Victorian election: Labor triumph or Coalition disaster – or neither?

Victorian premier-elect Daniel Andrews and his colleagues now have the chance to demonstrate unity, discipline and functionality to a swinging electorate. AAP/Joe Castro

After Daniel Andrews and Labor’s decisive victory in the Victorian state election at the weekend, there has been – not unexpectedly – a welter of post-election opinion trying to account for the rather unusual outcome in which a government was tipped from office after only one term.

In these analyses, the federal government has loomed large as a target. This suits Labor, which hopes to replicate the Victorian outcome at the next federal contest. But it also suits the Victorian Liberals, who would rather blame their New South Wales-based federal counterparts for this spectacular failure.

With the exception of the seat of Shepparton – where Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s insensitive comments about workers at the SPC Ardmona food processing plant clearly helped re-align former National voters to the independent candidate – it is doubtful that the Victorian outcome was profoundly influenced by Abbott and his federal colleagues. Opinion polling showed that the Victorian coalition government was losing support from the moment it came to office in 2010 and this trend did not alter.

The causes of the result were essentially Victorian. The Liberal government lost its first leader, Ted Baillieu, amid intrigues about a leadership challenge. Into the breach stepped the avuncular but not particularly inspiring Denis Napthine.

Far from solving the internal tensions, Baillieu’s departure seemed to indicate that the rogue Liberal-turned-independent member for the marginal seat of Frankston, Geoff Shaw, had a taste for upsetting the operation of his (now former) party and he was prepared to go on with it.

Angry about being pursued for allegedly misusing parliamentary entitlements, Shaw proceeded to pursue his former Liberal comrades in retaliation. On at least two occasions he threatened to bring down the government. Shaw was able to add the scalps of lower house speaker Ken Smith and corrective services minister Andrew McIntosh – both forced to resign – to that of Baillieu.

With friends like this, the Liberal Party hardly needed enemies.

Policy challenges

The Liberal and National parties now have four years to reflect on their lost opportunity. Labor returns to government with a narrow majority and possibly facing an upper house in which the balance of power will be held by minor parties of the left (especially the Greens) and populist and socially conservative parties of the right.

The policy themes discussed during the campaign were standard Labor promises. This included putting more resources into the public sector and trying to alleviate the industrial hostility in the emergency services sector left behind by the Napthine government.

Arguably the most contentious matter to arise from the campaign was the question of transport policy. Both sides committed themselves to infrastructure projects. The major point of difference, however, was over the proposed East West Link between the Eastern and Tullamarine freeways by way of a tunnel to be constructed under the inner-city suburbs of Collingwood and Parkville.

These suburbs are part of the state seat of Melbourne – the epicentre of concentrated support for the Greens. That may have led to the formerly Labor stronghold potentially being lost.

Alert to the electoral problem and anxious to attack the Coalition for the way it approached building the tunnel, Labor changed its policy from initially saying that it would honour any construction contract entered in to by the Coalition to instead taking a “no tunnel” position. This was a high-risk strategy for Labor. The policy shift was roundly condemned by business interests and at least one of the state’s two daily newspapers as irresponsible and a poor signal to send to investors.

The election result, however, vindicated Labor’s strategy. Andrews can at least expect that the parliament – including the upper house, with what might be a phalanx of Greens – will support him in any legislative exercise to extricate Victoria from whatever contracts the former government signed.

A complex upper house

The make-up of the Legislative Council will take some time to determine, but the key feature of the Victorian upper house election was that it replicated the voting behaviour of last year’s Senate election.

Both major parties have lost ground to the minor parties of the left and right. The re-alignment of former Labor voters to the Greens continued in this election. It seems that the Sex Party also took votes away. The Coalition has lost significant support in rural districts to the plethora of socially conservative and right-wing populist parties.

These parties will have the balance of power in the upper house, but this may not really matter to Labor as it has a lower house majority. The removal of the Legislative Council’s ability to block supply was one of the main consequences of the reform of the Victorian constitution in 2003. To become law, an appropriation bill need only pass the Legislative Assembly.

Even on other legislative matters, the new government has some constitutional tools at its disposal to try to get its way, although negotiation and bargaining will still be the order of the day. After Andrews, the next most important person in the government could well be Gavin Jennings, who will lead the government in the Legislative Council and will be the negotiator-in-chief.

Labor is at the beginning of a guaranteed four-year term that can’t be disrupted by external forces. Andrews and his colleagues have the chance to demonstrate unity, discipline and functionality to a Victorian electorate whose swinging voters have shown that they value this above promises, circuses and vilifying opponents.

The Liberals, meanwhile, will have to undertake the painful task of rejuvenation. The National Party needs to re-connect with its constituents, lest the oft-made claim that Victoria really is something of a naturally Labor state proves to be true.