Saturday’s result was at the high end of possible bad results for the Victorian Liberals. They have gained four seats, and are clinging to narrow leads in another three. For a party that started out with not enough lower house MPs to field a football team, that’s a welcome boost.

Ted Baillieu’s critics have focused on the failure of the Liberal primary vote to improve (currently up just 0.2%). Evidently they have caught Dennis Shanahan’s disease: governments in Australia don’t depend on primary vote. The two-party preferred swing looks like a reasonably healthy 3 or 3.5%

Nonetheless, the interstate pattern held: the target date to win government in Victoria has blown out to 2014, just as it previously blew out to 2011 in NSW and 2013 in Queensland. Labor did sufficiently well in its marginal seats to be safe for next time, barring unexpected calamity.

The most worrying development for Ted Baillieu is the rise of his party’s rivals on the right. Family First more than doubled its federal vote to 4.3%; time for the other parties to take off the kid gloves and start pointing out that it not a warm fuzzy “pro-family” party but rather the political wing of the Pentecostal churches.

Almost as spectacular was the return to form of the Nationals, with 5.4% and a likely nine lower house seats, their best result since 1996. Readers will know that I am no fan of the National Party, but I warned that its sitting members should not be written off. In the end they got Labor preferences, but none of them needed them, and Rodney and Mildura were won without them.

The Nationals cannot be just wished away. Whoever is Liberal leader at the next election will have to make a choice: either a definite yes or no to the issue of a coalition.

Labor will constantly put the opposition on the spot, and the issue can no longer be fudged. Either both sides need to swallow their pride and hammer out a coalition agreement, or the Liberals need to say firmly that there will be no coalition, and that in the event of the Nationals holding the balance of power the Liberals will form a minority government and dare them to vote with the ALP.

Peter Fray

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