As predicted, both major parties are claiming the Canning byelection, which Liberal Andrew Hastie won, as a victory. But minor parties — and the Greens — won’t be trumpeting their success, with the electorate giving them a good kicking, and returning to the comforting arms of Labor and the Liberals.

The Greens were given a rude reminder of how low a ceiling they operate under in outer suburbia, as their already modest 7.4% share of the vote from 2013 was pared below 6%, which can only partly be put down to competition for the left-of-centre vote from Animal Justice and the Pirate Party.

The Palmer United Party vote slumped by more than half, without yielding any benefit to the other minor players in the 12-candidate field — and contrary to the indications of certain polls during the campaign, the flow of minor party preferences to Labor was not greatly improved on since 2013.

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For all that might be said at the moment about the state of the major parties, their collective vote in Canning on Saturday was 82.6% — compared with 79.6% at the 2013 election, and a mere 56.2% at the Senate election re-run last April.

The two-party swing from the government of around 6.5% landed in a zone of indifference between the 5% and 10% benchmarks that loomed as psychologically important for Labor and the Liberals respectively.

Taking into account the historic relationship between opinion poll and byelection performance, a swing of this size is exactly what a government should ordinarily expect at a time when national polling is pointing to a swing against it of around 3% — which is indeed what last week’s ReachTEL and Galaxy polls found, respectively putting the Coalition level and a point in the lead.

Just as national polls have shown a favourable turn for the government after the leadership change, so local polling from Canning suggests the Liberals finished two to three points ahead of where they had been tracking under Tony Abbott.

The various locally specific factors — the calibre of the candidates, the loss of the late Don Randall’s vote, and the fact of the byelection being brought about by a death rather than a resignation — would appear to have cancelled each other out.

A second point of interest relates to the uneven geographic distribution of the swing and the specific clues it offers to the challenges faced by a government seeking to recover its footing under a new leader.

Few problems were evident for the government in the coastal retirement haven of Mandurah, where voters appeared to respond well to any or all out of Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie, the agenda of the Abbott government, the Malcolm Turnbull leadership switch, or any other factor that might help to explain a swing there of little more than 3%.

But in the electorate’s second population centre of Armadale, 60 kilometres from Mandurah on Perth’s inland fringe, a swing approaching 10% delivered a sting the Liberals could not have easily ignored if it had carried through the remainder of the electorate.

As a low-rent redoubt of a white working class that has been progressively squeezed out of the inner suburbs, Armadale has at least one clear parallel in each of Australia’s largest cities — including Frankston in south-eastern Melbourne, Caboolture and Logan at the top and tail of Brisbane, and Elizabeth in northern Adelaide.

In particular, Armadale is a demographic dead ringer for Penrith in Sydney’s outer west, being as one with it in terms of age distribution, income, education, ethnicity and home ownership.

Voters in these areas are a natural fit for Labor so far as their economic instincts are concerned, but their identification with the party has been complicated by its pursuit of migrant and white-collar constituencies going back to the Whitlam era.

After delivering Pauline Hanson her largest base of urban support in 1998, such voters locked in behind the Liberals in numbers sufficient to encourage talk of “Howard’s battlers”, only to swing forcefully back to Labor when WorkChoices was on the agenda in 2007.

The political sensitivity of Penrith especially is the stuff of legend, thanks in large part to the “Lindsay test” that was said to have dominated Labor’s strategic thinking as it blundered from one disaster to another before the 2010 election.

Tellingly, it seemed to many that the test had been flunked by Kevin Rudd himself just days before he was dumped as prime minister that June, after a state byelection in Penrith delivered the Liberals an unprecedented swing of over 25%.

If there is indeed something especially significant about the Lindsay demographic, which can certainly be doubted, it could be said that Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership has begun with an “Armadale test”, at which he has received a bare pass mark at best.

Amid an otherwise tolerable result, the note of caution for the government is that this constituency’s alienation from the Liberal Party runs deeper than Tony Abbott — and that Malcolm Turnbull, the millionaire merchant banker from Point Piper, may not be the ideal candidate to woo it back.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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