TODAY Premier Ted Baillieu is expected to tell the Liberal Party's administrative committee that the Liberals should not contest the byelection for the Legislative Assembly seat of Niddrie, made vacant by the resignation of former deputy opposition leader Rob Hulls. The case the Premier will make is a pragmatic one, weighing the likelihood of electoral gain against the cost and effort of campaigning. A senior Liberal quoted in The Age yesterday put it this way: ". . . it is expensive, we still need a credible candidate, it would represent a distraction from the government's agenda, we have never won the seat and, frankly, we would be unlikely to win."
It is a familiar enough set of considerations, which has guided the decisions of both the major parties in many byelections, state and federal, in the past. And if politics was about no more than calculations of narrow partisan interest, it would be unobjectionable. The voters of Niddrie, however, would be entitled to see things differently. Yes, they have not returned a Liberal member before, but they can reasonably expect that the Liberals should continue to offer them an opportunity to break with their past. The exercise of choice by a majority, after all, is what confers democratic legitimacy upon a successful candidate. And when one of the major parties declines to contest a byelection in effect, treating a seat as the permanent possession of its rival the voters are insulted and democracy is degraded.
Mr Baillieu should remember the consequences of the Liberals' decision not to contest byelections in 2007 for the seats of Williamstown and Albert Park, which had been vacated by the early retirement of former premier Steve Bracks and his deputy, John Thwaites. Labor retained both seats, as was expected, but the Liberals' refusal to fight denied them any chance of influencing the course of public debate. While the then Labor government contested the seats with the Greens, the alternative government of Victoria became invisible. And for Mr Baillieu as then opposition leader, his party's decision was a humiliation because he had wanted to field a candidate in Albert Park.
Perhaps he now opposes running a candidate in Niddrie because the humiliation still rankles. If so, it is a pusillanimous attitude for a Premier who holds power by the slenderest of majorities a single seat and has some, even if not much, chance of increasing that majority. He should take that chance, and give Niddrie's voters a choice.