Liberals Lick Wounds After By-Election Bruising

Words like 'bleak' and 'nightmare' are already circulating to describe the government's performance.

Just days ago, politicians and pundits were talking up the chances of the government pinching one or even two Labor seats on Super Saturday, setting up a springboard to the next federal poll and plunging Bill Shorten's leadership into further turmoil.

But a week is a long time in politics and the shoe is firmly on the other foot now, with Labor crowing about unexpectedly strong results in Longman and Braddon, four wins from four races they contested, and Malcolm Turnbull under the microscope again after failing to lead his candidates to victory at any of the three elections the Liberals competed in.

OK yes, we know a government hasn't won a by-election from an opposition in nearly a century; and yes, by-election results don't necessarily have a direct link to full federal results in the future. But the results are worrying for a government which hoped to use the multiple by-elections as a live testing ground for polling strategies.

Their rhetoric around tax cuts and jobs growth didn't work; their scare campaign around immigration and crime didn't work; their 'kill Bill' strategy, trying to paint Shorten himself as shifty or untrustworthy, didn't work. Their tyres spun in the dirt in Braddon, they lost convincingly in Mayo to Rebekha Sharkie who ran a bare-bones campaign in a used car, and most concerning, they were absolutely pasted in Longman.

Queensland is the key to winning a federal election, and put simply, the government will not win the next full poll if they don't come up with a magic bullet solution.

Queensland absolutely turned off the Liberal party this weekend, with overnight numbers from Longman giving Susan Lamb a 55-45 lead. This was supposed to be a tighter-than-tight seat, where a result wouldn't be known for days because of the knife-edge numbers.

Instead, we got the ABC's Antony Green predicting a Labor win there almost as soon as polls closed, and 'big Trev' Ruthenberg conceding defeat not long after the first election party beers were cracked.

Overnight numbers showed the government scored a primary vote of 28 percent in Longman. That's nowhere enough to get over the line in that state. If those numbers are uniform across the state, many Liberal politicians -- including home affairs minister Peter Dutton -- will be out at the next election, as Labor MP Ed Husic delightedly and repeatedly reminded ABC viewers while appearing on the public broadcaster's election coverage through the evening.

"There are fingers on the pulse and there are fingers in shirt collars tonight," Husic said.

Words like "bleak" and "nightmare" are already circulating to describe the government's performance.

In the short-term, losing three from three isn't that big of a deal for the government. They didn't need to win any, really, as their parliamentary majority was not in question. But it speaks to wider issues around how the government campaign, what they are prioritising and talking about, and where Australians stand on their performance.

Turnbull is talking up jobs and growth, tax cuts, innovation, economic management... but voters aren't listening. The voters turned off, and even fled to the scandal-plagued One Nation, who scored around 15 percent of primary votes -- not a bad result for a party whose leader left the country for a cruise days before the poll, a party that can barely stop tearing itself apart and setting its own hair on fire for five minutes to campaign for office.

Labor's back-to-basics messaging around education, schools, good wages, supporting workers and opposing big business tax cuts seems to have cut through. It will be discouraging for the government, heartening for Labor.

"Tonight is another sign post into the destination that matters for Australians: a Labor government after the next general election," Shorten said in claiming Longman victory with Susan Lamb. 
Now the talk of an early election will surely be forgotten, with the government probably wanting to take every minute it can to build momentum for a full federal poll. The questions about Shorten's leadership should also disappear for the time being, but don't expect the same about Turnbull. Again, he will be under pressure to show he can lead his party to victory -- and after a seemingly never-ending stack of Newspoll losses, he will be watching his back.