Australian PM Turnbull should be careful what he wishes for

The results in four upcoming by-elections could change the course of politics

As Australia's national capital, Canberra, wakes up to subzero temperatures, the city empties of politicians for the winter recess. But by-elections are keeping the political fires burning elsewhere.

On July 28th – or super Saturday, as it is being called – there will be five such elections, and the repercussions will be felt far beyond the constituencies in Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and two in western Australia.

Four of the five seats are held by the opposition Labor Party, and the fifth, Mayo in South Australia, by the minor Centre Alliance party. Labor is running in Mayo, but playing possum in the hope of helping Centre Alliance get re-elected by not rocking the boat and taking votes from it.

The results in the other four could change the immediate course of politics, though. With Labor leading in every poll since shortly after the federal election two years ago, it should be expected to retain all four, especially given it has been 98 years since a government won a seat from the opposition in an by-election.


But these are unusual times, especially with former Labor leader Mark Latham making robocalls endorsing the far-right One Nation party in the Queensland seat of Longman. Labor won Longman with transfers from One Nation last time, but this time One Nation is directing transfers to the ruling Liberal-National coalition.

Both prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and Labor leader Bill Shorten are campaigning hard in Longman. "It's a test of the parties, but it's really about the people of Longman deciding whether they want to vote for Bill Shorten and his higher taxes, fewer jobs, lower wages and less economic growth," Turnbull said.

The Liberal Party and its friends in the Murdoch press are keen to portray the by-elections as class war, with Shorten and Labor opposing both personal and company tax cuts, while Turnbull supposedly rises above such warfare because that's un-Australian.

Foundation myth

Of all the self-serving foundation myths Australia tells itself, the biggest lie is that there is no class system. The truth is Australia is a class-ridden society, it just pretends not to be. How could it be anything else, being shaped to this day by its British colonial heritage– Queen Elizabeth is on the $5 note and all the coins, the Union Jack takes up a quarter of Australia's flag and God Save the Queen was the national anthem until 1984.

From when the first fleet arrived in 1788 with its stratified class system of officers, foot soldiers and prisoners, to today as the country with the highest migrant intake in the developed world, Australia has always had a class system. To pretend otherwise is a delusion of egalitarianism.

Turnbull is by far the wealthiest member of parliament, estimated to be worth about AU$200 million (€126 million), but when he first became leader of the Liberals in 2008, he felt the need to play this down. In his first speech as leader he spoke of how “I know what it is like to be very short of money. I know what it is like to live in rented flats.” As one commentator pointed out, it made Turnbull “the only man in Australia to have moved from rags to riches without changing postcodes”.

Trouble in Tasmania

Labor will probably hold the two western Australian seats of Perth and Fremantle, despite the Liberals not running candidates in order to try to help the Greens win the seats. But it is in trouble in the Tasmanian seat of Braddon, as well as in Longman. If it loses one or both, two things will happen. Turnbull will visit the governor general to dissolve parliament and call an early general election, probably in September, and Labor MPs will tap Shorten on the shoulder to step aside and make way for Anthony Albanese.

Albo, as he is popularly known, has something neither Shorten nor Turnbull could ever possess: the common touch. While the prime minister and opposition leader both went to private high schools, Albanese was raised by a single mother in public housing. He is fond of saying he was brought up with “three great faiths: the Catholic Church, the South Sydney Football Club and Labor”, adding that his faith in the latter two is unshakable.

With a parliamentary majority of just one vote, Turnbull is desperate to win a seat or two off Labor on Super Saturday. He should be careful what he wishes for. While he is far preferred as prime minister over Shorten (despite Labor’s overall poll lead), this is likely to evaporate if his opposite number changes to Albanese.