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Anti-Labor swings put the spotlight on Brumby's chances

State Labor has peaked, so how far has the tide run out in Victoria?

Warning: This column should be read with a salt shaker nearby. It is about what last weekend's state elections in Tasmania and South Australia may mean for November's state election in Victoria. As such, it contains gross generalisations and big leaps of logic.

That's the thing about political analysis and election tea-leaf reading: much of it amounts to statements of the bleeding obvious or extrapolations containing so many ifs and buts as to be nearly meaningless.

For example, after the big anti-Labor swings in Tasmania and South Australia, we have been told that ''seats will tumble and the Brumby government could fall if a voter backlash against Labor continues in Victoria''. You can't argue with that. Then again, if the anti-Labor backlash does not continue, seats may not tumble and the Brumby government will not fall.

We've also been told that one of the lessons in the swing against Mike Rann's South Australian government for the Victorian Coalition is that it should ''exploit any perception of complacency and arrogance'' about the Brumby government. Well, it would be a derelict opposition that set out not to exploit any such perception.

So, with those caveats in mind and at the risk of adding to the ''you don't say'' count, here's this columnist's best reading of the political temperature in Victoria, post-Tassie and SA.

The first thing that can be said with some confidence is that state Labor has peaked. From holding all the states and territories as recently as September 2008, Labor has now lost government in Western Australia and (almost certainly) Tasmania, is holding on by a thread in the Northern Territory and (almost certainly) South Australia, and is on the nose in Queensland and (especially) New South Wales.

It can now also be said with some certainty that the Bracks-Brumby government reached its high-water mark as long ago as 2002, when Steve Bracks led Victorian Labor to the biggest win in its long history. In 2006, Labor went backwards, losing seven seats and suffering a swing of about 3½ per cent. But it remained in a very strong position in Parliament because of the buffer it created for itself in the '02 Bracks-slide.

As recently as late last year, polls were suggesting Victorian Labor could actually improve its numbers at the 2010 election, maybe even exceed its '02 result. Nervous Libs were muttering about Ted Baillieu's leadership and the prospect of the party losing seats. Not any more. Now, it is accepted on all sides that Labor will go backwards again this November. Perhaps ominously for John Brumby, another anti-Labor swing of roughly 3½ per cent may be just enough to rob him of his majority.

It may not be a coincidence that the improvement in the state Liberals' fortunes has happened since the federal Liberal leadership change in December. In the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull, the Liberal ''brand'' was unsaleable. Tony Abbott has changed that. Baillieu and Abbott are about as different as two Liberals could be, at least in terms of bearing and background, but the Victorian Opposition Leader is reaping some of the rewards of the effective work of his new federal counterpart.

In Tasmania, the electorate is so small and the electoral system so unusual that trying to draw lessons from what happens there for other jurisdictions is especially fraught. But the strong result for the Tassie Greens - about one-fifth of the vote, one-fifth of the seats and the balance of power - does throw the spotlight on a historic possibility in Victoria: that after November, the Greens could also hold the balance of power in the lower house here.

Here's the maths: Labor holds 55 seats in Victoria's lower house. If it loses 11 it will lose its majority in the 88-member chamber. Three of the 11 most marginal Labor seats on the pendulum are at risk of falling not to the Liberals but to the Greens (they are Melbourne, Richmond and Brunswick). The Coalition, languishing on 32 seats, will not have a majority in its own right unless it wins at least an extra 13.

So, Tasmania is a reminder that there are not two but three results possible in Victoria in November: Labor is returned, the Coalition wins, or there is a hung Parliament. Of those, a Labor win remains the most likely. But the second most likely is a hung Parliament. It's time to take the Victorian Greens more seriously; they could determine who governs this state and how it is governed for the next four years.

South Australia, by contrast, is a reminder that it is folly to assume a uniform swing in an election. Some people got very excited by the fact that the anti-Labor swing in SA was about 8 per cent, whereas in Victoria an anti-Labor swing of ''only'' about 6½ per cent could be enough to give the Coalition victory in its own right.

But the swings in SA were all over the shop: Labor lost the seat of Adelaide with a swing against it of way over 10 per cent, yet Labor achieved pro-government swings in several much more ''marginal'' seats. In other words, SA Labor protected some of its most crucial seats in the face of a potentially fatal anti-government sentiment. Victorian Labor will, of course, be out to do the same here.

So, what's the bottom line? The November 2010 Victorian election is up for grabs, and the quality of the campaigning by all sides over the next eight months will be decisive.

You don't say.

Paul Austin is Age state political editor.


  • I think giving Abbot the credit for the anti labor swings ignores the great truth that governments lose elections. State Labor is facing an "its time" sentiment and one I think is richly deserved.
    Governments always get too comfortable and settled in power. The threat or even the reality of loosing that power is all that keeps them listening to the community they serve. At this stage the Victorian government is stumbling and is beginning to look to be totally tied to vested interests. The relentless spin is getting far too irritating and obvious.
    I think Australians hate how all our pollies all sound the same. Abbot is a parliamentary performer and that stylized mode of talking is just as irritating in a so called straight talker as it is in Rudd. I could rant on but I suspect we all know what I am referring to.
    I have on occasion voted for the Libs, the Greens and Labor. At this state election I am still undecided but I am trending towards the Libs. Talking to others the west is labor's to lose.
    This could be a very interesting year politically.

    Hoppers crossing
    Date and time
    March 25, 2010, 8:19AM
    • All long-term governments "run out of puff" after a period where those who had the drive, energy and ideas to initially win an election slowly burn out and are replaced by those who just want power. The most obvious way to identify this is in the desperate populist reactionary politics exhibited by the now second (or third) rate ministers rather than them delivering anything challenging.

