Electoral and historical background
The election to be held on November 24 will be the first since Daniel Andrews led Labor back to power in 2014, but it follows a long period of Labor dominance that began with Steve Bracks' unexpected election victory in 1999, and was interrupted only by the narrow victory of what proved to be a one-term Coalition government in 2010. The era of Labor ascendancy can alternatively be traced to John Cain's victory in 1982, the first of seven Labor successes over the ten elections to follow.
Labor's dominance marks a dramatic change in a state once described by Bob Menzies as the “jewel in the crown” of the Liberal Party. Only once prior to 1982 did Labor win a majority in a state election, that being under the leadership of John Cain senior in 1952. The fractious state of conservative politics enabled Labor to form a number of minority governments before this time, but most were short-lived, the most durable having been under Cain from 1945 to 1947, and Edmond Hogan from 1929 to 1932.
The Victorian branch of the ALP was central to the events of the party split of 1954/55, which precipitated the fall of Cain's government in parliament and a sweeping victory for the Liberals under Henry Bolte in the election that followed in May 1955. This heralded over two decades of dismal performance by Labor in Victoria, at both state and federal level. Gough Whitlam to spearhead an intervention into its affairs in 1970, reflecting a view that the hard Left unions who had dominated the party after the split were damaging the party electorally.
The intervention did not immediately produce dividends at state level, with the Coalition government seemingly rejuvenated after Henry Bolte passed the leadership baton to Rupert Hamer in 1972. Three more election victories followed, but Hamer's last win in 1979 was accompanied by a swing that gave Labor far its best performance since the split. At the next election in 1982, Hamer had been succeeded on his retirement by Lindsay Thompson, Labor was under the leadership of John Cain junior, the son of its last Premier, and Coalition fortunes were sagging around the country as recession loomed. The result was a sweeping victory for Labor, and the end to 27 years in opposition.
The new government abolished the rural malapportionment Bolte had introduced in 1965, and in doing so established the countours of electoral competition that remain familiar today. In particular, a string of marginal seats either on or near Melbourne's south-eastern bayside, known in political folklore as the “sandbelt”, form a collective bellwether that has indicated the outcome of most elections over at least the last four decades, and decided those that have been particularly close. Such was the case when the seats of Bentleigh, Mordialloc, Carrum and Frankston were all gained by the Coalition when it secured a two-seat majority in 2010, then equally decisively moved back to Labor in 2014.
The one exception to sandbelt determinism came when Steve Bracks led Labor into minority government in 1999, ending the Coalition's two-term reign under Jeff Kennett. The decisive factor on that occasion was Labor's unexpected haul of seven seats in regional Victoria, reflecting its perceived neglect by the Kennett government, and perhaps also by a media that failed to see the backlash coming. It also solidified Labor's relatively strong position in Victoria's regions as compared with other states, with Labor coming to dominate the once marginal state and federal seats covered by Ballarat and Bendigo.
The four sandbelt seats were Labor's only clear gains of the 2014 election, although a further four seats were retained that had been made notionally Liberal by the redistribution (a fifth such seat, the country electorate of Ripon, was won by the Liberals). Labor also won two new seats on Melbourne's fringes in the north (Sunbury) and west (Werribee), for which room was provided by the abolition of Liberal-held Doncaster in Melbourne's eastern suburbs and a Nationals seat in the state's north-west, where Swan Hill and Rodney were effectively merged into Murray Plains.
To be in a position to form government after the election, the Coalition will at a bare minimum need to gain six seats from Labor, at which point they might form a minority goverment with support from Shepparton independent Suzanna Sheed, assuming she is re-elected. Beyond the four sandbelt seats, the most likely prospects are mostly on the metropolitan fringes, where Cranbourne, Eltham, Yan Yean, Macedon, Sunbury, Narre Warren North and Narre Warren South can only be won on swings of less than 6%. Closer to the city are Ivanhoe, which lies on the faultline between Melbourne's Labor-voting north and Liberal-voting east; Alfred Park, which Labor has held since 1950, but has lately been trending to the Liberals; and Prahran, where the Greens' win in 2014 might prove to have been a one-off (albeit that Labor are in contention here as well).
