The political challenge of a divided electorate

By John Pesutto
Victoria’s Shadow Attorney General from 2014 to 2018; Senior Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government.

The Australian federal election result not only defied predictions by pollsters through to most commentators, it highlighted a number of emerging fault lines in Australian politics that have been fomenting for some time.

And while there are common themes across the country, Victoria is instructive in the evolution of what are very different political environments that all parties and candidates will need to better understand when contesting future elections.

The outcome is fascinating because, depending on what part of the state you are talking about, the swings were countervailing.

Take some of Labor’s safer areas. In seven Labor seats, six of which have always been safe territory for Labor, there were swings to the Liberal Party. All but two of these seats (Holt and Hotham, in Melbourne’s south east) are in the western suburbs and outer suburban precincts of Melbourne. Despite such swings, these seats remain quite safe for the Labor Party. For example, Gorton saw a 3% swing to the Liberal Party but is held with a margin of 15.5% while Fraser experienced a 5% swing to the Liberal Party but is held with a margin of 14.2%.

In four Liberal held seats, including the outer suburban electorates of Aston, Casey and Latrobe, there were also swings to the Liberal Party.

Apart from Corangamite and Dunkley, which became notional Labor seats after the most recent redistribution, Labor won no additional Victorian seats.

On the other hand, Labor generally fared better in inner eastern and south eastern areas of Melbourne across traditionally safe Liberal seats, including Higgins and Goldstein where it achieved swings of between five and six per cent. In Kooyong its campaign saw it come third after the Greens.

Labor and the Greens (but to a lesser extent) would have reason to be pleased about their performance in other inner metropolitan races. There was a sizable swing to Labor in Cooper (13.4%) with smaller swings in MacNamara (5%) and Wills (3.4%). In Melbourne the Greens, assisted by the withdrawal of Labor’s candidate, picked up a 2.9% swing.

In regional electorates, swings varied again depending on the seat. But generally, the swings either way were more contained.

Ultimately, there were two party preferred swings to the Coalition in every state except Victoria, ranging from 0.97% in Western Australia to 3.57% and 3.88% in Queensland and Tasmania, respectively. Victoria recorded a swing against the Coalition of 0.33% which brought the national swing to the Coalition down to 1.22%.

The Victorian result demonstrates that there are at least four key contested sectors that each party will need to manage: inner city areas, Melbourne’s west and north west, other suburban and outer suburban areas, and regional areas. I separate Melbourne’s west and north west, because although many are safe Labor seats, they’re not going to be uncontested forever.

Much has been written about the importance that educational attainment, income and faith play in voting intentions. There can be little doubt that to varying degrees these factors explain why there were swings to the Liberal Party in outer suburban areas despite all the Coalition’s challenges in the last term.

Drilling down into these factors, it’s important to recognise the significance of amenity, accessibility and connectivity to communities in non-metropolitan areas.

These factors play an enormous role. Among many other things, proximity to the city comes with better public transport, less time generally on the road stuck in traffic and easier access to jobs and services. Whatever else a campaign needs to focus on, if these immediate concerns are not adequately addressed in a party’s campaign platform, this election stands as a clear lesson in what you can expect.

That’s why in Labor’s safer seats in the west of Melbourne that saw swings to the Liberal Party, you can expect to see more of a contest in the years ahead. While close races across those seats may be some way off, the medium to long term aim in Liberal circles will be to emulate the Howard Government’s foothold in western Sydney after the 1996 election.

Conversely, efforts by Labor Party and the Greens in traditionally safe Liberal areas across Melbourne’s east and south east will only intensify.

All parties will need to be far more conscious of these regional dynamics, more so than they ever have before. Certainly for the two major parties the imperative will be to settle on a consistent message that addresses immediate concerns for voters - jobs, taxes, infrastructure, superannuation - as much as it will need to respond to other important issues such as the environment.

You can do that successfully so long as you explain why it’s being done. But a party will err if it tries to walk both sides of the street, so being faithful to your overall theme is a superior strategy.

Image credit: Getty Images


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