Victoria goes to the polls on Saturday, with the state Labor government of premier Daniel Andrews seeking a third four-year term. Terms are fixed; if Andrews had had the option, he would most likely have called an election earlier, when the crisis atmosphere of Covid-19 was still fresh in voters’ minds. All the signs are that he would have won a landslide.
Now things are not so clear. Human nature being what it is, many are more inclined now to remember the mistakes and over-reactions of the government than its successes. The chance of a Labor defeat remains small, but Victorians have experience of surprise results: the Liberal-National coalition won a narrow majority against the odds in 2010, and Labor won power unexpectedly with independent support back in 1999.
At the 2018 election, Labor had 42.9% of the vote (57.3% two-party-preferred) and won 55 of the 88 seats in the lower house, against 21 Liberals, six Nationals, three Greens and three independents. Since then a redistribution has effectively transferred two seats from Liberals to ALP;* in addition, one of the independents (Russell Northe in Morwell) is retiring and his seat should now be counted as Labor. That brings the government’s total to 58, or 61 if the Greens are included.
So Labor would need to lose 14 seats to lose its majority, and the Coalition would need to pick up 18 to be in a position to form government with the support of the independents. The second of those looks beyond the bounds of plausibility (on a uniform basis it would require a
n 11.4% 10.3% swing); the first does not, although you would bet against it. Indeed, people have: Sportsbet this morning has a Labor majority government as firm favorite at about 6-4 on.
The betting in individual seats is also interesting, although it’s worth remembering that they are very thin markets and have a poor record for reliability. Going by the current favorites, only eight seats are tipped to change hands: independents to gain three (Caulfield and Kew from the Liberals and Melton from Labor), Greens to gain two (Northcote and Richmond, both from Labor), and three to switch from Labor to Liberal (Bass, Hawthorn and Nepean).
That would produce a total of Labor 52, Coalition 26, and Greens and independents five each – still a very comfortable Labor win. Some improved recent polling for the opposition has created an impression that a much closer result could be on the cards. But while (as noted above) Victoria has produced surprises before, unexpected results in other states recently have mostly been in the other direction, with Labor governments that looked to be in some trouble coming through unscathed.
It may be, however, that precedent is of limited value either way. This is the first Labor government to face the voters since the end of the pandemic, and also the first state election since the election in May of a federal Labor government. Both those things would seem to hold danger for Andrews, but whether or not the opposition is poised to take advantage of them is another question.
Liberal leader Matthew Guy is making his second attempt; he stood down after 2018’s landslide defeat but returned to the job last year. I said then that “Leaders simply do not come back from defeat on the scale” he had suffered, adding that he “now has the opportunity to prove me wrong.”
Guy has clearly learnt some lessons. The thinly-disguised racism of the 2018 campaign has disappeared; instead there has been much more focus on questions of probity and economic management, on which the government is vulnerable. He has also made an attempt to reach out to the Greens, reversing a decade of practice and directing preferences to them ahead of Labor.
As against that, however, his campaign has also harbored a strain of Covid-denialism, seen as an effort to draw support from anti-vaxers and other far-right groups. This makes little sense electorally – those people are not going to support Andrews; the Coalition is all they have, whether it panders to them or not – but may be driven by the internal politics of the Liberal Party. Not coincidentally, Guy has also been plagued by the discovery of assorted extremists within his own ranks.
Many governments win third terms undeservedly. Regardless of what one thinks of Andrews’s handling of the pandemic, there’s little doubt that his government is getting stale and that his party would benefit from some time in opposition. But politics is relative: leaders don’t have to be good to survive, they just have to be better than the alternative on offer.
Some later thoughts to come tomorrow, plus a bit of a look at the Legislative Council.
* Technical note: the precise effects of the redistribution are debatable. I would describe it as having abolished two Labor seats (Keysborough and Mount Waverley) and one Liberal seat (Ferntree Gully), and created three new notionally Labor seats (Greenvale, Laverton and Pakenham). The Liberal-held seat of Ripon has also become notionally Labor-held, producing a net movement of two. Other seats have shifted in their political complexion, and it can be argued that Bass, Bayswater (both Labor-held) and maybe Hastings (Liberal-held) or Mildura (independent-held) should be thought to have changed hands, but the margins are so tiny that it seems best to regard them as staying with their sitting members.