Inside Story

Final reckoning: nine views of Victoria’s election

Counting is nearly over and the post-poll landscape has become clear. But is Canberra listening?

Tim Colebatch 12 December 2018 4010 words

Message for the nation: Victorian premier Daniel Andrews at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Adelaide today. Kelly Barnes/AAP Image

The Victorian election result has already been discussed widely from many viewpoints. Another Labor landslide in an election the Coalition thought winnable not long ago, many see it as advance notice of the end of the Morrison government — with no discernible impact, so far, on the way the PM or his ministers operate.

But a few things worth noting haven’t been widely discussed. In the spirit of Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji, may I offer a few random views of the Victorian election?

1. Labor’s victory was even bigger than it seemed on the night

In most seats, the swings in the pre-polls and postal votes were as big as the swings in the booths, so the Liberals didn’t make the gains in late counting they expected. (Caulfield was a notable exception.) On my best estimate, with the vote count almost complete, Labor has won 57.6 per cent of the two-party vote. That’s only a tad below the 57.8 per cent Steve Bracks won in his record victory in 2002. The swing was 5.6 per cent, the stuff of landslides.

But in 2002, Labor won sixty-two of the eighty-eight seats. This time it won fifty-five. It won Box Hill, Hawthorn and Nepean, all of which eluded it in 2002. It came close to taking two seats it has never won, Brighton and Caulfield. Its tide rose to record levels in the tree-lined, wealthy, educated Liberal heartland of the inner and inner-middle suburbs. But it was not strong enough to win back the established outer-eastern suburbs and rural seats that were once Labor turf.

It’s not hard to see these voting differences — inner versus outer suburbs, Melbourne versus the bush — as evidence of a growing polarisation, an Australian version of the “great divide” that New York Times columnist David Brooks has written of in America.

Yet the divide is always there; and while the swings to Labor were certainly much smaller anywhere beyond a two-hour drive from Melbourne, Labor did pick up votes almost everywhere, suggesting that Australians have not yet reached the impasse that Brooks sees in his own country — where, he concludes, “politics is no longer mainly about disagreeing on issues. It’s about being in entirely separate conversations.”

2. This win will be Labor’s peak

These days you only win victories on this scale once. In New South Wales, the Coalition won a massive majority in 2011, but four years later, with Mike Baird still on his honeymoon with the electorate, most of it vanished. Daniel Andrews seems to recognise this, hinting that he doesn’t expect to stay on as premier for years.

It’s to be hoped that the result will be a trigger to continue the infrastructure building program that was the main reason for his crushing victory. The most important development in the whole campaign came on election eve, when Andrews and treasurer Tim Pallas removed a key obstacle to a successful second term by proposing to lift the cap on the state’s net debt to 12 per cent of gross state product (about $54 billion in current dollars).

That tells us where the money will come from to keep building infrastructure at the current rate. There is no shortage of claimants: in roads, the North East Link — the “missing link” of Melbourne’s outer ring road — and the associated widening of the Eastern Freeway, plus the West Gate tunnel and many road widenings and duplications. In rail, completing the first line of the Melbourne Metro, now under construction; a costly upgrade of the overflowing Cranbourne and Sunbury lines; a new rail link to Melbourne Airport; and so on. And the next tranche of projects to remove the level crossings that plague suburban Melbourne.

So long as projects are chosen on merit — which is often not the case — the government will be well set up for a second term of tackling the infrastructure backlog. As treasurer and shadow treasurer, the new Liberal leader Michael O’Brien instead gave priority to keeping the debt down. That line has reaped dividends for the Coalition all over Australia in the past, but this election result left no doubt that Victorians now care more about infrastructure than low taxes.

It will be interesting to see how O’Brien and his shrunken team respond to this reality. It is possible that the Victorian Liberal Party will continue to see the fight against Labor enemies as less important than the fight against factional enemies — that’s one reason it has lost twelve of the last thirteen elections in the state. But a defeat on this scale, probably followed by another when the Morrison government faces the voters, will surely trigger changes.

