Shortcuts / 29 February 2024


Voters in the federal seat of Dunkley are in for a by-election this weekend – so in this Squiz Shortcut we thought it might be a good opportunity to break down what a by-election is in the first place, what role they have in our federal politics, and the issues at play in the Dunkley by-election.

We like to make sure that everybody understands those news events that really do shape our country and our politics – and by-elections seem to come around fairly often…
On average there are 3 to 4 by-elections between each federal election. This weekend’s by-election in Dunkley is going to be the third since the Albanese government was elected in May 2022, and we’re also expecting a fourth by-election coming soon in the seat of Cook, so this parliament is bang on average.

And what is a by-election, exactly?
Great question. We know that our federal House of Representatives is currently made up of 151 people elected from across the country. The federal election is when all of those people are chosen in one go, but a by-election is when just one of those 151 seats needs to be filled.

Why would that ever be the case?
The most common situation is that someone who was elected during the federal election resigns or dies while in parliament. Their electorate still needs a representative, and so a by-election needs to be held to fill that empty spot. Of the 163 by-elections Australia has held since 1901 (including the Dunkley one this weekend), 87 have been triggered by someone resigning, and another 69 were caused by someone dying. 

So death and resignation are far and away the main triggers… 
Absolutely. The Dunkley by-election this weekend follows the death of Labor parliamentarian Peta Murphy at the end of last year – and the upcoming by-election in the seat of Cook follows the resignation of former PM Scott Morrison.

Are there any other situations that call for a by-election?
It’s way less common, but sometimes if an election is super close then it is voided and needs to be re-run. There was also one case in history where a member of parliament from Kalgoorlie named Hugh Mahon was expelled for speaking out against the British, which was a scandalous thing in 1920… That also led to a by-election.

Can we take a step back – why is it called a ‘by-election’?
Whipping out the dictionary, when you put ‘by-’ in front of a word it means ‘subordinate; incidental; secondary’… so that’s why we call it a by-election – it’s a secondary election.

Apart from the name and the timing, is there anything different about how a by-election is run?
Nope, it’s the exact same process as normal when electing members of parliament. You usually have candidates from each of the major parties, the vote is held on a Saturday, and if you’re lucky you might even get a democracy sausage…

And that’s what’s happening in Dunkley this weekend?
Exactly. Dunkley is an electorate centred around the town of Frankston in Victoria, on the Mornington Peninsula. We mentioned before that the seat was held by a Labor member – so Labor really wants to win this election.

Why’s that?
In most by-elections, the party who held the seat before the by-election retains it afterwards… so if this formerly Labor seat did go to the Liberal party that would be quite notable.

What’s likely to happen?
Recent opinion polls in the electorate of Dunkley do actually indicate that the Liberal party has the edge… and while it’s a good idea not to put huge stock in polls, it does look like it’ll be close.

Who are the candidates?
From the Labor party, it’s Jodie Belyea, and the Liberal party candidate is Nathan Conroy. Belyea has worked in charities and was personally selected by Peta Murphy as her replacement candidate, while Conroy has been the mayor of Frankston’s City Council.

What are the big issues in Dunkley?
All the experts agree that one question is at the forefront of voters’ minds: cost of living. As for how each party is campaigning, the Liberal candidate, Nathan Conroy, is trying to pin the cost of living crisis on the Albanese government and talking about how much his own mortgage repayments have gone up… 

And Labor?
Labor has been selling their recent changes to the stage 3 tax cuts. According to Labor calculations, 87% of voters in Dunkley will be better off after the recent changes, so they’re pushing that message. Whichever way this by-election goes, political watchers are looking at it as a sign of how well voters think the Albanese government is doing on the cost of living.

Sounds like a good one to watch… anything else to know?
By-elections are only relevant to the House of Representatives, which is the lower house of the federal parliament. When a seat becomes vacant in the Senate, the party of the former senator simply replaces that person with a new party member.

Good to know…
It’s a good time to be a democracy nerd…

Squiz reccomendations:
Reading: a 2017 article from the Museum of Australian Democracy on “Eight By-Elections That Changed The Game”

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