The Guardian March 21, 2001

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 

The swing to Labor was not so much a vote for Labor but a vote against the 

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 

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 

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.

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