How convenient that the University of Melbourne’s website contains a section titled “Find an expert”, which can be a handy source for contacts for a journalist who has an early morning story to report.
This may or may not be the reason Oliver Gordon contacted Sarah Maddison, professor in political science at Melbourne University, for an interview last Monday on the influential ABC Radio AM program. Certainly, Maddison has an expertise as would be expected of an academic with several books to her name.
However, it is not clear that Maddison is an expert in Victorian state, or indeed Australian national, politics. In the past she has been active in various left-wing causes and her most recent publication is titled The Colonial Fantasy: Why White Australia Can’t Solve Black Problems. You get the picture.
In any event, for a morning at least, Maddison shared her Melbourne University-endorsed expertise about the Victorian election with ABC listeners. Certainly the Labor Party, led by Premier Daniel Andrews, achieved a great victory in attaining a third term in office and retaining majority government in the Legislative Assembly without having to rely on the Greens or any independents.
Even so, on the latest estimate, there was a swing against the Andrews government, on a two-party-preferred vote basis, of about 3.5 per cent. Moreover, as election analyst William Bowe wrote in the Crikey newsletter on Tuesday, Labor’s focus on more prosperous areas in Melbourne’s east and southeast came at a cost to its traditional support base in the north and west.
As Bowe wrote: “Labor’s vote share in Melton is 12 per cent below where it was in 2014 and there were double-digit swings at this election in Broadmeadows, Greenvale, Mill Park, Thomastown and Yan Yean in Melbourne’s north and Kororoit, St Albans and Sydenham in the west.”
The biggest swing to the Liberal Party after preferences – 15 per cent – took place in the seat of Greenvale, where Usman Ghani was its candidate.
Contrary to Bowe’s forensic analysis, Maddison told AM “despite obviously some resentment … of the long lockdowns in Melbourne, there was a sense of community care, of a collective across the state and particularly in Melbourne”. She added: “The Liberal Party, the Coalition, tried to exploit that and I think in doing so they have aligned themselves with a constituency that is pretty much on the nose in Melbourne.”
Well, there may still have been a sense of a collective in affluent Parkville, where Melbourne University is based. But the evidence suggests that many of the good people of Greenvale, 26km from the Melbourne CBD, did not regard the Liberal Party as being on the nose.
Around midday on Monday, ABC Radio ran more of the thoughts of Maddison. This time the discussion turned on a likely shift away from the major parties – something supported by many on the far left and far right of Australian politics. Maddison told The World Today listeners: “If there is one message we can take, both from the May election and from this (Victorian) one, it’s that Australian voters are less interested in sustaining the dominance of the two older parties.”
This may be the case. Even so, the existing preferential voting system that prevails throughout Australia, albeit in different forms, is a force for the continuance of the two-party system. Despite predictions to the contrary, the Coalition and Labor attained majority government, albeit narrowly, in 2019 and 2022 respectively. As did the Andrews Labor government last Saturday.
In fact, there was some sign of a move back to the two major parties last weekend.
In eastern Melbourne, the Liberal Party held off challenges from so-called teal independents in Hawthorn and Kew – both seats are in the federal electorate where former Liberal Party deputy leader Josh Frydenberg lost to a teal independent in Kooyong in May.
Also, the Nationals won back the regional seats of Mildura and Shepparton from independents. Based on the current count, there are no independents in the Victorian Legislative Assembly – only Labor, Liberal, Nationals and Greens MPs.
Certainly, the Liberal Party at the federal level and in most states is going through a difficult period right now and needs to win back, in particular, large parts of the female and young voter demographics. Some commentators even hold the view that the party is over.
However, we have heard such untimely political obituaries before. Under Malcolm Fraser, the Coalition suffered a devastating defeat to Labor’s Bob Hawke in March 1983.
Writing in The Age in March 1993, La Trobe University academic Judith Brett commented that “the Liberal Party in the 1990s seems doomed”.
The Coalition was back in office, under John Howard’s leadership, within three years. Despite this false prophecy, Brett has continued to be regarded by the ABC as a Liberal Party expert.
At various times the Labor Party seemed destined to be a permanent presence on the opposition benches in Canberra. This was particularly so after the Labor Split of the mid-1950s.
Few expected Labor to disintegrate since it was held together by its trade union base. But electoral success seemed remote – until it happened.
At the moment there is a prevailing view on both sides of mainstream Australian politics that Labor has done well at the international level. This is true of Anthony Albanese and his senior ministers in this area – Penny Wong (foreign affairs), Richard Marles (defence) and Don Farrell (trade).
However, in the next 2½ years the Albanese government is likely to have difficulties with respect to energy prices and supply, and in managing the responses of business – big, medium and small – to its industrial relations legislation.
There may be more problems that have yet to emerge. Right now, Labor looks likely to be in office for two terms or more. But, as Labor found out after Kevin Rudd’s big victory over the Howard-led Coalition in November 2007, political circumstances can change rapidly.
Followers of politics in the current climate are likely to understand more about the future by monitoring the price of petrol and the reliability of electricity than by dialling an expert at a taxpayer-subsidised university.