Inside Story

For today, a triumph for Victorian Labor

Dan Andrews’s government has cause for celebration — and plenty on its plate

Tim Colebatch 27 November 2022 2737 words

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews and deputy premier Jacinta Allan in Melbourne today. James Ross/AAP Image

It was an election that seemed at times on Saturday night to be promising a political upheaval. But in the end it changed hardly anything. Premier Daniel Andrews is back for a third term, more in control than ever, and possibly even with one seat more than he started with.

The Liberal Party took another trouncing, losing most of the seat-by-seat contests for the fifteenth time in Victoria’s last sixteen federal and state elections. Despite leader Matthew Guy’s optimistic claims in his concession speech last night, it is very unlikely to end up with more seats; at best it could hold on to the same small number it started with. It seems even further from winning back power.

The Nationals had a night to relish, taking back all three seats they had lost to regional independents over the previous eight years and holding their own with the greatest of ease. But the Liberals’ malaise condemns them, too, to remain on the opposition benches seemingly forever, until a new crowd can win control of the Liberals, recruit members from mainstream Australia and take the party back to the middle ground.

Early last night the Greens’ tide came in. Their vote was surging and it seemed they might sweep through inner Melbourne to win as many as nine of the Assembly’s eighty-eight seats. But as the night wore on, the tide went out again, their vote slumped back to its 2018 level, and it looks like they won just one more seat, Richmond.

And the independents had a terrible night. The two remaining regional independents, seen as tied to Labor, paid the price for the government’s lack of interest in country Victoria. Of the four teal indies backed by Climate 200, two will be elected at best, but more likely none. In other seats, the average independent won only a few per cent of the vote; in the end, they were poorly funded amateurs up against well-funded professionals.

There might be one exception: Gaetano Greco, an independent from Preston in the northern suburbs, who seems to have slipped through unnoticed while Labor was focused on the Greens. More on him later.

The one blow for Daniel Andrews was in the Legislative Council: on current counting, Labor would lose three seats, forcing it to rely on support from the Greens or the fringe parties of the right — One Nation, the Shooters and the DLP — to pass any legislation the Liberals and Nationals oppose. That was predictable, and predicted, but it could require a more inclusive style of governing.

As I half-forecast, this election looks like introducing a significant newcomer to Victorian politics: Legalise Cannabis Victoria. It’s the party formerly known as HEMP, but its rebranding and its decision to be part of a preference swap among left-wing parties could win it two seats in the Council, maybe more. It’s very significant that it’s got there with Labor preferences. Soon the joint could be jumping.

The Council aside, this election confirmed more than it changed. Andrews’s one-man rule and uncompromising way of handling the pandemic have been endorsed by the majority of Victorians, at the cost of alienating both those seriously inconvenienced or maddened by the repeated lockdowns, and increasingly, the minority of Victorians who dislike his government’s lack of transparency, lack of openness, centralisation of power and slide into heavy debt.

The transparency warriors were never going to win yesterday: they had no horse in the race. Their best hope now is that the smaller parties of the left — the Greens, but also Fiona Patten (if she gets back), the dope smokers and Animal Justice — might use their numbers in the Council to pressure Labor to raise the quality of Victorian democracy, as the governments of John Cain, Steve Bracks and John Brumby did.

This election was a triumph for the defenders. Labor has lost only four or five seats from the fifty-six that were nominally its seats after the redistribution. The Liberals were defending virtually nothing but marginal seats; yet they’ve lost only two for sure, and possibly two more. The Greens and Nationals had bumper swings in all their seats. Only the independents lost out.

The Liberals and Nationals never had a hope of winning the extra eighteen seats they needed to form government. Whatever their leaders said publicly, the best they could hope for was to win enough votes and seats to be in a position to make a realistic bid for power in 2026. And they failed.

Guy put the best spin on it he could last night, claiming his team had won a 4 per cent swing and got “more than halfway” to closing the gap. Not so. As Ben Raue of the Tally Room points out, the average swing was more like 2.5 per cent. The Coalition will have only half as many seats as Labor in the new Assembly, much the same as in Labor’s last term. The party’s new leader will start from no better a position than four years ago.

What went wrong? First, Labor had few marginal seats to defend: most of its seats had majorities of more than 10 per cent. Only ten Labor seats were held by margins of less than 5 per cent — and when you have a government willing to play Scott Morrison’s game of spending taxpayers’ money to win marginal seats, there is no advantage like incumbency.

On ABC TV last night, Antony Green pointed out the sharp difference between the zero swing (or at one stage, a swing to Labor) in seats southeast of the Yarra, where most of the marginal seats are, and the big swings against Labor in some seats in the more deprived Labor heartland, north and west of the river; but the Liberals were starting from too far back to win any of them.

