And they’re off! Well, sort of: Premier John Brumby went to visit the governor yesterday, but the writs won’t actually be issued until late this afternoon. Either way, as we’ve known all along, Victoria will go to the polls in three and a half weeks, on November 27.

As usual, Antony Green’s election guide, and especially his pendulum, offer indispensable assistance. Labor currently holds 55 of the 88 seats in the Legislative Assembly to the opposition’s 32 (23 Liberals, nine Nationals) and one independent, Craig Ingram in Gippsland East. The Coalition needs to take 12 seats to win government (since with 44 Ingram would have no real choice but to support them), which would require a uniform swing of 6.3%.

Polls have been consistently showing movement away from Labor, but not on that scale. Saturday’s ACNielsen poll reported a two-party-preferred result of 53-47 in Labor’s favor, a swing of 1.4%. Newspoll earlier in the week put it at 52-48, while Galaxy a few weeks before had said 51-49. But even a 51-49 would probably translate to a fairly clear Labor victory; Opposition leader Ted Baillieu really needs at least 51-49 the other way.

The Greens will almost certainly win seats from Labor in the inner city, so it’s possible that an agreement with them could put the Coalition in government even if it falls short of the required seats. But that doesn’t seem likely, and even then it would take big opposition gains — at least a swing of about 4% — to make it a practical proposition. So although the Greens and their inner-city fortunes have had lots of media coverage, the real action in the election will be in the Labor versus Coalition marginals, which are concentrated mostly in the outer eastern suburbs and in regional cities.

The Opposition did moderately well at the 2006 election, picking up seven seats — they are now the first seven on the Coalition side of the pendulum. Their new members all stand to benefit from a “sophomore surge”, and it’s unlikely that Labor will put much effort into trying to win them back. Its task is to hold the marginals on its side.

The first three of those — Mount Waverley, Gembrook and Forest Hill — have margins less than 1%, so their members should already by thinking about alternative employment opportunities. Most of the interest will be concentrated on the next group, the eight seats with margins between 2% and 6%. Three are in the outer east, two in the inner east and one each in and around Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo.

There will be some interesting contests here, but ultimately Labor can afford to lose most of these seats and still hold government. Even if it lost all of them but held the line elsewhere (a most unlikely result, since swings are never exactly uniform), it would have — together with the Greens — the minimum 44 seats for a possible government, albeit a tenuous one.

So Baillieu really needs to get to the next level, where the seats bunch together more: there are seven with margins between 6.3% and 6.7%, and another four clustered around the 8% mark. Several of those look clearly out of reach, but others are in classically swinging territory and could be expected to move more than the average — places such as Monbulk, Macedon, Yan Yean and the two Ballarat seats. Even the occasional seat beyond that point, such as Narre Warren North (9.2%) or Ivanhoe (10.4%), could be in danger if the swing is on.

In other words, if the votes are there then there are certainly enough seats in play for the Opposition to make the gains it needs. Unfortunately for it, many of its best issues — public transport, planning, government probity and corruption — are not typical outer-suburban concerns. They may play well in the more established suburbs, but most of the seats there are already safe for one or the other party.

If he is going to be premier, Baillieu will have to capture the enthusiasm, or at least the goodwill, of the regional and outer-suburban voters who so conspicuously deserted his party in 1999 and 2002. So far that doesn’t seem to be happening, so most of the money is on Labor to hold on. But there’s enough time left for Labor to fall behind in the run home.

Peter Fray

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