The teals and the heartland revisited

Results from last month’s Victorian state election are still not quite final, so we’ll come back to it another time, especially for the Legislative Council. But we can already say something about the performance of the independents. (I’m mostly using the ABC’s results, which are more user-friendly than the official version.)

After the remarkable success of “teal” independents in May’s federal election, many were expecting that there would be a similar surge at state level – either more teals in Liberal-held seats, or a corresponding movement in the Labor heartland (or both). I expressed some scepticism about this prior to the election, and it turned out I was right: the independents went backwards.

It’s not that voters were enamored of the major parties. The Labor plus Coalition share of the vote fell to 71.5%, the lowest level on record, down about six and a half points from 2018. But most of that went to minor far-right parties, particularly two new ones, Family First and the Freedom Party, with 3.0% and 1.7% respectively. The total for independents, however, fell from 6.1% to 5.5%.

The two sitting independents, Ali Cupper in Mildura and Suzanna Sheed in Shepparton, both lost their seats to the National Party, and no new ones were elected. Several came close; Kate Lardner in Mornington, who trails the Liberal candidate by 425 votes, seems to be the closest. But others whose chances had been talked up beforehand failed badly, in both Labor- and Liberal-held seats – including Caulfield, Melton, Point Cook and South-West Coast.

So what about the teal assault on the Liberal heartland? If you read George Megalogenis in the Channel 9 papers on Saturday you’ll have seen that this was the Liberals’ “worst heartland result in the party’s history.” But that’s not really true: in fact the 2018 result in the Liberal heartland was so bad that it was almost bound to recover a little, and it did.

The Liberal heartland in Melbourne is pretty easy to define (we looked at this federally back in May). It’s the strip of seven seats that link the left bank of the Yarra with the coast: from north to south, Bulleen, Kew, Hawthorn, Malvern, Caulfield, Brighton and Sandringham. They roughly cover the federal seats of Goldstein, Higgins and Kooyong, all of which the Liberals lost in May, plus the western half of Menzies (which they narrowly held).

At state level, however, the Liberals won all seven, winning back Hawthorn and holding the other six. All of them swung their way in two-party-preferred terms; of the five currenlty showing a two-party-preferred count, the median swing is 2.4% to the Liberals.* Even the Liberal primary vote held up pretty well, increasing in three of the seven. They are no longer the safe seats they once were, but the Liberal Party has held off the immediate threat.

What Megalogenis is doing is confusing these heartland seats with the middle suburban seats further east: Ashwood, Bayswater, Box Hill, Croydon, Glen Waverley, Ringwood and Rowville. They almost all swung to Labor, by a median 4.1%; it held its existing four (including Bayswater, which had been unfavorably redistributed) and picked up Glen Waverley, leaving the Liberals with just Croydon and Rowville.

But this has never been safe territory – it is classical marginal seat country (Rowville is a partial exception), where elections have been won and lost for the last fifty years. Labor’s success there is important, but in no way unprecedented. And while the Liberals did significantly worse there than in the heartland, there’s no particular reason to think that they need to choose between the two areas: a strategy to recover the middle suburbs, if they can find one, is unlikely to hurt them elsewhere.

And in these middle suburbs there is no sign as yet of anything like the teal independents; the contest is just Liberal vs ALP. That doesn’t prove there is no space there for teal or centrist politics, but if there is it is yet to be exploited. I think that’s unlikely to happen unless the teals convert themselves into something more like a political party, which will be a subject for another day.

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* The two exceptions are Hawthorn and Kew, which have been counted as Liberal vs independent; the underlying swing is to the Liberals in both, although it looks quite small.

4 thoughts on “The teals and the heartland revisited

  1. But rhetorically, at least, the conservatives have given up on the middle suburbs. Whereas they used to denounce “woke inner-city greenies”, they now see their salvation in “outer suburbs and regions”. A strategy pitched at that imagined constituency will leave the old heartland permanently vulnerabl.e

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    1. Thanks John – Yes, there’s that element of truth in what Megalogenis says; there’s sufficient common ground between the inner and middle suburbs to be able to say that the Liberals have given up on both of them.

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  2. > But this has never been safe territory – it is classical marginal seat country (Rowville is a partial exception), where elections have been won and lost for the last fifty years.

    In fact, the 2014 election was not won or lost in this part of Melbourne. Certainly it’s incorrect to describe them as Liberal party heartland, but there is an asymmetry here. Due to population growth elsewhere, this area remains vital for the Liberal party, but for Labor is surplus to requirements.

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