Four-fifths of the weekend byelections were OK, or at least explainable, for the Liberals. The WA Liberals were vindicated in not wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on byelections that comfortably returned Labor candidates in Perth and Fremantle. Despite some early talk that Rebekha Sharkie was “in trouble” in Mayo, they had long ago resigned themselves to defeat in that seat — although they may reflect on the wisdom of running a climate denialist blow-in from Victoria at the next election. And while they failed in Braddon, both Labor and the Liberals went backwards there — not a bad result given the difficulty of governments winning byelections — although Eric Abetz acting as independent Craig Garland’s personal PR officer didn’t help.

But all of that was obliterated by a shocker of a result in Longman, a seat that really should have been winnable given Labor only fluked it in 2016 off the back of One Nation and Katter Party preferences. This time, One Nation were preferencing the LNP. Instead, the LNP vote fell into the twenties, while Labor lifted into the forties. Despite Malcolm Turnbull’s effort to declare “nothing to see here” yesterday — you can always tell how bad an election result is by the time it takes Turnbull to appear afterward — it’s a nightmare result.

There’s a lot of talk about how Turnbull is unpopular in Queensland. But how about the LNP that went from landslide to losers at a state level in just three years against an insipid state Labor outfit, and which sent an LNP politician from central casting, Trevor Ruthenberg, into electoral battle waving a military medal that a simple Google search showed he wasn’t entitled to? The LNP also thought preferencing One Nation over Labor was a smart idea, a move that has never paid off for the major conservative party at any point. The result: the LNP lost the byelection and lost whatever moral standing they might have ever had. You don’t pander to racists without getting dirty — and it’s the sort of dirt that takes a long time to wash off.

Ruthenberg won’t be around in Longman next time, but the LNP, with its major flaws, will still be there. And Turnbull badly needs an effective LNP to defend a slew of seats on narrow margins that run from the north down to the border. On Saturday’s performance, the LNP will kill the government by 9pm on election night.

The Liberals are making much of the resources and spending commitments Labor threw at both Longman and Braddon. But those aren’t incidentals that won’t be repeated at the general election; they’re exactly the reason why the results should be deeply worrying. Labor’s ground game is strong, enthusiastic and well-organised. It will be the same at the next election. Bill Shorten enjoys campaigning, and he’ll be better at the next election than in the last. And Labor has tens of billions in revenue to deploy strategically and tactically that the government doesn’t have.

A line that’s been run by pundits in recent months is that the government will be happy to trail Labor 48-52 because they can overhaul that sort of margin in an election campaign. Based on the weekend and on the 2016 election, if Turnbull goes into an election against Shorten trailing by four, Shorten will out-campaign him and increase Labor’s lead, not lose it. 

And all the government really has to counterattack with is personal attacks on Shorten, with constant claims he’s a liar. One Nation went the personal route too, with parliamentary pensioner Mark Latham prank-calling Longman voters on Hanson’s behalf to attack Shorten. But however unpopular with voters Shorten might be, however much his opponents might claim he lies, it doesn’t seem to stop Labor winning — a point seemingly lost on The Australian and Sky News, which harp endlessly on Turnbull’s preferred Prime Minister standing. 

The removal of the toxic Barnaby Joyce from the government, Tony Abbott’s growing irrelevance, some stumbles by Shorten and a period devoid of major mishaps has got the Liberals back in the game in the polls. The spotlight was off Turnbull and on Shorten. But it was the latter who ended up grinning in the spotlight on Saturday night. Now it’s back on Turnbull, and he doesn’t look too flash.

Peter Fray

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