With the benefit of hindsight, two of the five byelections taking place this weekend will determine whether Bill Shorten was smart or stupid to stall for so long on the dual citizenship status of Labor MPs.
The Labor leader may well have resisted because he thought his party’s processes for checking citizenship were infallible. But he also knew that at least two Labor MPs in marginal seats were still dual citizens when they nominated for election, and that they might lose those seats in a byelection.
Thanks to Mr Shorten’s delaying tactics (and the High Court), voters in those two seats may now have the fate of the opposition leader in their hands.
Labor holds four of the five seats being contested in the Super Saturday polls. If even one seat is claimed by another party, this could set off a chain of events that sees Mr Shorten replaced as the Labor leader.
The suburban seat of Longman, just north of Brisbane, is one. Labor’s Susan Lamb won the seat off the Liberals’ Wyatt Roy at the 2016 federal election, thanks in large part to 60 per cent of One Nation voters following the party’s advice to direct their preferences to Labor.
Pollsters believe One Nation’s vote in the area has doubled since then, and this time Pauline Hanson is directing her voters to put the Liberals ahead of Labor.
Ms Lamb goes into this election with a margin of 0.8 per cent, and opinion polls suggest the race is tight. But there are a lot of unknowns in Longman, and this uncertainty has discouraged political pundits from predicting who will win.
As well as the question whether Ms Lamb should have come clean earlier on her dual citizenship status, there’s the false claim made by Liberal candidate Trevor Ruthenberg to a certain type of defence medal, and the decision by Pauline Hanson to take a luxury overseas cruise during the final days of the campaign.
Whether these factors will influence voter choice is anyone’s guess. However, it’s clear many Longman voters have already made up their mind, with around a third having lodged a pre-poll ballot.
Even though Longman has a strong working-class element, it has mostly been held by the LNP over the past two decades. If the LNP takes it back on Saturday, the victory will make history as the first opposition seat to be won by a government in a byelection in almost 100 years.
The Tasmanian seat of Braddon is a traditional marginal seat that has changed hands many times. Labor’s Justine Keay is running against the man she beat in 2016 for the seat (with a bit of help from GetUp!), the Liberals’ Brett Whiteley.
Ms Keay’s margin is just over 2 per cent, with a recent opinion poll suggesting the contest could be as close as 50:50. Just like Longman, the preferences of non-major party candidates will play a decisive role in the final outcome.
Accusations have been levelled at the Liberals for trying to tarnish the reputation of independent candidate Craig Garland, who polled well in the recent state election and directed his preferences to Labor. Any suppression of Mr Garland’s vote would have a similar flow-on effect for Labor.
Braddon is being mentioned with Longman in dispatches as the two byelection contests that must be won by Labor if Bill Shorten’s leadership is to remain unscathed.
Of the three remaining byelections to take place on Saturday, Labor is expected to be returned in the two Western Australian seats of Perth and Fremantle. Political analysts will nevertheless be interested to see how well Labor and the Greens perform in these urban seats, as a broader predictor of how the two parties will rate in the upcoming federal election.
Interestingly, the outcome of the fifth byelection, in the traditionally blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Mayo, is not being touted as a test of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership in the way that Longman and Braddon are being framed as a test for Bill Shorten.
Perhaps that is because it was the Liberal Party machine in South Australia and not Mr Turnbull which made a serious misjudgement by parachuting another IPA cookie-cutter candidate from Melbourne into the Adelaide seat – even if she is from a family that held the seat for decades.
The Libs also underestimated the connection with the electorate that Rebekha Sharkie has developed since winning the seat from the Liberals under the Nick Xenophon banner in 2016.
Whether he wins or just loses, Mr Turnbull is likely to emerge unscathed from the wash-up of Super Saturday. However, only four wins out of five will protect Mr Shorten from the leadership rumblings that are certain to emerge, particularly if Longman is lost.
That might be an unfair and disproportionate response, but that’s politics in today’s Australia.