kristy-mcbain
Labor candidate for the seat of Eden-Monaro Kristy McBain (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Amid an era in which election watchers have learned to expect the unexpected, Saturday’s Eden-Monaro byelection surprised by not surprising, delivering one of the electorate’s characteristic knife-edge results and broadly confirming the predictions of the polls.

Labor operatives were perhaps stretching the elastic a little yesterday when they told reporters they were “100% confident” that their candidate, Kristy McBain, had won the seat.

But with Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs needing roughly 60% of around 3500 outstanding postal votes to overhaul a deficit of 737 votes, it seems her only realistic chance is that errors will show up as ballots are rechecked (two of which indeed emerged to her advantage yesterday).

The foregoing may surprise some who followed the action on Sky News and in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, where the result was all but called for the Liberals despite McBain leading through the night on both the raw vote and booth-matched projections.

Combined with a spot of obvious editorial enthusiasm at The Telegraph, this was fuelled by claims from Liberal sources on the night that swings in the large Queanbeyan pre-poll booths were “off the chart” — a chart which, it transpired, maxed out at a mere 5% or so.

In fairness, Labor concerns about what Queanbeyan pre-polls might do to McBain’s lead were being aired at around the same time on the ABC by Kristina Keneally, who noted the area had been the “base” of outgoing Labor member Mike Kelly.

As it happened though, the traffic on pre-polls wasn’t all one way, and a very delicate overall swing to the Liberals was balanced by a larger one to Labor on postals, which attracted many more voters than usual thanks to COVID-19.

With the clarity brought by an extra day of counting, there has been an intensification of conservative ire towards state Nationals leader and thwarted preselection hopeful John Barilaro, who stands accused of encouraging his party’s voters to preference Labor.

There may be some justification in this, as changes in preferences flows were clearly decisive in allowing Labor to hold its ground on two-party preferred despite a 3% drop in the primary vote.

Part of this was a correction after Clive Palmer’s anti-Labor spoiler effect at the election, but it was also influenced by Shooters Fishers and Farmers directing preferences to Labor (a further source of Liberal fury on Saturday night) as well as a shrinkage of the Nationals flow to the Liberals, the precise extent of which is disputed.

Related to the Liberals-wuz-robbed theme is an indictment of Anthony Albanese for having suffered a moral defeat in his first electoral test, in violation of the iron law that byelections favour oppositions.

Certainly it’s true that the result offers no evidence of a paradigm shift for Labor under Albanese, or even of any particular benefit from the government’s handling of the locally devastating summer bushfire crisis.

But as election analyst Peter Brent has calculated, the historic tendency of byelections to swing to the opposition is largely specific to government-held seats.

This reflects the fact that byelections usually involve the incumbent party losing the sitting member’s personal vote, which in Mike Kelly’s case was thought to be considerable.

Labor’s other defence for the drop in its primary vote is that there were nearly twice as many candidates this time around, although this is blunted by the fact that the Liberals managed to achieve a slight gain.

Most of all though, the byelection was held in an unprecedented political context that has had the effect of elevating Scott Morrison’s personal poll ratings to hitherto undreamt of heights.

Since 68% approval ratings will assuredly not be a permanent feature of Morrison’s prime ministership, it might just as readily be noted that this apparent popularity yielded only a modest dividend at the ballot box.

This reflects the persistence of Newspoll in recording a close race on voting intention, and contrasts with the dramatic surge to Labour in recent polls in New Zealand.

However, the safer conclusion is that this was just another byelection result with explanatory threads aplenty and competing narratives galore, but little real insight to offer into a general election still nearly two years away.

Peter Fray

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