No-one has spent much time analysing Friday night’s leaders debate in Victoria, accurately characterised by Nick Economou as “a dull, nil-all draw”. Instead, today’s papers are on to the more influential matter of preference deals.

Paul Austin’s front-page story in The Age says that the Liberals and the ALP are close to “an extraordinary preferences deal” under which the Liberals would preference Labor ahead of the Greens in lower house seats, in return for Labor preferences ahead of the National Party in the bush.

Such a deal would make sense for both parties. Labor badly needs to shore up its inner-city members, especially Bronwyn Pike in Melbourne, against the Greens’ challenge; in return, it has no objection to helping to destroy the Nationals.

The Liberals don’t much care who wins seats like Melbourne and Richmond, but electing some extra country members and getting the Nationals off their backs would be a good thing.

The National Party professes itself outraged. Having shamelessly bargained for Labor preferences for decades — three of their seven seats were won on Labor preferences last time — they are shocked that anyone else would do the same.

The Greens would happily do the same deal, but they have less to offer: Green preferences in the bush won’t be worth very much. To match Labor, they would have to offer the Liberals favourable treatment on preferences in a range of outer-suburban marginals.

If they do, expect the Liberals to come to the party. The Liberals’ organisational wing remain, at heart, coalitionists; winning seats from the Nationals is for them at best a side issue. A good deal in the outer suburbs would be much more appealing for them.

The Greens would love to win Melbourne, but their big focus is on the upper house, and so far there is no sign that the Liberals will preference Labor ahead of them there. To do so would simply hand Labor a majority — a classic example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Both major parties are looking around for other options in the upper house (although Labor seems to have shied away from the Family First option), but ultimately they should preference the Greens ahead of each other — which is why the Greens will be in the new parliament but Family First will not.

Peter Fray

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