Federal Liberals enjoy a 72 percent vote in a by-election

In case you missed it there was a by-election in the Federal electorate of Cook last Saturday, and the Liberal candidate won it with a 63 percent primary vote. That was a swing of 7 percent on the 2022 general election. After preferences the Liberal vote was 72 percent, up 9 percent from 2022.

Before you take to the bottle or harder drugs in despair, you should realize that these high primary and two-party votes are largely explained by the absence of a Labor candidate in the seat vacated by Scott Morrison. Nor was there any prominent independent candidate.

Cook is about 25 km south of the Sydney CBD, on a stretch of waterfront land between Botany Bay and Port Hacking. Unlike many other high-income urban electorates, in Cook the Liberal Party has been enjoying an increasing share of the vote over the last few federal elections. There is a hard-right core in this electorate, the site of the 2005 Cronulla riots, which saw violent attacks by young “white” men, many draped in the Australian flag, attack people of middle-eastern appearance. In the 2022 election One Nation and United Australia between them secured 10 percent of the primary vote – high for a prosperous urban seat. Neither party was competing in the by-election.

The voting outcome says little about the political significance of this by-election: a 7 to 9 percent gain in the absence of a Labor candidate is unimpressive.

The political significance is more to do with the final departure of Scott Morrison from the political scene.

War Memorial
Morrison’s memorial

Just last week, reminding the Australian public of the Morrison government’s maladministration, the Australian National Audit Office presented its report on Management of the Australian War Memorial’s Development Project. While it has only minor criticism of the way the detailed aspects of the project were conducted, it found that the government gave the project the go-ahead before it had received the detailed business case. In spite of the clear contradiction in timing of the receipt of the business case and the decision, the government claimed that departments and cabinet had “closely examined” the business case, but the ANAO found “There was no evidence that the DBC [detailed business case] was considered by government”.

Dutton and his inner circle would surely be hoping that this ANAO report, like previous audit reports on car parks, sporting grants, and general findings of cronyism and corruption, will be associated with Scott Morrison.

But as much as one may find Morrison’s behaviour to be reproachful, it is wrong to make him the scapegoat for the faults of the Coalition. Most of the Morrison cabinet is now in the shadow ministry, and those who have departed, such as Julie Bishop and Josh Frydenberg, were among the diminishing numbers of competent Coalition members of parliament.

It’s the same mob that brought us nine years of political and policy instability, declining productivity, an incapacitated public sector, low wages, and inaction on economic reform.

Jacqui Lambie teaches independents an important lesson – the hard way

Independent members of parliament can have power if they play their cards well, and they enjoy a long parliamentary life if they represent their electorates in the way big parties can’t. Political parties have power in numbers. But when independents try to come together as a bloc or as a de-facto party, something goes terribly wrong, and they find themselves cast into the wilderness.

That’s a synopsis of Martyn Goddard’s Policy Post article Jacqui Lambie’s imperial ambitions take a tumble.

It’s partly about the “success” of the Jacqui Lambie Network (JLN) members in Tasmania, in winning three seats. But all they won were a few downtown offices, and well-paying jobs with uncertain tenure. As Goddard explains:

The Lambies were in an extraordinarily strong position. They held the balance of power, the capability to make or break the government, to get almost any reform through the parliament. They didn’t need to just roll over.

But they did. Within four days from the official declaration of results – and in return for almost nothing – they signed up to be, in all practical effect, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party.

They may enjoy a year or two of life as parliamentarians, but the Rockliff government is likely to be short-lived because, even with three compliant JLN members, it is still short of a majority. And then the JLN members will lose their seats, because as Goddard explains:

People who supported the Lambies on polling day are likely to have expected something different: something more like the fiercely independent Jacqui Lambie herself.

As for “the fiercely independent Jacqui Lambie”, she too has disempowered herself, because in her desire to expand her brand, she appointed a board to support her quasi-party. But that was to come at a cost:

But the board didn’t like what Senator Tammy Tyrrell was saying and doing, so they moved against her. And so she resigned.

Ask the veteran independents – Bob Katter and Andrew Wilkie – if they want to form political parties around their names, and they will think you’re joking. The “Teals” elected in 2022 would do well to follow the example set by these long-standing independents, and to learn from Jacqui Lambie’s mistakes.

There is room on the political spectrum for a centre-right party, as Dutton, Ley, Taylor and Tehan take the remnants of the Liberal Party off to the far right populist fringe, but it will probably emerge from a new movement, rather than from a coming-together of independents.

Bondi, Wakeley and social media

The events in Sydney last week were extraordinary, not only because of the vividness of the crimes in Bondi and in Wakeley, but also because of the number of murders over a few days – six in Bondi Junction and one in Doonside (which fortunately wasn’t broadcast on social media or TV) – all victims of knife attacks. It is quite natural that people should be distressed and get the feeling that Sydney is a dangerous place.

