View from The Hill: Dunkley byelection a poor result for Peter Dutton’s pitch for the outer suburbs

The government’s easy retention of the Melbourne seat of Dunkley at Saturday’s byelection is a poor result for Peter Dutton. The two-party swing against the government is modest – 4% (soon after 10 pm).

This swing is in the conventional range of byelection swings – although there are multiple measures of those swings, and each side has been promoting its preferred one.

For all the media hype and some serious Labor fears beforehand, the story of the Dunkley byelection is that the government has skated home on what was seen as slippery ice.

This contest had been made for Dutton. Cost of living was the front-and-centre issue, and this outer suburban electorate is the sort of seat the opposition leader is targeting for the 2025 election.

The Liberals will take some comfort from their primary vote rising substantially (up 6.82% to 38.87%). Many Liberals, alienated in the 2022 election by Scott Morrison, have gone back. The party has benefited from the fact One Nation and the United Australia Party were not in the field.

While the Liberals have regained many of their base voters they have not cut into Labor’s primary vote.

That primary vote is stable (up a whisker to 41.02%), despite fears Labor’s candidate Jodie Belyea might lose support because of the personal popularity of Peta Murphy, the former member whose death caused the byelection.

Notably, bucking the recent trend away from the major parties, in this byelection the combined vote of the majors has increased.

The Greens vote flopped (down 3.96% to 6.50%). One explanation being canvassed is that in this electorate, the Greens’ strong pro-Palestinian position has not gone down well, although it would be more popular in some other electorates.

The result vindicates Anthony Albanese’s decision to break his word on the Stage 3 tax cuts, reworking them so that most taxpayers, including most in Dunkley, will be better off on July 1 than they would have been under the original Stage 3.

The Dunkley outcome will reinforce Albanese’s belief in his electoral appeal. But the hard heads in Labor will be drilling down into the detail for lessons. Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles told the Labor faithful on Saturday night:“there are many messages in the result tonight and I want to assure every Australian that we will examine this closely and understand every message that is there”.

Regardless of Saturday’s vote, the cost of living remains a huge issue that Labor will have to continue to address, most immediately as it puts together the May budget.

The Dunkley result will put pressure on Dutton, despite the improvement in the Liberal vote. It reminds that the Liberals and Dutton have big problems in Victoria. More generally, it reinforces the point that negative campaigning is not enough. Scares on ex-detainees and boat people didn’t cut it (neither did the large spend by Advance).

The Coalition has to start rolling out policies, to tell people what it is for, not just what it is against. And not just roll out policies, but policies that stack up and can convince swinging voters.

Dutton needed to extract some momentum from Dunkley. He didn’t get it.

Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.