Since Matthew Guy returned to the leadership of the Victorian Liberals last year, he’s taken inspiration from Labor leaders in his pursuit to win government.
He’s looked to the west, where Mark McGowan first led Labor to a crushing defeat before a landslide victory; and to South Australia, where Peter Malinauskas won government in March after a health-centric campaign
But the key to any success Guy might have at Saturday’s election will come down to just one Labor leader: Daniel Andrews.
The opposition has framed their entire campaign around the premier, telling voters the only way to “get rid” of him is to vote Liberal. They’ve dubbed the consequences of voting Labor as the “Andrews hangover”.
Guy describes the premier as “arrogant” and “out of touch”, or “out of ideas and out of time”.
According to sources within Liberal and Labor, the strategy has been working.
“Those on our side aren’t used to having to deal with a dynamic where the Liberals haven’t made themselves the issue,” one Labor source says. “It’s meant a much bigger focus on the premier and I don’t think we’ve able to respond.”
Those in Liberal campaign headquarters say the premier is “on the nose” in the wake of the pandemic, during which Melbourne endured one of the world’s longest lockdowns and the state recorded the nation’s highest death toll.
The pandemic has dominated Andrews’ second term.
He became the face of the state’s pandemic response, fronting 120 consecutive daily press conferences, announcing lockdowns, the closure of schools and playgrounds and the imposition of vaccination mandates. Andrews is inextricably linked to these decisions.
While the majority of voters accepted lockdowns as a necessary measure to protect the community and saw Andrews as a strong and decisive leader in a crisis, there are many who remain scarred by the events of the past two years.
Andrews has also been questioned four times by the anti-corruption watchdog in private, with only one of the investigations being released publicly before the poll, allowing speculation to run rife.
For months, internal polling by both major parties has been picking up voter anger in the outer suburbs – which were hit hardest by the adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic. The premier is particularly unpopular with people who work in a small business or a trade, or have insecure work.
Women, who have been key to Andrews’ success, have also drifted away from the premier, likely because they carried much of the unpaid emotional and domestic burden of caring for their families during the pandemic.
Labor has made a conscious attempt to win them back, including announcements about free tampons and pads in public places, increasing the number of endometriosis surgeries and a trial allowing pharmacists to treat urinary tract infections, which predominantly affect women, and reissue prescriptions for the contraceptive pill.
Tradies working on the government’s several infrastructure projects were told on Thursday their “job is on the ballot at this election”. The construction union has labelled the premier a “prick”, but one who is “delivering” for workers.
Meanwhile, Guy has methodically attacked the government over deadly triple-zero delays, ambulance ramping, overcrowding in emergency departments and lengthy elective surgery waitlists. He’s put the blame squarely on Andrews, who has been premier or health minister for 12 of the past 16 years.
His billion-dollar commitments to build and refurbish hospitals right across the state has sparked a bidding war with Labor, who, for the first time, have had to fight to retain their “ownership” of the issue.
“That shouldn’t be lost on anyone – for us to be in ahead in health is unprecedented,” one Liberal MP said.
While some within the Liberals have questioned the strategy – particularly at a time when the state’s finances are “in their weakest position since the 1990s” – both sides of politics believe the party’s focus on health, as well as initiatives such as $2 public transport fares and free school lunches to ease the cost of living has cut through with “soft” Labor voters.
Along the way, Guy has attempted to present himself as optimistic, pragmatic and a “safe” pair of hands, while largely keeping a lid on his trademark aggression.
A Labor MP pointed to Monday’s debate, where the premier made several attempts to get under Guy’s skin but failed: “[Guy] has successfully managed to make the campaign all about the premier and I’m not sure how that is going to play out for us.”
Another Labor source said the Liberals had “run a much smarter campaign than they did in 2018”.
‘Climbing Mount Everest without oxygen’
Polls have narrowed – something both sides expected to happen during the campaign as more voters began paying attention – though none predict a Coalition government.
The Coalition would need to win 18 seats, equivalent to a statewide swing of between 9 and 11%, to achieve this – a task Guy has described as akin to “climbing Mount Everest without oxygen”.
One Labor source pointed to a string of controversies surrounding preselected Liberal candidates, the party’s decision to preference fringe candidates – some of whom the premier claimed had links to “Nazis” – and the electoral commission’s referral of Guy and his former chief of staff to the anti-corruption watchdog during the campaign.
“It might not cut through in every seat, but I think it will in the seats that matter,” the Labor source said, pointing to the marginal seat of Caulfield, which is home to the state’s largest Jewish population.
Further complicating matters are challenges from independents in once-safe Liberal seats, including Kew, Brighton, Sandringham and Caulfield, as well as in Hawthorn, which former shadow attorney general John Pesutto is hoping to win back after losing it in 2018.
Independents are also contesting the Liberal-held seats of Benambra and Mornington.
The Greens are expected to increase their presence on the crossbench by winning Northcote and Richmond from Labor.
These contests will go a long way to determining if the “teal wave” and “Greenslide” at the federal poll represented a fundamental reimagining of the political landscape or was a one-off event.
Labor’s defensive strategy
As for Labor, its strategy is solely focused on safeguarding electorates rather than pursuing new ones.
Resources have been poured into outer suburban seats including Bayswater and Narre Warren North, Yan Yean in the north, Melton in the west and the sandbelt region, including the electorates of Bentleigh, Carrum, Frankston and Mordialloc.
Further down the peninsula, Labor expects Liberal wins in Hastings and Nepean, as well as Bass on the other side of the coast, and Pakenham in the outer south-east.
In 2018 in the east, Labor unexpectedly picked up the seats of Box Hill, Burwood (now Ashwood after a redistribution) and Ringwood off the Liberals. The Liberals need to win these seats back to form government and they are confident they will, though some within Labor have pointed to swings towards the party at the federal election in seats like Chisholm, which has a large Chinese population.
“If we hang on to Ashwood, Box Hill and Ringwood, it’s likely we will be able to retain a majority,” a Labor strategist says.
The party is also bracing for the possibility of a “purple” independent getting up in the west, appealing to voters who no longer feel Labor represents them but are unwilling to support the Liberals.
Regardless of the result, the election will reshape Victoria’s political landscape. If Labor becomes a minority government, it will greatly dent Andrews’ commanding authority in the party and kick off factional disputes that have been held at bay.
If the Liberals do not at least return to the representation they had prior to 2018, a lot more soul searching will be required, likely without Guy at the helm.