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A 'Seinfeld' by-election, but both parties escape with only minor damage

Opinion

The end result suggests it was much ado about nothing, but there are some important takeaways for the two major parties from the Eden-Monaro by-election, writes Dennis Atkins

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A Seinfeld by-election where almost nothing happened – the two principal parties finishing almost exactly where they were after the May, 2019 general election – should not excite anyone.

However, the once-in-a-century set of circumstances against which the weekend Eden-Monaro tussle between Labor’s Kristy McBain and the Liberals’ Fiona Kotvojs was waged made the by-election more fascinating than it would otherwise be and burdened with greater significance than any of it deserved.

Labor looks to have won even though its primary vote dropped back from the 2019 result and there could be a very skinny preferred candidate swing towards the Liberals.

However, a win is a win. As former prime minister and inveterate punter Bob Hawke used to say: “The bookies pay if your horse wins by a nose or the length of the straight and all that matters is if you go home with the money in your kick.”

Four key takeaways from the Eden-Monaro dust-up tell the story. First, the Liberal candidate should have won. Labor had lost the asset of having a popular incumbent – former member Mike Kelly had a personal vote that the most conservative assessment would put at about 2 to 3 per cent (matching the fall in primary votes for the ALP) – and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is enjoying personal ratings that no former leader has had for such a sustained period.

Morrison is fulfilling the key tasks of steering the country through a deadly pandemic and so far managing the economically crippling fallout from having had to shut down much of our commercial life three months ago.

Morrison still carries some residual resentment in parts of an electorate badly hit by a summer of bushfire disasters. His comparatively competent handling of the current set of crises appears to have washed that odium through the system.

In a seat that swings between Labor and Liberal (each party has held the seat three times in the past 40 years) and has become gradually more conservative in its makeup, Labor was always going to be the underdog in this fight.

Second, the fact Labor has almost certainly won shows Morrison’s ratings are not an express ride to electoral success. Despite giving an appearance of being above the fray, the PM was fighting hard to win the seat – he is, first, second and last, a political street fighter. He made targeted visits to key parts of the electorate (avoiding those where he might not be so welcome) and the big Defence announcement a few days before the poll was in part aimed at the military community around Queanbeyan.

The Liberal bunting on the polling booths at the weekend was a mix of dominant images of Morrison with strong leadership motifs and down and dirty attacks on Labor for reckless taxing, big spending and general chaos. They were going for the kill.

Third, Labor suffered reputational damage, which while not fatal, was distracting. The “industrial-scale” branch-stacking scandal in Victoria was quickly followed by a Chinese agent of influence in the parliamentary ranks allegation in Sydney.

Finally, the probable outcome will secure Anthony Albanese’s leadership, which had suffered some minor outbursts of internal whispering and sniping. He has passed his first real electoral test and has shown himself to be a tireless, and effective, on-the-ground campaigner.

Morrison remains favourite to win the next election if he can navigate the choppy economic waters still looming but he will have to work every bit as hard as he’s done to recover from his near-death experience in the summer of bushfire neglect if he wants to be confident of a victory whenever the poll is held (and it could be as early as 13 or 14 months away).

One final observation would be that the Eden-Monaro by-election says we are a battered and bruised nation, suffering from environmental, health and economic assaults over which we have no control. We have been failed by our leaders at times and we have seen them stand up and be counted at other times.

All this has left us exhausted by the changes that have visited us and more inward-looking than we have been in the memory of most. It’s a challenging time for the Australian people and we want some surety and confidence from our leaders. The Eden-Monaro result suggests we are just barely satisfied with what’s on offer. The verdict for our politicians seems to be: do better.

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