This is how Labor wins elections
Ged Kearney's resounding win in Batman - and Jay Weatherill's gutsy election campaign in South Australia - were powerful demonstrations of Labor's willingness to take on all parties in a contest over values.
And while the third party vote remains strong - and continues to demand our attention - the weekend's results reveal there’s a limit to the strength of protest politics.
Ged's victory is a credit to federal Labor’s consistent focus on rising inequality, good public transport, education, and health services, action on climate change and more. Malcolm Turnbull’s cynical decision to sit the Batman contest out - hoping for a Greens victory - stood in stark contrast to Bill Shorten’s discipline in sticking to the message Labor intends to prosecute all the way to the next federal election.
Labor could not have found a better candidate to contest Batman than Kearney. She has a thoroughly deserved reputation for compassion, integrity, and her fierce advocacy for progressive causes over many years. As one of the few nurses ever elected to the federal Parliament, she brings a deep understanding of health policy. As a union leader she brings a profound sense of the challenges facing working Australians. And, perhaps less well known, she has worked for years with business and environment groups to try and forge a consensus around strong action on climate change.
The result in South Australia also demonstrates the benefits of a positive campaign built around Labor values. The “time for a change” force that builds against every long-term government proved too strong to resist. An extraordinary redistribution of boundaries by the electoral commission effectively handed four Labor seats to the Liberal Party, requiring a uniform 3 per cent swing just to hold onto government. Weatherill managed a two-party preferred swing of 1.5 per cent towards his government - not enough to win, but an extraordinary result after 16 years in power.
Weatherill leaves an outstanding legacy from his 16 years as a minister and premier. He was able to project real influence onto the national political stage from his small state in a way not seen since Don Dunstan - in water policy, federalism and tax debates, and energy policy.
While the weekend's results hold nothing in particular for the federal Liberal Party by way of endorsement, they do represent a major setback for the Greens and Nick Xenophon.
The bookies and commentators almost all predicted a Greens victory in Batman. There is little question that the public airing of deep divisions within the Greens hampered their campaign. They also had a poor showing in the recent Tasmanian election and recorded a vote over the weekend in South Australia that threatens their ability to win a Senate spot.
The even bigger story, though, is the failure of Xenophon’s party to win any seats in the South Australian lower house - including the one Xenophon contested himself. South Australians have developed a soft spot for Xenophon’s brand of “keep the bastards honest” politics. But, this time, Xenophon appeared to believe his own hype and tried to present as an alternative premier - revealing his shortcomings on policy detail and the gravitas expected of a government leader.
The South Australian Liberal Party deserves congratulations for winning government. But, in truth, they have simply held the position handed to them by the electoral commission redistribution. Comments from Turnbull that suggest that the South Australian result was all about his vague energy policy are laughable. Right through the campaign, South Australians continued to express their support for their state’s leadership on renewable energy. Steven Marshall would be wise to heed their opinion.
These results show Labor can and should engage in a contest over values, and can win. Two-word slogans don’t take a nation very far in dealing with complex challenges like climate change.
Mark Butler is the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy, ALP President and Member for Port Adelaide.