A global pandemic, a bushfire-ravaged south coast, a prolonged drought and an electorate with more than 4000 businesses being propped up by taxpayer subsides was the back drop of the most complex and abnormal month of campaigning imaginable.
This was an electorate where Prime Minister Scott Morrison was run out town by angry Cabargo residents in January when confronted with their town’s being destroyed. Early voting numbers were showing a swing towards the Liberals on Saturday night.
Across all by-elections since the advent of the modern two-party system, there’s an average primary vote swing against the government of 5.6 per cent. In normal circumstances you’d have expected the same.
Regardless of whether the Liberals claim victory in the coming days or not, the government will be beside itself.
That they were still in the race on Saturday night has left many of them gobsmacked. Likewise many Labor types, although hesitant to bank the seat in the final week, were shocked at just how close it was.
If Labor is to hang on it will do so through the preferences of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party and, bizarrely, the Marijuana Party.
McBain was Albanese’s handpicked candidate. She shot to prominence over the summer as Bega shire council mayor and was praised by all sides of politics as her community fought and began to rebuild from the devastation of the fires.
Filling the shoes of retiring MP Mike Kelly was going to be tough but they couldn’t have done much better.
These are strange days and drawing comparisons can be cheap. But those within Labor who don’t believe Albanese can win them an election were quick to point to the scoreboard.
At 9 pm on Saturday night, Labor’s primary vote in the Eden-Monaro by-election was down 4.3 per cent.
Contrast that with the Longman by-election in 2018 Labor’s primary vote was up 4.46 per cent. In Batman that year Labor’s primary vote was up 7.87 per cent.
Albanese has a small rump of MPs within his caucus who are grumpy with his leadership and if the Liberals pull of an astonishing once-in-a-century byelection victory, their gripes will be amplified.
Perhaps even if Labor falls over the line the grounds, many of them out of Victoria, will still make their point. Having sat in opposition for nine years by the time the next election rolls around, many of them have grown tired of keeping quiet.
Labor started the campaign well ahead of the Liberals but, according to both sides, things tightened in the final weeks.
Mumblings and murmerings about the bad publicity from the Victorian branch-stacking scandal and the ASIO raids on a NSW state Labor MP which followed started well in advance of election day.
The ALP campaign held the private polling information in a tight during the four weeks. That’s usually a sign things are not going to plan.
Labor thought it could attack Liberal candidate Fiona Kotvojs, who fell fewer than 2000 votes short in May last year, by painting her as a climate change denier who blamed the fires on a lack of hazard reduction burnings.
In a reminder that the economy continues to trump the environment at the ballot box, both Labor and the Greens vote was well down on Saturday night.
Many, including columnists on these pages, claimed Morrison’s poor handling of the summer’s bushfires would mortally wound him in January. This result, no matter which way it falls in the end, would suggest otherwise.
Rob Harris is the National Affairs Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra