Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his deputy Josh Frydenberg will hold crisis talks with Victorian federal MPs on Monday, after the rout of the Liberal Party in Saturday’s state election raised fears that up to six federal Coalition seats in and around Melbourne could be lost.
With the state Labor government of Daniel Andrews forecast to win 55 of the state’s 88 lower house seats following Saturday’s landslide, moderates, shocked at the scale of the swing towards Labor in safe inner-Melbourne seats, blamed the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull for contributing to the result.
They demanded the Morrison government change tack and dial back its hard-right approach to issues such as climate change.
Internally, the party was riven with bickering, with former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett demanding the resignation of his factional enemy and party president Michael Kroger.
Mr Morrison and Mr Frydenberg, the most senior Victorian Liberal, will use Monday’s meeting, which coincides with the resumption of Federal Parliament for the final fortnight this year, to call for calm and to stress the need for a unified message based on the strong economy and other policy achievements.
A significant contributor to Saturday’s result was state Labor’s relentless focus on transport, health and education and a superior campaign on the ground, in contrast to the Coalition leader Matthew Guy’s heavy focus on crime and terror to the exclusion of bread and butter issues.
The 6 percentage point primary swing to Labor swept up a swag of eastern suburbs Liberal seats not expected to be in play, such as Burwood, Box Hill, Mount Waverley and Ringwood.
It left Forrest Hill and the blue-chip inner-suburban seats Hawthorn, Caulfield and Brighton hanging in the balance. Undecided voters swung to Labor in the last days of the campaign, giving the party a likely 56 per cent share of the two-party preferred vote.
With 71 per cent of the vote counted, Labor had a certain 52 seats in the 88 seat Legislative Assembly and was expected to emerge with 55, up from 45 going into the election. The Coalition had a likely 28 seats, down from 37.
‘It is no longer the Menzies era’
The size of the swing and its strength in traditional Liberal seats had federal Liberals making comparisons to the October Wentworth byelection in which progressive Liberal voters turned on the party.
“They assured us Wentworth was unique,” said one Liberal moderate. “It seems like the state of Victoria is also unique.”
Writing in today’s The Australian Financial Review, Victorian Liberal senator Jane Hume said Liberals could no longer rely on guaranteeing economic prosperity but had to be less ideological towards climate change, social issues, crime and race.
“It is no longer the Menzies era, no longer the Howard era. Generating prosperity is an expectation, and on its own it is not enough to earn the right to govern,” she said.
“If we allow good policy to be infiltrated by even the perception of an ideological crusade, Labor will win the messaging war.”
She said an energy policy that lowered prices was “imperative” but “we underestimated our electorates; Victorians place a high value on their environment”.
Similarly with the right-wing attacks on the safe schools program to help children suffering with their sexuality.
“An education policy that focuses on outcomes, values teachers, provides choices and opportunities will always be compelling to voters. But our good policies were drowned by our ideological opposition to an anti-bullying program;” she said.
“We underestimated our electorates – parents want their kids to grow up kind as well as clever.”
Analysts on both sides agreed the bulk of the outcome was driven by state issues.
Premier Andrews outgunned Mr Guy in the presidential-style election, hammering home his government’s main campaign of “the things that really are of concern to hard-working families right across our state – jobs, skills, hospitals, schools, road, rail and the cost of living.”
Mr Andrews took aim at Mr Guy’s campaign and the federal coalition’s record of broken promises, saying Victorians had rejected “the negativity, the fear, the spite, that small brand of nasty politics” of Mr Guy’s campaign on youth gangs and terror “in record terms”.
“I think that what Victorians have shown is that they want a government that makes commitments and then gets on and delivers those commitments. To that extent I would have thought that a federal government that said they wouldn’t cut hospitals and wouldn’t cut schools and proceeded to do exactly that and to this day refuse to admit it – there’s a few lessons there for them I think.”
‘It’s an unmitigated disaster’
Liberal Party members reeled from the shock. “It’s an unmitigated disaster and no one should sugar-coat it. That’s how many many people feel. There is a huge measure of goodwill towards Matthew Guy but the campaign was a disaster,” said John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs and longtime Liberal Party member.
“The identity crisis that is engulfing the federal Liberal Party had now reached the Victorian Liberal Party. Are they going to keep arguing about what they believe in?”
The outcome puts the Coalition in a weak position from which to fight the next election and calls into question the decision to double down on crime and terror after the deadly Bourke Street terror attack.
“They talked about the cost of living and decentralisation but it was drowned out by law and order, and clearly it didn’t resonate and if anything seemed to have jarred with the Victorian community,” said Monash University political scientist Paul Strangio.
Labor held just one seat in the east before Saturday, Deputy Premier James Merlino’s seat on Monbulk. Voters in the eastern suburbs seats where Labor made ground said on Sunday it was all about roads, level crossing removals, hospitals, schools and police stations.
Meanwhile, in the Labor “sandbelt” marginals that were supposed to be in play – Bentleigh, Carrum, Mordialloc and Frankston – Labor won thumping swings of 9 per cent to 12 per cent.
Mr Frydenberg accepted the “noise” created by dumping Mr Turnbull was a hindrance while federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, one of the key assassins, played down any federal input into the result.
‘Liberals have lost the ability to speak Victorian’
Federal Victorian Labor MP Richard Marles said the Labor campaign deliberately used Mr Morrison, Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton in its advertising because party research showed them to be unpopular in Victoria and associated with dumping Mr Turnbull.
“It is really clear that the Liberals have lost the ability to speak Victorian. I mean the federal Liberals are toxic in Victoria,” he said.
He said in their quest to appeal to conservative voters, the party had alienated Victorians, “opened a huge flank in Victoria and put at risk such seats as Corangamite, Chisholm, La Trobe, Deakin, Dunkley, Aston, and Casey”.
A voter called John in the seat of Forrest Hill has three teenage children and normally votes Liberal but voted Labor this time because he says people are focused on liveability.
“Nunawading station got done, four weeks ago they said they would do level crossing removal and new stations at Surrey Hills and Mont Albert, a new police station in Forrest Hill and one planned for Burwood” he said.
“As soon as Guy came out and started rattling the sabre on crime and said we need to get back in control I thought he has lost, sack your campaign manager.”
A retired couple from Ringwood who vote Liberal were impressed at the infrastructure achievements of Mr Andrews.
“Everywhere you go there is work being done,” they said.
“In Heatherdale they have taken out the level crossing and put the rail under the road, the Ringwood station, shopping centre and pool has changed the whole environment, it’s unbelievable. The demographic is also unrecognisable from what it was with more young families.
“I think there is also a backlash against removing Turnbull. He was loved in Victoria.”
This article was originally published by the Australian Financial Review. Read the original article here.
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