COVER STORY: Why the Liberals were wiped out in Victoria
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, December 14, 2002
Behind the hype and headlines surrounding the re-election of the Bracks Labor Government in Victoria, some important facts have been largely ignored.
In terms of seats won, the election result is accurately described as a landslide. But in terms of votes received, the ALP vote increased only 2.8 per cent on its vote in 1999, undoubtedly sufficient to get the ALP over the line, but not sufficient to explain Labor's gain of at least 16, and possibly 19 seats in the lower house, the Legislative Assembly, where governments are formed.
Nor does the increase in the ALP vote explain the size of the Liberals' loss. The Liberals lost a minimum of 16 seats as a result of the drop in their primary vote of around 8 per cent.
What happened to the missing votes? It appears that much of the decline in the Liberal vote went to the Greens, who also benefited from the virtual disappearance of the Australian Democrats.
Labor's win can be attributed, in part, to the performance of the Premier, Steve Bracks, who as leader of a minority government, did not carry through the more extreme initiatives which came from the ALP's libertarian left - such as heroin injecting rooms and legalisation of street prostitution - in the face of massive community opposition.
Since Bracks became Premier three years ago, he has expanded Jeff Kennett's huge taxpayer-funded PR machine, and over a three year period spent millions of dollars advertising his government's "achievements" in the fields of health, education and development.
The Liberals' demise can be attributed, in part, to the party's poor parliamentary performance over the past three years, and the legacy of the Kennett era (of which both the ALP and the Liberal Party thoughtfully reminded voters, by having Kennett feature in both ALP advertisements and at the Liberal policy launch).
Just three months before the election, the Parliamentary Liberal Party, with the encouragement of former State President and party power broker Michael Kroger, replaced the pleasant but ineffectual Dr. Denis Napthine with Robert Doyle.
Doyle, in his turn, installed his own "mates" into key positions in the Liberal leadership team, including Robert Dean as Shadow Treasurer.
The Liberal Party's campaign collapsed when Dean was ruled ineligible to nominate for the lower house seat of Berwick, because he had been removed from the electoral roll, as he was not living in the house where he had registered to vote.
In the ensuing scandal, it was alleged that Dean had never lived in the house in which he had enrolled, raising further questions about both the candidate and the Liberal Party. It was a blow from which the Liberals did not recover.
In most marginal seats, the Greens preferenced Labor, in exchange for a promise to end logging of "old growth" forests in the Otway Ranges in western Victoria, and at Goolengook Forest, in eastern Victoria.
Interestingly, in Polwarth, the seat covered by the Otway Ranges, the ALP's vote was just over 30 per cent, and that of the Greens 8 per cent.
The most extraordinary individual result was achieved in Mildura, where the highly principled Independent, Russell Savage, was returned with an absolute majority, despite a strong campaign against him by all other major parties. At the time of writing, both other Independents, Craig Ingram and Susan Davies, were also expected to be returned.
In eastern Victoria, there was a swing against the ALP in the safe Labor seat of Morwell, contested by the ALP's Brendan Jenkins, as a result of a strong local campaign by an organiser with the forestry union, Brad Platschinda.
The ALP primary vote in this seat fell from 54 down to 44 per cent, while Platschinda won 15 per cent, and almost toppled Jenkins when preferences were counted.
Apart from the ALP, the other winner was the National Party, under Peter Ryan, who successfully managed to hold his party's seats in rural Victoria by separating the VicNats from the Liberal Party and the Kennett legacy.
The Liberal Party unwittingly assisted this process by standing Liberal candidates in every National Party-held seat.
Both Labor and the Liberals attempted to cannibalise the National Party which successfully differentiated itself from the other parties, and survived with all its lower house seats intact, although it seems certain to lose two Legislative Council seats to the ALP.
The challenge for Mr Bracks, who in my view is not a strong leader, is whether he can keep the reins on a majority Labor Government, under pressure to pay back its union, feminist and radical left constituencies.
The Victorian Government has already foreshadowed upper house reform, to introduce proportional representation and four year terms for all Legislative Council members. There is a compelling case for fixed terms, as applies in New South Wales, rather than the present flexible three year minimum.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council