Mass murders command attention, not only because they are newsworthy, but also because they have a random element and occur in everyday public places that we consider to be safe.

The other reason they command attention is because they’re rare. Writing in The Conversation Terry Goldsworthy of Bond University provides background on mass murders, the use of knives in murders, and measures that have been taken to reduce gun and knife crime: As Australia reels from the Bondi attack, such mass murder incidents remain rare.

We should be able to take heart from the trend in violent crime. As revealed by data from the Australian Institute of Criminology, the homicide rate in Australia has halved over the last 30 years – shown in the graph below.

Probably a graph

In fact Australia’s murder rate is very low in comparison with most other countries: it’s one of the few indicators where we can boast being on a par with the Nordic countries. New South Wales has a little over one murder a week, about the rate per 100 000 as in other states.

The Bondi murders have once again brought mental illness to the fore. On the ABC there is a 10-minute interview with Pat McGorry on mental illness. He starts with specific information about the individual who committed the Bondi murders, before making an impassioned plea for more public funding and resources to deal with mental illness. Only half of sufferers get any service from the health care sector, and only about a third of those get adequate service, McGorry claims. He’s critical not only of the current government, but also of the opposition for neglecting mental illness. For many reasons spending on treating mental illness is assured to provide good returns to taxpayers, but we’re not making that commitment.

Also on the subject of mental illness, James Ogloff of the Swinburne University of Technology writes in The Conversation that the Bondi attacker had “mental health issues” but most people with mental illness aren’t violent. It’s an informative article, because it removes some of the stigma associated with mental illness, while identifying those particular categories of mental illness that may be associated with violence, particularly if the sufferers do not receive adequate treatment.

The New South Wales police note that the Bondi attacker seemed to target women – an impression confirmed by the disproportionate number of female victims, and the observed behaviour of the attacker.

We know nothing of the attacker’s motivation, but the specificity of this attack should alert authorities to the torrent of misogynistic material on line, and the movement known as the “manosphere”, promoting gender separation, a social order in which men rule over women, and in its most extreme manifestation violence against women. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights has an informative website: Online misogyny: the “manosphere”. One sub-cult of the manosphere is the “incel” movement, which has its own online presence. The UK Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats has a short introduction to the incel sub-culture. Similarly the Anti-Defamation League has an article on Incels.

Both the Bondi incident and the Wakeley incident bring to our attention the dangerous irresponsibility of those who jump on to social media and even on to traditional media with provocative assertions. Almost straight after the event the Bondi murderer was identified as a “knife-wielding Muslim” and a “radical Jew”, depending on which source of bigotry, prejudice and misinformation media you clicked on. Similarly inflammatory remarks were reportedly made following the Wakeley attack. Such statements travel the world literally at the speed of light, and spread widely. There is a great deal of research confirming that first impressions, even if quickly contradicted, are highly influential in shaping our prejudices.

In this context it is notable that Benjamin Cohen, who was wrongly identified as the attacker, has threatened defamation action against Channel 7. Has the commercial media learned nothing from the Lehrmann judgement?

One extraordinary aspect of the two prominent incidents is that at one the crowd cooperated with police and paramedics, while at the other the police and other responders were violently attacked and their vehicles were smashed. Some have laid the blame on multiculturalism, but it is hard to name a region in Sydney, including Bondi Junction and the surrounding eastern suburbs, that isn’t multicultural.

In The Conversation Michelle Grattan has an article with the provocative headline Ethnic tensions will complicate the Albanese government’s multicultural policy reform, which includes the statement “Looking to the future, what’s unclear, given the present tensions, is the likely trajectory of Australia’s multiculturalism”, giving credence to the idea that the Wakeley incident is a manifestation of a general problem with multiculturalism. That idea would find resonance with those who still feel betrayed by Malcolm Fraser's scrapping of the loathsome White Australia Policy. And it amplifies Dutton’s political dog whistles about the conflict in Israel. It would be better if those who have the privilege of a pulpit provided by a respected university do not inadvertantly give support to those who are trying to foment social division for partisan ends.

One academic with a more considered contribution is Professor Fethi Mansouri of the Deakin Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation. On the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report he provides some insights into the intense and violent reaction to the Wakeley incident, explaining the particular circumstances of this religious community. Also, writing in The Conversation, Greg Barton from the same Deakin Centre explains why the police classified the Wakeley incident as a possible act of terrorism, but not the Bondi incident. The difference, he says, “boils down to whether these violent actors think they’re part of a political or religious movement that’s going to change the system, or whether they are simply angry men projecting loathing and driven by personal demons”. The distinction is important, because it helps direct investigation to system-wide. But as he also says, the two are not mutually exclusive, and in this regard social media surely plays a part.