3. Virtually all Liberal seats are now marginal

The National Party now has only six seats in the Assembly, down from nine in 2010. (It lost Shepparton in 2014, Mildura and Morwell this time.) But all six are held with majorities against Labor of 12 to 24 per cent; their only threat is from independents.

It’s a different story for the Liberals. Since 2010 they have lost two-fifths of their seats in the Assembly. From thirty-six seats when Ted Baillieu won office, they have shrunk to twenty-one: they lost one in the 2013 redistribution, five in 2014 (Bentleigh, Mordialloc, Carrum, Frankston and Prahran) and nine at this election (Hawthorn, Burwood, Mount Waverley, Box Hill, Ringwood, Bayswater, Nepean, Bass and South Barwon).

Of the twenty-one seats they still hold, thirteen were won by margins of less than 3 per cent: Ripon (0.02 per cent), Caulfield (0.27), Sandringham (0.64), Gembrook (0.79), Hastings (1.07), Brighton (1.12), Forest Hill (1.14), Ferntree Gully (1.64), Croydon (2.12), South West Coast (2.32), Eildon (2.44), Benambra (2.45 v independent) and Evelyn (2.65).

Labor won a lot of close seats too: four by less than 1 per cent, nine by less than 3 per cent. But the Liberals won only eight seats by more than 3 per cent; Labor won forty-seven of them.

The safest Liberal seat is now the West Gippsland electorate of Narracan (7.26 per cent). Labor has forty-one seats safer than that.

4. The looming redistribution will make the Coalition’s plight worse

Victoria has redistributions every eight years. In the past eight years, its population has swollen by 18 per cent, mostly on Melbourne’s outer-suburban fringe or within five kilometres of the city. There are now enormous discrepancies in the size of its electorates, so the next redistribution will be significant.

For this election, outer-suburban Cranbourne had 61,814 voters and inner-suburban Brunswick had 53,340, while middle-suburban Mount Waverley had just 38,937. The average Coalition seat going into the election had 5 per cent fewer voters than the average Labor seat. Most of them are middle- and outer-middle-suburban seats southeast of the Yarra.

Their share of Victoria’s population has been shrinking rapidly, and will continue to do so. In my view, the redistribution will have to abolish two seats in the eastern and southern suburbs to create two new ones further out, one around Cranbourne and Pakenham in the southeast, and another in the booming new blocks on the northwest fringe.

The other discrepancies in seat sizes can be fixed by shifting the boundaries of seats. In the bush, the western seats will continue to push east, and the northern seats will edge closer to Melbourne: Macedon and Eildon could lose much of their territory and become more clearly based on Melbourne’s fringe. The inner suburbs will push out into the middle ones.

All of that will have political implications. The eastern and southern suburbs are the Liberals’ home turf in Melbourne. The new outer suburbs, on both sides of town, are Labor’s turf. The Liberals lost by talking crime, crime and corruption over the past four years, when these voters want roads, rail, preschools and other health, education and welfare services. The redistribution will probably cost the Liberals at least one seat, maybe two.

5. Urban Australians don’t see the Liberals as their party

Peter Dutton and George Christensen have been urging the party to move to the right to be more popular in Queensland. They forget that almost half of Queenslanders live in Brisbane, and the election results suggest there is not much difference between their views and those of voters in Melbourne — or Sydney, Perth or even Adelaide.

A year ago, Queenslanders expressed their views about what they want from politicians when they voted in their own state election. In Brisbane, the Liberal National Party won just five seats out of forty-one. It was an even worse result than the Liberals got in Melbourne (fifteen out of sixty-three). The LNP was even more out of touch with its base in the capital of Queensland than the Liberals were in the capital of Victoria.

Earlier, voters in Western Australia expressed their views in their state election. The Barnett government, for all its faults, was a traditional centre-right Coalition government, not a hard-right one as in Queensland. But in Perth, it too was cut down to single figures: it won just nine seats out of forty-three.

The Liberals did better in Adelaide at this year’s SA election, winning fourteen of the thirty-two seats in the capital. But that was an unusual election, on boundaries specially designed to help them, and four of their wins were by narrow margins.

