Inside Story

Twilight of the Liberals?

Map the Victorian election results onto federal seats, add a dash of history, and the prognosis is grim

Tim Colebatch 4 March 2019 3006 words

Already lost? Scott Morrison (right) campaigning in the Melbourne seat of Dunkley last month with the cities minister Alan Tudge (left) and local Chris Crewther. Stefan Postles/AAP Image

The Liberal Party could be reduced to holding just seven seats in Melbourne if the federal election sees Victorians vote as they did at last November’s state election.

Transposing the state vote to federal boundaries would see the Liberals lose five seats in Melbourne and a sixth, Corangamite, in the hinterland of Geelong. Of their other seven seats, three would be left on a knife edge, with another three potentially within Labor’s reach.

On state voting figures, Labor would have won the federal Liberal seats of Corangamite, Dunkley, Chisholm, Casey, Higgins and La Trobe. It would also have come within 1 per cent of winning Deakin, Flinders and Goldstein, and within 2.5 per cent of winning Kooyong, Menzies and Aston.

On the state voting, the Liberals’ only safe seats in Victoria are now the Western District seat of Wannon and the West Gippsland seat of Monash (the renamed McMillan). All of the party’s other twelve seats in Victoria are at risk of being lost.

Opinion polls carried out by ReachTEL for the CFMEU in November and December reported Labor leading the Liberals by 53–47 in Higgins and 52–48 in Kooyong. But individual seat polling in Australia has proved erratic. Instead, we present here the first published estimates of what the 3.7 million actual votes cast in Victoria’s state election would mean if replicated on the new federal boundaries.

They send a warning of disaster ahead. Unless the Morrison government does vastly better in May than its state counterparts did six months earlier, Victoria alone would tip it out of office.

The Coalition has already done badly from the Victorian redistribution. Labor gained a new seat in Fraser, Dunkley became a Labor seat on its new boundaries, and Corangamite is lineball. Add the spectacle of Julia Banks, the party’s heroine in 2016, quitting her marginal seat of Chisholm in protest at attempts by unnamed Liberals to order her how to vote on the leadership, and the Liberals already looked likely to lose three Victorian seats, and possibly more.

If the state election vote is repeated, they will lose much more. The ABC’s Antony Green estimates that on the new boundaries alone, the Liberals won 53.2 per cent of the two-party vote in La Trobe, 54.5 per cent in Casey, and 60.1 per cent in Higgins. On state election voting, all three would be Labor seats.

Similarly, Green estimates the Coalition’s 2016 vote on the new boundaries as 56.4 per cent in Deakin, 57 per cent in Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders and 62.7 per cent in Tim Wilson’s seat of Goldstein. On state voting, its majority in all three has slumped to less than 1 per cent.

The question is whether the state voting pattern will be repeated. State and federal elections are fought on different issues, with different leaders and different candidates — or at least they usually are. State Liberals say their poll ratings nosedived after their federal colleagues dumped Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, and have never recovered.

The most surprising thing about the landslide in Victoria last November is how little difference it has made to the Morrison government’s policies and style. Yes, there have been token changes to give women more prominence in the government and make it appear that the government is tackling climate change. But they were transparent marketing ploys. The government is simultaneously promoting new investment in coal-fired generation — possibly subsidised by taxpayers — while halving Australia’s emissions reduction target by using a legal loophole that global negotiations have yet to approve.

For Morrison and his ministers, it’s been business as usual, despite an election in which Victorian voters made it clear they don’t like the way the Coalition is doing business.

Queensland has seen sustained differences between federal and state voting — the Coalition does better federally, and Labor better at state level. But there is no such pattern in Victoria. In 2010, in fact, the Coalition won the state election with 52 per cent of the two-party vote, but was thrashed in the federal poll, scraping just 44.7 per cent.

At last November’s state election, on my estimate, Labor won 57.6 per cent of the two-party vote. At federal level, Newspolls carried out between October and December found Labor with 56 per cent of the two-party vote in Victoria, down marginally from 57 per cent in the previous six weeks.

