Victoria’s votes might just matter in this federal election

At a recent debate in the seat of Kooyong, the independent candidate Monique Ryan found a sure-fire way to rile the man she wants to unseat, Josh Frydenberg: she accused him of being the “treasurer for NSW”. The jibe stung Frydenberg because it harked back to his sustained attack on the Victorian Labor government during the state’s long periods of lockdown in 2020 and 2021, which more than a few Victorians took to be an indirect attack on them as well.

Ryan wasn’t the first to attach the appellation to Frydenberg, whose ambition to lead the Liberal Party is so vibrant that scientists should find a way to harness its power and feed it into the national energy grid. Frydenberg obviously felt it was unfair, but it possibly also upset him because it was a reminder that the days when Victoria was the centre of influence and authority within the Liberal Party are long gone.

Josh Frydenberg and independent challenger for the seat of Kooyong Monique Ryan.Credit:The Age

That’s a problem for a leadership aspirant. The last Victorian to lead the Liberals was Andrew Peacock, who handed over to John Hewson in 1990. Since then, its leaders have hailed from NSW, except for a brief, entertaining interlude when Alexander Downer headed the party.

Of the 14 federal elections since Malcolm Fraser’s second landslide victory in 1977, the Labor Party has won the majority of seats in Victoria 12 times. The Coalition took a majority in 1990 at a time when interest rates were through the roof and the Cain Labor government was self-immolating, and in 1996, as voters across the country fled the ALP under Paul Keating.

As a result of Labor’s lock on the state, it’s been a rare federal election where events in Victoria have been decisive nationally. One was 2016, when, against the national trend that saw the Turnbull government lose 14 seats, Liberal Julia Banks took the eastern suburban seat of Chisholm from the ALP. That win helped Malcolm Turnbull cling to office.

Given the nature of this election, which seems to be shaping up as dozens of hard-to-call byelections all being held simultaneously, it could be Victoria’s time to shine again. At the last election, Victorians did their bit to try to get Labor over the line, boosting the ALP’s seat haul by handing it Dunkley, based on Frankston, and Corangamite, on the Surf Coast.

The evidence of the 2019 election, bolstered by the polling since then, is that Scott Morrison is not liked by most Victorians. Anthony Albanese is tolerated rather than enthusiastically embraced as the alternative prime minister.

Focus group research involving interviews with voters during the campaign has noted a continued but not yet decisive drift away from the Labor Party among voters who do not have post-secondary qualifications. By contrast, voters in inner and middle suburbs, where education levels are higher, are more likely to either go with Labor or the so-called teal independents. The ALP is increasingly bullish about its chances in middle-class Higgins, a seat the Liberals have always held. But it’s nervous about places where there are large numbers of tradies, such as the peri-urban McEwen, north-east of the city, Corangamite and Dunkley. And possibly the new seat of Hawke, based on Sunbury, Melton and Bacchus Marsh, which is notionally safe for Labor.

As for the teals, if Liberal strongholds like Goldstein and Kooyong fall to independents, would they really line up to enable a minority Labor government given that their campaigns are more about protest and reform than wholesale change? It might be an apt expression of Victoria’s evolving political culture to see Melbourne’s middle-class, once the bedrock of decades of Liberal rule under Menzies, Holt, Gorton, and Fraser, denying a Coalition government a majority. And a sign that once again what happens in Victoria does matter.

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