This upcoming Saturday, voters in two of the Australian State of Queensland will go to the polls for by-elections to replace resigned members. These byelections, just months before the scheduled state election, are an interesting test for both the Queensland government, but also for a theory of politics that extends far past the borders of Queensland.
Starting with the suburban seat of Currumbin, where the conservative Liberal-National Party (LNP) won 53.3%-46.7% last time after preferences, we see one part of the pattern. A uComms seat poll has the seat line ball, 50-50, after preferences, and despite a statewide swing to the opposition LNP generally, the governing Labor party is getting a swing to it in that poll. Despite the statewide swing to the LNP and the usual heuristic that by-elections go badly for governments, it seems that this suburban district isn’t going to move to the right, but in fact move to the left against pattern.
The second seat, Bundamba, is a safe Labor seat in what would be called Labor heartlands areas. Here, Labor aren’t facing a challenge from their usual opposition, but from a populist right party called One Nation who didn’t contest the seat in the last election. A uComms poll has the Labor party getting about 62% of the two party vote after preferences, down a bit on what they would have got in the seat’s polling places at the Senate election last year.
The by-elections are key tests, and what will be interesting about them is whether the demographic trends seen in both the Australian election of May 2019 and the UK election of December 2019 hold – urban and suburban areas moving to the left, and rural and exurban seats moving to the right. In Queensland federally, this move was seen, with the LNP taking huge increases in their vote in small towns and regional Queensland. If One Nation can come through and outperform their polled performance in Bundamba, for instance, that trend will continue and we’ll have another data point for that part of the theory. If the Labor Party can win – or even come closer than their previous performance – in Currumbin, then the urban and suburban surge that saw UK Labour take Putney as everything else failed them will be happening again.
The other reason to watch out for them is to see another evidence point from international elections to help us explain the US General Election. The same trends seen in the UK and Australia also showed up in Canada, where the Liberals won again – but the left was able to win in Canada because so much more of our population is suburban – and in the USA. The story of both 2016 and 2018 was the realignment of the two political parties. If these by-elections show the same sort of realignment as we saw in Canada and the UK and Australia, it will get even harder to deny that the realignment is happening, and will continue to happen.
For as much as people focus on the specifics of politics – the specific decisions, candidates, and personnel, it’s frequently not about that. The reasons the LNP won Longman back at the last federal election in Australia are the same reasons the UK Tories won Sedgefield, which are the same reasons that the Canadian Tories gained Fundy Royal – a movement to the right in regional areas. The shared logic also applies to a Macnamara-Putney-Milton trio, all three wealthy seats where the left massively improved their position. These are the reasons why the MN-01 went for the GOP in 2018 while they lost all of Orange County.
In Bundamba and Currumbin, we have a chance to potentially see both trends happening again, which would – if that happens – just show yet another data point about what might happen in November. In some ways, what happens in November may entirely depend on which party can exploit their opponent’s weakness the most. Saturday may end up a dud – there may end up being nothing much in it. But they might just show something meaningful for the American elections in the fall – and show us all a glimpse of how different parts of America may move.