A Newspoll indicating a 54–46 two-party-preferred lead for Labor less than four weeks before the Victorian election is obviously bad news for the Liberal–National opposition. Other recent polling has told a similar story of steady or increased support for Labor since the last election, suggesting that opposition leader Matthew Guy lacks the momentum needed to win office on 24 November.
Indeed, given that Labor secured a 52 per cent two-party vote in 2014, the movement appears to be in the opposite direction. The respected election-watcher William Bowe has averaged Labor’s current two-party-preferred vote at 53.3 per cent, though that swing, if uniform, would secure the party only one additional seat.
So is this election likely to be less competitive than the close state contests of 2010 and 2014? Some caution is necessary, for three reasons. First, given the Labor government’s occasional rockiness, it seems counterintuitive to believe that premier Daniel Andrews might secure a re-election figure close to the one achieved by the ultra-popular Steve Bracks in 2006 (54.4 per cent). Second, in the absence of any polling since both parties launched their campaigns on the weekend, the effect of any decisive policies has yet to be measured. And, finally, conventional wisdom suggests that opposition leaders benefit from a big lift in media exposure during a campaign (as Liberal leader Ted Baillieu certainly did in 2010).
At least one external factor could bear on the result. The federal Liberals’ internal discord has attracted enormous coverage, but its impact on the state contest is difficult to assess. The Victorian division obviously can’t control the party’s national brand, and besides, voters have long demonstrated a capacity to distinguish between state and federal issues, and Guy is currently polling better than his federal colleagues in Victoria.
In their policy launches, both leaders played to perceived party strengths. Labor highlighted its major infrastructure achievements, promising more of the same — a new suburban rail loop having recently been announced — and pledged to employ more medical professionals. The Liberals played the law-and-order card, promising harsher treatment for crimes of violence, and undertook to deal with Melbourne’s burgeoning population by reducing payroll tax in regional Victoria to 1 per cent (from 2.45 per cent). A commitment to reduce car registration costs for first-year probationary drivers was a clearly targeted Liberal proposal, but we might wonder whether enough members of the relevant demographic are actually on the electoral roll.
Among the Liberals’ other promises was the creation of an independent judicial review of Labor’s “red shirts” affair, which involved the misuse of taxpayers’ funds for political campaigning by casual electorate staff in 2014. A case might be made for inquiries like this, but it has echoes of the Abbott government’s royal commission into the Rudd government’s “pink batts” scheme. In a liberal democracy, governing parties should probably tread carefully before “investigating” their predecessors in office; where laws have been broken, such matters may be best left to the police.
Equally controversial has been Guy’s commitment to reintroducing religious instruction as an option in state schools. This drew praise and condemnation from predictable quarters, but smacks of pandering to the “base” and seems unlikely to move votes. It will also confirm for some critics that the Victorian Liberals are increasingly susceptible to the influence of fundamentalist religious elements.
Guy will not be helped by the reality that state election campaigns aren’t what they used to be. In a time of international turmoil and federal political shenanigans, a state campaign will struggle to grab voters’ attention in the sustained manner that an opposition needs. Adding to Guy’s problems is this week’s Newspoll finding that voters put Labor and the Liberals close to level-pegging on Guy’s favoured terrain of law and order.
Another aspect of the Coalition’s polling deficit also spells bad news for Guy. More than in any other mainland state, a Liberal leader in Victoria can use the possibility of a close election to raise the spectre of a minority Labor government in thrall to the dreaded Greens. That minor party already holds three lower-house seats and will be competitive in at least two others. The government could hold all its seats where its main opponent is the Coalition but fail to win any new ones, while at the same time losing Brunswick and Richmond to the Greens. This would leave Labor on forty-four — one short of a majority — and forced to contemplate a deal to enable minority government. It’s certainly theoretically possible, though obviously less likely with current poll numbers. Guy probably needs polling somewhere near 50–50 for a scare campaign about Greens influence to gain any traction.
For his part, Andrews will no doubt give the now-routine undertaking never to enter the same room as the Greens, let alone negotiate an arrangement based on the parliamentary numbers produced by the voters. Unfortunately for the major parties, however, sending the voters back to the polls until they elect a clear majority is not an option.
Finally, a word about the upper house. Since 2006, the Legislative Council has been elected by proportional representation, with the state divided into eight regions, each electing five members. For the first two contests, seats were mostly won by the Liberal, National, Labor and Greens parties (the exception was a sole Democratic Labour Party member in 2006); the Coalition secured a narrow majority in 2010, a feat not achieved by Labor in its two terms in government. In 2014, “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery entered the scene and helped secure the election of candidates who, despite having very few primary votes, benefited from the propensity of most electors to follow the various parties’ group-voting tickets by voting above the line. It will be interesting to see how many voters opt for below-the-line voting this year, the incidence having doubled from 4 to 8 per cent in 2014.
Significantly, the Andrews government has shown no apparent interest in replicating the federal reforms that eliminated group-voting tickets. If his government is re-elected, the premier is stuck with whatever upper-house numbers the fates deliver him. Prediction is nigh on impossible, but a majority for Labor or the Coalition must be seen as the longest of long shots.
What can be predicted with some confidence is that the loser will not be at the dispatch box when the fifty-ninth Victorian parliament is convened. After four years in the job, an unsuccessful Matthew Guy is unlikely to retain the party leadership, and as for a defeated premier: the customary question is when to hold the by-election. •