Scott Morrison

In public, senior federal Liberals spent yesterday exonerating themselves over their party’s abysmal performance in Saturday’s state byelection in Wagga Wagga, offering predictable mantras about the centrality of state and local factors.

However, anonymous opponents of the coup against Turnbull felt unrestrained in telling journalists the obvious: that an ample share of the blame, of which there was much to go around, lay at the feet of Scott Morrison’s much-invoked “muppet show”.

A definitive result will have to await the full distribution of preferences, but the almost certain outcome will be a win for independent Joe McGirr in a seat the Liberals have held since 1957.

This was facilitated by a collapse in the Liberal vote from 53.8% at the 2015 election to just 25.3% on the latest count.

Such a result would normally be quite outside the experience of a government that has either been level or slightly ahead in the polls, as Gladys Berejiklian’s has been throughout this year.

Even so, there are elements of the disaster that can clearly be traced close to home.

The immediate circumstances of the byelection were unhelpful, with outgoing member Daryl Maguire having fallen foul of an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigation that turned up a phone call in which he appeared to seek a kickback from a property development.

The government also courted a regional backlash with its plan to spend $2.5 billion on Sydney sports stadiums, which lingers in the minds of country voters as a totem of the government’s Sydney-centricity, even after a government backdown in March.

Most of all, the Nationals clearly blundered in acceding to Liberal demands not to field a candidate, as federal leader Michael McCormack acknowledged a fortnight ago.

Indeed, some Liberal optimists have argued that McGirr should be considered a de facto National — he had been discussed as a potential preselection contender, and counted the wife of a Nationals MP among his campaign volunteers — in which case the “Coalition” vote might be thought to have held up rather well.

The problem with this is that the Liberals received so few of McGirr’s preferences that Labor would have beaten them in a straight two-party contest with a swing of about 14%, as revealed by the Australian Electoral Commission’s indicative preference count on Saturday.

The extent to which the recent shenanigans in Canberra played their part can be measured, however imprecisely, by polls showing a decisive fall in the already shaky level of Liberal support over the closing stages of the campaign.

At the height of the federal leadership crisis a little over a fortnight ago, one poll recorded the Liberal vote at 30% — nothing to boast about by any means, but probably sufficient for them to have pieced together an unconvincing sort of a win.

However, internal polling publicised by the Liberals in the interests of managing expectations recorded a downward trajectory from there to a final resting place of 24% (which was in fact slightly lower than the actual result).

So it can hardly be doubted that public revulsion against the removal of Turnbull — further illustrated overnight by Labor’s second successive 56-44 lead in Newspoll — has caused the Liberals brand damage that is by no means quarantined to the federal sphere.

It’s all the more extraordinary that this situation should have been conjured at a time when elections loom on the near horizon not just federally, but also in the two largest states.

How long will the fallout from the August leadership spill last electorally? Write to [email protected] and let us know what you think. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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