View from The Hill: Eden-Monaro’s status quo result pales next to Victoria’s COVID crisis

Developments in Melbourne on Saturday are more important, and certainly of more interest to the public, than what has happened in Eden-Monaro.

According to the count so far, Anthony Albanese is set to struggle over the line in the Labor seat, courtesy of preferences including from the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers, unlikely bedfellows who, being on the top of the ballot paper, got the “donkey” vote.

Australian Electoral Commission Count - July 5, 5:26pm. AEC

If Albanese had lost this highly marginal seat it would have been a different story – a major setback which could have led later to the destabilisation of his leadership. He knew that, campaigning in the seat about 20 times.

But the close outcome is little different from 2019. It is not a great result for Albanese, but it is good enough. He hasn’t scored a distinction in this exam but he’s obtained the pass he desperately needed. As frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon said, “It’s a bit of an ugly win for us I can see, but it’s a win just the same”.

But while Albanese is deeply relieved, his underlying problems remain. These are incredibly challenging times for both sides of politics.

Labor’s primary vote fell about 3% (on the current count), which will reinforce concern about what is a wider long-term worry for the party.

Labor’s Kristy McBain received a swing in her area, but mainly the swings were variable.

Many factors fed into the result; it is difficult to assign relative weighting to them at this point.

In normal circumstances Labor would have expected the usual byelection swing of up to 4% but these are anything but standard times.

Helping the Liberals were the loss of the personal vote of former Labor member Mike Kelly and Scott Morrison’s high standing over his handling of the pandemic.

The opposition tapped into Morrison’s poor performance during the bushfires and the difficulties many of those affected still face. It ran hard on sending a message to the government about the people being “left behind”, after the fires and COVID.

Labor put much effort into postal votes and this paid off. Postals and pre-polls were high due to the pandemic with less than half the voters casting their vote on the day.

The Nationals behaved badly, with the antics of their NSW leader John Barilaro, and they performed poorly.

Notably, the Greens’ vote fell, despite an expectation climate change would be significantly on voters’ minds.

Having failed to achieve a second “miracle”, Morrison confined himself to a few tweets on Sunday. Unlike Albanese he hadn’t been with his candidate in the electorate on Saturday night to deal with whatever fortune brought.

The aficionados will probe the entrails of the result, and the Liberals are “spinning”, but the take-out for most voters elsewhere is likely to be “Albanese held the seat – story over”. They won’t be concentrating on the ins-and-outs.

In contrast, all eyes will be on the detail in Melbourne, where there were 108 new COVID cases announced on Saturday (and 74 on Sunday), and 3000 residents in nine social housing towers were put into a hard lockdown for five days, monitored by police.

Victorian health authorities warn of further alarming news. “We are going to see some big days, big numbers in the days ahead,” Premier Dan Andrews said on Sunday. They would partly reflect the high level of testing.

The logistics of trying to deal with the new crisis, even if numbers can be contained, are formidable. It’s an enormous job to get food and other necessities to the residents, many of whom are disadvantaged, in poor health and face language barriers.

The state government is providing hardship payments and rent relief. Despite the help, some people will be upset and confused.

At the very least, this is a serious glitch to the effort to get the economy resuming at a fast clip – and that’s assuming the outbreak doesn’t spread. It will be days before we get an idea of whether Victoria is bringing things under control.

And when restoring confidence is so crucial, the psychological impact risks being greater than the extent of the outbreak.

We couldn’t be living in more uncertain times.

It was perhaps not the most convenient point for one of the government’s very senior ministers, Senate leader Mathias Cormann, to announce he will quit parliament for fresh fields at the end of the year.

Cormann, 49, finance minister since the Coalition was elected in 2013 has been a highly competent, steady hand in the government’s economic team. He’s also been the government’s most effective negotiator with the changing non-Green characters on the Senate’s crossbench, who are vital for the passage of controversial legislation.

The dogs have been barking for a while about the future of Cormann, whose personal reputation was dented by the 2018 leadership coup. His withdrawal of support from Malcolm Turnbull to back Peter Dutton delivered a mortal blow to Turnbull. Cormann strongly defended his actions, and was upset by Turnbull’s furious accusation of treachery.

Cormann hasn’t been quite so “in” with Scott Morrison as he was with Turnbull (despite he and Turnbull being in different pews of the Liberal “broad church”).

He was said to be ready to quit politics if the Coalition had been defeated last year. But his plans were put on hold after Morrison’s unexpected victory.

On Saturday, following new reports, he broke cover. He said he loved his job and “every single day I am giving it my all. I can honestly say that I have left nothing on the field”. But, “Having decided not to recontest the next election, I can confirm that I have advised the Prime Minister that the end of this year would be an appropriate time for an orderly transition in my portfolio”.

He stressed that before he goes he’ll be hard at work on the July 23 economic statement, the October budget and the half-yearly budget update in December.

Morrison and Treasurer John Frydenberg will be relieved to have Cormann in place for the coming months. But prolonged speculation about the reshuffle is less than ideal for Morrison and Cormann’s departure, when it comes, will be a substantial loss, ahead of another year replete with huge budgetary problems, a demanding Senate and an election bearing down.

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