For Labor part, its majority wore down to one seat after Melton MP Don Nardella was forced out of the party over an expenses scandal in March 2017, and Northcote was lost to the Greens at a by-election the following November. Melton will surely return to the Labor fold at the election, but there remains the risk that a further expansion of the Greens' inner-city empire will cost the goverment its majority even without losses to the Coalition. Labor seem particularly at risk in Brunswick, which incumbent Jane Garrett is abandoning for a safe berth in the upper house, and the Greens have long been breathing down Labor's neck in Richmond.
Labor in government
Labor has enjoyed remarkable stability in its leadership arrangements, with the last event recognisable as a challenge being Steve Bracks' takeover from John Brumby in March 1999, and even that was resolved by Brumby agreeing to stand aside. Brumby eventually became Premier when Bracks resigned in July 2007, and would himself resign after leading the party to defeat in November 2010. Daniel Andrews then emerged as leader after the support of the normally dominant Right failed to coalesce behind a single candidate, while the Left fell in behind Andrews ahead of rival claimant Jacinta Allan.
While the government has enjoyed sustained growth and a strong budgetary position in its four years of office, it has also been weighed down by more than its share of scandals. Rising Right faction powerbroker Adem Somyurek was dumped from cabinet in May 2015 after being accused of bullying and manhandling his female former chief-of-staff, just as the government was launching its royal commission into family violence. Steve Herbert quit the ministry in late 2016, and soon after the Legislative Council, after it emerged he had used his ministerial chaffeur to transport his dogs. Shortly after, Telmo Languiller lost his position as Speaker for misuing a parliamentary allowance intended for regional MPs to maintain a second home in Melbourne.
A particularly ill-timed embarrassment arose in March, when an ombudsman's report found twenty-one Labor MPs had breached guidelines in employing campaign organisers as electorate officers before the 2014 election, resulting in the misuse of $388,000 in public funding. The matter became known as the “red shirt rort”, in honour of the t-shirts worn by Labor campaigners. As of October the matter was the subject of a fraud squad investigation, with those concerned refusing to be interviewed in accordance with legal advice. Police Commissioner Graham Ashton told the media at this time the investigation was likely to be concluded before the election.
Perhaps the most difficult political issue the goverment has faced has been African gangs, helped along by federal Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton's famous assertion that the danger had left Melburnians “scared to go out to restaurants”. A series of incidents involving black youths generated a high pitch of media attention, and accompanying cultural warfare between a left that claimed the incidents had received exposure out of proportion to their significance, and a right that claimed a politically correct government was putting the community at risk. Opinion polls suggested the latter viewpoint carried enough weight to make the government vulnerable over the issue.
The government also alienated many country voters by siding with the United Firefighters Union in a dispute with the Country Fire Authority over an enterprise bargaining agreement, which critics say grants the union a large measure of operational control over an agency that relies heavily on volunteers. The political impact was sharpened first by the timing, since the issue erupted on the eve of the July 2016 federal election, and secondly by the determination of Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett to take the side of the CFA. Persisting in this position after cabinet backed Fair Work Commission recommendations that largely supported the union's claim, Garrett chose to resign.
Garrett persisted as a difficulty for the government through her determination to find a safer seat than her existing home of Brunswick. The Greens were increasingly looming as a threat in the seat, and Garrett further faced the prospect of campaigning against her by unions angered by her handling of the CFA dispute. Her bid for an upper house position in Western Metropolitan region precipitated a split between the unions that backed her, styled the Industrial Left, and the remainder of the Socialist Left. The latter was resolute in its determination that the position should go to Australian Services Union state secretary Ingrid Stitt, leaving Garrett casting around for an alternative berth, which she eventually found in the Eastern Victoria upper house region.
In the meantime, the internal unity of the Right was increasingly fractured by the rise of Adem Somyurek, who was little hampered by his dumping from cabinet. Somyurek was seen to be gaining influence in the faction at the expense of the more established Stephen Conroy, whose sway was diminishing with the end of his parliamentary career. Somyurek flexed his muscles by pursuing a new power-sharing arrangement with the Industrial Left, supplanting the “stability pact” that had long prevailed between the Right and the forces of the Socialist Left associated with Senator Kim Carr.
