Alarming numbers for Victoria’s Liberals

There’s a lot happening politically around the world, but it’s also a big election year in Australia, with elections both federally (probably 11 or 18 May) and in the largest state, New South Wales (23 March). I’ll try to get on to New South Wales next week, but for now I want to say something about the federal election, and specifically about federal seats in Victoria.

Scott Morrison’s government currently hangs by a thin thread in the House of Representatives, surviving only at the sufferance of independents. While pundits often talk foolishly about “must-win” seats, it’s fair to say that the Coalition can’t afford major losses anywhere. A bad result in Victoria would almost certainly be the end.

Tim Colebatch has an excellent piece this week at Inside Story in which he projects the results from last November’s Victorian election onto federal boundaries. I think Colebatch has a habit of taking the links between federal and state voting a bit too seriously, but it’s probably true that the differences between the two have been diminishing over time.

More to the point, the Victorian election was strongly influenced by federal factors, making the link unusually important in this case. As he puts it, “State Liberals say their poll ratings nosedived after their federal colleagues dumped Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, and have never recovered.”

The disaster at the state election should, you might think, have been a wake-up call to the Liberals in Canberra, inducing them to make some major changes in policy or presentation. But you’d be wrong. In Colebatch’s words, “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.”

The problem is that the Liberal Party is stuck in the same downward spiral as the Republican Party in America. As extremists take over, more moderate voices leave or are marginalised, so the party loses seats in the places where voters are more moderate, which in turn makes it less responsive to those voters, because the remaining MPs are more beholden to extremists, so there’s a further exodus of moderates – and so on.

So what do Colebatch’s numbers say? Background first: at the 2016 federal election, Labor won 18 seats, the Liberals 14 and Nationals three; there was also one Green and one independent.

Since then a redistribution has created an additional Labor seat. One Liberal MP has resigned to sit as an independent, and another one and possibly two Liberal seats have become notionally Labor due to boundary changes, but like Colebatch I shall continue to count those three seats (Chisholm, Dunkley and Corangamite) as Liberal-held.

Of the 14 Liberal seats, six would fall to Labor on the state figures, and another six would have their margins cut to less than 2.5%. Only two, Monash (formerly McMillan) and Wannon, would be reasonably secure. (Although Colebatch thinks the Liberals are also a decent chance to win back Indi, whose independent MP is retiring.)

Some of the implied swings are very large – 8.9% in Corangamite, 11.1% in Kooyong, 11.8% in Goldstein and 11.9% in Higgins. But the state election showed that such numbers are completely possible, with swings of 8.6% in Brighton, 9.1% in Hawthorn, 10.1% in Malvern and 11.1% in Bentleigh.

Of the twelve seats in danger, there’s general agreement that the first three – Dunkley, Corangamite and Chisholm – can be written off. La Trobe should probably join them; the state election figures give Labor a margin of only 1.0%, but Sportsbet favors them strongly at almost two to one on.

Beyond that point, perceptions differ. Colebatch’s figures show the Liberals losing Casey and Higgins but holding Deakin and Flinders; the betting market has it the other way around. No doubt part of the explanation is that the MPs for the latter two were both key supporters of Peter Dutton in last year’s leadership fracas – the sort of thing that plays particularly badly in Melbourne (or so the punters assume).

Colebatch’s summaries of the twelve seats are well worth reading. He thinks that Aston is probably the safest of them for the government; I’m not sure that’s true, but I agree that the betting market seems to be understating the threat that it faces in its heartland seats of Goldstein, Kooyong and Menzies.

Kooyong, however, held by treasurer Josh Frydenberg, has been upended somewhat since Colebatch wrote by the announcement that prominent barrister and refugee advocate Julian Burnside will contest the seat for the Greens. Sportsbet quotes him at three to one against, and Labor at four to one – which I reckon is pretty good value.

Frydenberg did not support Dutton, but his brand of right-wing politics is otherwise out of step with the traditional mainstream of the Victorian Liberal Party, and he has played a major part in the federal party’s conspiracy of denial over climate change.

This morning’s news is that the Liberals have committed an extra half a million dollars (on top of the half million already allocated) to Frydenberg’s campaign. If the locals are still as angry as they were back in November, he’s probably going to need it.

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