The decision of the Liberal-National Coalition to place the Greens last on its how-to-vote card in the Victorian election, in the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council, is smart politics. Put simply, there was nothing in it for the Liberal Party or the National Party if they had put the Greens ahead of Labor.

Once again, the Greens were all about “take” without any “give”. The Greens arranged to give preferences to Labor in 15 marginal seats in the Legislative Assembly and all Legislative Council electorates. This meant none of the Greens preferences would assist the Coalition in any winnable seat.

In the federal election in August the Coalition gave its preferences to the Greens ahead of Labor without any quid pro quo. Not this time. On Sunday Tony Nutt, the state director of the Victorian Liberal Party, responded to the announcement that Labor and the Greens had reached a preference deal by announcing the Coalition would put the Greens last with Labor second last.

This decision significantly increases Labor’s chances of holding its inner-city seats of Melbourne, Brunswick, Richmond and Northcote. Half a century ago, these areas were the preserve of the industrial working class, including those of Catholic Irish background and migrants who settled in Australia from southern Europe after the Second World War.

Nowadays, public housing tenants aside, only the professional, tertiary educated, with job security and secure superannuation, can afford to live in Melbourne’s inner city. This group increasingly supports the Greens. The vote in the federal seat of Melbourne in August demonstrates the point.

Labor’s Cath Bowtell won 38 per cent of the primary vote and the Greens’ Adam Bandt 36 per cent. Bandt defeated Bowtell on the preferences of the Liberal Party candidate, who polled 19 per cent of the primary vote.

There was a similar scenario in the Hobart seat of Denison where the independent (and former Greens activist) Andrew Wilkie won on Liberal Party preferences after obtaining only 21 per cent of the primary vote.

Bandt made it clear before the election that, in the event of a hung parliament, he would support Julia Gillard over Tony Abbott. When it came to negotiating a minority government, Bandt was true to his word, which means that, from the Coalition’s perspective, there was no point in sending Bandt to Canberra – especially since the Coalition received no favours for its decision.

Clearly the Liberals and Nationals plan to win seats from Labor in those areas of Victoria where the Greens are least popular and where their preference deal with Labor can be used against the Brumby government. Victoria is perhaps the most left-of-centre state so the Coalition’s tactic of campaigning against a Labor-Greens alliance is most likely to work in the more conservative regional centres.

The Victorian Liberal Party’s ploy has implications for the next federal election which, in spite of some predictions to the contrary, is likely to be held in three years’ time. Already, the opposition’s strategy is becoming clear.

The Coalition needs a net gain of four seats to win government in its own right. It will attempt to hold its existing seats while targeting western Sydney, the NSW central coast, the electorates now represented by Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott in northern NSW, northern Tasmania and the outer-eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

Abbott holds the view that the role of the opposition is to target the government. His line will be to associate Labor with the Greens and argue that a Labor-Greens alliance will lead to bigger spending, higher energy prices, fewer jobs and so on.

Abbott’s stance will enhance the Coalition’s appeal to lower socio-economic groups in the outer suburbs and regional centres. The Coalition has won office from opposition on only three occasions since the Second World War. Robert Menzies in 1949, Malcolm Fraser in 1975 and John Howard in 1996 won support from erstwhile Labor voters.

Abbott’s focus will leave Labor and the Greens to fight for support among the wealthy, tertiary educated voters who have moved to the inner city. Labor will probably prevail in the inner city only to the extent to which it distances itself from its socially conservative base in the suburbs and regional centres.

It’s possible Gillard can restore Labor’s popularity before the next election. But associating Labor with the Greens gives the Coalition its best hope of increasing its vote over its strong performance this year.

Of course, the Coalition’s plan in Victoria could fail if the Greens can defeat Labor without Liberal preferences in a number of seats. Even so, the decision gives the electors a chance to vote for a stable government, led by either John Brumby or Ted Baillieu. The outcome may provide a precedent for preference distribution at the NSW election.