Last Saturday was crunch time. It was the by-election in Eden-Monaro. Eden-Monaro is Australia’s classic bellwether seat. It’s also one of the regions most heavily hit by the bushfires. Pundits estimated that between 4% and 9% of the vote was personal and the margin of victory last election was narrow, so when Mike Kelly had to resign from ill health and our Prime Minister’s popularity hit an all-time high because of the current crisis, most predictions were that the Government would win the seat. Right now, everyone’s denying they said that.
Leading up to the by-election, we learned a lot about the way the bushfire crisis became the COVID crisis. We also saw a grand amount of pork-barrelling by the Prime Minister. If this election could have been bought, he would have bought it.
Despite all of this, our current Federal government had been somewhat absent earlier. For instance, did not help a great deal with the bushfires. There were many promises but few results. Even the woman who is famous for being unhappy with the prime minister when he wanted to shake her hand wasn’t given help. One of the most prominent people affected by a crisis and she (with her family, including a young baby) will be seeing winter out in a caravan. Her rental home burned down and there hasn’t been enough rebuilding and so a stranger said, “Look, use this caravan.” (As far as I can determine.)
The stranger is now considered family, but the bushfire assistance funding from the government is mostly still ungiven. Because she’s well known (none of us know her name, but we all know who she is) she was asked to give an update on what she thought, a few days before the election. This is what she had to say.
Her views reflect what happened with the voting. Labor (the Opposition, not the Government) won by a few hundred votes.
The Prime Minister didn’t even turn up with the Liberal candidate to thank the people of Eden-Monaro. He was invisible. So many people instantly made jokes about him being in Hawaii, because he was equally invisible during his Hawaii holiday at a critical moment in the bushfires. “Scott Morrison is not in Hawaii” we were told then.
Morrison shot himself in the foot now by not being visible during the counting of the vote.
Because the result was so narrow, we didn’t know who had won at first. How election night was reported on our ABC said a lot about what each of the two major parties are doing. It also helps explain why Labor won an election that, honestly, it would have lost in normal circumstances. Labor does not have support in rural Australia on the whole. Mike Kelly has support in rural Australia, but he’s an exceptional individual. Even the newspapers call him Dr Mike Kelly and Australia is, on the whole, not a respectful country.
Why was the televised coverage of the count so interesting?
First, Sussan Ley represented the Liberals in discussing the vote count. She used to be very popular. She’s the representative of the Federal seat right next to Eden-Monaro, so she knows the politics of the region. I found you a map that may help a bit. In Australia currently, Liberal is our Republican-equivalent. They used to be centre-right, but now they’re heading straight for the further right as fast as they can. They’re still a bit left of the Republicans. Our Labor is now centre-right, but used to be centre left. It still has dribs and drabs of far-left, just to confuse people.
So why was the televised coverage of the count so interesting?
Sussan Ley was the only cabinet member visible and she was snippy and snarky and made me never want to be in a room with her. All night she was like this. The Labor representative gave the usual public commentary and talked about the vote count as it was released and gave useful insights and remained calm, but Ley’s body language was… uncomfortable and her words were, at times, quite nasty.
Whatever is happening in our ruling party right now is having some odd side effects and one is a complete change in Ley’s public presentation and in her body language.
Also… remember I said the Prime Minister didn’t turn up on the national broadcaster all night? Let me break that down a bit.
He claimed last week that his government has not cut any money from our ABC (I say ‘our’ because it’s ‘Auntie’ and nothing to do with the US’s ABC). Hundreds of jobs have gone and key rural services have been cut and during the bushfires the radio wasn’t always there to save lives. ABC Radio is a big thing in rural Australia and is known for helping in crises.
Morrison recently claimed innocence of any of these cuts. That wasn’t why he didn’t turn up that night to support his candidate… but it didn’t help his public image.
It was obvious that the vote count was going to go down to the wire and that Labor and Liberal were very close. Morrison didn’t appear at the critical hour.
Labor not only appeared, it did something very clever. The party leader waited until quite late (until about the time that most problem seats are declared) and came on TV anyway to talk about it. Anthony Albanese came on carrying warmth. It was fake and I think we all knew it, but at that moment, with the seat in doubt and with Sussan Ley carping the whole way, it was welcome warmth. His speech was kind to everyone and it didn’t claim victory. Albanese talked about the people of Eden-Monaro.
Then Kirsty McBain, the candidate, came and did the same thing. Her body language was, “I’m talking to friends here.” It was obvious that Labor was practising grass-roots politics and that even if they had lost by a huge margin they had come onto the ABC to demonstrate that they were putting the voters first.
This was exceptionally important, given the path the campaign took. McBain had been targeted by a coronavirus scam, which could have cost her crucial votes in a split decision. She could have led with apologies or blame, but she led with, “This is a crisis time and we’re in this together, whatever the result it.”
Then the Liberal candidate made her speech. Eventually. Alone. She didn’t get to talk to the public until 11 pm.
Because Albanese and McBain spoke at great length and said clearly that there would be no results that night, because she didn’t have the prime minister supporting her, and because she is simply not as warm and open in her self-presentation, most of us watched for thirty seconds then turned to something else or went to bed.
We have two years to wait for the next Federal election and none of us are looking forward to it. The next actual election, however, is this year, in the Australian Capital Territory, where I live. This is the bit of Australia where the Prime Minister is notoriously absent even though it’s the seat of government.
We have the same level of unlikeability in our leader as the US and UK have… but our circumstances are different. Saturday’s by-election showed some of the nuances of that difference. I do wonder what 17 October will bring.