Alexander Downer told more than 16,000 Hills residents the night before the election that they were uncouth peasants, undeserving of living in his fiefdom.

Well, he didn’t use those words – but that’s how they were received.

“We are Adelaide Hills people and been in politics here for decades and through multiple elections never come across such abuse. Sharkie supporters have brought such horrible hate to our district. You must all be new arrivals.”

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The former member for Mayo and Howard-era minister had jumped onto the Adelaide Hills Chat Facebook group to defend his wife Nicky who had, in turn, been complaining about abuse directed her way in the online forum after she had promoted daughter Georgina’s candidacy.

While it’s natural for a father to defend his family — and we all know how nasty online debate can get — the words he used demonstrated exactly why many people in Mayo, including regular Liberal voters, rejected the Georgina Downer candidacy on Saturday.

The sense of entitlement — the idea that Mayo was “their” seat — was the takeaway message, if only because readers expected it from him.

The attack on Sharkie herself, like the rest of the campaign’s attempts to bring her down, simply didn’t wash with voters who have now made the seat very safe for the Centre Alliance – a party whose name didn’t exist just a few months ago.

ABC election analyst Antony Green may well be correct in his assertion that Sharkie would have won the seat no matter who the Liberal Party put up against her.

But the Liberal campaign — from candidate selection to messaging — made life particularly easy for Sharkie.

It was a cookie-cutter campaign: negatives in black-and-white; promises in colour; corflutes everywhere; high-profile political support.

Yet, Mayo is no longer a normal kind of seat. Sharkie, well-liked and well-connected within Mayo, won with a swing of just over 3 per cent, to take a very comfortable 58 per cent share of the two-party-preferred vote.

She achieved a substantial lead on primaries over Downer — 44.87% to 36.75%. Labor and the Greens polled about 15% of primaries between them — and the vast majority of those preferences flowed to Sharkie. Downer was isolated and outflanked.

Remember that Sharkie achieved the swing after resigning as part of the dual citizenship saga, against all of the resources of the Liberal Party, and after her former party boss Nick Xenophon was soundly defeated in the recent state election. Xenophon played no substantial role in the by-election campaign, unlike in 2016 when Sharkie’s wagon was hitched to Xenophon’s then-powerful brand.

Saturday, then, wasn’t about Xenophon: it was about Sharkie and her performance as member since 2016.

The polls didn’t shift throughout the long campaign. People had made up their minds as soon as Downer’s candidacy was announced and everything the Liberals did after that only seemed to reinforce Sharkie’s strengths.

The real local

Georgina Downer grew up in the Hills but everyone knew she moved back from Victoria for the election.

At the very least, it put Downer on the back foot. At worst, it clouded her message and reinforced the anti-establishment sentiment that has always resided in the rolling hills and valleys of Mayo.

Focus group research in Mayo by the University of Canberra found that voters identified Sharkie strongly with the seat (“she bleeds Mayo”) and, with echoes of the reaction to Alexander Downer’s misjudged Facebook post, the researchers found that voters considered the Downers to be part of a community in Mayo that, for many, no longer exists:

“Sharkie and Downer are perceived to represent two very different Mayos. Downer represents old “blue ribbon” Mayo (as did the disgraced [former Liberal member] Jamie Briggs), home to the Adelaide elite, and Sharkie represents new Mayo which is reflected with changing community demographics which include households from a much broader range of income groups including young families who are looking for active community-minded representation.”

By bringing in a parade of ministers from interstate, the Liberals only reinforced the view that Downer was an outsider to the electorate but an insider of mainstream politics.

David Washington is editor of InDaily. Read the rest of his analysis on their website.

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Peter Fray
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