With just over five weeks to go till the Victorian state election, Paul Austin’s opinion piece in this morning’s Age makes compelling reading.

Austin argues that since there is no prospect of the Liberal Party winning government in its own right, Liberals and Nationals are being dishonest with the electorate in refusing to discuss what a coalition government would look like.

No question about Austin’s premise. He actually understates the point, saying that for the Liberals to win the extra 28 seats needed for a majority “would require an unprecedented swing of about 8 per cent.” In fact the figure is 9.7%.

But to say that “there are only two realistic results on offer” – a Labor government or a Liberal-National coalition – is at best misleading. For the Liberals and Nationals to win a majority between them would require a swing of 8.1% (or 7.6% with the two independents). The polls have consistently shown little or no swing.

In other words, the difference between what’s needed for a coalition government versus a majority Liberal government is dwarfed by what’s needed for either. If Labor experienced a disaster sufficient to overcome one impossibility, there’s no particular reason to think it couldn’t overcome the other as well.

Contrary to Austin’s view, a coalition government is just as much “an academic question” as a Liberal government.

What this election is really about is the opposition trying to win back enough ground to be in a winning position in 2010. That’s where the battle between Liberals and Nationals is important: the Liberal Party is trying to gain enough seats from both Labor and the Nationals to be able to shrug off any talk of a coalition in four years time.

Victoria’s coalition broke down after the 1999 election, but warfare between the parties was muted in 2002 because beating the ALP still seemed a possibility (at least on paper). As a result the Liberals put little effort into trying to win National Party seats.

This time they won’t have that excuse, and the relative performance of the non-Labor parties in the bush will be crucial to determining the shape of the 2010 election. The Liberals can see the chance of reducing the National Party to irrelevance; the Nationals are fighting to retain a permanent place at the table.

Heeding the call to clarify the shape of a hypothetical coalition government this time around would just muddy those messages, to no sensible purpose.