Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Article excerpt

July to December 1998

The capacity for Victorian politics to confound was in full view during the second half of 1998. This period began with indications of a significant decline in public support for the Liberal-National coalition government headed by Jeff Kennett in two reputable opinion polls (Morgan Poll July 1998 Finding No. 3112; Newspoll, Australian, 1 September 1998). Soon after, Victoria was hit by a major infrastructure disaster when a fire broke out at the sole gas refinery plant that processes natural gas mined from Bass Strait by the Esso-BHP consortium and which supplies the vast majority of the fuel consumed in this gas-dependent State. As will be detailed below, this was a major crisis for the State which resulted in a shut down of industry and the imposition of a prohibition on domestic gas consumption. Yet in the midst of this crisis, and with the Premier approaching this matter in his usual bombastic style (at one point he dismissed critics of his government's imposition of gas use restrictions as "soft" and "whingers"), the Government's position in the opinion polls started to recover. Indeed, by the end of 1998 it was the Opposition leader John Brumby who was under fire and struggling to ensure his political survival. As the political year ended with the gas supply restored and the Victorian Liberals managing to defend most of their marginal seats in the 1998 federal election (an important occurrence that denied any of Mr Kennett's enemies within the Victorian Liberal Party a reason to agitate against his leadership), Mr Kennett re-consolidated his position as the dominant figure in Victorian politics.

The Northcote by-election

Yet another by-election was required in the early half of 1998 following the resignation from Parliament of Mr Tony Sheehan, the member for the ultra-safe Labor seat of Northcote in the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne. Interest in what would otherwise be an electoral non-event was heightened by two considerations. First, the holding of a by-election provided the ALP with the opportunity to have Ms Mary Delahunty, the product of Labor's policy of preselecting high-profile candidates to "rejuvenate" the Caucus, installed in the Parliament ahead of a general election. Secondly, the by-election provided another opportunity for the Pauline Hanson's One Nation party to test the Australian electoral waters. Indeed, the Northcote by-election was the first electoral contest to be held after the Queensland general election where One Nation had performed so strongly.

The party and commentators were thus very interested to see just what level of support One Nation might receive in a State that opinion polls suggested would be the party's weakest, and in an area with demographic characteristics viewed as most unlikely to vote for Pauline Hanson one Nation was also anxious to contest Northcote in order to give the party's new Victorian structure a chance to operate. The Victorian branch of One Nation is now headed by Dr Robyn Spencer, formerly a perennial candidate for by-elections on behalf of the Australians Against Further Immigration (AAFI) party. One Nation nominated a Mr Nikolas Kavalenka as its candidate for Northcote, and the Victorian Electoral Office did him a big favour by drawing his name to top the official ballot paper.

Throughout the period between the Queensland election and the Northcote by-election, Mr Kennett had been extremely proactive in his campaign against Pauline Hanson and One Nation. Despite this, the Liberal Party decided to strategically absent itself from the Northcote contest, thus leaving the Premier vulnerable to allegations of insincerity in his anti-Hanson campaign. This was certainly the line the ALP took in a bid to embarrass the Premier. For his part, Mr Kennett undertook the rather unusual step of personally endorsing the Australian Democrat candidate, Mr Ken Saunders. This included the issuing of a letter from the Premier (but paid for by the Victorian Liberal Party) to every voter enrolled in Northcote urging them to vote for Mr Saunders. …

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