by Sebastian Andrew
This Saturday, those in Adelaide’s Southeast (myself included) will be returning to the polls for a third and final time this year.
This will be to vote in a by-election for the state seat of Bragg. Bragg is being vacated by former Attorney General and Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman, who garnered controversy over an alleged conflict of interest during her role as Minister for Planning and Local Government. Her resignation was no less messy — disputes over her intentions led to a brief constitutional crisis, and the timing of her announcement (hours after the election of David Speirs to SA Liberal leader) further fuelled speculation of animosity between the two.
Bragg covers Adelaide’s Southeastern Suburbs, between Kensington and Goodwood Roads, and out West to Cleland and Horsnell Gully conservation parks. Throughout its 52-year-old existence, this seat has been the safest Liberal seat in Adelaide; the Liberals have always won a majority of first-preference votes, and only at the recent election did it become ‘fairly safe’ on a two-party-preferred count. Even as Labor flipped or came close to flipping every electorate surrounding it, not one polling place in Bragg voted for Labor (the closest they came was winning 47.4% of the vote in the Glenunga booth).
Really, in a seat like this, the Liberal preselection is the contest that matters — as whoever wins is almost guaranteed to win the general election. Having won preselection, all lawyer and diplomat Jack Batty should have to do is whack up a few posters and send out some mailers so people know that he’s the Liberal candidate — then sit back and wait to win.
However, this time Labor is actually showing up with a serious campaign. They’ve ditched twice-failed candidate Rick Sarre for Alice Rolls, a lawyer and Head of Policy and Strategy at the Australian Pro Bono Centre. Ditching Sarre, who I can say anecdotally as a resident of Bragg, had no presence in the electorate beyond generic corflutes, was the first sign that Labor was interested in not just having a candidate for their base to vote for come election day, but one to hopefully win the seat — or at least give the Liberals a scare. Rolls has engaged on a doorknocking blitz, hitting thousands of households throughout the campaign. This has come as a surprise to many voters, many of whom, she noted at a recent community event, have never been doorknocked (due to the strong Liberal lean there’s never been a need for either party to actively campaign). I myself, living in a safe Liberal portion of the seat, was quite surprised when Rolls showed up at my door. Even during Labor’s strong contest for the federal seat of Sturt, which overlaps Bragg, there was little campaigning in this area. Rolls is also relying on trumpeting herself as the candidate for the party in power. This is not meant as a denigration of Batty but if elected, he would be a freshman backbencher in an opposition unlikely to claw back to a majority anytime soon. Rolls is hoping that enough voters realize this, and vote for a voice in government, even if it’s a Labor government.
Despite a historically strong campaign from Labor, Bragg is still unlikely to flip. To win, Rolls would have to keep every Labor voter from the state election, while replicating the 8.8% swing that occurred alongside a state-wide swing of 6.5%. The recent state election was undoubtedly a rebellion against the Liberal Party. Who’s to say that some who voted for Labor at that one didn’t just do so as a one-off protest. When the seat was held by 16 points, and they could safely send a message to the government, knowing their vote wouldn’t actually flip the seat to Labor. It is entirely possible that Batty improves off Vickie Chapman’s March results.
Even if Rolls retains every single March voter, gaining a further 8% of the two-party-prefered vote is no easy feat. Some booths in the seat experienced swings of around 2–3% away from the Liberals between the state and federal elections. Assuming that Labor retains every March voter, electoral swings at their current rate are likely to fall short. An enhanced ground game will likely nudge them along a little bit, but again, probably not enough — and in reality, there’s certain to be some shift back towards the Liberals which will need to be offset. To avoid going too deep into numbers, enormous swings can be observed between the 2018 and 2022 state elections, but these swings slow dramatically between the recent state and federal elections, suggesting that there are increasingly less voters for Labor to win.
Labor is running a campaign like none other in a seat that it’s never seriously contested, and that’s been taken for granted by the Liberal Party. Even if Labor falls short of victory, they’ve made what should have been a guaranteed Liberal win, a contested race.
Overall, Batty is likely to retain the seat for the Liberal Party. His winning margin will fall somewhere between 62–55% of the vote, I think somewhere between 58–56% is most likely within this range. If Rolls somehow manages to win, it will be by no more than 51%.