The Victorian election result played out as expected. Successive opinion polls showed that the Labor government would be returned and Premier Daniel Andrews would start a second term. This duly occurred.
What was not expected, however, was the extent to which the Liberal Party’s vote collapsed.
The Coalition can be forgiven for thinking it was in with a chance to regain government after four years in opposition on Saturday. After all, Labor had been embarrassed earlier in its term in government with MPs having to resign due to misusing taxpayer resources as well as being embroiled in the ‘red shirts’ affair.
During the campaign, the Coalition sought to play to its strengths. Traditionally regarded as the better manager of law and order, the opposition focused on presenting an ever-growing suite of policy plans in this space throughout the campaign. So much so that, arguably, it crowded out its own policy announcements in other areas.
But focusing on the campaign alone to explain the election outcome is somewhat myopic. The Coalition’s seeds of destruction started soon after it lost government in 2014. Its financial woes were well-publicised, and it experienced a protracted and distracting dispute with the Cormack Foundation for control of vital campaigning funds. These issues undoubtedly hamstrung the party’s campaign strategy.
Liberal identity crisis
There were other elements, however, that couldn’t be addressed through financial security. Like its federal division, the Victorian Liberal Party appeared to be in the midst of an identity crisis for much of this parliamentary term. While it didn’t experience the internal instability that has been a hallmark of Canberra, and the party’s leadership remained stable, the Victorian Liberals began to shed their somewhat pragmatic approach focused on economic reform epitomised by the Kennett years.
The Liberal Party now has the unenviable title of being the natural party of opposition in Victoria.
In its place, this generation of Liberals has sought to emphasise socially conservative values and social and cultural identity. Often, this has been justified by the party on the grounds that it’s seeking to represent its base, which appears to be increasingly built around recruiting new members from religious congregations in Victoria.
But such an approach is often adopted by minor parties who seek to differentiate themselves from the major parties they identify as being too similar in broad social and economic policy.
Adopting this strategy is risky for a major party. First, it risks alienating voters who don’t share such a world view and are searching for a middle-of-the-road alternative major party to the incumbent government. Second, it drives away voters who may have once voted for the Liberal Party based on its focus on economic management and state services. Third, it unnecessarily puts the party in direct competition with a range of minor parties from the right, including the Democratic Labour Party.
The results speak for themselves. A depressively low primary vote, close calls and shock losses in traditional strongholds suggest the Liberal Party’s current strategy doesn’t work. By the time of the next election due in 2022, the party will have been out of government for 19 of the past 23 years. It now has the unenviable title of being the natural party of opposition in Victoria.
The Liberal Party has four years to reflect and reform. Regaining the seats lost on the weekend at the next election will be difficult but, with the general sense of unpredictability apparent in Australian politics in the current era, not impossible.