former trade minister Andrew Robb, who now works for the Chinese company Landbridge Group.