The next big test will be in Sydney, and the rest of New South Wales, when the state votes on 23 March. Two opinion polls a week after Victoria voted reported that the Berejiklian government is also on the brink of defeat, although Labor’s margin is fragile: 52–48 in the YouGov Galaxy poll in the Daily Telegraph, 51–49 in the ReachTel poll in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The message from the elections in the three biggest states outside New South Wales should be getting through to Canberra, but clearly isn’t. When Andrews wrote to Morrison after the election to ask him to unfreeze the $3 billion set aside for the rejected East West Link and use it to build the North East Link instead — a move that could only help the federal government politically — the PM brusquely rejected the idea.

Urban Australia wants climate change policy to be taken seriously, and based on renewables. Morrison is not offering either. He believes he can win in May without it. We will see.

6. The dumping of Malcolm Turnbull played a clear but not decisive role in the Liberals’ defeat

It was only part of the story, but Liberals say it was definitely a factor. Newspoll has reported a 3 per cent slide in the Coalition’s two-party vote in Victoria since Morrison replaced Turnbull. Liberal sources have told reporters that their state polling took an immediate hit of similar dimensions, and never recovered. It is hard to believe that they would have lost a seat like Hawthorn if Turnbull were still the party’s national leader.

Even so, Labor did win 57.6 per cent of the two-party vote. Every opinion poll in 2018 pointed to a Labor win, and even before Turnbull’s dumping, Andrews’s leadership ratings had recovered to a position of dominance. Matthew Guy’s satisfaction ratings as opposition leader made Bill Shorten look popular. The Liberals also ran a terrible campaign, which focused on being tough on crime and divided their traditional supporters. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

7. The Greens did better than reported

It was certainly a bad election campaign for the Greens. Labor dirt-diggers had them constantly on the defensive after raking through social media posts of young Greens candidates to find embarrassing acts of stupidity. The Greens’ own internecine warfare contributed, as did a suspiciously late allegation of sexual assault against a candidate. Any messages the party had were drowned out in the hubbub.

They’re putting it down to Labor, and that’s probably true. Its dirt-diggers are like hackers: they’ve refined their skills in fighting each other, and an election allowed them to unleash the whole barrage on the unsuspecting Greens. The former Greens MP for Northcote, Lidia Thorpe, who was narrowly defeated, documented her version of the campaign in the Age.

But the worst part of the election for the Greens was the outcome in the Legislative Council. With preference whisperer Glenn Druery coordinating the preference tickets of a dozen minor parties — and calling on Labor for support — the Greens have won just one seat in the forty-member Council, down from five in the last parliament.

Many have pointed out that this was partly due to a fall in their vote: for the Council, from 12 per cent in 2010 to 10.75 per cent in 2014 to 9.25 per cent this time. But the reason the Greens have lost votes is very clear.

In 2010, they had almost all the space to the left of Labor to themselves. This time, in every region, they had to compete with candidates from Animal Justice, Fiona Patten’s Reason Party, the Voluntary Euthanasia Party, the Victorian Socialists and Sustainable Australia. Those five parties won 6.8 per cent; in 2010, there was just the Sex Party, which won just 1.9 per cent, and much of that was not from the left. The vote for the left is expanding, but the Greens now have to share it.

That wouldn’t matter if Labor and the micro-parties directed preferences to the Greens, as in the past. This time only the Socialists did so. Druery signed up all the other parties left of centre, including Labor, to direct their preferences to his target party or parties in each seat.

The result was that in Southern Metropolitan, Greens MP Sue Pennicuik, with 13.5 per cent, lost her seat to Sustainable Australia’s Clifford Hayes, who won 1.3 per cent — but received preferences from every party except the Socialists.

We’ll come back to this disaster. The key point to remember is that the Greens’ loss of support basically reflects massively increased competition in their part of the political spectrum. The fall in their number of seats is mostly due to Labor and Animal Justice, in particular, directing preferences to whomever Druery wanted them to support.

In the Assembly, the Greens vote also fell, but only slightly: from a peak of 11.5 per cent last time to 10.7 per cent. Northcote, which it won at a by-election a year ago, went back to Labor narrowly. Another key seat, Richmond, was retained triumphantly by Labor’s planning minister Richard Wynne, even without a Liberal candidate to direct preferences his way.

