Mayo is often, mistakenly, called a safe Liberal seat. The recent by-election, part of the ‘super Saturday’ bonanza of Australian democracy, proved this a falsehood. As veteran commentator Anthony Green has pointed out, Mayo is better understood as a safe ‘non-Labor’ seat.
As the seat polling suggested in the run-up to the election, the Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie won the seat comfortably against Liberal challenger Georgina Downer.
So, what if anything, does this result tell us about wider South Australian and national politics? There are arguably six lessons to be learnt from the by-election.
First, and probably most unhelpfully, the Mayo result actually tells us very little about what might happen in a Federal Election in 2019. For one thing, the seats in Queensland and across Western Sydney are usually the crucial marginal seats which tend to decide elections, not seats like Mayo.
The complex factors that drive voting behaviour are different when a change of government is at stake. In addition, with the reduction of seats in SA from 11 to 10, and the nominal increase for incumbents (for example, Hindmarsh has moved from being a key swing seat to a relatively safe Labor seat), the Mayo result is atypical.
The crucial point here is that if party apparatchiks argue that the Mayo result means that Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership is in doubt, or Shorten’s is safe, or the Liberals tax plans are problematic, then this is, at best, a spurious correlation. This was a curious local contest, albeit played out on a national canvas.
Second, the poor performance at the state election by the Xenophon team masks some deep ongoing support for the Centre Alliance (formerly NXT) group. While Xenophon’s team failed to win a state seat in the lower house; achieving representation in a federal seat is a significant coup for a small party, albeit one that is predominately SA-based.
In areas like Mayo, there is at least a residual 20-plus per cent of voters who support a third-party challenger to the major parties.
At the state election, in key seats, Xenophon’s party still scored respectable primary votes in key electorates despite not taking any lower house seats.
Third, the Sharkie result reflects a much more structural change in Australian politics, the growing rise of minor parties and independents. At the 2016 federal election, there was both the largest ever primary vote for minor parties, and correspondingly, the lowest primary vote for the majors.
Australians are shifting their allegiances and political identities. This poses wider questions for Australian party democracy, especially in a plurality election system.
Fourth, Georgina Downer might well have been the ‘wrong’ kind of Liberal for Mayo. Striking focus group research conducted by the University of Canberra in the run-up to the election found a very divided electorate. While there was clear support for a blue ribbon Liberal candidate, there was also support for a candidate who was keen to address environmental concerns, but also reflect the ‘new’ Mayo in fast-growing places like Mount Barker.
Downer, a conservative and Research Fellow at the right-wing IPA, might have been too divisive, even if we put aside the commentary that she was a ‘blow-in’. Deleting her Twitter account was not enough to speak to the ‘new’ Mayo. It might well be that the Liberals would do better to run a ‘wet’ social liberal against Sharkie next time out, and put Downer on a future Senate ticket.
Fifth, this was a safe non-Labor seat, which has been a part of SA electoral topography for some time. A striking characteristic of the SA Liberals has been an historic inability to nail down so-called safe seats. Prominent examples include Peter Lewis (Murray Mallee), Geoff Brock (Frome), Bob Such (Fisher), and Troy Bell (Mount Gambier). For a range of reasons, especially in non-metropolitan areas, when local constituents get hold of an independent, former Liberal, or minor party candidate, they tend to hold on to them.
Given that at the national level, they tend to have less direct impact on the outcome, it means that constituents often value local representative links over specific policy agendas.
Historically, despite the dominance of Downer (snr.), at various points, notably 1998, and then in the 2000s, the Liberals have seen close fought races against first the Democrats and then the Greens.
Finally, it raises questions about the (lack of) power of e-campaigning tools. Sharkie has called for an inquiry into the use of data mining by political parties, which she suggested were why Downer raised the issue of border protection just before polling day.
Sharkie suggested that the Liberals were driven by findings from their use of the expensive i360 software. If Sharkie is correct, then this seems to be money wasted by the Liberals. Alexander Downer’s post-result comments about ‘nation-builders’ seems to reflect sour grapes for his daughter’s loss, but more critically, is a mis-reading of the wider electoral and issue dynamics at play. Good software might only have limited impact on a poorly-run campaign.