      A narrow election win by an established government should be an obvious prompt to clean out the deadwood (old or new) and give the party some chance in a future election by actually providing better government, instead it is usually used to reward party hacks with one last turn at the trough before the music stops - and we all suffer because of that.

      Date and time
      March 25, 2010, 9:41AM
      • As a rusted-on ALP voter who only voted Liberal in a state election once (against Kirner), I'll be voting Liberal this year too.
        The tipping point was the attitude of the Planning Minister and his office and its cynical desire to favour playing politics over proper processes and outcomes. That was the straw that broke this camel's back.
        Setting aside the rights and wrongs of the Windsor redevelopment decision - a matter on which I do not have a view - the process showed a culture within at least that Ministry that is derisive of the process of democratic and responsible government.
        It suggests this government has gone stale. It is time to go.
        Until then, I was prepared to overlook the mismanagement of Myki system.
        Note nothing Ted Baillieu has done has made me want to vote for him. And please don't give Tony Abbott the credit for my change of vote either. I, like most of the electorate, hate politicians who think playing politics is the name of the game. Alas playing politics is the only game Tony knows.

        Its Time
        Date and time
        March 25, 2010, 9:47AM
        • Paul, whilst your comments are generally sound, there is one issue you have overlooked when it comes to the state of Victorian politics and possible outcomes. There is no doubt the incumbent government will suffer a swing against it, but the chance of the coalition grabbing power are extremely slim. Apart from it leader, the Victorian public have little idea of who actually makes up the opposition. It is also a policy free zone, unlike the SA Liberals and Tasmanian Greens and Liberals, which all offered viable alternatives to the government. The Victorian opposition has, and continues to, offer very little other than sound bites and smarmy responses to serious issues.

          I'm no fan of the current government. I'm reminded every day when I catch a train how bad some of the issues are in this state. However, the state is also financially strong - the best in the country - has one of the lowest crime rates (despite the scare campaigns another paper in this state runs) and frankly the opposition is giving me no reason not to go with the devil I know.

          Brumby also strikes me as a fair and honest man. His work during the Victorian bushfires will never be forgotten. If he starts to demonstrate that compassion, strength and honesty again, I thibnk the Liberals have little chance of governing this state in the near future.

          Date and time
          March 25, 2010, 9:49AM
          • People will vote for the existing govenment only so long as it does ok for them. Having a myki card and no use for it, trains promised and not delivered etc etc. is turning more and more againist the current party. I really hate them for their spin spin spin. Labor is out and hopefully enough greens in to really stir the pot. I want green policies to shock, panic the average person enough to get them talking, organising rallies, and becoming interested enough to care about where we are heading. The article is right - will labor really do something fresh? - i doubt it

            south yarra
            Date and time
            March 25, 2010, 9:55AM
            • Brumby..... was never the people's choice. His was imposed upon us..... in a nice Stalinist fashion.
              As we are all sheep with a convict streak..... there is one thing we loathe.... having things imposed on us from above.
              It doesn't matter who opposes him... the real estate agent who's crowning business success was to get the contract to sell OUR
              schools from under us or Bill Hayden's drovers dog... Brumby will go out on his ear....and we will have the satisfaction of punishing them for not listening (what is it about ears?). Do you really think the ultra conservatives will be all that different to the conservatives who have "controlled" us up to now?
              No....... more dross, more following corporate instruction and more spin..... just a new set of images.

              Date and time
              March 25, 2010, 10:15AM
              • I agree with Catherine until she writes: "Brumby also strikes me as a fair and honest man." I would write that "Although Brumby presents himself as a fair and honest man, his big ticket fundraisers are thoroughly dishonest and present a real threat to democracy in this state."

                The one issue that I can't understand is why so much of the media (Paul Austin excepted) and the people of Victoria allow Brumby to get away with this greedy and dangerous practice under the guise of "access to government".

                Date and time
                March 25, 2010, 10:24AM
                • This government is confused. Seeing as how they shut the Tote in response to violence in King St, considering the events in Oakleigh over the weekend I fully expected the Grand Prix to be shut down. Yet all I heard this morning as I lay forlornly in bed was that pesky wwwhhhhheeeeee of fast cars nearby. Weird or what?

                  Date and time
                  March 25, 2010, 10:37AM
                  • While dead set against Federal Liberal, especially Abbott, I cannot justify the actions of State Labor in Victoria.

                    There are two ministers at the top that have tipped favour against the Labor party.

                    Kosky (now gone) and her arrogance in shoving Myki Mouse down the throat of Victorians, and the undeniable support from Brumby.

                    Madden, and his planning fiascos.

                    State labor has a stench of nepotistic, pigs feeding at the trough of the public purse.

                    While i have NO Faith in state Liberal, Labor must go here. The deserve to be severely punished for their arrogance, disdain for the public and a stench of being too long and too settled in the position.

                    Dan Warna
                    Date and time
                    March 25, 2010, 11:04AM
                    • Ah yes ken, the much touted Greens with their much touted policies. Likely to pick up extra seats at the next election which would give them "balance of power"? Under the current electoral boundaries they'll be hard pushed to win enough seats to get themselves in to that position and some current Greens might even find themselves struggling to hold on t their seats at the next election. The plain fact is that given the way the Greens have acted in the current parliament, a fair proportion of voters simply don't trust the Greens and are not going to give them their vote - no matter how unpalatable the alternative parties are. As another poster observed, voters will generally stick with the devil they know, and that is the problem the Greens and even the Liberals for that matter, have when it comes to persuading voters to vote for them.

                      Date and time
                      March 25, 2010, 11:29AM

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