For the Greens, that was the bad news. But remember: the reason Labor sees them as such a threat is that — unlike the Australian Democrats, One Nation, or the DLP in its heyday — the Greens have invaded part of its electoral territory and made it their own. They are the first new party to establish their own electoral base since the Country Party emerged a century ago. Along with a few independents, they are out to make themselves the party of inner-suburban Australia — and those inner suburbs are expanding.

In 2010 the Greens broke through in the federal sphere by winning Melbourne. In 2014 they broke through in the state sphere by winning Melbourne from Labor and Prahran from the Liberals. This time they retained both those seats, and local medico Tim Read captured Brunswick from Labor to make it a third. Sam Hibbins once again won Prahran from third place in primary votes; with the voters free to direct their own preferences, he overtook Labor by 264 votes (0.33 per cent) to comfortably defeat the Liberals.

The Victorian Electoral Commission has yet to count out most of the second tier of inner-suburban seats, but it looks like the Greens beat the Liberals into second place in Williamstown, Footscray and Preston, while still a long way behind Labor. The redistribution should help them widen that battleground.

Elsewhere, the Greens vote has mostly faded. With so many parties to choose from on the ballot paper, they are no longer the all-purpose alternative for those who are jack of the two main parties. That matters for upper house voting. But they are slowly gaining ground and consolidating where it matters most to them: they now have seven seats in the lower houses of state parliaments in the eastern states, plus one in Canberra.

This was not an election where the Greens were going to make a big stride forward. They suffered a disaster in the Council. In the Assembly they basically held their ground, and a bit more. If things go badly for Labor in the next term, the Greens will be well placed to capitalise on it.

8. This was Glenn Druery’s crowning masterpiece

Most Australians have never heard of Glenn Druery. He has been called “the preference whisperer,” the man whose genius for maths and deals has allowed parties with small votes to vault over those with much bigger votes by skilful preference deals. His work has been central to the rise of micro-parties such as the Shooters Party, Family First and others — including the Sex Party, now renamed Fiona Patten’s Reason Party.

The key to Druery’s work is bringing all the little parties together and persuading them to swap preferences with each other — as much as possible. He works it so that every child gets a toy somewhere, or at least the hope of one.

At this election, everyone directed preferences in Eastern Metropolitan to Transport Matters, set up by hire-car owner Rod Barton. He won the seat from the Greens with just 0.6 per cent of the vote to their 9 per cent. In South Eastern Metropolitan, both Transport Matters and the Liberal Democrats were given a big share, with the Liberal Democrats taking the seat with first preferences of 0.8 per cent from Liberal MP Inga Peulich, who managed 12.7 per cent.

In Southern Metropolitan, as mentioned, a tide of preferences swept Sustainable Australia (with 1.3 per cent) across the line just ahead of the Greens (13.5 per cent). Western Metropolitan was meant to go to the Shooters, the DLP or the Aussie Battlers, but those plans were thrown into disarray when Derryn Hinch’s candidate, Catherine Cumming, a former mayor of Maribyrnong, won 6.8 per cent of the vote to claim the final seat from the DLP, even though Druery’s preference deals intended her to lose.

In Eastern Victoria, Shooters Party leader Jeff Bourman won 5 per cent of the vote to see off the rival micro-parties. But they made up for it in Northern Victoria, where Shooters MP Daniel Young lost his seat despite winning 7.8 per cent of the vote — the highest of any of Druery’s candidates — because Druery gave priority to Hinch and the Liberal Democrats. Both of them won, taking seats from Young and the Nationals.

In Western Victoria, Druery arranged the tickets so that Animal Justice won a seat, along with Hinch’s former running mate, Stuart Grimley. (Druery’s day job is as chief of staff to Hinch.) The most closely watched seat was Northern Metropolitan, in the inner and inner-middle suburbs to the north of the city. That was Druery’s one miss: his former client Fiona Patten, elected with his help in 2014, turned against him and arranged her own deals, which saw her re-elected with 3.5 per cent of the vote and many, many preferences from Labor, the Socialists, Animal Justice and others.

