Why the hardest lesson for Liberals is in Willoughby, not Bega

A bit like some great military or sporting battles, political contests are not always what they seem. It’s almost as though you can lose when you win, or win when you lose. Let’s take the first part of that equation – to lose when you win.

For the Liberal Party, the real post mortem for Saturday’s state by-election results should begin not in Bega, which it lost, but in Willoughby, which it has won. Despite that comfortable Liberal win by a strong candidate, Tim James, the underlying result has got more than a whiff of real trouble about it.

When a win is a kick in the backside: Premier Dominic Perrottet and Willoughby candidate Tim James can claim a victory, but the swing against the Liberal Party is shaping up to 18 per cent.Credit:Renee Nowytarger

The post mortem in Willoughby needs to be forensic, quick and thorough to avoid the result taking any more of an unwanted place in political history for the Liberal Party than it already has.

Let’s not fall for the traditional wisdom that a state byelection has no implications for a federal election. While history has more often than not supported the proposition that “voters differentiate between state and federal elections”, the goal posts have moved – dramatically in recent months, even weeks.

A constant in the fluid and opportunistic world of political commentary is that governments can expect a “boot in the backside” with a 5 per cent swing against them in a byelection. With a bit of political spin, anything less is a win. Anything more becomes a loss.

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The two-party-preferred swing against the Liberal Party in Willoughby is shaping up as 18 per cent, with Independent Larissa Penn being the big winner from that massive hemorrhage.

Saturday’s byelection result in Bega, while a loss for the Liberal Party, is far from a disaster. There is now a raft of seats where high-profile, highly credentialed, adrenalin-charged female independents are seeking election or re-election in Liberal Party heartland. Paradoxically, they are mainly taking on the very liberal candidates who most closely resemble what they stand for – policies that respect climate change and gender equality.

They are also cashed up thanks to the corporate godfather Simon Holmes a Court, who has, in Clive Palmeresque style, made an art form of finding and exploiting the kind of big bucks that his candidates are fond of tut-tutting. If evidence is required of the maxim that in Australian politics “money doesn’t speak – it screams”, look no further than the Holmes a Court class of 2022 Climate 200 independents.

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