It would appear that Michael O’Brien’s near three-years-old leadership of the Victorian Liberal Party is at an end.
For seasoned observers of politics there is a macabrely predictable rhythm to the killing off of an incumbent’s leadership. It begins with a first and commonly unsuccessful strike. That is followed by undying (and hollow) professions of loyalty to the survivor.
Matthew Guy (left) is challenging Liberal Party leader Michael O’Brien.Credit:The Age
In this case, O’Brien’s assassination dress rehearsal occurred in March when the all-but-unknown Brad Battin emerged as an unlikely leadership challenger.
Even then it was widely reported that former leader Matthew Guy, despite standing aloof from the machinations, was the real pretender to the throne. Since March, O’Brien’s position has continued to be undermined by poor polling and orchestrated leadership chatter.
If we assume that Guy will be successful in this second attempt to depose O’Brien, what prospects are there of the change of leadership reviving the Coalition’s fortunes?
The first point is that the challenge facing the Coalition come next year’s November election is immense. Labor won the 2018 election in a landslide securing more than 57 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. The term coined for the result on election night was a “Danslide”, evoking the “Bracks-slide” that Steve Bracks achieved at the 2002 state election.
Victorian Premier Daniel AndrewsCredit:Getty Images
In 2006, at the election that followed Labor’s commanding victory of 2002, Labor’s primary vote fell by nearly 5 per cent yet the party had so much electoral fat that it was easily returned to office. With current polls showing a fall in Labor’s primary vote but it still in an election winning position, the danger for the Coalition is that the 2022 election will be a repeat of 2006: Labor will inevitably concede some electoral ground yet be comfortably returned.
Further increasing the degree of difficulty for the Coalition is the (still draft) electoral redistribution that has increased Labor’s standing in the Legislative Assembly to a notional 57 seats while trimming the Liberal Party’s representation to a notional 20 seats.
The electoral pendulum (courtesy of Antony Green) based on the redistribution indicates there are nine Coalition seats on margins of less than 2 per cent compared to only three Labor seats that are so narrowly held.
Come the election, the Coalition will also be up against the longer-term rhythms of Victorian politics. Since the 1980s Victoria has consistently broken to the left-of-centre as reflected in its voting pattern both at federal and state elections. And here there is something of an incongruity in the Liberal Party turning back to Guy as leader.
He and his chief supporters are aligned with the conservative end of the party. Nothing better illustrated this than Guy’s approach to the 2018 election when he campaigned principally on an aggressive law-and-order agenda that was revealed as being hopelessly out-of-step with the lived experience of the voting public.
In that sense, there is a question about whether Guy will be able to reinvent himself between now and the election to become a more rounded leader who is better attuned to the aspirations of Victorians.
History is full of examples of leaders who, while uncompetitive in their first incarnation, have gone on to success by learning from past failure. Adversity has, in other words, nourished leadership growth. Does Guy have that capacity?
At the same time, there are opportunities for Guy and the Coalition over the next year. Presumably, the worst of the pandemic will be finally behind us come 2022 allowing an overdue refocusing on other issues.
Presumably, the worst of the pandemic will be finally behind us come 2022 allowing an overdue refocusing on other issues.Credit:Paul Jeffers
Only with the settling of the pandemic will we truly be able to understand its political and economic consequences. While it has been interpreted as a gift to incumbents that effect will eventually wear off.
Premier Daniel Andrews’ dominance of the state political scene, which has been dramatically magnified by COVID-19, has a downside in that it seems to have strengthened the centralising dynamics in his government.
The concentration of power in a relatively small circle brings with it the risks of overreach and hubris. There are signs of this in the belligerent and dismissive streak to some of Andrews’ recent pronouncements.
The fact that the Labor government will be eight years old by the time of the election should also provide a fertile line of attack for the opposition. The “It’s time” factor will come into play, as will question marks about Andrews’ future.
Equally, whereas in 2018 the Andrews government’s can-do activist approach proved largely invulnerable to criticism, there are now signs of a fraying of its agenda, not least in delays and cost blowouts associated with its gargantuan transport infrastructure program.
For Guy and the Coalition to exploit these chinks in the government will depend on it presenting as a credible moderate force.
Paul Strangio is a professor of politics at Monash University.
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