The ABC was not the only media outlet to talk about the Liberal defeat in the Victorian State elections as ‘historic’ but, when you looked hard at the outcome, all that was noteworthy was that the Liberals had only one term to their credit, and in consequence they were the first government to lose after only one term for more than half a century. For those who do not live in Victoria, the election came and went as relatively low-key news, with an expectation that the Napthine Government would lose, which indeed happened.
But why only one term, and how important to Victorian voters was the much more notable fuss in Federal Parliament, where the tough-talking Abbott Government is unable to persuade the Senate to pass its legislation, and unwilling to force the matter to a double dissolution? There are never any certain answers to the second part of that question, and I’ll get to it in a moment. But as to the first, three issues seem to me to stand out. A quick snapshot comment, which I liked, was that the Napthine Government wasn’t a bad government, but it wasn’t a very good one, either.
The Premier when the Liberals formed their government in 2010 was Ted Baillieu, who resigned in 2013. Why so? His sin wasn’t in forgetting about a bottle of Grange, which ruined Barry O’Farrell in NSW. My sense of it was that Baillieu was more effective in opposition than in government, and he (and Napthine after him) were not sensitive to the need to keep focussing on achievements. Moreover, the Liberal Party that he led was not united, and he left office after it was clear to him that he had lost support within his party — he jumped before he was pushed. And there were more scandals, budget blow-outs and other bad news than were reasonable for a new government.
Napthine has the reputation for being a decent chap and a safe pair of hands, but you need a bit more than that to survive in today’s 24-hour news cycle. When you look at the outcome there doesn’t seem to have been anything in the way of a great popular rejection of the Liberals or enthusiasm for Labor. The swing was about 2.5 per cent (provisional figures).
In 2010 the ALP won 36 per cent of the vote; in 2014, 38 per cent. The Coalition won 45 per cent in 2010 and 42 per cent in 2014. The Greens won 11 per cent on both occasions. In the 2013 Federal elections Labor won 35 per cent in Victoria, the Coalition 43 per cent. There’s not much to point to in all of that: a small swing, and the change in government may have been due as much to good electorate work by Labor as to anything else.
It’s worth noting that in the Federal election, at a time when Labor was on the nose, Labor won 19 Victorian seats to the Coalition’s 16, and another seat went to the Greens — Melbourne, which had been a safe Labor seat since it was created when the first Federal elections were held in 1901, until Lindsay Tanner retired in 2010. For reasons that are not wholly clear, Labor does better, all things considered, in Victoria than in NSW.
Now, was there an Abbott factor? On the gross voting percentages, it’s hard to see any. It is really difficult to imagine that he was a great positive factor for the Napthine Government, especially when he was hardly used as a symbol throughout the campaign. But if he was a negative factor, then the Napthine Government must have been doing better than everyone seems to have expected. Perhaps the positive and negative factors cancelled out, as can happen in elections, where there is always movement in every direction, though we only see the net outcomes. I’ll say something more about the PM and his Government in my last post for the year.
I’m unpersuaded that there was any Abbott factor of any consequence. The victorious Victorian Labor leaders agreed — they described it on election night and thereafter as an election fought on local issues. The only Labor leader to talk about an Abbott factor was Bill Shorten. Now you might expect that both sets of leaders were only doing what you would expect them to do, given their particular situations. But the lack of real movement in the gross percentages suggests to me that the Victorian electorate knew what it was doing, and was aware of the important State factors. As it happens, Labor was leading Baillieu in the opinion polls and then Napthine in his turn well before Tony Abbott had become Prime Minister, and nothing much changed after he took office.
It is now more than forty years since I analysed Australian political behaviour through national surveys, but it was clear to me then that Australian voters could make a clear distinction between State and Federal issues, and do not blend them into a kind of electoral milkshake. Yes there are rusted-on Labor voters who vote the same way whatever the electoral arena, and they have their counterparts in the other parties. But when there are clear local or regional issues, you can see people reacting to them and changing winners into losers, whatever their recent vote in the other arena.
The Victorian result doesn’t provide any evidence that my old analysis is no longer valid.