The Victorian Liberal Party has a new, or rather resurrected, leader this morning: Matthew Guy, who led the party from 2014 to 2018, was returned to the job unopposed after a spill motion was carried 20 to 11 against incumbent Michael O’Brien.*
Back at the end of 2018, following that year’s Victorian state election, there was a minor cottage industry in comparisons between the result and that of 16 years earlier in 2002 – the only two modern occasions on which Labor has won a landslide victory in the state. You can read my contribution here. But minds soon turned to other things, and if people thought about Victorian politics at all they forgot the historical dimension.
Until this week. Now it’s back.
The first thing to note is that 2002 and 2018 were very similar. Labor won 57.8% of the two-party-preferred vote in 2002; in 2018 it was 57.6%. That won it 62 of the 88 seats in 2002 and 55 (58 counting the Greens) in 2018. Each win was much more emphatic than most pundits had expected, and left the opposition Liberals depleted and demoralised – perhaps even more so in 2018 because the swing was concentrated more in the Liberal heartland.
There was at least one key difference, however. In 2002 the Liberal leader, Robert Doyle (later lord mayor of Melbourne), had only been in the job for three months. He could argue with some plausibility that he should not take all the blame for the defeat, and he was allowed to stay on as leader, helped by the fact that his factional allies took control of the party organisation the following year.
Nonetheless, as I expressed it a couple of years later, “No political leader has ever come back from the sort of defeat Doyle suffered in 2002.” As long as he stayed at the helm, the Liberals lacked credibility, and in May 2006 he admitted as much and resigned. His replacement, Ted Baillieu, went on to recover some ground in that year’s election and then led the party back into government in 2010.
Guy in 2018 had no such excuse. He had been leader for a full term, so there was never any doubt that defeat on that scale would cost him his job. He was replaced by O’Brien, who might reasonably have expected that the party could only improve from there, and that at any rate he would have four years in which to try to make an impact.
But then came Covid-19. Labor’s Daniel Andrews, after a bad start (which cost the state dearly), got the message about how to deal with the pandemic. Victoria crushed a second wave late last year, and the opposition was left to choose between irrelevance and looking like saboteurs. Voters in both Queensland and Western Australia showed a willingness to reward incumbents who had taken tough measures.
O’Brien’s predicament was made worse by the fact that his party was still honeycombed with Trumpists, who, even if they did not personally believe that Covid was all a hoax, were happy to pander to those who did. He slapped them down a few times, but his failure to make an impact in the polls left him vulnerable. Guy had visions of a comeback, and although he held his fire when O’Brien was challenged last March, he was just biding his time.
Part of this is the curse of modern politics, which I’ve described before (and which Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott later demonstrated in spades):
Modern dogma has it that disunity is the one unforgivable sin in a political party. But this creates a vicious circle: unsuccessful challenges, instead of being just shrugged off, are regarded as a disaster; therefore the announcement of a challenge sets off a landslide, because almost any change is seen as preferable to disunity. This means that any potential challenger has an enormously potent weapon and conformity has to be enforced all the more rigidly to prevent challengers from emerging.
But there’s more to it than that in Victoria. Guy and those around him were not just defeated in 2018, they were disgraced. They ran as close to an explicitly racist campaign as we’ve seen in Victoria in my lifetime (although I doubt that this was Guy’s personal inclination), backed by an influx of religious fundamentalists in the party organisation. Their approach was repudiated by the electorate, and rightly so.
The party claimed to have learnt the lesson. Today’s change suggests that it has not.
The point that I made in 2005 still stands. Leaders simply do not come back from defeat on the scale that Guy (and Doyle) suffered. To convince that many voters that they were so badly mistaken is simply not a realistic task. The albatross of Covid-denial around the party’s neck just makes things worse.
Guy now has the opportunity to prove me wrong. Let’s see if he can.
* Disclosure: I should mention that I count O’Brien and two or three of his frontbench colleagues as personal friends, but they bear no responsibility for my opinions.