The victory by the NSW Nationals in their traditional heartland of the Upper Hunter may prove to be an historic moment in contemporary Australian political history.
The swing against Labor may cost state leader Jodi McKay her job. It may presage the defeat of Anthony Albanese at the next federal election and the return of the Morrison government. It may split Labor even further on the question of opposition to new coal mines and support for climate action. It may even demonstrate that Labor has lost touch with its traditional base.
But it may not. There are alternative explanations. Even if it is an indication of voter feeling in the Upper Hunter, it may just be one byelection demonstrating other persuasive lessons, such as the advantage enjoyed by all incumbent governments during a pandemic, a reward for the government's newly announced funding of a gas-fired power station, the special characteristics of this particular electorate or the vagaries of a byelection with a huge field of 13 candidates. It was also a state byelection in a Nationals seat, with limited lessons for federal politics.
My own inclination, given these various possibilities, is rather to look at the larger picture, and to ask what general lessons about Australian politics can be extracted from the commentary surrounding this result.
The Australian electorate is changing. Traditional voter allegiances to political parties have been weakening for some time. Scott Morrison was quick to gleefully accuse Labor of losing touch with its working-class base. There is some truth in this claim, but first it should be noted that the traditional working class itself is changing. Many coal miners are upwardly mobile in socioeconomic terms. They are interested not just in job security in their industry, but also in tax reform for higher-income earners such as themselves.
There is something sacred about the Labor Party's blue-collar links, given the role of the trade unions in the creation of the party. Criticism from affiliated trade union leaders hurts, and leads to internal splits. But Albanese could equally accuse Morrison of losing touch with his middle-class base over the very same issues. Many Coalition supporters in leafy city suburbs want action on climate change, and are disenchanted with the Morrison government when it fails them.
This growing disjunction is not new. It is a replay of what happened in federal politics with the forestry industry, first during the Franklin Dam campaign in 1983, and later with John Howard and Tasmanian forests.
Australian electorates, federal and state, vary enormously. Many have unique characteristics. This means that nationwide policies are difficult to frame, because they have strikingly different impacts on voters in particular seats.
The Upper Hunter was as unlucky a choice of byelection as you could get for Labor. The party would have been dreading it, given the policy choices it was forced to make. Supporting the continuation of coal is an electoral winner for the Coalition in seats like Upper Hunter, but not everywhere.
The important political calculation that both Albanese and Morrison have to make is whether or not Labor's position will be more popular elsewhere. If that is the case, then Labor may still be in the race at the next federal election. But it did not happen in 2019 when climate action proved not to be a winner.
Labor is accused of confusion and hypocrisy. It is said to speak with two voices: one in coal seats and another, under pressure from the Greens, in the cities and the remainder of the country. Its critics say Labor cannot be trusted, and evidence suggests its alleged hypocrisy certainly hurt the party in Queensland at the 2019 election when it prevaricated over the Adani coal mine.
MORE JOHN WARHURST:
The Coalition, on the other hand, consistently evades the question, appearing to have made the political calculation that the loss of a few seats to independents like Zali Steggall in Warringah is outweighed by support across the country for a do-nothing stance on climate change.
Another suggestion is that the Coalition had a structural advantage in Upper Hunter because its two separate parties, the Liberals and the Nationals, were able to reach out to different constituencies. Specifically it has been suggested that the Nationals' leader, John Barilaro, and the Liberals' activist Environment Minister, Matt Kean, were a successful double act. Barilaro appealed to pro-coal regional voters, and Kean appealed to anti-coal environmentalists.
This argument is interesting, but ultimately unconvincing - and has already been rejected in Queensland, where the two parties have amalgamated into the Liberal National Party in order to present just one voice. Labor has also tried to present a special regional face as Country Labor, but voters just do not notice because Labor and trade unions are seen in the bush as essentially urban phenomena.
Winners can laugh while losers can please themselves. The Berejiklian government has been shored up, and Barilaro and the Nationals are laughing. But another lesson from Upper Hunter is that the vote share of the two major parties fell to little more than half the total vote. The Nationals polled just over 30 per cent, and Labor 22 per cent, of first-preference votes. Minor parties and independents, including One Nation, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, an anti-coal independent and the Greens, took the other half.
The major lesson of the last 40 years, reinforced in Upper Hunter, is that the major parties no longer have a stranglehold over the Australian electorate.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.