For the first time since 1955, Victorians have ousted a one-term state government. The last time this happened was during the Labor party split; where Labor party preferences were split down the middle, and the party’s anti-communist members decided that the prospect of electing their erstwhile enemies was preferable to voting for possible communist spies. Understandably, losing after one term without a historic catastrophe is incredibly embarrassing for both Denis Napthine and the party he represents.
Interestingly, this was not the only ‘first’ of note in this election. The Australian Sex Party took their first seat in the Lower House, and the Greens acquired Prahran, edging out their usual allies the ALP. The result in Prahran was particularly surprising, as Liberal incumbent Clem Newton-Brown won his last election with a healthy 4.6% margin. However, the performance of the Federal government, widespread campaigning by Greens candidate Sam Hibbins and Prahran’s thriving and growing gay community have orchestrated enough of a swing to secure them the victory. Early in the count, it looked like the Greens would be eliminated, but after preferences from the Family First, Animal Justice and Independent candidates were distributed, they pulled ahead of Labor candidate Neil Pharaoh by 41 votes, eventually winning the election by only 262 votes. This makes Sam Hibbins the first Greens candidate to have ever taken a seat from a Liberal candidate, and the second to ever sit in the Lower House. This victory reflects the growing power of the Greens as well as the minor parties, (Shooters and Fishers picked up two seats) and it stands in contrast to the utter defeat of the Napthine government and the decline of his party.
As Napthine’s loss trickled down into the minds of Liberal party members, blame began to be apportioned. Most say that the loss is the result of ‘State specific issues’, such as the weakened economy and rising unemployment (at its highest level since 2001 in Victoria), as well as a lack of leadership from Denis Napthine. The largest contributor to this loss however, was unquestionably Tony Abbott. The Abbott government’s popularity is at an all-time low; the federal budget in particular proved too large a weight around the neck of the LNP campaign and this has led to increased friction between Abbott and his premiers as they try to distance themselves from Canberra to secure elections. At one point during one of Tony Abbott’s endorsements of the Denis Napthine campaign, Tony broke into what was clearly an unscripted hug. I can say it was clearly unscripted, because Napthine laughed and then pulled right away, literally distancing himself from Tony Abbott. Visual poetry.
The Victorian Liberal party has long been struggling between its Christian and old-school business conservative factions. Even before the whole Geoff Shaw situation (former Liberal MP misusing his taxpayer funded fuel card), the Napthine government has been in trouble. The first two years of the term were characterised by a failure to deliver on election promises, and the switch in leaders from Ted Baillieu to Napthine was, whilst necessary, poorly handled. Napthine could not unify his party, recover the energy lost in Baillieu’s first two years, or reign in Geoff Shaw (the very man who declared the lack of confidence in Baillieu’s leadership in the first place). With Labor running an excellent campaign, and the steady shift of key liberal demographics towards the left, most predicted a solid victory for the ALP.
The East-West link, perhaps the cornerstone of the Napthine campaign, proved to be incredibly divisive. The project was a proposed tunnel, connecting Melbourne’s eastern freeway, their airport and, ambitiously, their docks. Napthine’s government claimed that it would ease the long standing complaints over congestion on the roads, whilst the Opposition insisted that the costs were tremendous, and the project ineffective. This led to huge and vitriol-filled arguments about job creation, the tunnel pandering to car drivers without addressing the state’s problems with public transport. Whilst the extent to which the controversial East-West link influenced the election is still up for debate, its effects may still be felt; as the Abbott government has indicated its desire to carry out the project, dragging the state along whether they like it or not.
Unfortunately for Napthine, these failures have been enough to overcome the usual voter allowance for shaky starts to a new government. For the first time in over 50 years, a state has decided that its new leaders do not deserve a second chance; the voter’s naturally forgiving nature for first term failures has been overcome by steady and unceasing incompetence. With the New South Wales and Queensland state elections coming in March, this loss can only come as a sobering memento mori for the federal government. As the King rides through the streets of Canberra, Victoria will whisper in his ear; “Remember, you are only human.”
Words by Thomas Rossiter