Depending on your perspective, the big swing against Labor in Victoria on Saturday was either highly portentous or highly predictable.

In the former category are conservative politicians eager for an opportunity to give Labor a kicking, and media commentators professionally inclined to favour newsworthy angles over mundane ones.

The latter includes a Labor camp, which, for its own reasons, would prefer to think of an “it’s time” factor than its own failings — and, for what it’s worth, a psephological fraternity that is broadly inclined to agree with them.

For all that might legitimately be said about public transport, desalination plants, utilities bills, contentious water pipelines, arrogant leaders, preference strategies and backfiring attack ads, it is strictly business as usual for a party entering a second decade in office to feel the voters’ lash, particularly when it is of the same political stripe to the federal government.

The result also maintains the unity of electoral cycles, which has been evident across the states and territories since Labor governments came to power between 1995 and 2002, all of whom are now either entering of have passed their terminal phase.

The first to feel the tide turn were, funnily enough, the first two to face the polls after the election of Kevin Rudd — the governments of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, which went to the polls within weeks of each other in August and September 2008.

Both seeking third terms after coming to power in 2001, they suffered swings of 9% and 4.5%, which respectively had Paul Henderson’s government surviving narrowly and Alan Carpenter’s tipped out of office.

The swings at the subsequent elections in Queensland in March 2009 and South Australia and Tasmania a year later likewise differed in magnitude but not direction — even amid its former triumph the Bligh government copped a swing of 4%, while the latter two governments were desperately lucky to survive swings of about 8%.

In Victoria, the two-party swing is likely to end up at about 6%, and to have been distributed in ways that would not have surprised observers of the other state elections before it.

As in the other mainland states, Labor was dealt with most roughly in the metropolitan area, which John Brumby attempted to turn on its head on election night by boasting that the regions had stuck with them.

This was based mostly on Labor’s success in holding the neighbouring seats of Bendigo West, Bendigo East and Ripon, at which the party had thrown considerable resources after being spooked by poor internal polling.

In fact, the swing across Victoria was somewhat more uniform than in the other states, although telling patterns can be observed on a colour-coded swing map if you know where to look.

Of particular interest is the chain of heavy swings that can be observed through Prahran, Malvern, Burwood, Oakleigh and Mount Waverley, three of which were on the Labor casualty list (Prahran, Burwood and Mount Waverley, with swings of 7%, 9% and 8%).

Party observers say it’s no coincidence that these electorates follow the path of the poorly performing Glen Waverley rail line.

A similar effect can be vaguely discerned through the southern bayside seats and on to Hastings, where locals have been victims of the similarly troubled Frankston/Stony Point line.

Lost to Labor here were Bentleigh (7% swing), Mordialloc (6%), Carrum (10%) and Frankston (6%).

Beyond Melbourne, the striking drift away from Labor in the Latrobe Valley over the past half a decade continued apace.

Labor was surprised to lose Morwell and Narracan in 2006, but both are now deep in the conservative column — especially Morwell, where the swing of over 14% was the biggest in the state.

These were among several seats where particularly large swings were assisted by the “sophomore surge” effect, in which Coalition members who gained seats in 2006 went in to an election with a personal vote at their backs for the first time. Other examples included Ferntree Gully, Kilsyth, Hastings and Evelyn.

Retiring member effects explain the slight swing to Labor in Murray Valley, and perhaps also the heavy swings against them in Essendon and Williamstown (Labor having lost Steve Bracks’ personal vote in the latter since 2006).

When such one-off effects are ironed out, it becomes apparent that service failures and other localised issues were of less impact than a sense of fatigue with the incumbent that knew few geographical distinctions.

The same thing happened to the wave of conservative state governments that preceded the outgoing Labor crop, in most cases after only two terms, and will most assuredly do so again to the new lot at the far end of the decade — at which time accounts of governments falling victim to familiar personal and political failings will be dusted off and given another run.

Peter Fray

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