Victorian premier Daniel Andrews could be forgiven for thinking nothing on the horizon can stop him being re-elected on November 24.
Two weeks ago the Labor premier appeared to be cruising to victory, with a commanding 54:46 lead in the Newspoll published a few days earlier and matching favouritism in online betting markets.
Then fate threw two wild cards into the election. A few nights of mayhem in the inner northern and southeastern suburbs at the hands of the African “youth gangs” that opposition leader Matthew Guy has banged on about all year, and then last Friday’s deadly attack in Bourke Street – Melbourne’s main pedestrian thoroughfare – by a deranged Muslim man who came to Australia as a child refugee from Somalia and had a history of extremism, drugs and minor offences.
If anything could reinforce Guy’s “tough on crime” message and give his flagging campaign a boost, this might have been it. The Bourke Street attack will still be fresh in the memory through next week’s last days of the campaign when a state funeral is held for Sisto Malaspina, the much-loved co-owner of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar, a Melbourne landmark a few blocks east of where he was killed.
Guy – backed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison – seized on the tragedy to announce tougher sentencing laws, proposals to force terror suspects to wear ankle bracelets and stay out of the central business district, more CCTV and a plan to fast-track deportations of foreigners who commit crimes or are considered at risk of doing so.
Andrews didn’t bite – a tactic he often uses to damp down issues. No statewide poll has been taken since these events, and caution needs to be exercised. Yet there is no sign the events have put the brakes on Andrews’ steady march to victory on November 24.
Betting money is on Andrews
Instead, in the one constant barometer we do have – betting markets – the money has continued to flow in for Labor, pushing the party to a short $1.12 to win on a $1 bet at Tab.com.au and the Liberals to a long, speculative $5.50.
Despite Andrews thin majority, Liberal insiders say it is increasingly hard to see where they could find the seven seats needed to blast Labor out of power. Thursday was a particularly bad day. Meralyn Klein, the Liberal candidate for the winnable suburban fringe, Labor-held seat of Yan Yean, had to withdraw after a far right group posted a video of her appearing to accuse Muslim teenagers of assaulting her (she never mentioned Muslims but the video did).
Then Guy dodged a union protest at an Australian Industry Group lunch at which he was scheduled to give a keynote speech, apparently fearing being associated with the death of a young trainee on an AiG-sponsored training scheme at Marshall Lethlean Industries in Melbourne’s east.
Guy might have done better to front the protest and express his concern for the tragic loss of so young a life – his office said he suddenly had to attend an urgent meeting with Melbourne’s Jewish community over security – but such courage is rare in the age of hyperpartisanship and political micromanagement.
On Friday, Guy’s campaign resorted to offering struggling families half-price flat-screen TVs and cheap fridges – if they pull off an unlikely victory.
Business shrugs at the Libs
What’s clear is that Guy and the Liberals are struggling to make an impact. Business folk – including some of those stood up by Guy at Thursday’s AiG lunch in Hawthorn – plead for anonymity and shrug their shoulders when asked about the election.
Look at all the construction around you, they say, Andrews has got Victoria on the move in four years. He can’t take all the credit for the booming Victorian economy, but he can take a lot of credit for the $67 billion-plus pipeline of big transport projects – road and rail tunnels, level crossing removals all over the rapidly growing city, new train services – that are helping to fuel the economy.
They don’t have to add – but most do – that his Liberal predecessors Denis Napthine and Ted Baillieu conspicuously failed to do so in their cameo between 2010 and 2014. Guy is marked down for their under-achievement, as well as his own, and has had to play catch up on infrastructure.
Few people are directly affected by crime and terror attacks, as tragic and traumatic as they are for victims, but everyone is affected by a city that doesn’t work. Andrews has turned the pressure of managing the nation’s fastest growing population into an asset, seizing the problem by the neck and flooding the city with cranes and construction as a constant reminder of work being done.
Terrorism, congestion, a police probe into Labor’s rorting of parliamentary funding for staff during the 2014 campaign, the Greens’ insurgency in the inner city – any of these might have derailed Labor’s campaign. So far – with the caveat we will have more polling this time next week – none has.
It’s too late for the Liberals to nominate another candidate for Yan Yean, which strategists claim was on some lists of seven seats the Liberals needed to win. Guy’s campaign has been badly wounded by the federal Liberals’ infighting that ended Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership and put Morrison and his baseball caps into The Lodge.
But the campaign has also been weighed down by Guy’s failure to explain what the Victorian Liberals stand for in 2018, a criticism that could never have been aimed at Jeff Kennett, the party’s last premier to win re-election. The same shortcoming threatens the NSW Liberals’ grip on NSW next March, and Morrison’s government in the federal election due by next May.
Even the Greens – who pose a real threat to Labor’s small majority in inner city seats – are wrestling with “cultural problems” as they defend a controversial rapper candidate in Footscray over a video critics say promotes violence against women. They’ve already lost Upper House candidate Joanna Nilson over Facebook posts advocating shoplifting, and disparaging a female Liberal staffer.
Despite Labor’s quiet confidence, next Saturday night’s election will come down to just a handful of marginal seats at next Saturday’s election. AFR Weekend has spoken to a selection of voters to reveal the key issues which might swing the vote.
