The Sharp End
Labor Victory Far From Inevitable
by Ari Sharp
November 4, 2002
There's a newsclipping that is slowly yellowing on the pinboards of a variety of Victorian political figures. It's from 18 September, 1999, and the headlines reads "Last poll tips easy Kennett victory". It ran as a side column on the front page of The Age, running second fiddle to the most important news story of the day: the preliminary final between traditional rivals Essendon and Carlton. This was clearly dominating the thinking of most Melbournians, and also expected to be a much closer contest than the election.
Alas, the last poll was wrong and by the end of the year Victoria had a new Premier in Steve Bracks. Fast forward three years, and it seems history might repeat itself.
All opinion polling points to an easy Bracks re-election, riding on the wave of a high personal popularity, and the low profile of his Liberal opponent. The latest Morgan poll gives the ALP a 55.5-44.5 lead in a two party preferred count. However, when the electoral situation is considered a little more closely, it seems that a Labor victory is far from inevitable.
Already the Labor party is a minority government, holding 44 of the 88 Legislative Assembly seats and relying on the support of independents to form government. This has had a significant effect on the ability of the ALP to implement its agenda, and has forced it to be far more cautious than previous governments have been.
The effect of only holding exactly half the seats in parliament is that there is no room for the Labor party to concede ground and maintain government. This situation is worsened by the electoral redistribution since the last state election. The result of the redistribution is that three seats that were won by the ALP in 1999 are now notionally Liberal or National held. In effect, this means that if the votes cast in 1999 were cast with the new boundaries, the ALP would not be in government.
The outcome of this is that the ALP are a government who are notionally starting behind their Liberal opponents.
For the ALP to win a second term in office, they will be relying on a number of things going their way. The ALP are facing threats on three fronts - in regional Victoria, in eastern and southern Melbourne, and in the inner city. To win the election, it must be successful on at least two out three of these fronts:
Regional Victoria. The Labor victory in 1999 was on the back of a swathe of Labor victories in country seats which were long held by the Liberals or Nationals. The popular view is that these seats swung away from the conservatives in a rejection of Kennett's Melbourne-centric approach to government. The consequence now is that these voters who swung last election will need a good reason to stick with Bracks rather than revert back to their tradition party of support. It is doubtful that Bracks has done enough to hold on to these voters.
Eastern and southern Melbourne. These voters have stuck with the conservatives in both a state and federal elections since the early 1990s. In the 1999 election, the ALP won just won seat in eastern Melbourne - the seat of Mitcham (although it later won Jeff Kennett's old seat of Burwood in a byelection late in 1999). These voters are considered to be sceptical of the economic credentials of the ALP, and the memory of the Cain/Kirner legacy still lingers in this part of Melbourne. Whether the charm and 'new Labor' appeal of Bracks will win over these voters is yet to be seen.
Inner-city Melbourne. For the first time, Labor is facing a significant challenge in its heartland. The Greens have announced their intention to focus their campaign efforts on the districts of Melbourne, Brunswick, Richmond and Northcote, all of which are notionally safe Labor seats. With a strong flow of Liberal and minor party preferences, the Greens could potentially win one or more of these seats (remembering that in the recent Cunningham byelection - where admittedly there was no Liberal candidate - the Greens won the seat after winning just 23% of the primary vote). Even if the Greens fail to win these seats, it would force the ALP to devote resources to electorates that it would have otherwise taken for granted.
The political positioning required to achieve even two out of three of these objectives will be difficult for the ALP. By chasing the left vote in inner Melbourne, through a campaign focusing on environmentalism and social spending, the ALP may well isolate itself from the conservative aspirational vote in eastern Melbourne. In contrast, vocal public support for large-scale freeways in the outer suburbs may put the country vote off side, through the perception that Bracks is as Melbourne-centric as his Liberal predecessor.
Whether the Premier can successfully strike the balance required to satisfy each of these disparate groups is yet to be seen. His ability to achieve this will be crucial to determining whether he achieves a second term in government.
Ari Sharp was the Australian Democrats candidate for Kooyong in the 2001 Federal Election. This is his personal opinion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Democrats.