The state vote showed a landslide swing of 5.8 per cent against the Liberals and Nationals since their 48.2 per cent vote at the federal election in July 2016.

The swing was largest in Melbourne and “inner Victoria” — roughly, areas within 150 kilometres of Melbourne, including Ballarat, Bendigo and Geelong. It was much less in the outlying seats, in most of which Labor made only a token effort. Apart from Corangamite, no Coalition seat in country Victoria would be threatened by the state election vote.

But Labor’s two-party vote in Melbourne seats surged from 54.4 per cent in July 2016 to 61.2 per cent in November 2018: a colossal swing of 6.8 per cent. And the heaviest swings of all were in Melbourne’s blue-ribbon Liberal seats, where Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity had pushed the Liberal vote up in 2016 when it was falling in most of Australia.

Higgins, which includes Melbourne’s richest suburb, Toorak, would be among the casualties. On my estimate, the state voting figures saw Labor win 51.8 per cent of the vote. It has never come close to winning Higgins before.

That was a swing of almost 12 per cent from the votes cast in the 2016 federal election. It seems incredibly large, yet similar swings were recorded in Melbourne’s two other traditional blue-blood Liberal seats in the inner-middle suburbs: Goldstein, centred on Brighton, and Kooyong, covering Hawthorn and Kew.

At the state election, Labor unexpectedly won Hawthorn in a swing of 9 per cent, its first victory there since 1952. It won a similar swing to almost take Brighton, where it had never been within cooee before. And it won swings of more than 10 per cent in Malvern (Higgins) and Bentleigh (half of which is in Goldstein).

In 2016, all three blue-blood seats were among the few where the Liberal vote rose from its 2013 level — a high-water mark in most of Australia — as well as being higher than at the 2014 state election. It’s fair to assume that was because voters saw Turnbull, as he seemed then, as their kind of guy.

But Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy was not their kind of guy, and neither, I suspect, is Scott Morrison. Relative to 2016, on my estimate, the Liberal vote in 2018 crashed by 11.1 per cent in Kooyong, 11.9 per cent in Higgins, and 11.8 per cent in Goldstein. It is the strongest vote Labor has ever racked up in this Liberal heartland.

The federal member for Kooyong is treasurer Josh Frydenberg. He’ll be battling an independent Liberal, Oliver Yates, former head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, who is running to highlight the government’s refusal to tackle climate change seriously. Josh knows his history, and is no doubt aware that the only time his party has ever lost Kooyong was in 1922, when John Latham, later opposition leader and chief justice, ran as an independent Liberal with the aim of forcing Billy Hughes to step down as prime minister. He succeeded.

Kelly O’Dwyer, minister for women, jobs and industrial relations, announced in January that she would not recontest Higgins, but take time out to focus on her family. After six years as a minister, and with the Coalition facing a few years in opposition, she probably would have made that decision anyway, but the bleak outlook for her own seat would have confirmed it.

Labor ran dead in Higgins in 2016, and the Greens’ Jason Ball came second, though well short of winning. But the Green-voting booth of Windsor has been shifted into Macnamara (nee Melbourne Ports), Labor booths have been added in the southeast of the seat, and media coverage of the Greens has been dominated by their vituperative internal feuding. The state election showed a huge swing to Labor, with the Greens’ share of the three-party vote in Higgins crashing from 28 per cent to just under 20 per cent, while Labor soared past.

The member for Goldstein is Tim Wilson, chair of the House economics committee. His insouciantly opportunistic management of its inquiry into franking credits may well have added to his own re-election problems. Labor still has no candidate, and apparently no intention of wasting money on a seat it still sees as out of reach. Wilson should be relieved: on state voting, his majority shrivelled from 12.7 per cent in 2016 to 0.9 per cent in 2018.

If the state vote bears any resemblance to the federal vote ahead, then Dunkley and Corangamite are already lost. The redistribution shifted some very strong Labor areas north of Frankston into Dunkley, and the election saw the state seat of Frankston swing from ultra-marginal to safe Labor. On my estimate, the Liberals won just 42.7 per cent of the two-party vote.

