Further thoughts on Victoria

At the last Victorian election, in 2018, 78.1% of voters gave their primary votes to either Labor or the Liberal and National parties. That’s the lowest that figure has been since before the formation of the Liberal Party, but we know it can go lower: in this year’s federal election it was only 68.3%. There’s a general expectation that third parties and independents will get a boost tomorrow as well – but where and by how much remains to be seen.

There is no shortage of aspirants. A record 740 candidates are running for the 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly, including 120 independents (I’m using Antony Green’s summary). And as mentioned yesterday, the Liberal Party this time is putting Labor last on its how-to-vote material, giving opportunities to the Greens in particular in seats that might otherwise have been out of reach.

It’s not clear, though, that the conditions are there for the dramatic swing away from the majors that we saw federally. It depends a bit on how you interpret the rise of the “teal” independents, which we’ve discussed here before. Were they a general anti-party movement, which hurt the Morrison government because it happened to be in power, but could in principle have targeted any government? Or were they filling a specific gap in the party system and responding to Scott Morrison’s very specific failings?

If the former, there is no obvious reason why they can’t succeed in Victoria as well; the major parties are just as corrupt and unresponsive as their federal counterparts, and independents have done well before (there are three of them in the current parliament, although one is retiring). But if it’s more the latter – if the teals, say, are an embryonic liberal-centrist party rather than just a collection of individuals – then the dynamic in Victoria is quite different.

Since the Liberals are not in government, it’s harder to motivate voters with anger against them. And it’s harder for independents to cannibalise the Liberal heartland because there isn’t much of it left in the first place: one of the core seats, Hawthorn, fell to Labor last time (the Liberals have high hopes of winning it back) and another two, Brighton and Caulfield, went very close. A few teal-like independents are running, but there aren’t many places where Labor’s vote could go low enough for its preferences to help them.

There’s a similar problem with the Greens. Their big gains federally were in Brisbane, where the teals didn’t run; voters clearly saw them as near-substitutes. But although they will probably make gains from Labor on Liberal preferences (Northcote and Richmond are the obvious ones, and there could possibly be others), there’s no sign of them getting much traction in Liberal-held seats.

It’s also possible that the Coalition’s primary vote will fall as a result of a shift to far-right parties, energised by their opposition to public health measures. But since the Covid-denialists have no hope of winning seats themselves, those votes will return as preferences and make no real difference to the overall picture.

Also, a word about the upper house, the Legislative Council. It consists of forty members, elected for the same term as the lower house, by proportional representation in each of eight five-member regions. The last election returned 18 Labor members, ten Liberals, one National, one Green and ten from a range of very small parties.

The very small parties are able to win election because of the bizarre system of group ticket preferencing, once widespread but now abolished everywhere except in Victoria. It makes the final seat (and sometimes the last two) in each region into a lottery, but one in which the unprincipled are most advantaged, and the problem has become worse over time as more people work out how to game the system.

This year it has had more publicity than ever, leading to high hopes that public pressure will lead to the system’s abolition in the new parliament. (Kevin Bonham has a wonderful post detailing the different party positions on the issue.) It may also lead to an increase in below-the-line voting this time, although the increased number of candidates makes this more of a challenge and the effect is marginal anyway.

For now, however, the lottery continues. Since Labor even with its landslide victory could not win an upper house majority last time, its chance of doing so this time is negligible. But in spite of that the Council has not given it much trouble; a multitude of small parties gives it plenty of options for getting its legislation through (which is why it has made no move to reform the system). Most probably that will remain the case, although the Coalition’s representation will no doubt improve from its very low base.

If you want to play around with possible outcomes, Antony Green’s calculator is an indispensable aid.

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