Labor MPs believe Daniel Andrews has been given a mandate for bold change. What will he do with it?

The Victorian Labor and Liberal parties face challenges over the next four years after a decisive election result

Despite predictions of a late swing to the Coalition and the possibility of minority government, Labor not only emphatically won the Victorian state election – it has outdone its 2018 “Danslide” result by one lower house seat.

The size of the victory, as well as the likelihood of a largely progressive crossbench in the upper house, provides Daniel Andrews with a mandate to tackle important reform. This includes scrapping group voting tickets and overhauling the criminal justice and child protection systems, which are being examined at public hearings by the nation’s first truth-telling inquiry, the Yoorrook Justice Commission.

Andrews did not shy away from the subject at a press conference to announce his new cabinet, vowing to devise a new, nation-leading child protection system to ensure fewer First Nations children are removed from their families.

Last year, one in nine Aboriginal babies were taken from their parents by the state in Victoria, more than double the national average, while one in 10 Aboriginal youth were in care.

“I called this out [at Labor’s first caucus meeting] as an area that is troubling, doesn’t sit well with any of us, and we’re going to do something,” Andrews said on Monday.

He also didn’t rule out “going it alone” on raising the age of criminal responsibility, though he would not say whether this would be to 12 or 14, the latter being recommended by the UN, legal and medical experts and children’s advocates.

Meanwhile, several Labor MPs told Guardian Australia they are keen to reform the state’s bail laws, which were introduced in 2017 to target violent men but disproportionately affect Aboriginal Victorians and women.

Among them is Veronica Nelson, a Yorta Yorta, Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung and Wiradjuri woman who died while on remand for shoplifting offences in January 2020.

The coroner is investigating Nelson’s death and the effects of the state’s bail laws, with findings expected to be released soon.

One MP, who asked not to be named so they could speak freely, said the government must immediately act on any findings regarding bail laws.

“If we don’t fix [the state’s bail laws] now then we never will,” the MP said. “We have the mandate, we have the time to get it done ahead of the next election, we have experts telling us it needs to be done, we just need to get on and do it.”

Another flagged the possibility of a royal commission into the issue: “That’s been the government’s modus operandi on these big, tough issues.”

Battle for the heartland

Andrews has said Labor needs to work on rebuilding trust in Melbourne’s northern and western suburbs, where the party saw swings of up to 15% away from it.

These areas were the hardest hit by the adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic, and are also lacking in the infrastructure to keep up with their population growth.

The swings in areas once considered Labor’s heartland were absorbed by huge margins. But the former Labor assistant state secretary Kos Samaras, who is now a pollster with RedBridge Group, says the party could be left vulnerable in 2026.

“This goes beyond the current term of this government and it was brewing there in the background, and we could see it particularly at a federal level, where Labor’s primary vote in the area has been declining since 2010,” Samaras says.

“Then the pandemic comes along and has begun to tip things over the edge. It’s had a devastating impact in so many ways that will last generations.”

Dr Geoffrey Robinson, a senior politics lecturer at Deakin University, says these seats are viewed by some in the party as “prizes for factional wheeling and dealing”, with MPs “parachuted in” from across the state.

“A lot of the MPs don’t live in their electorates or are focused on being ministers, not on representing their community, though it does appear some of the newly elected MPs will be changing their approach,” he says.

“Let’s hope it’s not too little, too late for them.”

In a rare extended interview on ABC Radio Melbourne on Wednesday, Andrews returned to the theme: “We don’t take voters for granted anywhere … I don’t want people feeling that way.

“We hear the message, we have to do more and we have to do better,” he said.

The challenge for John Pesutto

The new Liberal leader, John Pesutto, is keenly aware of the challenges facing Labor. At his first press conference following the leadership ballot, he said there was a “massive opportunity” in Melbourne’s west and vowed to spend more time there.

But Pesutto faces challenges of his own. The first was bluntly articulated by his deputy, David Southwick, as being that the “Liberal party brand needs work”, given it is not resonating with large parts of the community.

According to Samaras, Liberals secured just one in five millennials on the electoral roll, who along with generation Z outnumber baby boomers for the first time. These voters, who are priced out of the property market, are bucking the trend of becoming more conservative as they age.

The Liberal MP James Newbury told the ABC the party is facing an “existential crisis”, saying: “We haven’t generationally changed.”

Pesutto on Thursday said he would promote younger and newly elected MPs Jess Wilson and Sam Groth to the shadow cabinet, get more women and multicultural Victorians into the parliament, and develop policies that appeal to a wide range of voters.

He argued Liberal election wins by premiers Jeff Kennett and Ted Baillieu proved the party needed to reflect the values all Victorians.

“When the Liberal party has been successful, it has been successful by recognising that it is a broad tent, it brings people in from more progressive dispositions to more conservative dispositions,” Pesutto said.

But keeping everyone in the tent happy could prove difficult.

Pesutto’s battle for the leadership against Brad Battin was tight. Some MPs say Pesutto only won by one vote.

The self-described moderate will need to find a way to appease detractors as he works to rebuild the party following a second humiliating defeat.

“Pesutto may want to try and renew, but there’s a real ideological polarisation happening in his party,” Robinson says.

“The hard right is going to be a problem, because they’re self-sustaining, live in their own echo-chamber bubble and aren’t really particularly interested in being in government.”


Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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