At the end of an election night that began disappointingly for the government and then grew steadily worse, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s effective declaration that he would secure a parliamentary majority had many scratching their heads.
With the Coalition parties having no more than 64 seats out of 150 bolted down, by the reckoning of the Australian Electoral Commission, two possibilities suggested themselves.
One was that Turnbull had, as he claimed, been briefed by party strategists that there was very good reason to think late counting would save the government’s bacon.
The other was that he was being loose with the truth, perhaps through a desire to influence the psychology of Coalition MPs ahead of a potential leadership stoush, or crossbench members who might ultimately hold the fate of his government in their hands.
Exactly what might be achieved by making such a claim and then being proved wrong about it may well he hard to discern, but desperate situations have a way of bringing forth desperate measures.
To further emphasise the point, unidentified Liberal sources — presumably not friends of the Prime Minister — were putting it about yesterday that a hung parliament was “likely”.
What is clear is that the Coalition casualty list is well beyond the pre-election consensus of journalists, betting markets and both major parties.
The first clear sign of trouble on Saturday night came from northern Tasmania, where the Liberals had gained Bass, Braddon and Lyons on double-digit swings in 2013.
The general view that Labor would recover Lyons but fall short in the other two was the first of many items of conventional wisdom to go under through the course of the evening.
In a brutal demonstration of Turnbull’s limited appeal to to blue-collar voters, all three are now back in the Labor fold, with Bass again recording a double-digit swing. Similarly, the scale of discontent on the fringes of the capital cities was underestimated even by Labor optimists.
Louise Markus was an unanticipated casualty in the Blue Mountains region electorate of Macquarie; an anticipated close result in Macarthur on Sydney’s south-western fringe instead turned into a rout for two-term Liberal member Russell Matheson; Fiona Scott was evicted after a single term in the seat of Lindsay; and Wyatt Roy was defeated in the outer northern Brisbane seat of Longman, even as party colleagues in more marginal seats closer to central Brisbane survived unscathed.
The pattern of stronger performances nearer the city was also borne out in Sydney, where the Liberals retained the seats of Banks and Reid, which had once been reliable for Labor.
Barring late count miracles, the Coalition has lost no fewer than four seats in New South Wales, one in Queensland, the Darwin-based seat of Solomon, and the aforementioned three seats in Tasmania.
Also gone is the South Australian seat of Mayo, the one clear gain for the Nick Xenophon Team.
The Liberals also emphatically failed in the new seat of Burt in southern Perth, which had a notional Liberal margin of 6.0% and $500,000 of Liberal campaign money spent on it, but delivered Labor a thumping margin of 8.4% — another thing to keep in mind the next time anyone tries telling you about the unique insights of party strategists.
Coming off a post-redistribution starting point of 88 seats, that brings the Coalition down to 77, to which they can add the gains of Fairfax on the Sunshine Coast, formerly held by Clive Palmer, and most likely the Melbourne seat of Chisholm.
Then comes the election’s very wide zone of uncertainty: nine seats that may or may not fall to Labor, with four being sufficient to cost the Coalition its majority.
Minor complications aside, the count so far encompasses all the votes cast on polling day, plus those from pre-poll voting centres within the division where they were cast.
The results stand to be decided by postal votes, of which there should be around 7000 per seat; pre-poll votes cast outside the electorate, around 5000 per seat; and absent votes, cast outside the electorate on polling day, around 4500 per seat.
Postal votes favour the Coalition, being most popular among older voters, as well as those away from large urban centres.
Conversely, absent votes are most commonly cast by younger voters and accordingly lean to the left, and particularly to the Greens, while pre-poll votes are broadly neutral on two-party preferred.
Taken together, late counting usually favours the Coalition, with Labor rarely winning seats where they trail at the close of election night.
This suggests the Liberals should maintain their narrow leads in the Melbourne seat of Dunkley and Gilmore in regional New South Wales, and are a slightly better-than-even chance of chasing down a 991-vote deficit in the central Queensland seat of Capricornia, which Labor wouldn’t normally expect to lose at an election as tight as this one.
However, it’s going to be difficult for the Coalition in the Townsville seat of Herbert, Cowan in Perth’s northern suburbs, and Hindmarsh in Adelaide’s west.
Then there are three that are all but impossible to read, for one reason or another.
In the seat of Flynn in central Queensland, Liberal National Party member Ken O’Dowd would just overhaul his 2058-vote deficit if he did as strongly on postals as last time, which come overwhelmingly from rural areas.
However, Labor would have run a better-organised postals campaign on this occasion as they had written the seat off in 2013, but had high hopes this time around.
One undecided electorate where late counting made little difference in 2013 was Forde at the southern edge of Brisbane, since Labor’s weakness on postals was cancelled out by strength on absent votes.
The reason for this is that Labor is stronger at the electorate’s urban northern end in Logan City, and weaker in the semi-rural outskirts to the south. Consequently, many voters at the Labor-voting end stray into neighbouring suburbs and cast absent votes in the seats next door.
Labor currently holds a tiny lead of 149 votes in Forde, and it’s anyone’s guess if this will remain after late counting.
The other imponderable is a potential second gain for the Nick Xenophon Team in the South Australian seat of Grey, where Liberal member Rowan Ramsey is on 41.6% and NXT candidate Andrea Broadfoot is on 28.5%, well clear of Labor on 21.2%.
Broadfoot needs nearly three-quarters of the 30% of the vote that went to Labor and other parties to break her way on preferences.
The AEC conducted an irrelevant Liberal-versus-Labor two-party count on election night, and is now in the very early stages of conducting the decisive Liberal-versus-NXT count.
Early indications are that the flow of preferences to the NXT will be insufficient, but it’s still too early to tell.
In short, neither Malcolm Turnbull nor his naysayers have any cause to make confident assertions one way or the other about the status of the government’s majority — not that it should come as any surprise that they aren’t letting that stop them.