The final act of the Victorian state election was played out yesterday when preferences for the legislative council were distributed.

(Results are available at the VEC website, but only by downloading individual spreadsheets for each region; summaries should be posted this afternoon after the official declarations of the poll.)

There were no surprises; the Coalition won the last seat in Northern Metropolitan and Northern Victoria, and the Greens held onto the last spot in Western Metropolitan. The closest was Northern Victoria, where Liberal Donna Petrovich held her seat by a narrow but clear 1689 votes ahead of Country Alliance.

Unlike 2006 — when the VEC had to recount two regions, one of them due to a fairly obvious counting error — we can be confident these are the final figures. The Coalition ends with 21 seats — 18 Liberals and three Nationals — Labor with 16 and the Greens with three. That’s a gain of four seats for the Coalition, three coming from Labor and one from the DLP.

This, of course, was not supposed to happen. Although I was one of the few who suggested beforehand that the Coalition might do well enough to not have to rely on the Greens, no one expected they would actually win a majority. Nor, logically, should they have done so with only 43.2% of the vote.

The problem is that Victoria’s upper house is still based on regions, with only five members each — in contrast to New South Wales and South Australia, where the whole state is one electorate. That means the luck of how votes are spread across regions can outweigh the overall proportionality. And the Coalition was lucky, winning most of the close races.

It also means that the threshold for representation is high; while the Greens do well enough to win seats, the small right-wing parties — Family First and the DLP — miss out. Instead their votes flow as preferences to the Coalition, boosting its total.

Since Victoria already has one house, the legislative assembly, elected from single-member districts, it’s mysterious why proportional representation shouldn’t be given full rein in the upper house. If it had, the result would have been something like 18 Coalition, 15 ALP, five Greens and one each for Family First and the DLP. Further confirmation that this really was a close election.

The limited proportionality of the legislative council does at least remedy the two worst features of the lower house, namely the over-representation of the Nationals and the complete failure to represent the Greens. But the fact that such a narrowly-elected government can still win a majority in both houses suggests that the Bracks government’s reform of the upper house has failed to achieve its objectives.

And although he would never admit it, Ted Baillieu himself may also be disappointed in yesterday’s result.

Lack of a majority in both houses can be a very useful brake for a government wanting to face down its own extremists. Baillieu would have been able to say to the Nationals — or to his more antediluvian backbenchers — “Look, I’d love to reintroduce the death penalty (or whatever), but those so-and-sos in the council would never let it through.”

Now he will have no such excuse. Labor and the Greens will be impotent to influence the government’s legislative program unless they can snare a defector from the other side, and the likelihood of that is pretty slim.

For better or worse, Victoria’s new government has the chance to do what it wants.

Peter Fray

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