Four women stood out last Saturday evening as the results from the Eden-Monaro byelection came through. The first two were the candidates, Kristy McBain and Fiona Kotvojs. They made their appearances close to midnight and each was impressive. Kotvojs was graceful and generous under pressure, and McBain likewise, but also, as befitted the likely victor, passionate and committed to action. The nation was well served not just by these two candidates but also by the other 12.
The second two were strikingly different. Senator Kristina Keneally (Labor) and MP Sussan Ley (Liberal) represented the major parties as election commentators on the ABC's election panel, alongside host Jane Norman, election analyst Antony Green and commentator David Speers. This set-up is standard, but outdated.
Keneally and Ley were antagonistic and resolutely extremely partisan. Each had a party line and refused to deviate. They served Australian democracy poorly. Perhaps it was just a game to them, but it was in poor taste.
Party representatives used to play a positive role on election night by injecting local knowledge gleaned from party networks which was not available to professional election analysts, such as academics. They would be on the phone constantly for the latest local titbits to fill in the available raw numbers.
Now the technology is so advanced that Green can inject booth figures and preference flows much better than the party figures. Keneally and Ley were left to trade insults, and should have been left out altogether. The media networks should shake up their election night panels at the next federal election to omit party figures in favour of non-partisan analysts. If they want to serve up infotainment rather than information, leave it as is.
Eden-Monaro may be close again at the general election in 2022, but McBain will be hard to shift after two years of greater exposure as an incumbent.
Pre-poll voting reached over 50 per cent in this byelection, and should stay in place. Polling day itself is now old-fashioned and should be replaced by two weeks of polling, supplemented by postal and absentee voting. That reality should be formally recognised in legislation, so that pre-poll voters do not have to perjure themselves with the white lie that they have a reason for not voting on polling day itself.
Parties and candidates should also adjust to this new reality. Any major announcements must now be made before pre-polling begins. This has the democratic advantage of forcing parties to make announcements early enough for them to receive due consideration from the electorate and the media, rather than hiding them away. Resources, especially of minor parties and independents, will be stretched over a longer period.
The result itself had something in it for all sides of politics in the short term, but also worrying signs for many parties in the longer term.
Australian politics remains evenly balanced. Not just this byelection but the last two federal elections have been very closely fought. This fact may have been confused by differing expectations for Eden-Monaro. The framing of the election as a once-in-a-century danger for Labor and Anthony Albanese to lose the unlosable was not particularly helpful, as it relied upon misleading statistics like average anti-government byelection swings.
This time, a pandemic gave the government an unusual opportunity to leverage its incumbency advantage over the opposition via massive government spending. This is not to deny Scott Morrison's personal popularity advantage over Albanese. His presence on the Liberal how-to-vote card was evidence of that. But Eden-Monaro is a regional electorate and was losing its outgoing, popular sitting Labor member - it was made to measure for the government to have a real chance.
Nevertheless, the Coalition was dogged by internal disputes, right through from preselection until the final days of the campaign - with much of the problem being John Barilaro, the NSW Deputy Premier and National Party MP for the state seat of Monaro. If these disputes can be resolved, the Coalition may do better next time - but resolution may not be easy.
The Liberals and Nationals together polled about 45 per cent of the primary vote, which never guarantees victory. But if the Shooters, Farmers and Fishers' 5.4 per cent is added, the total is more than 50 per cent. The key is to unify that vote - but the Coalition's problem is that much of the SFF vote is an anti-Coalition vote.
The Labor-Green combined primary vote was too low. Between them, the two parties dropped more than 6 per cent. The large field, including boutique candidates like the HEMP party, explained a little of that, but not much. Labor and the Greens each have a problem.
Labor must win more of the bread-and-butter vote somehow, and increase its appeal to tradies and other middle-class Australians in affluent suburbs nationwide.
The Greens must attract more of those inspired by the big picture issues raised both by the bushfires and the pandemic. These include climate change, education, the arts and greater care for all categories of vulnerable Australians, including casual workers, foreigners in our midst and the homeless.
Eden-Monaro may be close again at the general election in 2022, but McBain will be hard to shift after two years of greater exposure as an incumbent. She will need to concentrate on Queanbeyan, while not neglecting the coast. The Coalition parties must choose between offering Kotvojs a third try or going for a bigger name. Barilaro still looms large, bringing both a high profile and internal Coalition troubles.
The result points to another close general election, but the electorate itself will be forgotten, overtaken by bigger events. The state of the economy will be decisive. Morrison remains firm favourite, and every indication is that if he is to be beaten it will be because the Coalition's favoured ground of the economy starts to feel shaky.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.