Ahead of polling day on July 2, our State of the states series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states and territories.
When the federal election was called, Bill Shorten would have pencilled his home state of Victoria as a safe bet for Labor. Over the last 30 years Labor has dominated state parliament, winning all but three elections. Federally it has comfortably won a larger share of the two-party preferred vote for most of that time.
Since the last federal election, Labor has been well ahead of the Coalition in Victoria in the polls – sometimes by close to ten points, with the notable exception of the first months after the change of government and then the few months after the change of prime minister. On election eve, Labor’s lead was nearly seven points on a two-party-preferred basis.
Things have not turned out that way, thanks to an almost unbelievable local political fight over a firefighter deal that careered surprisingly and alarmingly out of control. The volunteer Country Fire Authority (CFA) is in a bitter dispute with the United Firefighters Union over a new enterprise bargaining agreement.
State Labor has been seriously unsettled along the way, providing oxygen for a wider national debate about the power of trade unions and the rights of volunteers.
There are a couple of marginal seats where the firefighter stoush could well count.
McEwen in central Victoria stretches all the way from rapidly growing and largely working-class Sunbury, Bulla, Whittlesea and Craigieburn on Melbourne’s edge right through to traditional country towns of Broadford, Doreen, Kilmore, Lancefield, New Gisborne, Riddells Creek, Romsey and Seymour. Labor MP member Rob Mitchell holds the seat on a wafer-thin margin of 0.2%.
This seat adjoins some of the areas that were catastrophically affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. There, volunteer fightfighters are both popular and influential.
Another seat that could well stay blue is Corangamite. Located in the southwest, the seat takes in Geelong and surrounding areas, including the rapidly changing seachanger suburbs dotted along the Great Ocean Road. It is held by Liberal MP Sarah Henderson on a margin of 3.9%.
Until the firefighter dispute boiled over, Corangamite might well have swung back Labor’s way. Changing demographics and mounting concerns over inadequate infrastructure (fuelled in part by the Coalition’s reluctance to push capital spending Victoria’s way) were all working to Shorten’s advantage.
But, Corangamite is another seat where volunteer firefighters have a big presence. This point is not lost on most Victorians, thanks to the high-profile fires that ravaged Wye River and Separation Creek on Christmas Day last year.
At least one other seat is worth keeping an eye on when the polls close and the count begins. This is one where we might well see a shift from red to green, with Labor insider David Feeney a strong chance to lose his once-safe Labor seat of Batman to the Greens.
In what was always going to be a tight battle, Feeney came out of his corner shortly after the election was called – but instead of taking aim at his opponents, he shot himself in the foot not once but twice. His failure to register an investment property was followed by a trainwreck of a TV interview in which he admitted he had lost touch with Labor’s policies due to unwanted distractions.
How might the firefighter issue play out?
The firefighter stoush is slap bang in Malcolm Turnbull’s territory, and he has milked it well beyond what it was worth. He figured prominently at a recent volunteer rally on the steps of state parliament, promising to right whatever wrongs were being planned by state Labor should he be re-elected.
The so-far-uncosted damage is the impact the prolonged and messy fight will have on Labor’s image. Its management credentials have taken quite a beating in the state where not long ago its reputation was on the rise.
A talented and up-and-coming minister, Jane Garrett, has resigned, and the state government threatened to and then sacked the CFA’s board due to its refusal to sign up to the enterprise agreement that it vowed never to approve. The courts have now stepped in to prevent the government and whatever CFA board emerges from the ashes from pulling the trigger; the government looks anything but in charge.
How this will play out on election day is at this point anything but clear. At the local level, in particular electorates where volunteer firefighters pack some clout, it might well count. If so, we can expect the conservative majority in those largely safe seats to grow, rather than harm any realistic chance Labor has of winning.
If the election goes down to the wire and the Coalition just falls across the line, it might well be that Turnbull will be thanking Victoria for those last few seats that not so long ago he seemed destined to lose.
Should that turn out to be how history unfolds, expect enormous aftershocks to roll out across Victoria, with state Labor hit hard. Who knows who might fall over, but one thing will be sure: the long-term ramifications for the once-popular and seemingly invincible Victorian Labor government will be fascinating.
Catch up on others in this series.
Authors: David Hayward, Dean, School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University