Mark Riley: Albanese and Dutton battle ‘innocent indifference’ in Dunkley by-election

Headshot of Mark Riley
Mark Riley
The Nightly
3 Min Read
There’s a lot riding on the Dunkley by-election.
There’s a lot riding on the Dunkley by-election. Credit: Pool/Getty Images

By-elections can provide accurate reads on the mood of the nation.

That’s why prime ministers fear them.

Sometimes voters are in a bad mood.

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And when they are, they can take it out on the government.

But something unusual is happening on the ground as voters in the federal Victorian seat of Dunkley prepare for their by-election on Saturday.

Campaigners for both major parties are sensing a strange mood.

It is one best described as innocent indifference.

About half the voters they encounter, even in this final week of campaigning, don’t even know there is a by-election on.

And once they are made aware, they are hardly gagging to get to the polls on Saturday rather than take the kids to sport, read the paper or do the weekly shop.

In sharp contrast to the rapid trend towards early voting in general elections, the lines at Dunkley’s pre-poll booths this week have been thin.

How this indifference manifests in the final count on Saturday is anyone’s guess.

But it won’t change the way the outcome is analysed.

It is a local contest between local candidates, but the result will have national implications for both Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.

State results are not perfect guides to Federal polls, but the voting patterns from the 2022 Victorian election are nonetheless instructive.

The winner will bask in the roseate glow of his own brilliance and the loser will nurse a swift kick in the electoral pants.

How the outcome affects their standings as leaders will ultimately be determined by the size of the margin and the febrile nature of their respective party rooms.

Both need a win to justify their broader strategies for the next general election, which Albanese confirmed on Seven’s Weekend Sunrise on Sunday will be in the first half of next year — probably in May.

For Dutton, winning back Dunkley would confirm his decision to essentially abandon the moderate seats lost to the teals and attack Labor on its own ground in low-to-middle-income suburban electorates.

And for Albanese, it would endorse his decision to break his promise on the stage three tax cuts and deliver additional cost of living relief to those same people.

Each is playing down expectations.

Dutton is suggesting a narrow loss would be a moral victory for him.

Albanese says a win is a win in politics, no matter how narrow.

That tells us that both believe it will be close.

State results are not perfect guides to Federal polls, but the voting patterns from the 2022 Victorian election are nonetheless instructive.

To have had any show of removing Daniel Andrews’s government, the Liberals had to take at least two of the six Labor seats neighbouring Dunkley along the Mornington Peninsula south-east of Melbourne.

They didn’t win one. Indeed, they hardly shifted a single vote.

But the most accurate guide is the last Federal poll.

And the two key issues that played into that result will figure very differently this time.

A strong backlash against the Morrison government helped Labor increase its margin from 1 per cent to 6.3 per cent.

Scott Morrison leaves politics today and Peter Dutton is not quite as unpopular in Victoria as he was.

But the biggest factor was the presence of an exceedingly popular local member, Labor’s Peta Murphy, whose sad death from breast cancer triggered the by-election.

Pollsters note that when her name is raised in focus groups in Dunkley the mood instantly changes to one of sympathy and loss and reflection.

And, they believe, that might just be the mood that carries Labor’s Jodie Belyea across the line on Saturday.

Mark Riley is the Seven Network’s political editor.

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