Ryan by-election: Government hit hard — but not hard enough
by Peter Mac The recent by-election for the Federal seat of Ryan in Queensland, which has clear implications for the federal elections to be held later this year, has dealt the conservative Howard Government a severe blow. However, the result is not as severe as predicted, and may not result in the defeat of the Liberal candidate. As The Guardian goes to press the Liberal and Labor candidates are still neck and neck, and the winner may not be known for several days. However, it is certainly clear that the coalition have lost enormous support — nearly 10 percent — in this traditional bastion of conservatism. The swing to Labor was not so much a vote for Labor but a vote against the Liberals. There are also a number of other very noteworthy outcomes. The Greens have almost doubled their last primary vote, outpolling the Democrats, who lost almost the same percentage as the Greens gained. The major cause of damage to the Democrats position was not the current leadership struggle (which if anything is likely to benefit the party by removing right-wing leader Meg Lees) but rather their endorsement of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which allowed the hated new tax to be implemented. The growing support for the Greens, on the other hand, is due to their uncompromising opposition to the GST and other reactionary initiatives, their support for working people in general and their commitment to a cleaner and safer environment. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the by-election — and one which the mainstream media has largely failed to mention — was the failure of the far-right One Nation party to stand a candidate. This relieved the conservatives from having to choose whether to allocate preferences to One Nation, which Howard has vowed not to do, but which was essential to avoid further splitting of the conservative vote. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that his government made certain policy errors which influenced the Ryan outcome, and announced gravely that "I'll end the hurt". While not actually acknowledging that his government was responsible for the hurt, in an ingratiating speech he indicated that the government would be willing to make "sensitive" (i.e. minor) adjustments to initiatives such as the new tax system. However, he then swiftly returned to his usual form, noting that it would be necessary to point out even more clearly the benefits of his government's program, and stated that there would be no turning back on the initiatives that had caused the most pain, in particular the GST. He also hailed the outcome of the by-election as proof that the conservatives could still win the Federal election. Whatever else he may be, Howard is a shrewd politician. Not long before the election day he sent a letter to all constituents in the electorate, admitting that the polls showed the Liberals had little chance of winning the by-election, and implying that this would have grave effects on their chances of retaining power after the next federal elections. This followed the pattern of recent years in which political parties lay claim to the "underdog" position, as demonstrated in the recent Queensland elections, which saw both the Liberals and the ALP claiming that according to the polls their chances of winning power were slim. This tactic appeals to the "sympathy" voter and to those who resent the implication that the outcome is cut and dried, as well as to "rugged individualists" who don't like to feel that they are just one of the voting herd. In the case of Ryan it also clearly had the advantage of worrying those voters who wanted to give the government a kick in the pants, but not to the extent of seeing them displaced at the general election. However, if it wins Ryan, the government may find that this has an unfortunate effect on the outcome in the general elections. The electorate as a whole will have received a timely warning from the Ryan result not to take poll predictions for granted, and is likely to be particularly vigilant in ensuring that the Howard Government is ejected from office.