Sandbelt seats: cafes and congestion
(Bentleigh ALP 0.8 per cent, Mordialloc ALP 2.1 per cent, Carrum ALP 0.7 per cent, Frankston ALP 0.8 per cent)
Bentleigh is one of the four Frankston line seats – together with Frankston, Mordialloc and Carrum – that have changed hands in the last two elections to go with the government.
Bentleigh was the last seat to be decided at the 2010 election with the Liberal victory confirming the defeat of the Brumby government. In 2014, Bentleigh joined the other Frankston line seats to return to Labor and put Andrews in government. Both sides have been campaigning hard with Matthew Guy promising two-storey height limits and billions to “bust congestion” to win the seat back.
Shellee is a local 30-something mother and marketing executive. She says her parents, who also live in the suburb, vote in different directions while she keeps her vote to herself. She is yet to decide this election and represents a shining example of the sort of voter who could swing the seat.
Congestion and development are top of mind for her and local residents although she gives Labor credit for the suburb becoming a bustling metropolis, including new boutique shops, cafes and even a bar with the new Bentleigh train station and an upcoming street festival adding to the feel-good factor.
“It has changed a lot,” she says, “there is a lot more here for young people now.”
“The concern is all along Centre Road they have put up massive apartment blocks bringing a lot of cars and congestion,” she says. “Cars are parked up and down both sides of the street and often you can’t get a park outside your own house,” she says. “The Liberals have dropped off quite a few pamphlets promising ‘to protect the liveability’ but she says crime “hasn’t been a big issue here”.
Labor are also fighting a concerted campaign in the seat by disgruntled former taxi drivers who have lost their livelihood and in some cases their lives in the wake of Uber. The Liberals are promising to have Jeff Kennett lead a review to offer compensation and the protesters are mobilising at shops and centres to urge voters to put Labor last.
Inner city: climate and congestion
(Brunswick ALP 2.2 per cent, Richmond ALP 1.9 per cent, Albert Park ALP 3.1 per cent, Prahran Greens 0.4 per cent, Melbourne Greens 2.4 per cent, Northcote Greens 5.6 per cent)
Labor face the threat of minority government if the Greens can steal another two or more inner city seats and retain Melbourne, Northcote and Prahran, which is being hotly contested. The Liberal party have opted out of Richmond, leaving Labor’s planning minister, Richard Wynne exposed.
The Greens are also campaigning hard to win Brunswick, which covers the suburbs of Brunswick and parts of Coburg, Pascoe Vale South, Parkville and Fitzroy North. The long-held Labor seat became marginal in 2014 and is exposed after MP Jane Garrett left the seat to contest the Legislative Council.
Local mother Jocelyn is a former engineer turned yoga teacher who usually votes Greens. This year she is voting Labor.
“Usually my vote goes to the Greens but I will be voting Labor because of their strong commitment to renewable energy given their 50 per cent renewables target by 2030,” she says.
Growth suburbs: sky rail and housing
(Eltham ALP 2.7 per cent, Cranbourne ALP 2.3 per cent, Macedon ALP 3.8 per cent, Monbulk ALP 5 per cent, Bass LIB 4.6 per cent)
A host of high-growth outer suburbs could be key in the election race.
Macedon is the first rural seat along the Calder Highway north-west of Melbourne. Monbulk covers Dandenong Range suburbs in the outer east and is the only seat in Melbourne’s east held by Labor, with Deputy Premier James Merlino. Eltham lies in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs.
Bass is considered the first semi-rural electorate on the northern edge of the metropolitan area with Cranbourne and Pakenham rapidly sprouting new housing estates. Labor strategists believe the trend towards young, lower-middle class voters could hurt the Liberals.
Andrews has promised to remove four level crossings in Pakenham and build an elevated sky rail, adding to the first such service that opened in the south-east earlier this year. Level crossing removal has strong support although the the prospect of more sky rail has activated a hard-core group of residents campaigning against Labor over the plan.
David Farrelly is a long-time resident who is leading a local group called No Pakenham sky rail.
“We are still a rural town split in two by the rail line,” he says. “Two weeks ago Labor announced the level crossing removal but barely mentioned sky rail. They say it will run three or four kilometres and at 20 metres tall it will be the tallest structure in Pakenham,” he says.
Regions: hospitals and trains
(Geelong ALP 6 per cent, Ballarat: Buninyong ALP 6.5 per cent and Wendouree 5.8 per cent; Bendigo East ALP 5.1 per cent).
Geelong covers the regional CBD and surrounding suburbs. A “wild card” has been thrown into the mix with flamboyant former Mayor of Geelong Darryn Lyons running as an Independent.
Jase Carey, who runs a plumbing business with a couple of young workers, is in Bunninyong on the edge of Ballarat’s Wendouree seat. As a country boy, he says he is wired to vote for the Liberal Nationals. But he says the two young tradies who work for him wouldn’t know who Guy is.
“If I asked them who the Liberal bloke was they wouldn’t know,” he says. “Jeff Kennett was your classic in-your-face Liberal but Guy is just not in that calibre.
“Roads is a massive one, getting across town now is a nightmare. Labor probably get credit for the level crossing removal and a lot of works improving the hospital.
“$1 billion down the gurgler for nothing on the East West Link pisses me off but whoever gets on with it is fine by me,” he says.