Election campaigns attract a high degree of hyperbole and so do the outcomes. But there is no gilding the lily on the outcome for the Liberal party in the Victorian state election and it must be the cause of some hard reflections.
Yes, there were swings to the Liberals across Victoria – and even bigger swings against the Labor government – but these count for little if they are in seats where it doesn’t matter to the final election outcome.
Normally, I would say the Coalition, but it is hard to find fault with the Victorian Nationals, who not only gained three seats from independents and Labor, but also supported the Liberals and some key policy approaches in a way that separates them from their federal counterparts.
There are clear lessons for the Liberal party in my own state of New South Wales and federally which must be learned.
First, on the positive side, expectations that the federal teal wave would be replicated in Victoria have not come to pass. At the time of writing, the Liberals have held their ground in every seat where there was a serious teal challenge. Close in some cases, but no teal breakthroughs.
At the last election, the Liberals threw the dice on supporting a hardline law and order campaign. It didn’t work and, in fact, helped lead to losses or tight fights with Labor in several metropolitan electorates.
This wasn’t repeated and, instead, on a key issue for voters in those same seats, the Liberals went to an election with a progressive and strong approach to climate change. This included a commitment to legislating a 50% emissions reduction target for 2030, support for hydrogen, upgrades to transmission lines connecting western Victorian renewable energy into the system and support for solar panels and battery storage.
In all of this, the Victorian Nationals were willing partners and their state leader, Peter Walsh, went so far as to publicly disavow the approach of some of his federal colleagues.
This was a game-changer on an issue that motivated many voters at the last federal election to support teal independents who wanted more ambition from their government and, ipso facto, the Liberal party. Of course, it was not the only issue but a primary one on the policy front.
For the NSW Coalition government, this should reinforce and give comfort to their work to lead the nation on climate policy as they have through the agenda of the NSW energy minister, Matt Kean. Federally, it points to the unquestionable importance of the Coalition doing much more to support and develop policies to address climate change if it is to have any hope of winning back support in many of the seats we lost to the teals.
Good climate policies are a vote-winner, not a loser. Not only did it help save some Liberal seats but for MPs most strongly associated with arguing their case it helped deliver positive swings including in the electorates of Malvern, Caulfield, Brighton and Sandringham.
As an aside, one of the smarter policies of the Victorian Coalition was the $2 cap on public transport trips. While some transport economists would question any measure that reduces fare-box revenue, it was a policy that both addressed a cost-of-living pressure but also acted as an incentive to increase public transport patronage.
This is an underexplored area of policy, but one with obvious merit in reducing reliance on motor vehicles and therefore potentially decreasing transport-related climate emissions. It’s a policy worth exploring in other jurisdictions.
The federal government can also play its part – if employers could offer their employees fringe benefits tax-free public transport it would make public transport more attractive and reduce individual transport costs, which are high by global standards as a component of household expenditure.
There are other lessons to be learned. Despite its previous experience, the Victorian Liberal party has still not made watertight the vetting process of candidates.
As we saw, a single candidate with potentially extreme views can disrupt a campaign. As the NSW Liberal party finalises its own selections, it must be vigilant in this regard as there is little tolerance for candidates with views on the fringes in a modern major political party. Let them run for One Nation or some other more appropriate home.
At the federal election, the Coalition saw a significant drop in support from many Chinese-Australian voters. This had a material consequence in several marginal seats. In the cold light of day, analysis must be conducted as to whether this was an ongoing factor at the state election in the outcome in some of the eastern Melbourne seats with large Chinese communities.
While it would be wrong to ascribe this trend to the actions of the Victorian Liberals, it points to the interconnectedness of perceptions created across different levels of government which impacts on the party brand.
While it can be argued the Victorian Liberals did a good job in protecting the party’s position in seats under threat in inner metro areas, and even winning some back like Hawthorn, the overarching failure of the Liberal campaign was self-evidently to excite and inspire Victorians to change their vote more broadly.
This will be the challenge of the next four years and developing policies that back in the aspirations of younger Victorians will be a key to this.
Liberals like Keith Wolahan, federal MP for Menzies, and Tim Wilson have already highlighted some of the opportunities to do this in supporting home ownership.
Each state is different but there are trends and values that are common across our continent. To dismiss the outcome of the election as uniquely Victorian ignores the broader reality of both electoral maths in forming government but the commonality of issues that can be found in electorates in every state of the commonwealth.
Trent Zimmerman is the former federal Liberal member for North Sydney