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23 September 2022  •  Elliot Giakalis - Principal Consultant, Media and Public Affairs, Bastion Reputation

The race to 45: a look at the Victorian State election

Election image

In a little over two weeks, Victorians are heading back to the polls, with the Dan Andrews Labor government looking for a third consecutive term. Should it be successful, and the opinion polls suggest it is likely to be, it will put the Premier on track to be the longest serving premier since Henry Bolte.

Standing in his way is the Matt Guy led Opposition, who led them to the demoralising defeat of 2018.  

A few things have changed since then – Mr Guy’s shortened first name, for one thing (brevity being the key, after all).  

Secondly, it’s Guy’s second tilt as Opposition Leader following his dumping for Michael O’Brien after the 2018 result. Guy was recalled in 2021 after O’Brien continually failed to land any blows on the government.  

And thirdly, of course, a global pandemic came along and shook us all – with Victorians feeling it perhaps most acutely. 

To date the focus on the government side has been on what are known as the “key grid issues” of health, transport, education and jobs, and their electoral leveraging of record spending on roads, schools and hospitals, and employment growth that has seen more than 600,000 jobs created since 2014. 

From the opposition, the central claim is that the government should be doing better, that the Government has questions to answer on integrity, and that Victoria is in a “‘healthcare crisis” while at the same time, claiming that spending is out of control. To combat this, it is promising to redirect some of the funding allocated to the Government’s flagship Suburban Rail Project towards various health and hospital initiatives. 

It is an argument that the Opposition needs to tread carefully on. Andrews’ self-styled “Big Build” has not only changed the amenity of many Victorian communities; it is also these very same projects that have employed thousands of Victorians.  

The popular Level Crossing Removal Project is but one example, with Labor having already removed 67 of them, transforming the way many communities look, as well as boosting safety and transport efficiency. Despite the inconvenience they cause during construction, these have generally been well received. Such is the success of the project that Labor announced last week that it was promising to remove even more – making a pledge to remove an astounding 110 by 2030.  

The announcement to further extend the Level Crossing Removal Project (complete with a guest appearance by Jennifer Garner) was one of many that have been dropped on the Premier’s social accounts. Andrews is one of Australia’s most astute social media users with more than 1 million Facebook followers (the Prime Minister only has 319,000) and 429k Twitter followers.  

These platforms – and Andrews’ clever use of smartphone-friendly videos and animations – generate extraordinary reach – and are quite a contrast to Matt Guy, who has only 74,000 followers on Facebook and some 29,000 on Twitter, where he has a bit of a reputation for blocking anyone who doesn’t agree with him.  

Together with his 229k Instagram followers (compared to Matt Guy’s 15k), the Premier’s ability to reach voters directly illustrates the continuing trend towards the “disintermediation” of messaging – in other words, cutting the traditional media and occasionally agitated journalists out of the equation and targeting voters directly. In this contest, it gives the Labor side a significant advantage, particularly in targeting younger voters. 

TO WATCH

In 2018, the “Danslide” cut through a swathe of Liberal seats – with eastern suburbs seats such as Hawthorn, Ferntree Gully, Box Hill, Burwood, Mount Waverley and Ringwood all falling into the Labor column. While some of these seats may come back to the Liberals, it is unlikely to be enough for government to change hands. 

Further out in the suburbs, there is an expectation that lockdown fatigue and the government’s handling of the pandemic may shave a few votes off the Labor column, with western suburbs seats like Melton and Point Cook ones to keep an eye on, but whether it is enough for seats to change hands is questionable. 

For a government with such longevity, it is little surprise that there will be a changing of the guard among senior ministers. While the steady hands of Treasurer Pallas and Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan remain, a string of former government ministers have called time, including former Deputy Premier James Merlino (electorate of Monbulk), Jill Hennessy (Altona), Jaala Pulford (Western Victoria), Lisa Neville (Bellarine), Richard Wynne (Richmond), and Martin Foley (Albert Park). Those last two inner city seats have long been eyed off by the Greens, and with high-profile MPs leaving, this time could be their best chance yet.  

On the Coalition side, the most notable departure is former Deputy Nationals Leader Steph Ryan, who leaves her regional seat of Euroa. 

On the arrivals side, an interesting sideshow is that of the previously blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Hawthorn, which was held by Coalition frontbencher John Pessuto, who lost the seat in 2018 to little known John Kennedy.  

Pessuto, who dramatically watched his seat slip away from him on national TV on election night in 2018, is having another crack at his old seat, and is being touted by many as the natural successor to Matt Guy as the next Liberal leader, should he get up, and the overall election result goes the way many are expecting. 

THE TEAL, CANBERRA INFLUENCE

At the last state election, the early relative unpopularity of Scott Morrison did no harm to the Labor side and was a contributing factor to the size of the Liberal defeat. This time around, with a newly elected Albanese Labor Government in Canberra, and one that hasn’t ruffled too many feathers yet, one would expect the Canberra influence to be less than it was last time. 

While there has been less focus on the size of the ‘teal’ independent vote than in this year’s federal election, there are several independents giving it a red-hot go. In the inner east, seats like Caulfield, held by Deputy Liberal Leader David Southwick, and Kew – where Tim Smith has literally driven himself out of contention – are both chances to fall to independents, but could also fall to the Labor candidate, such is the disillusion with the brand in what was once Liberal heartland. 

Over in the west, independents are making a significant play in the seats of Point Cook and Melton. Point Cook is a new seat, taking up the old seat of Altona, which was previously held by the retiring Jill Hennessy. Joe Garra, a local GP, who nabbed 20 per cent of the primary vote at the last election in the neighbouring seat of Werribee, is having another crack, this time in Point Cook.  

In neighbouring Melton, held by Labor’s Steve McGhie, the incumbent is facing a threat from an independent candidate, Dr Ian Birchall, who scored 10 per cent of the primary vote at the last poll, albeit with a campaign that only really launched in the weeks leading up to polling day. With a longer run at it this time, he is expected to do well, and much like Garra in Point Cook, with a central message that infrastructure has not kept pace with suburban population growth, is looking to benefit from local frustration with health and public transport services.  

There is also a school of thought that it is these outer suburbs that felt the sting of some of the COVID restrictions the most, and that this may give rise to an anti-Labor vote. 

GETTING TO 45

With 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly, 45 is the magic number at which a party can form government. In 2018, Labor won 55, doubling the take of the Liberal National Coalition which nabbed 27. Three seats went to the Greens, and a further three went to join independents Russell Northe (Morwell), Suzanna Sheed (Shepparton) and Ali Cupper (Mildura). 

After a redistribution, Labor has a notional 57 seats, while the Coalition slips from 27 to 26. Hastings and Ripon both flip from being a Liberal seat to being notionally Labor, while Bayswater and Bass go the other way – flipping from Labor to Liberal. The seat of Morwell, held by the retiring independent Northe, also flips to the Labor column. 

While election night is unlikely to be as clear cut as it was in 2018 – one expects that Labor will be returned comfortably. While not impossible, it is hard to see how the Coalition can get to 45, or anywhere near it.  

The only thing potentially stopping an early victory party for Labor will be if the independents and Greens push hard and make a minority government a prospect. 

But at this stage, and but for a serious tightening in polls between now and 26 November that seems unlikely.  

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