Peter Dutton’s leadership is not over, but he is in a world of pain.
All the Liberals had to do on Saturday was hold the outer-eastern Melbourne seat of Aston by the slimmest of margins, but it will now fall to Labor in a once-in-a-century result.
No government has won a seat off the opposition in a byelection since 1920 – until Saturday night.
Out of 23 seats in metropolitan Melbourne, the Liberals will now hold just three.
Central to Dutton’s pitch to the party is that he could win back voters in the mortgage-belt suburbs of Australia’s capital cities.
While he may be toxic in the wealthier, more teal parts of suburbia, Dutton was supposed to appeal in places like Wantirna, Rowville and Bayswater.
But he doesn’t.
If they aren’t his voters, then who is?
Forty-one per cent of the seat’s households have a mortgage compared to 35 per cent across Australia, meaning voters in Aston are particularly exposed to the Reserve Bank lifting the cash rate to an 11-year high.
It is a huge concern for the Liberals that with soaring interest rates and cost of living, voters aren’t blaming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
If the results in Aston are any guide, Dutton isn’t getting any cut through on cost of living and voters in the suburbs are liking Albanese more and more.
Saturday night’s result also suggests that last year’s election was not a low ebb for the party with Chinese-Australians.
Labor and Liberal sources were reporting throughout the night that the party was being particularly punished in seats with a significant Chinese community.
Perhaps Dutton is being punished for his clumsy language on China during last year’s election campaign, when he accused Albanese of appeasing Beijing.
It should have been extremely difficult for Labor to win the seat, with byelections normally favouring the opposition or at least not swinging towards the government.
In a blatant case of expectation management, Albanese recently told his caucus that the average swing against a government in a by-election was 5 per cent to 6 per cent.
Labor then leaked a poll to Sky News showing it was behind the Coalition 48-52 per cent on a two-party preferred basis, but that Dutton was a net negative in the electorate.
If Labor was going to lose, they wanted to inflict some pain on Dutton in the process.
Dutton is now in a lot of pain, but his position as leader won’t be under imminent threat, primarily because there are no serious alternatives.
But if he can’t demonstrate to his party room that he can cut through on cost-of-living issues throughout this year – especially when the government will be distracted on the Indigenous Voice to parliament referendum – his leadership will likely come under threat.
There are some lessons for the Liberals.
In the by-election campaign’s final week, there was growing concern within the party about the fact that its candidate Roshena Campbell lived in Melbourne’s trendy inner-north suburb of Brunswick.
Some voters in Aston didn’t like an outsider being parachuted into the electorate.
Considering former Labor senator Kristina Keneally’s unsuccessful run in Fowler at last year’s election, surely the major parties will now wake up to the risk of not running local candidates?
The other lesson for the Liberal Party’s Victorian division is to clean up its act.
Senior Liberals on Saturday night said the infighting over state opposition leader John Pesutto’s push to expel Moira Deeming – after she participated in a “Let Women Speak” rally alongside anti-trans rights activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull – was a factor in the loss.
Despite Dutton visiting the electorate on six occasions over recent weeks, it wasn’t enough to stop a violent swing.
This is the second momentous Aston by-election. In July 2001, John Howard held on to the seat against the odds before going on to win the next election.
On Saturday night, Albanese solidified his bond with voters in the suburbs.
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