Australia’s first election for the year will be a rather sedate affair.

Writs were issued yesterday for a byelection to be held on February 19 in the Victorian state seat of Broadmeadows, to fill the vacancy caused by the retirement of former premier John Brumby.

Broadmeadows was never going to be much of a contest, since Labor holds the seat with a margin of 21%: Brumby scored 62.3% of the primary vote in last November’s election. It will be even less of one now since the Liberal Party yesterday announced that it would not be fielding a candidate, removing any opportunity for the voters to express a view on the performance so far of the state’s new Coalition government.

No party these days should feel guilty about not contesting a seat that needs a 21% swing. This is not at all like the party’s 2007 decision not to run in Albert Park, where the margin was below 10% (and which in November delivered a 7.6% swing). On that occasion, Ted Baillieu argued in favour of running but was rolled by his administrative committee.

All the same, it’s a somewhat odd decision. One of the surprises of the Victorian election was how well the Liberals did in the traditional Labor suburbs north of the Yarra: unexpectedly winning two additional upper house seats, coming close in two lower house seats (Eltham and Essendon) and getting a 10.9% swing in Broadmeadows itself. It might reasonably have been thought that building the party brand in this area was worth the small additional investment.

The terms in which it was defended were also odd, with the party’s state director Tony Nutt paying tribute  to Brumby’s “service as premier and treasurer to the people of Victoria” — polite, but not mentioning the fact that Brumby has caused a byelection by breaking an explicit undertaking to serve the full term.

This would have been a good opportunity to call for a protest vote.

It’s not as if the lack of a Liberal candidate will save the taxpayers any money. There will still be a poll, because the Greens will certainly run and most probably the DLP and one or more independents — although none of them will give Labor any cause for concern.

It may be just an expression of their habitual conservatism, but it suggests the Liberals are uncertain about the strength of the Baillieu government’s honeymoon effect. If they were sure that there would be a swing in their favour, they would surely have taken advantage of it.

The last week’s floods have given Baillieu his first real opportunity to feature on the news and in people’s consciousness as premier. He hasn’t done badly, but it’s clearly a distraction from his strategy of settling into government and building confidence gradually rather than through Kennett-style shock therapy.

In the other flood-hit states, beleaguered premiers have been seen to have risen to the occasion and performed well — especially Anna Bligh in Queensland, who has won near-universal praise (Peter Brent somewhat mischievously suggests that she should now retire on a high). But they are at a point where electorally they have nothing to lose.

Ted Baillieu has plenty to lose, so caution is the order of the day.

Peter Fray

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