It was even worse in Corangamite, where Liberal MP Sarah Henderson held off Labor in 2016 with 53.1 per cent of the final vote. She has been a serious victim of the redistribution, which radically changed the design of the two Geelong seats, moving the best Liberal suburbs into Corio, some strong Labor suburbs into Corangamite, and conservative farming areas around Colac into Wannon. Antony Green estimates this wiped out Henderson’s majority entirely. At the state election the Coalition’s vote on the new boundaries shrank to just over 41 per cent.

The eastern suburbs seat of Chisholm was the Liberals’ sole gain nationwide in 2016, partly because Labor’s former speaker, Anna Burke, retired, costing Labor her personal vote. Julia Banks won the seat for the Liberals, but since Turnbull was forced out and she quit the party, it’s been seen as another almost-certain loss. It will be a historic contest, however, with two Chinese-Australian women — Jennifer Yang (Labor) and Gladys Liu (Liberal) — competing for an electorate with many Chinese migrants. At the state election, Labor won 53 per cent of the vote.

La Trobe, once in Melbourne’s outer northeast, has gradually migrated southeast to Pakenham. The redistribution has improved the odds for Liberal MP Jason Wood — Green estimates it lifted his majority from 1.5 to 3.2 per cent — but under the new boundaries, it’s almost a different electorate from the one the former counterterrorism cop first won in 2004. And on state voting, it too would go to Labor, if only narrowly: 51 per cent to 49.

Wood’s old home in Ferny Creek is now in Casey, normally a safe outer-eastern suburban seat, and held by the speaker of the House of Representatives, Tony Smith. Smith won it in 2016 with 56.1 per cent of the vote, but the redistribution gave him the Labor suburbs Wood lost, cutting his notional majority to 4.5 per cent. On state election voting, the Labor landslide capsized that completely, and the Liberal vote dropped to just 47.3 per cent.

The big question is whether Smith’s personal vote will counteract that. He is seen by observers across the board as one of the best speakers, perhaps the best, that the House has had in a long time. But there are probably not many voters in Casey who follow the proceedings of the House. As a rule of thumb, only about half the voters in urban seats can even name their MP. And this is not Westminster, where both sides follow a convention that the speaker should be unopposed at elections.

In several other safe Liberal seats the state election saw Labor come very close. Apart from Goldstein and Kooyong, they include Deakin (where the Liberal vote fell to 50.3 per cent), Flinders (50.5), Menzies (52.3) and Aston (52.4). While it would be a stretch for Labor to win any of these, the first three are certainly not entirely out of reach.

Deakin is held by the hard right’s Michael Sukkar. With a notional margin of 6.4 per cent on the new boundaries, you would think him safe, yet Labor unexpectedly picked up Ringwood and Bayswater at the state election, and on my estimate it was within 300 votes of having the numbers in Deakin. If there is a voter reaction against Sukkar’s role in dumping Malcolm Turnbull, it could be crucial. Deakin and Corangamite are Victoria’s bellwether seats: at the past eight elections, whoever wins them has won government.

Flinders is held by health minister Greg Hunt, one of Peter Dutton’s key supporters in his leadership bid. It is also where Julia Banks is making her stand against bullying in the federal Liberal Party. The state election saw Labor win the Mornington Peninsula resort seat of Nepean (formerly Dromana) for only the second time in fifty years, and loom close in Hastings. Hunt’s notional majority is 7 per cent, but on state election voting, Labor came within 0.5 per cent.

Add the Turnbull factor, add the Banks factor, and Hunt too is under serious threat. For what it’s worth, Sportsbet now shows Labor as odds-on to win both Deakin and Flinders.

Former defence minister Kevin Andrews, another man of the hard right, used to have the safest Liberal seat in Melbourne. But the redistribution has shifted his outer-suburban seat of Menzies to include Labor-voting Eltham. Antony Green estimates this has trimmed his majority from 10.6 per cent to a notional 7.8 per cent — and at the state election, Labor sliced that to 2.3 per cent. Andrews needed head office intervention to retain preselection after a branch revolt, and his personal vote could well be negative. Keep watching.

