In politics, as in war, morale matters. A high level of morale does not necessarily result in victory – but it is difficult to win without it.

What was notable about the aftermath of the by-election last Saturday in Dunkley, in southern Melbourne, turned on the morale evident among Liberal Party supporters. Sure, Labor won with a small increase in its primary vote. However, as followers of Australian elections know, results are essentially determined by the two-party-preferred vote – ie, the total vote after the allocation of preferences.

Labor’s Jodie Belyea received 52.7 per cent of the TPP vote to Liberal Party candidate Nathan Conroy’s 47.3 per cent. A comfortable victory, to be sure, but Conroy achieved a swing of 3.6 per cent.

That was a satisfactory result – especially in view of the fact that the TPP swing against the Liberal Party in the April 2023 by-election for Aston, in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs, was 6.4 per cent.

To go from minus 6.4 to plus 3.6 in outer Melbourne in less than a year is quite an achievement. Little wonder then that morale was high at the Liberal Party get-together as results came in from the Australian Electoral Commission.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is correct to say that Labor did well in view of the prevailing economic situation – with interest rate rises over the past year or so, along with cost-of-living pressures due in part to inflation, plus the housing crisis. But it’s also correct to point out Dunkley was a somewhat unusual by-election.

Writing in the ABC Online on January 17, Antony Green (the ABC’s chief election analyst) queried whether Dunkley would be “a good test of the national political mood”. Green wondered whether “Dunkley can be viewed as representative of the national electorate”, and pointed to the fact that it is located “in Labor’s strongest state”, where the Liberal Party holds “just eight of 38 Victorian seats”.

Then there is the fact that this was not an occasion where a sitting member quit politics in between elections, but rather one in which a popular member died in office. Similar circumstances occurred in July 2001 when prime minister John Howard led the Liberal Party to victory in a by-election in Aston. There was a swing against the government but not enough for a Labor victory. This took place at a time when the polls indicated the Howard government was unpopular.

In view of the background of the Liberals in Victoria – where the state parliamentary party under John Pesutto’s leadership is in a shambles – it is understandable why Liberals were looking on the bright side of life last Saturday night.

There was a different mood in the ABC studio in Canberra on Sunday morning where ABC TV’s Insiders is filmed. At the top of the program, presenter David Speers editorialised in the following terms: “While the Liberals are taking a glass-half-full approach to last night’s result, the reality is they lost again.” He went on to say “Labor’s primary vote didn’t budge” but failed to mention that elections are not won on primary votes. Or that Labor’s primary vote would have been boosted by the serious drop in the Greens’ primary vote from 10.3 per cent to 6.3 per cent.

As I pointed out in my Media Watch Dog blog on October 27, the Insiders panel is replete with Dutton antagonists – without including anyone who could be classified as a consistent Albanese antagonist. One of the former is journalist Niki Savva, who has exhibited hostility to Liberal leaders Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and now Dutton.

Asked by Speers as to her “read” on the Dunkley result, Savva replied: “Well, first of all, I think there has to be an acceptance by the Liberal Party that they actually lost the seat. A loss, is a loss, is a loss.”. Quite so. Just as a repeated phrase, is a repeated phrase, is a repeated phrase. Moreover, there is no evidence to indicate the Liberal Party was in denial, believing it had won what the candidate had already conceded to have lost.

After the panel discussion, Speers interviewed opposition frontbencher Dan Tehan, who holds the Victorian seat of Wannon for the Liberal Party. After which the panel discussion continued. Speers quoted Tehan as describing the Dunkley result as a “very, very good outcome” for the Liberals. In fact, there was only one “very”.

Speers then asked Savva for her view. In mocking tone, she described Tehan as “delusional” and added the word “crazy” – to which Tehan had no right of reply. And the Insiders team wonders why some senior Coalition politicians will not go on the program. Savva then made the obvious statement that the whole point of being a politician “is to win”.

Yes, it is. But a TPP swing of 3.6 per cent is better than a swing away of 6.3 per cent. Moreover, one role of senior leaders is to increase, or at least sustain, morale. And Tehan faced a situation where the outcome for the Liberals was satisfactory enough to achieve this end.

As is its wont, Insiders focused on the Liberal Party’s current problems rather than those of Labor or the Greens. While Labor did relatively well in Dunkley, if there’s a 3 per cent swing against it at the next election, Labor would probably be forced into minority government. After the experience of the Julia Gillard-led minority government of recent memory, Labor would dread such an outcome.

For its part, the Dutton-led opposition seems relatively united and, as Tehan indicated, is developing policies to take to the next election. The list includes education, immigration and nuclear power.

Certainly, difficulties remain at all levels of the party in Western Australia and Victoria, and within the party machine in Queensland and NSW (where it still fails to endorse talented local women in winnable seats). But the situation is not as dark as it was in 2022 and much of 2023. That’s why morale was high among the Liberal fraternity, many of whom are young, last Saturday.