The bottom line is that, despite its huge victory in the lower house, Labor remains a minority government in the upper house, winning just eighteen of the forty seats. The Coalition won only eleven, and there are also eleven crossbenchers: Greens leader Samantha Ratnam, Fiona Patten, and nine from Team Druery — three from Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party, two Liberal Democrats, and one each from Animal Justice, the Shooters, Sustainable Australia and Transport Matters.

Labor is clearly happy with this outcome, since it worked to make it happen: Labor preferences were directed to all those groups in their target seats, helping to decide for them against the Greens. In the last parliament Labor was in an even bigger minority in the Council, but was able to make the system work for it by making deals to get the numbers needed for each bill to pass.

So far, Andrews has refused to follow South Australia, New South Wales and the Commonwealth in banning the group-voting tickets that are the key to Druery’s system. If voters are given back control over their preferences, as the last federal election showed, they spray everywhere — because we are a diverse bunch of people, with diverse preferences. With open preferences, it is impossible for a party to win a Senate seat without a substantial vote of its own. For the micro-parties, that would be curtains.

One can empathise with their argument that the current system brings diversity into political representation. Sure: it gave us senators Ricky Muir, Steve Fielding, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus, to name a few. But it is impossible to make a convincing case for a system in which Hinch’s party can win three seats with 3.75 per cent of the Council vote while the Greens win one seat with 9.25 per cent.

It could be that we have just seen Glenn Druery’s final masterpiece. It was a real work of art, working out preference deals for each party that were within their ideological comfort zone and ensured that someone in the team claimed the final seat. It could be that this is the marvellous deal that worked so remarkably well that the big parties will agree there should never be another.

9. The implications for the federal government are dire

In 2016 the Coalition won 48.2 per cent of the two-party vote, roughly the same as its state colleagues won in 2014. Were the 2018 state result repeated at the coming federal election, Labor would win a swing of 5.8 per cent. If that happened across the board, it would cost the Coalition five seats in Victoria alone.

Last time Labor won eighteen of Victoria’s thirty-seven seats, and the Coalition seventeen, with two crossbenchers (the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne, and independent Cathy McGowan in Indi). Since then, a redistribution has added a new seat in Labor’s fast-growing outer west, and on Antony Green’s estimates it has turned Dunkley (southern end of the Frankston line) and Corangamite (southern Geelong and its region) into marginal Labor seats.

Add to them Julia Banks’s seat of Chisholm (2.9), in the inner middle suburbs, and the Coalition was looking set to lose three of Victoria’s seats anyway. If Victorians vote federally as they did on 24 November, the Liberals would also lose the outer eastern seats of LaTrobe (3.2), Casey (4.5) and possibly Deakin (6.4).

At a federal level, however, the three traditional Coalition seats in the inner and inner-middle suburbs all look safe: Higgins is on a margin of 10.1 per cent, having shed the Greens stronghold of Windsor, and Goldstein (12.7) and Kooyong (12.8) are very comfortable.

The Greens will not be a threat to the Liberals, but they are to Labor. Macnamara (nee Melbourne Ports) is a lineball seat between Labor and the Greens under its new boundaries. Cooper (nee Batman) and Wills will probably hold this time, but will be vulnerable when Labor support softens.

Then there are the independents. This election in Victoria saw their numbers swell to three: Ali Cupper, a lawyer, social worker and local councillor, won her local town of Mildura from the Nationals, arguing that the big parties ignore it when it’s held by one of them. Similar arguments just failed in Benambra, where a former Cathy McGowan staffer, Jacqui Hawkins, went down by 2.45 per cent. Suzanna Sheed retained Shepparton, which she won from the Nationals last time, while Russell Northe retained his seat of Morwell, which he won as a National last time.

Cathy McGowan appears to be preparing for a third term in Indi, although she has invited anyone else interested in standing to meet with her for “succession planning.” We’ve not heard of other independents entering the field: the lesson from the success of McGowan, Sheed and Cupper is that it takes a lot of doorknocking, a lot of fetes, rodeos, conversations and handshakes, to win people’s trust.

For the next election, the battle is already on. •