Aston, in the foothills of the Dandenongs, saw a similar vote at the state election. The bookies have it at shorter odds than Menzies, Goldstein or Kooyong, but in my view it’s probably the safest Liberal seat in Melbourne after Russell Broadbent’s electorate of Monash (nee McMillan), where outer Melbourne meets West Gippsland. On state voting, the Liberals would have retained Monash by 5.3 per cent, and on a rough estimate, education minister Dan Tehan would have held his Western District seat of Wannon by a similar margin.

On the other side of the ledger, the state vote gives the Coalition no prospect of winning any of the eighteen Victorian seats held by Labor, or the new seat of Fraser, or the Greens seat of Melbourne. Its best chance on paper is in Macnamara, the renamed Melbourne Ports, but the state election saw its vote there crash 8 per cent from 2016 levels.

The only Victorian seat the Coalition has a realistic chance of gaining is Indi, where independent MP Cathy McGowan is stepping down after six years, making way for health researcher Helen Haines. Moreover, former MP Sophie Mirabella will not be standing again, and it’s clear that voters’ antipathy to Mirabella played a big part in McGowan’s victories.

At the state election, the Coalition held off challenges from independents in Benambra, Eildon, Euroa and Ovens Valley, the four state seats that overlap with Indi. Only Benambra (Wodonga) was close. This suggests that, with McGowan and Mirabella no longer the contestants, there’s a strong chance that one or other Coalition party will win Indi back this time.

If Victorians vote at the federal election exactly as they voted at the state election, the crossbench stands to lose another seat. Adam Bandt has held Melbourne for the Greens since 2010, with increasingly large majorities. But at the state election, Labor outpolled the Greens in his electorate, by 52 per cent to 48.

Yet, as with Indi, the personalities matter. Labor won that notional majority at the state election with a 3.6 per cent swing in the seat of Richmond, where a popular Labor member, planning minister Richard Wynne, beat Greens candidate Kathleen Maltzahn for the third time in a row. The federal election will have a different cast. In the state seat of Melbourne, Labor won a 1.1 per cent swing, but the Greens retained the seat.

The difference here between state and federal voting is marked. Even at the 2014 state election, the Greens barely edged out Labor on votes within the federal electorate. Yet when the real contest came at the 2016 federal election, Bandt thrashed his Labor opponent, winning 47 per cent of the three-party vote to Labor’s 26 per cent.

In the inner suburbs, personalities matter a lot. Thousands of voters oscillate freely between Labor and the Greens, judging them not only by their stance on the issues that matter most to them, but also by their candidates. In 2016 Labor almost lost Batman and Melbourne Ports because its MPs, David Feeney and Michael Danby, did not appeal to inner suburban progressives (Danby offset this to some extent by being a vote-winner in the Jewish community). When Ged Kearney replaced Feeney in Batman, Labor’s vote there returned to normal.

Adam Bandt would be a tough opponent for Labor to knock over. The punters have him as the clear favourite for the seat, and I suspect they’re right.

Taken literally, the state election voting would see Labor win six seats from the Coalition and one from the Greens, giving it twenty-six of Victoria’s thirty-eight seats. The Coalition would be reduced to eleven (eight Liberals, three Nationals), with Indi impossible to call.

The punters are not always right — they often overstate the Liberals’ chances and understate the swings — but for what it’s worth, Sportsbet’s seat-by-seat odds imply similar numbers. The punters are backing Labor to take Chisholm, Corangamite, Deakin, Dunkley, Flinders and La Trobe, while the Liberals retain Casey, Higgins and the rest. They see the Greens holding Melbourne, and Indi as evenly balanced.

You might have thought the landslide in Victoria on 24 November would send such a jolt through the federal cabinet room that it would lead Morrison and his ministers to make serious policy changes. That’s the kind of response Menzies would have made.

Instead, nothing has happened, except that ministers in the prime of their careers are announcing their retirements — while assuring us that they are confident that the government will be re-elected.

Yes, of course. We believe you. As you assume we always do. •

Revised: An additional section, on the seat of Melbourne, added on 4 March 2018.