Barnaby Joyce will return to Canberra after holding on to his seat of New England with a positive swing, boosting the Turnbull governments parlous position in the lower house and giving the Nationals a confidence boost in the wake of the Liberal National partys poor performance in the Queensland election.
The early count on Saturday night suggested Joyce would be returned with a positive swing in the order of 10% on primary votes in a field which included 16 other candidates, including Labor, the Greens and several independents.
Nervous Liberals will be relying on Joyce to restore some discipline with his restive Nationals colleagues in Canberra, with persistent speculation about the Queensland MP George Christensens future with the LNP, and with a rebellion on the banks forcing Malcolm Turnbull into an embarrassing backflip on holding a royal commission.
The return of the Nationals leader and deputy prime minister will bring the Turnbull governments numbers in the lower house back up to 75, including the Speaker, the Liberal Tony Smith, and it will give the Nationals a fillip, with the party vulnerable because of One Nations resurgence in regional areas.
Joyces return provides some comfort for the government as new declarations from MPs addressing their eligibility to sit in parliament will start to be published from Monday a process expected to trigger more high court referrals.
The Liberals are fighting to hold the Sydney seat of Bennelong, with Labor deploying the former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally as its star candidate. Voters in that seat go to the polls in mid-December.
The House of Representatives returns on Monday for the final sitting week for 2017, in an environment rife with febrile speculation about Turnbulls future as the head of the government.
Addressing supporters in Tamworth at a pub in the south of the city after claiming victory in the seat on Saturday night, Joyce said he was humbled by the thumping endorsement from the Nationals heartland, and he said representation in parliament was a sacred duty.
Gesturing to Turnbull, who joined him in Tamworth late on Saturday for the result, Joyce said: Im really looking forward to getting back to work with this fella here.
Joyce said the positive swing in New England was a clear sign that we are a strong government. He told supporters running a country was a bit more complicated than running some sheep through the gate.
In a message crafted for both internal and external consumption given the instability and insurrections launched against Turnbull in his absence, Joyce said Australians faced a choice about a government run by the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, or by Turnbull.
Gesturing again at Turnbull, Joyce said: Im going with this one.
A clearly delighted and relieved Turnbull told supporters in Tamworth on Saturday night: Thank you for getting the band back together.
The prime minister said Joyces performance in New England was a stunning victory and was the largest swing to an incumbent government in the history of byelections in Australia.
Turnbull said the result was a great demonstration of the strength of the Coalition.
The National party president, Larry Anthony, who was at the victory party with the entire Nationals parliamentary team, said the result allowed the Turnbull government to press reset.
Joyce also told reporters at his victory event that Christensen, the outspoken lower house Queensland MP, would remain on the government benches despite the persistent speculation about his future.
The Nationals leader gave partial public endorsement to the rebellion on the banking royal commission last week, in part, some Nationals sources say, to ensure Christensen was not given a trigger to quit the government for the crossbench at a time when the government remains uncertain about its numbers.
While Joyces victory was expected, and it was clear from early in the campaign that Joyces strong personal following in Tamworth was translating as a local sympathy vote, the New England byelection was a bruising contest on the ground.
There were security alerts during the campaign, with Joyce involved in an altercation with a man in an Inverell pub this week, and reports emerged on Friday that a bullet was found at a school used as one of the polling stations.
In Armidale, the town hall and Joyces former electoral office were vandalised, with graffiti reading no Barnaby.
Over the course of the campaign, Joyces personal life became part of the conversation around the electorate, and the subject of considerable speculation on social media.
An elliptical report in the Daily Telegraph in late October noted Joyce was struggling with issues that have affected his marriage of 24 years. Party sources were quoted saying a scandal in Joyces private life and the existence of a dirt file were upsetting conservative voters.
Joyce repeatedly shut down questions about his personal life during the campaign. On the eve of the byelection, he told Guardian Australia: My private life is my business. What should not be done is people trying to make your private business, public business.
Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us