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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.


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