Victorian election: with Melbourne Cup over, now comes real race for Daniel Andrews and Matthew Guy

Polls and pundits have Labor winning in a canter, but strategists from both sides expect the margin to narrow as 26 November approaches

You’d be forgiven for thinking the Victorian state election campaign has been under way for months.

Since September, rarely has a day gone by without a politician posing in a hard hat, hi-vis or with a baby, promising billions of dollars for a new hospital, road or school.

But it’s only now, after the Melbourne Cup has run, that the campaign begins in earnest, with the official election writs issued and the government going into caretaker mode.

Unlike the Cup, which was a wide open affair, bookies, polls and pundits have the Labor government of Daniel Andrews as the strong favourite to win come 26 November. The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has already flagged that he’ll join the premier on the campaign trail on Wednesday.

The latest poll, from the Age, has the government ahead 59-41 on a two-party-preferred basis, which would be a better result than the resounding “Danslide” victory in 2018, when Labor won 55 out of 88 seats.

Another poll, conducted by Roy Morgan in September, has Labor at 60-40 on two-party-preferred, while Guardian Essential polling during the same month suggests a 56-44 result.

Strategists from both Labor and the Coalition are more cautious. They expect the polls to narrow, with some even suggesting a minority government could be possible – though for this to occur Labor would have to lose 11 seats. For the Coalition to win outright, it needs to gain 18 seats.

Their reason? A large cohort of voters remain undecided or “soft”, meaning they are likely to change their mind. According to the Age’s Resolve polling, this figure is as high as 27%. Guardian Essential polling conducted last month showed 12% of respondents were undecided.

Redbridge political consultant Tony Barry, who was an adviser to the opposition leader, Matthew Guy, at the 2018 election, says recent focus groups have shown “a lack of engagement and limited awareness of the major policies announced to date”.

This was reflected during Guardian Australia’s visit to 11 electorates in October, when the vast majority of voters approached were yet to turn their mind to the election.

Several voters, particularly in the seats of Hawthorn and Kew, cited election fatigue following the six-week federal election campaign in May.

“I’m a bit politics weary,” one Hawthorn East resident said. Another simply responded: “Another election? We have to do all that again?”

While the opposition has announced $26bn worth of policies and the government $8bn, Barry says only two have cut through in focus groups: Labor’s commitment to bring back state ownership of energy assets by reviving the government-owned State Electricity Commission (SEC), and the Liberals’ offer of $2 all-day public transport fares.

“Labor’s announcement of government ownership of energy assets is the policy that has most captured the attention of the electorate at this point of the election cycle, and is tapping into a wide and deep soft voter anxiety about energy prices,” Barry says.

The SEC allows Andrews to rally against big corporations and remind voters of the “cuts and closure” legacy of Liberal premier Jeff Kennett – a theme he has returned to in almost every election press release to date.

The discount public transport fares, meanwhile, allow the Coalition to spruik their campaign slogan: “Real solutions for all Victorians”.

The policies also address what MPs from both sides are saying has emerged the No 1 issue among voters: cost of living. Following a federal budget that painted a grim picture of the nation’s economic outlook and a seventh successive interest rate rise, it will continue to dominate as the campaign gears up.

Liberal MPs and candidates are confident they will be able to capitalise on “anti-Dan” sentiment, especially in outer suburbs that were worst affected by Covid-19. They say the latest polling doesn’t capture these voters, and point to swings against Labor in the federal election.

“It’s something that keeps coming up. People hate him,” one MP says.

Monash University senior politics lecturer Dr Zareh Ghazarian says the election will show whether Victorians want to punish the government for the state’s pandemic response, or if they have moved on.

“During lockdowns there was this real growing sense of polarisation in Victorian politics – but is that still the case? I’m not so sure,” he says.

Those within Labor’s ranks concede some voters dislike the premier but they don’t trust Guy.

“[Andrews] may be polarising but he is seen as competent. People respect him for getting things done,” one MP says.

This is a view echoed by the CFMEU, which has placed posters on building sites recently stating Andrews might be a “prick” but is “delivering for construction workers”.

Barry says the next two weeks are critical for the opposition to win over undecided voters before pre-polling opens on 14 November. (It’s expected half the electorate will vote before election day on 26 November, so neither party will be saving their best pledges until then).

“At the moment, there is a significant soft voter segment that have negative assessments of Daniel Andrews but are still yet to be convinced about giving the Liberal party their vote,” Barry says.

“If Liberal campaign headquarters can produce a good creative execution to persuade this cohort to switch their vote, then we might see a tightening of the polls in coming weeks. But at the moment, the Liberal campaign headquarters are running out of runway.”


Benita Kolovos

The GuardianTramp

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