Inside Story

Outlook uncertain in Labor’s Victoria

Some loss of seats seems likely this November, and minority government might be the best Labor can hope for

Paul Rodan 6 August 2018 1694 words

Infrastructure premier? Victoria’s Daniel Andrews (centre) talking to journalists in April this year. Penny Stephens/AAP Image

Predicting a close result might be the default position of the psephological coward, but recent electoral history and current polling suggest that it might also be the wisest attitude to take towards this year’s Victorian state election, due on 24 November.

Two elections back, the Liberal–National Coalition took power with a two-seat majority; it lasted just one term in government before Labor was elected with a six-seat majority in 2014. Premier Daniel Andrews’s majority fell to four after a by-election loss to the Greens in November last year, and both Labor and the Coalition have lost a member to the state’s tiny group of independent MPs.

If we treat those two seats as effectively belonging to the major parties, then the current lower house numbers are Labor, forty-six; Coalition, thirty-eight; Greens, three; and one independent. The mathematically inclined will have noted two things: that forty-five is the number needed to govern and that the total membership is an even number — a less than desirable feature when a close election is possible. And it is starting to look quite close: a recent ReachTel poll reported a Labor lead of 51–49 in two-party-preferred terms, down from 52–48 at the 2014 election.

While the two-party figure is now commonly used to predict election results, it is at its most useful when the electoral system is reasonably fair and all seats are shared between government and opposition. The former applies in Victoria, but not the latter.

The Greens hold three seats and are likely to be competitive in at least two others. The conservatively inclined seat of Shepparton is held by independent MP Suzanna Sheed. And former senator Ricky Muir is expected to have some impact (as the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party candidate) in the marginal National seat of Morwell. This adds up to at least seven seats in which the final contest may not be Labor–Coalition, raising the spectre of a hung parliament and some form of minority government.

In the past two elections, government has essentially been won in the four seats along the Frankston railway line, which runs through Melbourne’s bayside suburbs. That group — Frankston (held by 0.5 per cent), Carrum (0.7 per cent), Bentleigh (0.8 per cent) and Mordialloc (2.1 per cent) — will again be critical. The four have benefited from substantial transport infrastructure spending (notably the removal of railway level crossings) at the cost of significant pain and inconvenience during construction, and the government no doubt hopes that the balance works in its electoral favour. Whether gratitude brings the desired reward remains to be seen: voters can be notoriously unsentimental.

Even if the Liberals recapture the three Frankston line seats that would fall with the recent poll-predicted swing of 1 per cent, the Coalition’s lower house numbers would still only be forty-one, four short of a majority. The corollary is that Labor, left with forty-three seats, would lose its absolute majority; and it is also vulnerable in two seats narrowly won against the Greens in 2014. The Liberals can get to forty-two with a win in the state’s most marginal seat — inner-suburban Prahran, on 0.4 per cent — which saw a genuine three-way contest in 2014, with the Greens narrowly defeating the Liberals thanks to Labor preferences.

After Mordialloc, the pendulum suggests that the Liberals’ best chances are Cranbourne (2.3 per cent) and Eltham (2.7 per cent), which would take the Coalition to the magic forty-five. It would also have some confidence about winning Albert Park (3.0 per cent), whose demographics are changing in its favour.

For Labor, the 51–49 poll suggests that its task is one of defence/loss minimisation: it is difficult to see it winning seats from the Coalition, and nor are ensconced Greens easy to dislodge. In the past, changes of government were usually visible some distance out, with the opposition of the day consistently ahead in the polls. While that was broadly true of the 2014 election, the 2010 Coalition victory over the Brumby Labor government came at the equivalent of time-on in the last quarter, giving the incumbents no cause for complacency.

In terms of leadership, neither Andrews nor Liberal leader Matthew Guy attract stellar approval ratings, with the preferred premier metric a virtual (low-scoring) tie in the ReachTel poll. The Coalition’s depiction of Andrews as untrustworthy and in thrall to nasty unions is intensifying; and Labor can be expected to remind voters of Guy’s alleged talent, when planning minister, for turning generous Liberal donors into multi-millionaires with zoning decisions. Labor will also focus on the opposition leader’s alleged links with organised crime, highlighting an infamous dinner at a seafood restaurant during which, by his own account, Guy was unaware of the antecedents of one of the more colourful attendees.

