After a week of disunity and demoralisation, the Nationals enjoyed an extraordinary reversal of fortune on Saturday as Barnaby Joyce registered a crushing win in the New England byelection.

While nobody seriously thought Joyce would lose, a fair bit was said about the complications the government might face if his win was not so decisive as to allow the Australian Electoral Commission to promptly declare a result.

In the event, counting on Saturday and Sunday alone was enough to establish Joyce’s win as the clearest mathematical certainty, with his tally of first preference votes exceeding half the electorate’s total enrolment.

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It seems that Joyce garnered a large share of the 29.2% of voters who supported Tony Windsor’s comeback bid last year, despite the bitter rivalry between the two.

His primary vote sprang from 52.3% to 64.8% while Labor’s limped from 7.0% to 11.2%, and a huge field of 15 minor party and independent contenders failed to make any impact, either individually or collectively.

The last time a government scored such a strong swing at a federal byelection was in the Gold Coast seat of McPherson in 1981, when Labor was shunted aside in a campaign focused on rivalry between the Liberals and Nationals in Queensland.

Some have sought to downplay Joyce’s triumph as a reversion to type after the distorting effect of Windsor’s run in 2016, but this is plainly at odds with the facts.

The margin was the biggest the Nationals have ever recorded in a seat they have dominated since their foundation in 1920, outside of the Tony Windsor interruption from 2001 to 2013.

Joyce’s primary vote of 65% was 10% more than he achieved against a comparably uncompetitive field in 2013, and was last matched in the electorate in 1966, when there were only two candidates.

Byelection results are normally understood to reflect the electoral standing of the government of the day, but the last two years of federal politics seem very hard to understand if that’s the case here.

Malcolm Turnbull’s triumphalism on Saturday night notwithstanding, this was clearly a personal victory for Barnaby Joyce — though it remains a mystery why his support should be so much stronger now than it was the last two times he faced the voters in New England.

All that can be said for sure is that two factors that might have played against him failed to have an impact — or if they did, it was the opposite of what was expected.

As the section 44 fiasco has unfolded, with Barnaby Joyce as its prime exhibit, voters have supposedly been reacting with dismay at the incompetence of a political class they are not disposed to view charitably — even at the best of times.

But in New England at least, the prevailing view was one of umbrage that a court should order voters back to the polls by decreeing a drawling rural politician in an Akubra to be something other than purely Australian.

The other factor that might have been thought harmful to Joyce was the recent whispering about his personal life, kicked along in the wake of his High Court disqualification by some sharp insinuations from Tony Windsor on Twitter.

While these matters received delicate treatment from the news media, they had the local community “alight with talk”, according to a profile of the electorate by Katharine Murphy in The Guardian Australia.

How and to what extent this influenced voters’ decisions can only be a matter of speculation, but it’s interesting to note how little Joyce was harmed at a time when cascading, show business scandals dominated the news here and abroad, particularly in the last week of the campaign.

Ultimately, the most satisfying explanations for the result are those that are most specific to the circumstances of the electorate and of Barnaby Joyce personally.

As such, it is very unlikely to offer any insight into the government’s prospects for the next election — or even for next Saturday’s byelection in Bennelong, a genuinely competitive contest that has been the exclusive focus of Labor’s formidable campaigning machine.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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