Coalition in opposition
The Liberals have at least had a stable four years so far as the party leadership has been concerned, with Matthew Guy maintaining the position he attained in the wake of the 2014 election defeat and the resignation of Denis Napthine. Guy was a new arrival in the Legislative Assembly after the election, having previously served since 2006 in the upper house region of Western Metropolitan. After serving as Planning Minister through the period of the Baillieu-Napthine goverment, he emerged victorious in the post-election leadership ballot ahead of the former Treasurer, Michael O'Brien.
Beneath the outward picture of stability, the Victorian Liberals have endured factional ructions and controversies surrounding the party's administrative wing, which have at times undermined Guy's authority. Guy has had a difficult relationship with the state party's influential president, Michael Kroger, having backed the challenge Peter Reith mounted against him before he withdrew on health grounds. Kroger has courted the party's increasingly assertive conservative tendency, and in particular the emerging young numbers man of the Right, Marcus Bastiaan. Such tensions have formed the backdrop to a series of preselections, which have tended to thwart Guy's push for greater representation of women.
Guy has also grappled with a number of legacies of his stint as Planning Minister, notably a backflip on a decision to allow housing development on Phillip Island. This was settled with a $2.5 million payout to the developer, which Guy appeared to acknowledge was politically motivated in a confidential document. However, Labor's pursuit backfired in early September when 80,000 pages of documents it tabled in parliament turned out to include unredacted personal details concerning individuals' private affairs. Another source of embarrassment for Guy was a seafood dinner he attended with alleged mafia boss Tony Madafferi as part of party fundraising endeavours. Guy's insistence he did not know Madafferi would be present did little to diminish the enthusiasm of the government or the media for what became known as the “lobster with a mobster” affair.
Minor parties and independents
A feature of the 2014 election was the revitalisation of the Legislative Assembly cross bench, the 2010 result having been the first federal or state election since 1993 that failed to return any minor party or independent members. After consistingly falling short in inner-city seats where they had threatened Labor since 2002, the Greens finally achieved breakthroughs not only against Labor in their stronghold seat of Melbourne, but also against the Liberals in the seat of Prahran, albeit by the barest of margins.
The Greens also won five seats in the upper house in 2014, their best ever result, and have since gained a third lower house seat with their win in the Northcote by-election of November 2017. The parliamentary line-up has been further renewed with the retirements in late 2017 and early 2018 of two upper house veterans of over a decade, Greg Barber and Colleen Hartland. Their successors are Samantha Ratnam and Huong Truong, the former of whom was immediately elevated to the party leadership.
The other cross-bench newcomer in the lower house was Suzanna Sheed, an independent who poached the seat of Shepparton on the retirement of a sitting Nationals member. Regional independents had been a feature of the late Kennett and early Bracks years, with three hostile cross-benchers in naturally conservative seats proving instrumental to Kennett's loss of power in 1999. However, the three were progressively unseated at the elections of 2002, 2006 and 2010. Sheed was joined throughout the term by another two independents, one of whom was evicted by the ALP after an expenses claim scandal and will not reconstest his seat. The other, Morwell MP Russell Northe, quit the Nationals in November 2017, citing problems with depression and gambling. It remained unclear if he would seek re-election as the campaign began.
The 2014 election was also the one at which the micro-party revolution arrived in Victoria, courtesy of an upper house electoral system that retains the group ticket voting that was abolished for the Senate in 2016. Inspired by the extraordinary Senate results of 2013, the election attracted a mass of new parties who gouged votes from the Coalition, Labor and the Greens, and proved characteristically disciplined in swapping preferences. The five who were elected included two from Shooters Fishers and Farmers members; one from the Sex Party, since rebadged the Reason Party; one from Vote 1 Local Jobs, the vehicle for James Purcell; and Rachel Carling-Jenkins, who was elected for the DLP, defected to Australian Conservatives in June 2017, and ultimately quit to sit as an independent in August. Purcell and Carling-Jenkins will both contest lower house seats at the election, respectively South-West Coast and Werribee.