Late counting in some seats moderated that difference. Late at night the Liberals reclaimed Kew and Caulfield, both of which seemed lost two hours earlier, took the lead in Hawthorn and Mornington, secured Polwarth, Croydon and Rowville, and got back in the contest in Hastings. Meanwhile across the river, Labor pulled away from the Greens in Northcote, Footscray and Pascoe Vale.

Some of the swings against Labor in the outer-northern and western suburbs were extraordinary. There was a swing of 14 per cent against energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio in Mill Park, 12.5 per cent in Yan Yean, 15 per cent in Greenvale, and 8 to 10 per cent in Broadmeadows, Sunbury and Sydenham. But the Liberals’ past vote in these areas was so low that it didn’t even come within 5 per cent of winning any of these seats.

The Liberals were not a problem for Labor in its rusted-on heartland. With one exception, nor were the independents. There were dozens of them in Labor’s safe seats, many making the case that their area had been neglected because it was a safe seat. But Labor’s campaign team identified what it saw as the three real threats — Melton, Point Cook and Werribee — and ensured that they were not forgotten in the campaign promises. After their strong showing in Melton and Werribee in 2018, the independents flopped badly there in 2022.

Here’s my scoop. The exception — completely overlooked in last night’s coverage — was Preston, and Gaetano Greco. A long-time Darebin councillor and Labor activist, Greco had the advantage of running in an area where the Liberals are weak and the Greens and (increasingly) Victorian Socialists have eroded Labor’s support. A plan to demolish most of the heritage Preston Market became the centrepiece of his campaign, along with a range of local issues that the state government was not tackling because Preston posed no political problem. So Greco resolved to make it one.

Apart from Labor and Greco, seven other candidates ran in Preston — and six of them (all but the Freedom Party) directed preferences to Greco. Labor’s Nathan Lambert (denounced by Greco as a candidate “parachuted in from Geelong”) has 38.3 per cent of the vote, and the rest are evenly divided: Liberals 16.5 per cent, Greens 14.8, Greco 14.2, Victorian Socialists 6.7, others preferencing Greco 6.6 and others preferencing Labor 2.9.

While some preferences always leak, it seems certain that Greco will overtake the Greens and the Liberals to make the final two with Labor. Who wins the seat will then depend on how many preferences leak to Lambert: on these figures, he needs about 25 per cent for Labor to hold the seat, which gives Greco a 50–50 chance, though the postal votes will favour Labor. Victoria’s electoral commission will have to carry out a new two-candidate count for the two of them.

Early in the night, the Greens looked like being the big story. The commission’s two-candidate counts showed them clearly ahead in Northcote and Richmond, and neck and neck with Labor in Albert Park, Footscray, Pascoe Vale and Preston. But as the prepoll votes were counted the Liberals pushed the Greens into third place in Albert Park, and Labor regained the lead in Northcote, and pulled ahead in the rest. Richmond will be the Greens’ only gain in the Legislative Assembly.

The final Greens first-preference vote statewide will end up much the same as the 10.7 per cent they polled in 2018. But that is largely because there was far more competition, with roughly three times as many micro-party candidates as in 2018. The Greens have increasingly cast themselves as an inner-suburban party, and in Melbourne they are expanding that territory. In 2026 they will be the sitting party or serious competitors in nine seats.

Apart from Greco, three teal independents were the only indies to come close to winning a seat. At the close of counting, Kate Lardner had 49.8 per cent of the two-candidate vote in Mornington, Melissa Lowe had 49.4 per cent in Hawthorn, and Sophie Torney 47 per cent in Kew. With postal votes favouring the Liberals, all of them are likely to lose, but it will be close.

Liberals trying to find something to celebrate last night were grateful for the likely return of leading moderate John Pesutto in Hawthorn and the arrival of Jess Wilson in Kew. Pesutto could be a candidate for the party leadership if and when Guy steps down.

The Liberals didn’t have much to celebrate elsewhere. To put themselves in a position to win in 2026, they needed to win back the eastern suburbs seats they lost last time, but Labor successfully defended Ashwood (formerly Burwood), Box Hill and Ringwood, and captured Glen Waverley and Bayswater (nominally Liberal after the redistribution). The outer-suburban seats of Pakenham and Yan Yean, both seen as Liberal chances, stayed with Labor.

