The results of Saturday’s quintet of federal byelections have made three things known: there will be no federal election before the end of the year, Bill Shorten’s leadership is in no immediate danger, and the government’s standing in Queensland is weaker than it realised.
The active ingredient in all this is the one aspect of the results that failed to play to anyone’s script, namely the near double-digit drop in the LNP primary vote in Longman.
Elsewhere, Braddon was as close as anticipated, with Labor set to hold the same slender margin it won by in 2016; Rebekha Sharkie trounced Georgina Downer in Mayo, a result signaled well in advance by those otherwise unreliable seat polls; and Perth and Fremantle looked the way byelections always look when one major party forfeits and no strong independent emerges.
However, all that was overshadowed by the kicking administered to the government right where it hurt most: in a seat located on the metropolitan fringes, where elections are usually won and lost, and in the state of Queensland, home to the country’s richest crop of marginal seats.
Some haemorrhaging of support to a resurgent One Nation was to be anticipated, but few would have expected LNP candidate Trevor Ruthenberg to have emerged from Saturday night with a two in front of his primary vote in a seat where the Coalition’s previous worst result was 39%.
This rendered redundant the flow of One Nation preferences, which most had assumed would be the byelection’s decisive factor.
Preferences were indeed more favourable to the LNP than they had been in 2016, thanks as much to defectors from the party juicing the One Nation vote from 9.5% to 16% as to the effects of the One Nation how-to-vote card, which have traditionally been fairly modest.
The share of the aggregate vote that came to Labor as preferences from One Nation was around 5%, just as it had been in 2016, but the equivalent figure for the LNP shot from barely more than 4% to over 10%.
That left Labor needing to win the hard way, through an increase in their primary vote — which they duly managed to do by around 4%.
Their success in doing so has clearly spooked the Liberals, many of whom have concluded that company tax cuts are doing for Malcolm Turnbull what WorkChoices did for John Howard.
Among those who had been counting on a better show was Peter Dutton, who sits on a post-redistribution margin of 2.0% in the neighbouring seat of Dickson.
In his excessive zeal to crank up the pressure on Bill Shorten, Dutton could be heard last week proclaiming an LNP win in Longman to be something approaching a fait accompli.
Had expectations been calibrated more accurately, — whether by Dutton and his ilk, a press gallery over-invested in a Labor leadership showdown, or seat polls that tended to exaggerate how much Labor trouble was in — the results could have provided grist for narratives rather less flattering for Labor to take hold.
The Longman result potentially invites parallels with the Aston byelection in July 2001, at which a similarly sized two-party swing to Labor was seen to signal a recovery by the Howard government, which culminated in a come-from-behind re-election with an increased majority later in the year.
And once Labor are done celebrating in Braddon, they might care to dwell on how unusual it is for an opposition at a byelection to pick up a seat with no swing to speak of — and how this has happened in the thirteenth poorest electorate in the country, where a campaign based on penalty rates, company tax and deteriorating services should have found a particularly receptive audience.