You can bet on one thing in the Aston byelection, which is to be held on April 1. The winner will be a woman.
Labor already has its female candidate in the field – Mary Doyle, who gave former Liberal member Alan Tudge a run for his money last year. Doyle, who works for an industry super fund, says she’s a “suburban mum” who has “a mortgage on a three-bedroom weatherboard house”.
Peter Dutton was quick to say the Liberals needed a woman, and he won’t be ignored in the way Scott Morrison was, when he wanted a female for the 2018 Wentworth byelection (that was subsequently lost to an independent).
The Victorian Liberal administrative committee is likely to choose the candidate – on the grounds there is not time for a rank and file preselection.
The frontrunners are Melbourne City Councillor Roshena Campbell, a lawyer, and oncologist Ranjana Srivastava. Both have heavyweight referees: former treasurer Josh Frydenberg and former health minister Greg Hunt respectively. Also in the field are former state parliamentarian Cathrine Burnett-Wake and one male – deputy school principal Emanuele Cicchiello.
The Liberals go into the contest as favourites, although both sides are painting themselves as underdogs. As Labor likes to point out, it is more than a century since a government won a federal byelection from an opposition.
Apart from that, the seat is on a 2.8% margin, after a large swing, on a two-party basis, of more than 7% against the discredited Tudge in 2022. If the Liberals can’t hold Aston, they need to be very fearful indeed.
Dutton, who ventured into the seat on Friday, is unpopular in Victoria. But he will be less unpopular in an outer suburban seat like Aston than in the leafy suburban areas that fell to the teals last time. Indeed, it is the outer suburbs in general where Dutton thinks he has his best chance of winning seats at the next election.
The Liberals, predictably, will target cost of living in their campaign, as well as some cuts that have been made in local infrastructure, notably roads.
While cost of living is a very obvious issue, the question is whether the opposition can attach “blame” to the government. Alternatively, will voters accept that most of the drivers of the present situation are outside the government’s control and what “blame” there is should be directed elsewhere?
In recent days, plenty of “blame” has been headed (mostly unfairly) the way of Reserve Bank Governor Phil Lowe.
In the 2021 census the median weekly family income in Aston was $2194 ($2120 nationally). The median mortgage repayments were $2000 (the national figure was $1863).
Voters will no doubt hear a good deal from Labor about the “Noalition”, playing up the Coalition’s opposition to core Labor legislation. On cost of living, Labor will point to its child care and cheaper medicine initiatives, which provide (strictly limited) relief.
One vital sub-contest will be the battle for the Chinese vote. The electorate has (according to the 2021 census) more than 14% of its population who are of Chinese ancestry. This compares with 6.6% of the Victorian population and 5.5% of the Australian population.
The review of their federal election performance done for the Liberals by former party director Brian Loughnane and senator Jane Hume highlighted the problem of the lost Chinese vote.
“In the top 15 seats by Chinese ancestry the swing against the Party (on a 2PP basis) was 6.6%, compared to 3.7% in other seats,” the review said.
“Rebuilding the Party’s relationship with the Chinese community must be a priority during this term of Parliament.”
The reviewers probably didn’t anticipate the test would come so early, in a seat where the Chinese vote is so large.
The bellicose anti-Chinese rhetoric from Peter Dutton as well as from Scott Morrison alienated many of these voters of Chinese ancestry.
Dutton will obviously need to chart a more nuanced position in the byelection. He hasn’t been helped by Morrison’s strong speech, delivered to an international conference the other day, when the former prime minister suggested consideration of targeted sanctions against individuals over human rights abuses.
Aston is not a seat where an independent would be considered to have a serious chance of victory. The Liberals will just be hoping there is no such candidate with the clout to play a “spoiler” role.