By the historic standards of federal byelections, the 5% swing against the Liberals in Bennelong on Saturday lands almost exactly in the middle of the range.

As such, it gives both sides enough elbow room to plausibly spin the result, but should ultimately be regarded as a non-event for the rest of us.

The Liberals’ claim to bragging rights is outwardly more compelling — not only did they win by a fairly comfortable margin, they did so in the face of a full-blooded campaign by Labor, after a number of opinion polls pointed to a close result.

Liberal partisans have been particularly keen to argue that it took swings well into double figures to foreshadow the demise of the Whitlam and Keating governments.

Of course, what the byelections for Bass in 1975 and Canberra in 1995 actually portended was not merely changes of government, but historic defeats that swept up dozens of seats.

With the one seat majority that it continues to hold by grace of the Bennelong result, the bar for the Turnbull government is rather a lot higher than that.

To the limited extent that byelections offer any indication at all as to how the next election will go, a perfectly average byelection swing surely implies a perfectly average election result — and the average since Whitlam’s time has been a 2.3% swing against the government of the day, which would be more than enough to put Bill Shorten in The Lodge.

There is also good reason to believe that the dynamics of the section 44 byelections are uniquely favourable for the incumbent party, as they do not involve the loss of the sitting member’s personal vote.

For all that, a win is undoubtedly a win — and the triple whammy of New England, Bennelong and the messy but ultimately effective same-sex marriage survey leaves Malcolm Turnbull looking a good deal more effective than he has at any time since the earliest days of his prime ministership.

Labor’s task in talking up the result is accordingly more difficult, however much Kristina Keneally and Bill Shorten may have tried to suggest otherwise during their concession speeches on Saturday night.

However, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke made a pretty good shake of it during the election count coverage on ABC News 24, and again on Insiders yesterday.

Burke’s thesis is that the Labor swing was auspiciously concentrated in the Chinese-dominated parts of the electorate — driven, he argues, by the government’s pursuit of discriminatory changes to citizenship laws that were blocked in the Senate in October.

This is borne out to the extent that booths with non-English speaking populations above the electorate average collectively swung to Labor by 6.5%, compared with 3.2% for the remainder.

On Burke’s view, this bodes well in the multicultural Sydney seats of Reid and Banks, where Labor suffered historically unusual defeats not only in the 2013 landslide, but also in the hotly competitive 2016 election.

However, the other side of this coin is that there was barely any swing in the parts of Bennelong dominated by educated and affluent metropolitan whites — a rarely discussed breed of voter that responds more favourably to Malcolm Turnbull than it did to John Howard or Tony Abbott, and is likewise present in fairly substantial numbers in Reid and, to a lesser extent, Banks.

What all three electorates lack in substantial numbers are middle-income mortgage payers of the kind that hold the key to outer suburban and regional city seats where elections are usually won and lost.

Such voters abandoned the Liberals in dangerously large numbers in 2016, and their prospects for a third term depend in very large part on winning them back.

Only if, as threatened, further disqualifications are forthcoming against Emma Husar, Susan Lamb and Anne Aly — who respectively won the outer urban seats of Lindsay, Longman and Cowan for Labor in 2016 — will the section 44 saga produce byelection results of more than academic interest.

Peter Fray

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