The Jeff Kennett will-o’-the-wisp came and went before I had the opportunity to comment on it. Long-time Kennett antagonist Stephen Mayne surveyed the damage in today’s Crikey email:
Late this morning, after less than a day of frenzied speculation, Jeff Kennett formally withdrew from the Victorian Liberal Party leadership race. Which is the worst possible outcome for the state opposition and leaves them almost certain to go further backwards at the 25 November election. Rather than someone like Ted Baillieu emerging as the consensus great white hope after Robert Doyle’s resignation yesterday, the electorate now knows that most Liberal powerbrokers believe he was a worse alternative than recycling a controversial premier. For the Labor Party of course, he’s a much better alternative – to fend off Jeff, they might have needed to dig into their cash pit with a well-resourced scare campaign. With Baillieu, the Bracks spin machine will hardly need to get out of second gear, let along go into overdraft, to retain office. Imagine the scenario if Jeff had come out yesterday and immediately ruled out a comeback on the basis that Ted Baillieu would make an outstanding Premier. Instead, we had all this frenzied expectation – and now nothing more than deflation.
Crikey also underlined the overwhelming consensus that Kennett’s return would have done little if anything to avert another Coalition disaster at the coming election (to say nothing of the absurdity of the proposal that he lead the party in the meantime from outside parliament). Allow me to add my voice to the throng. The common Liberal complaint that the 1999 election result was a "protest vote that went too far" is revealing more for its arrogance than its insight. The theory should have been laid to rest four weeks later by the Frankston East supplementary election, held because the sitting Liberal member died on the eve of polling day. Voters on the day knew perfectly well that a "protest vote" would sign the death warrant of the Kennett government, but they nevertheless delivered the seat to Labor with a swing of more than 7 per cent.
Kennett’s approach to the election campaign suggested that he saw it as an opportunity to build his Melbourne-centric personality cult, and to rub his enemies’ noses in what he saw as a looming triumph. This manifested itself in a number of ways in the "Jeff’s a fuckin’ legend" pitch at the demographic of Formula One and Triple M, the latter of which was given regular access to the Premier while the ABC was snubbed; in the energy directed at winning the normally safe Labor seats in Dandenong that had been made temporarily marginal by the 1992 and 1996 elections, while the Coalition’s own marginals were neglected; and worst of all, in Kennett’s petulant performance on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio program three days before the election. Kennett presumably imagined that this would only be heard by un-Victorian basket-weaving leftists, but the footage that appeared on that night’s television news bulletins did incalculable damage to his image, particularly in the country. All the while Labor was making hay with its devastating advertisements on country television depicting two taps, one dripping slowly and marked "country Victoria", the other gushing freely and marked "Melbourne". It is unlikely that country Victoria has forgotten what it perceived to be its neglect at the hands of a Kennett government fixated on bread and circuses in the capital. In failing to recognise this, Kennett’s boosters are showing the same short-sightedness that proved so costly in 1999.
There is no objective reason why the result of the 1999 election should have come as such a shock. The late opinion polls were mostly on the money, with Newspoll and Morgan correctly indicating a dead-heat and only ACNielsen erring in favour of the Coalition. The sense of surprise can be put down to the Melbourne media’s assumption that the election would be won and lost in the traditional battlefield of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Instead, swings in the country of up to 10 per cent delivered wins to Labor that few had seen coming, including Gisborne, Ripon, Seymour, Narracan and Ballarat East. The following table indicates geographic variations in the swing to Labor at the 1999 and 2002 elections using the newly created regions for the upper house. The methodology for the calculations was a bit slapdash, but the results are useful for illustrative purposes.
It can clearly be seen that the country gave the Coalition its worst results in 1999 and its best results (relatively speaking) in 2002. This has left a fair bit of low-hanging fruit for them in the country, specifically Evelyn, Hastings and Gembrook (all held by margins of less than 2 per cent) (UPDATE: and all arguably outer urban, as noted by commenter Geoff R) along with Morwell (4.9 per cent) and South Barwon (5.0 per cent). The recovery of these seats is essential to any kind of respectable performance, and would most likely be jeopardised in the event of a Kennett comeback. If the Coalition is to go further and actually put the Bracks government in jeopardy, there are a further eight country seats it must win that are held by margins of between 6.8 per cent and 9.5 per cent, and these would surely be beyond Kennett’s powers.
On the other hand, Kennett might have strengthened the Liberals’ position in 11 Melbourne seats with margins of between 2.1 per cent and 5.8 per cent, all of which are located east or south-east of the city. If Kennett had inspired a swing of 5 per cent to 6 per cent in these areas that was not reciprocated elsewhere, he could have added a respectability to the scoreboard out of proportion with the overall statewide swing. Such a result would have reflected the outcome of the 1996 election, when Labor failed to yield dividends from a 2.8 per cent swing due to another poor performance in the eastern suburbs. This concealed the Coalition’s weakened position and contributed to an exaggerated perception of Kennett’s electoral record.
An unrelated point on the Liberal leadership: earlier this week I received an email from an ABC reporter in Melbourne looking to pick my brain regarding Tuesday’s Newspoll, which showed Steve Bracks leading Robert Doyle 60 per cent to 15 per cent as preferred Premier. In particular, he wanted to know what became of other leaders who had polled this badly. One encouraging precedent for Doyle came to mind, namely Queensland Nationals Leader Rob Borbidge. Going into the 1995 election, Morgan had Labor Premier Wayne Goss leading Borbidge 70 per cent to 17 per cent (in February), 72 per cent to 15 per cent (April) and 74 per cent to 16 per cent (June). Then came the election on July 15, at which the Coalition outpolled Labor 53.3 per cent to 46.7 per cent on two-party preferred. Six months and one by-election later, Borbidge was Premier. The most widely credited factor in this surprise outcome? The Goss government’s insistence on proceeding with a hugely unpopular toll road. Perhaps Doyle should have hung in there after all.
In other news, the elections for the Tasmanian Legislative Council districts of Rowallan and Wellington will be held tomorrow, though neither is likely to be of much interest unless the Greens or Hobart alderman Marti Zucco can pull a rabbit out of the hat in Wellington. This site will provide some sort of live coverage, although it remains to be seen whether my trade-mark results tables and swing calculations will prove feasible.