A different election, but a familiar result.
Despite grand predictions of a Labor retreat, the government has maintained a strong majority in the Victorian parliament.
Questions of integrity and the premier’s popularity dominated the hostile campaign period, but Labor stuck to its policy guns — it went directly to voters and worried less about the media.
There was a swing against the government – 3.5 per cent (two-party preferred) across the state – but the heaviest backlash was in Melbourne’s northern and western outer suburbs, where Labor suffered a 6.7 per cent swing.
Oft described as Labor’s heartland, the party must now address why voters in these suburbs have turned away.
Luckily for Labor it had enough fat to withstand the trim, and it says it heard the message.
These are traditionally working-class areas, highly diverse and hit hard by COVID. Make no mistake, this was an election triumph for Labor, but there is room for improvement.
That should worry the opposition, especially the Victorian Liberal Party.
Once again, it has had a stinker.
No matter the spin (the defeated Matthew Guy highlighted “the respectable state-wide two-party preferred swing to the Coalition of 3 to 4 per cent”) the Liberals were still belted on the seats won.
And in an election, that’s the only statistic that matters.
Liberal brand ‘damaged’
This is not an unfamiliar discussion.
Four years on from the soul-searching of the 2018 annihilation under Guy, the Liberal Party is wondering again what went so badly wrong.
The problems are much, much deeper than who leads the party. Liberals concede the whole party needs to be reformed and rejoin mainstream Victoria.
“We are seen to be representing the fringe,” one senior figure said.
It was clearly an issue the Coalition was aware of.
During the campaign, Guy moved to assure Victorians the Coalition was “sensible”, and in the last week, he said controversial candidate Renee Heath wouldn’t be welcome in the party room.
Despite Guy’s wishes, she’s been elected and there’s nothing stopping her from being a Liberal MP — it is a matter for the party room when it meets.
“We are dysfunctional, and we are a damaged as a brand. At federal level and at state,” another Liberal figure said.
“We’ve been given a message at consecutive state and federal elections, and we haven’t listened.”
A warning to modernise
Liberals worry that too often the party is caught out in culture wars and that the views of branch members are out of step with Victorians searching for a viable opposition.
In sport, if a team constantly fails to play finals, the playing list is overhauled.
The Liberals have achieved some renewal, with new MPs such as Jess Wilson in Kew and Sam Groth in Nepean (the only seat it has gained), but the party room continues to have MPs who have spent nearly all their careers on the opposition benches.
Structurally the Liberals may crow about in-roads in the outer suburbs, but the party is still miles off winning those seats.
It lost ground in eastern Melbourne among educated, wealthier and younger voters – several MPs lamented that only one in five young people were backing the party.
Liberals say they must modernise and connect with the communities.
On ABC radio, leadership aspirant Brad Battin told his colleagues to engage more with their colleagues, and not just rely on social media interactions.
Too many Liberal MPs were convinced they’d win the election because people on the street told them they hated Daniel Andrews. It was a self-perpetuating prophecy.
Many know that this election needs to be a line in the sand for the Liberals, and there’s palpable anger that the party, despite making the right noises, didn’t learn from previous mistakes.
Challenge to find a leader remains
The harder-nosed Liberals knew this election was always going to be a challenge. Guy likened it to scaling Mount Everest in a blizzard.
The hope was that a decent climb in 2022 that saw the party pick up seats and reduce the margin would put the Coalition in good stead for 2026.
But the Liberals didn’t even make base camp. On paper, another Everest looms in four years’ time.
For the party, this is the most depressing fact.
Guy has confirmed he will stand down and the Liberals must now find a new leader.
“It’s a burning car, who would want to get in,” lamented one Liberal.
But quite a few are considering. Louise Staley won’t be one of them after losing Ripon, but Battin, Ryan Smith and Richard Riordan have been mulling a tilt.
Should John Pesutto win in Hawthorn he’s expected to throw his hat in the ring.
But despite some Liberals hoping he can be the party’s Messiah, it’s not a sure thing.
Upper house MP Matthew Bach is also in the mix, though his path to leadership would be more complicated as it would require a lower house vacancy to open up.
Aside from the premier and Labor, the other big winners were the Nationals. They’ve knocked off two country independent MPs and regained Morwell.
The party’s deliberate efforts to distance itself from Barnaby Joyce, federal branch’s climate scepticism, and to recruit women has paid dividends.
There are now more women than men in its team.
There is also an active discussion among the Nationals about whether its time to break up with Liberals, or at least have a trial separation.
It’s not unprecedented. The Nationals sat alone at the turn of the millennium before getting back together.
After eight years of pain, some in the Coalition say a change could be as good as a holiday.