Whether it was the last couple of polls in the News Ltd press or, perhaps, the need to give the night the sense of drama we suspected it would lack, most of us were braced for a close election night, a nail biting, down-to-the-wire, smoke-’em’-if-you-got-’em cliffhanger.

It was never even close.

The news from Bennelong, barely after the booths had closed, always meant it was going to be a shocker for the Coalition. The issue quickly became whether a Howard-less Government could survive.

Initially, the news elsewhere wasn’t too bad. Stewart McArthur, Count Dracula from Corangamite, looked in deceptively good shape early on, although those of us playing the election night drinking game joyously greeted Antony Green’s mention of “small rural booths”. The news from Tasmania also wasn’t clear, with Labor’s Jodie Campbell in Bass trying to explain why it didn’t look promising for her. Campbell kept to her talking points, introducing a theme for the night of candidates, winning or losing, all sticking doggedly to their scripts. This is the age of Rudd, of political automata who not merely will not but cannot stray off-message. Gone are days like the 1996 election, when Gordon Bilney gave his own voters and the rest of the country a spray when asked why the Keating Government had been defeated.

But drip by drip, the numbers began to tell against the Government. Live crosses to Liberal candidates were met with frozen stares and murmurs of “still in with a chance”. On the ABC, Julia Gillard developed a serene half-smile from about 7.00pm that never left her. Beside her, Nick Minchin quickly began to look worried. “Early days,” he assured Kerry O’Brien, even as the tally room crowd drowned him out roaring at yet another set of Bennelong numbers.

The real issue was Queensland, where slow counting (drink!) was frustrating Antony Green, so much so that at 7.50pm he appeared to call the election for Labor out of sheer pique. The only bright spot for the Liberals was in Wentworth, where Malcolm Turnbull was winning one
of the few Liberal swings – and in retrospect, one suspects, putting a convincing case for the leadership of the Opposition. George Newhouse had already had a bad day, having been attacked by Caroline “writes the headlines, makes the headlines” Overington, who had either been raiding Glenn Milne’s angry pills, or was trying an alternative method of flirting. Or perhaps, to use the default excuse of the campaign, it was just a joke.

On Seven, meanwhile, it was all fun and games. Mel and Kochie treated it as a sporting contest, with frequent cuts to Peter Beattie, Jeff Kennett and Barnaby Joyce offering sideline commentary in the sort of room where one might hang Channel Nine cricket memorabilia. This drivel doubtless rated through the roof and will be the shape of election coverage to come, regardless of tut-tutting from political tragics or the rebuke handed out by Kerry O’Brien later in the night.

As Beattie quickly divined, the results from Queensland meant it was all over. When De-Anne Kelly – an MP whose contribution to good public administration will never be forgotten – fell in Dawson, it was plain Queensland was embracing the hometown hero big-time. The
defeats of Gary Hardgrave and Mal Brough earned as big a tally room cheer as the ongoing debacle in Bennelong, where Maxine McKew was giving a non-acceptance speech so syrupy, diabetics across the country started keeling over.

The WA results – hitherto critical – were now irrelevant, and only the concessions remained. Costello was first to appear. He declared it wasn’t his job to concede, and promptly did it anyway. You can’t blame him – this is the closest he’ll ever get to the Prime Ministership, so why not let him enjoy one of the less pleasant perquisites? Then, with the sort of perfect timing that was entirely absent from his campaign, Howard cut his deputy off, shuffling into the Wentworth Hotel ballroom to congratulate Kevin Rudd and vainly seek to quiet the angry Liberal faithful, including one chap who insisted on drunkenly screaming his love for the now ex-PM.

Then, finally, Rudd appeared. Any hope that victory might prompt him to reveal that he is in fact a normal person was quickly dashed as he went straight on-message with the same steely focus we’ve seen throughout the campaign. Only the mind-numbing length of his speech betrayed the fact that a human being ostensibly lurks inside him. But you could tell from Rudd’s faint smile and careful words that the remarkable discipline and cold calculation that he has shown throughout the campaign are here to stay.

One suspects most of the Labor crowd wildly cheering him on Saturday night haven’t worked that out yet. They’re in for a shock.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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