It would seem that in our modern, heavily tactical form of democracy that voters are only given a right to vote for the party of their choice when that party decides it is politically worthwhile running a candidate. As Phillip Coorey reports for the SMH, it is looking like Federal Labor is not going to run a candidate (or else only half-run one) in the Mayo by-election forced by the resignation of Alexander Downer. This strikes me as little more than political cowardice from the government, coming as it does a mere eight months after its thumping general election victory. While it may be a foregone conclusion that the Coalition will retain the seat (it is a safe Liberal seat, of course), one wonders why Federal Labor is avoiding the opportunity to try and make this by-election a referendum on Brendan Nelson’s leadership. A few months ago, Kevin Rudd seemed pretty much indefatigable in his role as Prime Minister and Brendan Nelson had all the pressure on his shoulders, his senior peers walking around with sharpened knives at the ready. Does the government really fear that this has changed and that any opportunity to further pressure the Opposition has been lost? Does it want to look to the punters like it is running scared?
The decision to only pursue the by-election halfheartedly seems to be centred around a desire to starve the Coalition of any potential political oxygen. It goes without saying that by far the most likely outcome in Mayo is a victory for the Opposition, and that therefore some positive news coverage for Nelson would eventuate if Labor field a candidate and lose convincingly. From a purely political standpoint, this rationale is not without credence, and certainly we have here in the UK an excellent recent reference point for Labor in the recent Henley by-election in Oxfordshire. There are some telling similarities. In Henley, like Mayo, the by-election was forced by the resignation of a popular, high-profile conservative figure (Boris Johnson, now London mayor), in a safely held seat. Labour decided to field a candidate in the Henley, but did not put very much effort into the campaign, producing a truly abysmal result; fifth place behind the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the British National Party. Embarrassingly, the combined primary vote for the UK Independence Party’s Chris Adams and Bananaman Owen of the Monster Raving Looney Party superceded that of Labour’s Richard McKenzie.
In the Henley case, then, fielding a candidate and running a half-hearted campaign was indeed a disaster. There is little chance that Labor stand a chance of doing quite so badly in Mayo. Crucially, Labour’s Gordon Brown is polling at subterranean levels currently, whereas by comparison, Kevin Rudd and Federal Labor enjoy a comfortable lead in the polls, and have done so for the past eight months. In this sense, we are really comparing apples and oranges with these by-elections.
I really don’t think that this is the right time for Federal Labor to give into political convenience and go on the defensive by steering clear of Mayo. The Rudd Opposition was successful in the general election last November in part because of its aggression, exemplified by the gambit of fielding Maxine McKew in John Howard’s once blue-ribbon Liberal seat. Federal Labor also won support by taking a noble line on issues like electoral reform and transparency in government (hat lift: Senator John Faulkner) in stark contrast to the grubby politics that the Howard Government accustomed itself to. It may not strictly speaking be the most politically expedient course of action, but fielding a candidate in Mayo and putting some energy and resources into the campaign is both the smart and the right thing for Federal Labor to do here.