It seems everyone was taken by surprise yesterday when Victor Perton,
Liberal MP since 1988 for the state seat of Doncaster in Melbourne’s
eastern suburbs, announced that he would retire at this year’s
election. The Liberal Party’s contentious preselections were pretty
much finished (except for Bayswater, which is being re-run), and now
they’ll have to put on another one: today’s Age says “it is expected to attract a big field of potential Liberal candidates.”

But more worrying than the task of finding a candidate is what Perton’s
decision says about the opposition’s prospects. Although Perton says
that his “reasons for this decision are purely personal” – he told The Age
“he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Jane, and their
13-month-old son, Ted” – most people will assume that he thought one
(or both) of two things: either that the Liberals were doomed to an
indefinite future in opposition, or that he was in serious danger of
losing his own seat.

No-one in the Victorian Liberals has any illusions that they can win
the November election; their concern is to make up enough ground to be
placed for a possible win in 2010. If they fail to do that, or even go
backwards, the target stretches out to 2014 or beyond. Perton, at 48,
might reasonably think that one more term in opposition would be
bearable, but more than that was too daunting a prospect.

But there would also be ample reason to be concerned about Doncaster,
which Perton held in 2002 with a margin of only 490 votes, or 0.8%.
Demographic change is said to be working against him, and while Perton
is a conscientious shadow minister and a good “big-picture” person, he
is probably not cut out to be a marginal seat campaigner – he’s
received considerable criticism within the Liberal Party for not living
in his electorate. Whether a new candidate will do any better remains
to be seen.