Labor maintained its grip on Geelong’s four seats, as well as the two seats each in Ballarat and Bendigo. The Coalition’s one success in Victoria’s bigger regional centres came when the Nationals reclaimed Morwell, the centre of Victoria’s electricity industry, which is facing a dismal decade ahead with the gradual closure of all three coal-fired power stations. Andrews’s promise to revive the former State Electricity Commission as a renewable energy provider, while popular in Melbourne, brought no comfort to the Latrobe Valley.

In the Legislative Council, however, Labor looks set to lose a lot of ground. With 20 to 30 per cent of the vote counted, Labor was on track to lose three seats. That leaves it with only fifteen of the Council’s forty seats, which would make it uncomfortably dependent on support from the Greens or a collection of right-wing parties to get contested legislation through.

The biggest swings against Labor were again in the northern and western suburbs: 10 per cent in the Northern Metropolitan seat, 11 per cent in the west. But Labor lost ground everywhere, costing it seats in South-Eastern Metro, Northern Victoria and Western Metro.

It’s important to remember that these are early figures, and Victoria’s group voting system means small changes to the figures can cause quite different outcomes. As the numbers stand, though, three of those seats would go to left-wing parties who formed an alliance with Labor and the Greens to get their preferences first.

Legalise Cannabis Victoria is on track to win seats in Melbourne’s southeastern and western suburban regions, and is close in several others. Animal Justice, thanks to a deal negotiated when it was falsely pretending to be part of preference whisperer Glenn Druery’s alliance, stands to win a seat in Northern Victoria but has lost its leader, Andy Meddick, from Western Victoria.

Reason Party leader Fiona Patten is on track to narrowly hold her seat in Melbourne’s northern suburbs in a three-way contest with the Victorian Socialists and former Labor powerbroker Adem Somyurek, now running for the DLP.

The Greens vote lifted everywhere: on these figures, enough to give them upper house seats in Western Victoria, North-Eastern (formerly Eastern) Metropolitan and Southern Metropolitan, while its leader Samantha Ratnam comfortably held her seat in the northern suburbs. If that holds, those four seats will be their most important victory at this election.

The Druery group had a bad night. In 2018, Druery’s team won nine of the forty seats. Last night, they won two (or three, if you count the seat won by Animal Justice on preferences Druery arranged before the party betrayed him). The DLP won a seat in North-Eastern Metropolitan from fellow Druery group party Transport Matters, and could still end up with seats in Northern Metro, where Somyurek is standing, and Western Metro, where their candidate is controversial former Liberal MLC Bernie Finn.

On current figures, however, the Liberals would reclaim their second seat in the western suburbs by just pipping Finn at the post, while the Coalition would also gain seats in Northern Victoria and Western Victoria. One Nation would take a seat in Northern Victoria from the Druery group, whose only other success was in Eastern Victoria, where Shooters party leader Jeff Bourman is on track to retain his seat.

I suspect these figures will change before the counting is over, but for now, the numbers in the forty-member Council would be: Labor fifteen, Liberals and Nationals fourteen, Greens four and Legalise Cannabis two, with one seat each for Reason, Animal Justice, One Nation, the DLP and the Shooters.

Whatever the final numbers, Labor will be in a minority but will have to find a way to make it work. Might we even see the two main parties of the left in Victoria lift their game to forge a constructive working relationship as their counterparts have in the ACT? Pigs might fly.

Like him or loathe him, this election result was a personal triumph for Daniel Andrews. It was in many ways about him, and his way of governing. No Victorian premier in my lifetime has acquired such an avid, uncritical fan base, or so many opponents who detest him (although Jeff Kennett came close). His photo appeared not only on Labor’s how-to-vote cards but also on those of other parties wanting to inspire Victorians to vote against him. The result, Labor’s overwhelming victory, speaks for itself.

The pandemic was rarely mentioned in the election campaign, but you suspect that, somewhere in voters’ minds, it was a defining issue. If you approved of Andrews’s handling of the pandemic, you voted for him. If you didn’t, you voted against him. There were many parties against him, but the election results showed us they’re still small parties.

The risk is that his success will further boost what Labor MPs described to his biographer Sumeyya Ilanbey as his sense that he’s always the smartest guy in the room. In his first term in office, Andrews consulted and listened more. In his second term, we’re told, he regarded listening to critics or people with different views as a waste of time. Many are urging him to adopt a more inclusive style in his third term. That could be challenging.

He starts his third term facing many problems. The Covid pandemic is as deadly as ever: last week sixty-two Victorians were reported dead from the disease, half the national death toll. The state budget is out of control, and Josh Gordon and Chip Le Grand of the Age have shown how the numbers are being fudged to make it appear that all is well.

Those are problems for tomorrow. Today, Daniel Andrews and Labor are winners with cause to celebrate. •