In policy terms, the government can be expected to run on its record in infrastructure. As well as removing level crossings, it has commenced a massive extension to Melbourne’s underground rail system, not due for completion till the middle of the next decade, and has upgraded several freeways. Indeed, Andrews is effectively running as the infrastructure premier, with the Age this week reporting that “more than $100 billion of new roads, rail lines, hospitals, skyscrapers, prisons, wind farms and other infrastructure is being build or planned…”

The government will also claim improvements in those Labor staples of health and education. On the key issues of who is best placed to deal with cost-of-living pressures and management of Melbourne’s growing population problems, voters seem evenly divided. They also face what is becoming a familiar feature of Victorian elections: conflict over the Coalition’s proposed East West Link road project.

Significantly, the conservatives retain their customary lead on what could be a critical issue — law and order. This is looming as a potentially ugly battleground, with marauding “African gangs” identified as a menace that only the Coalition can handle. In a state reputedly averse to racist dog-whistling, this theme has the potential to reshape political debate in a direction that not all will find palatable.

The Andrews government’s re-election prospects have not been assisted by “personnel problems” throughout its term. Highlights have included the spectacle of a minister resigning after revelations that he had his dogs chauffeured to his country house in a government vehicle, and both the speaker and deputy speaker stepping down for improper residential allowance claims. Another minister resigned following bullying allegations, and another because of a difference over a controversial enterprise bargaining agreement for firefighters.

More recently, and more seriously, six government ministers are among the subjects of a police investigation for their role in what the ombudsman determined was a misuse of taxpayers’ funds: paying casual electorate staff to undertake political campaigning in the 2014 election. In worse news for the government, police have advised that the investigation will probably extend beyond the election date. Outside a world like Donald Trump’s, we might expect a government with nearly a third of its cabinet under police investigation to struggle for re-election.

The government has responded by referring to the police allegations that a number of Coalition MPs also contravened parliamentary rules by using taxpayer-funded electorate officers for campaign purposes before the 2014 election. The lack of detail provided by the government has attracted criticism from both opposition and media. It would seem to be the government’s cynical hope that the electorate will conclude that both parties are as bad as each other and refocus on issues of the government’s choosing.

To complete this impression of crisis, Victorian Labor has been characterised in recent months by very public factional brawling following the breakdown of the left–right “stability agreement.” This has been manifest mostly in conflict about alleged branch-stacking and preselections for state and federal seats. (It’s never about ideology or policy, is it?) While much of this is usually too arcane to trouble the average voter, it risks being seen as further evidence that the party is simply not sufficiently focused on governing to be left in charge of running the state.

But recent months have not been plain sailing for the Liberals either. Moderate party members have been concerned at what they see as a takeover by social conservatives, a development in which party vice-president Marcus Bastiaan is seen as a key player. The prominence of Mormons (traditionally politically inactive in Australia) among the religious activists has been viewed as noteworthy. As always, one person’s “party rejuvenation” is another’s “branch-stacking.”

The Liberals also suffered embarrassment when a dispute between the state party and the fundraising Cormack Foundation was aired recently in the Federal Court, where it was resolved in favour of the foundation. The main immediate consequence appears to be that party candidates will again be funded in the state election, although it is unlikely that the issue had any impact among swinging voters.

It is the governing party whose factional brawls tend to attract most media attention, especially in Rupert Murdoch’s Herald Sun. And Labor’s colourful cast of latter-day Tammany Hall–style factional “heavyweights,” plus the added bonus of union involvement, provide far better copy than a bunch of largely reclusive Mormons.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that rather than exhibiting the prudence and caution of a first-term government, Labor has behaved as if its 2010 defeat was an aberration, remedied four years later by restoration to its rightful role of running the state. True, Labor has governed Victoria for nearly 70 per cent of the time since 1982, but the current level of self-indulgence and ill-discipline may have reached the threshold that attracts electoral punishment.

It seems possible that the government’s problems will allow the opposition to develop some election-winning momentum, but the infrequency of state voting-intention polling leaves observers more in the dark than is the case with federal elections. Less than four months out, some loss of Labor seats seems likely and it may be that minority government (supported by the Greens on confidence and supply) is the best it can hope for. A tantalising possibility is that the Coalition may secure forty-four seats and need the Shepparton independent (assuming her re-election) to support a minority government. Among those preferring an outright result we can probably include the state governor. ●