Way back in December 1982, when a Labor opposition only managed a 2.3 per cent swing at a by-election in the Victorian seat of Flinders, the disappointing result made a big contribution to the eventual replacement of leader Bill Hayden with Bob Hawke. Yes, Labor was way ahead of the recession-worn Fraser government in national opinion polls, but if they could only manage a small shift at a by-election — and by-elections usually saw larger swings — most of caucus began to doubt that Hayden had what it would take to wrest power from Malcolm Fraser.

Yesterday’s shifts of 0.5 per cent in Braddon and 4.6 per cent in Longman, both of which may shrink a little after the rest of the postal votes are counted, averaged around the same swing as in Flinders. Yet they are being hailed as feats of splendour and magnificence on the part of the current Bill.

This largely reflects the unrealistic expectations generated by the published single-seat polls, which on the whole proved every bit as unreliable as they usually do. In both electorates they hovered around 50–50 after preferences, leaning towards Labor a little in Braddon and the Liberal National Party a touch in Longman. “Leaked” alleged internal polling from both sides sang from the same sheet.

All of which the media–commentator–political class internalised and amplified, with the betting markets, those dutiful dawdling distillers of general expectations, following suit.

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