If Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy loses narrowly at Saturday’s state election, the internal blame will not be levelled at Scott Morrison per se, but the entire federal Liberal Party. If Guy loses by a lot, then not so much.
In recent years, the conflation of state election results with federal factors has become more common, partly because voters have become less discerning and tend to punish a party for the sins of its federal counterpart.
Victorian Liberals contend this state election campaign has been largely devoid of federal factors and fought on the more traditional state issues of traffic congestion, hospitals, and law and order, even if there has been some overlap with terrorism. Apart from getting on the front foot on terror and crime in the latter stages of the campaign, the opposition hasn’t done the hard yards on policy. As John Howard would always warn state Liberal oppositions, you can’t fatten the pig on market day.
The undisputed impact of the federal Liberals on Guy’s prospects, however, was the dumping of Malcolm Turnbull on August 24.
Turnbull was popular in Victoria, which is traditionally a soft left state, and Morrison is not.
Victorian Liberal strategists agree this caused brand damage that cost the state Liberals’ support which, in turn, could be the difference on polling day.
“If we lose by 1 per cent, the federal stuff is critical, it we lose by 5 per cent, it’s a bit player,” said one.
“Matthew’s swimming against the tide because of the feds.”
Election betting odds, which can sometimes be a reliable indicator of voter intention, narrowed considerably in federal Labor’s favour among Victorian punters, and have continued to do so, since the August coup.
Contributing to the brand damage was the spectre of Turnbull’s ouster being driven by the hard right.
A timely demonstration of how unpopular this brand of politics can be in Victoria came on Tuesday night when Alan Jones was fulminating on Sky News because Guy would not appear on the weekly show he hosts with Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin, herself now a prominent conservative commentator.
“We’ve got an hour,” protested Jones, against the backdrop of a map of Victoria showing the program was being broadcast statewide.
“We’re going to all of these places in Victoria, why not come on the program?
“This bloke want to win an election or not?”
The answer is “yes” and that’s why he chose to give a wide berth to Jones who, like so many other conservative Sydneysiders, fails to get the AFL states.
In this vein, Jones spent much of the week, on radio and TV, demanding Australia withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, even though Morrison explained to him – again on Wednesday – the government’s modest targets could be reached without any real effort or impact on electricity prices.
And to withdraw would have regional implications regarding Chinese influence.
“I’ve just spent the last several weeks re-engaging, stepping up in the Southwest Pacific, which is an incredibly important issue for Australia’s security interests and Australia’s national interests. Now this is the number one issue among our Pacific Island partners,” he explained.
“To not go ahead with where we are on this – I’m not putting any money into global climate funds, I’m not doing any of that rubbish – what I am doing though, is ensuring that we secure Australia’s national interest by working closely with our Pacific partners.
“There is something to be lost if we were to walk away from the position we’re in and there’s nothing to gain by walking away from the position we have. So I’ve made that call.”
Guy’s decision to avoid any association with Jones was further vindicated by Bill Shorten’s decision on Thursday to announce Labor’s new energy policy, just two days out from the Victorian election.
To the chagrin of some in the left, Shorten’s policy puts an end to decade-long debate about an economy-wide carbon price and embraces pragmatism and intervention instead.
Yes, Labor will implement a National Energy Guarantee should the Liberals ever change their minds and there will be a baseline and credit scheme imposed on the nation’s biggest industrial emitters.
Otherwise the policy is a series of massive subsidies, loans and government guarantees to encourage investment. But its end goals are much more ambitious than those of the Coalition’s – a 45 per cent emissions reduction target on 2005 levels by 2030, and a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2050.
Ripe stuff for a climate scare campaign but clearly Labor, at a federal and state level, sees it all as a positive.
Despite the supposed lack of federal factors playing out in Victoria, the almost complete absence of Morrison throughout the campaign has been conspicuous. And from Saturday onwards, this could be the real cause for concern.
He has appeared once with Guy, to pay tribute to Sisto Malaspina, murdered in yet another mindless terror attack.
That appearance was not a campaign event as such.
With the polls showing a shift towards Labor in the final days, Guy confirmed on Thursday that Morrison would not be appearing in the campaign.
The Prime Minister may not be responsible for what may transpire on Saturday but that will be of little comfort to the federal MPs in Victoria.
If, of course, Guy wins, the fillip to the federal Coalition will be enormous and the blow to Labor’s morale considerable.
In the more likely event Daniel Andrews prevails, as the polls indicate, federal concerns will turn to Victoria’s share of marginal seats, three of which are held by less than 4 per cent, including Chisholm, held by the outgoing and most disgruntled Julia Banks.
The most marginal Liberal seat in Australia is Corangamite, held by Sarah Henderson by just 0.03 per cent.
Turnbull was dumped, supposedly, because he could not win seats in Queensland. Morrison, apparently, doesn’t rate so well in Victoria.
The Vics can at least console themselves that Peter Dutton did not win the leadership.
Phillip Coorey is The Australian Financial Review’s political editor.