With the departure of Ted Baillieu, it’s a good time for a fresh look at one of his key moves as Liberal leader — the decision to preference Labor ahead of the Greens across the board at the last Victorian election.

If those preferences had gone to the Greens instead (as they had in past elections), they would in all probability have taken three of Labor’s inner city seats: Brunswick, Melbourne and Richmond. Three fewer Labor MPs in the current Legislative Assembly would make a big difference to its dynamic.

That’s not to say the Greens would be terribly sympathetic to the current government, which has taken some decisions (alpine grazing, wind farms) that outrage Greens’ supporters. But their presence would give new Premier Denis Napthine some additional options. With relatively poor polling and limited resources the Greens would not be keen on an early election, and they might have been open to some sort of deal (maybe one of them taking the speakership) that would keep the Coalition in power.

Even more so, one might think, since the alternative is having a government in hock to Geoff Shaw, a fundamentalist whose positions are the antithesis of everything the Greens stand for.

Of course, it’s not certain the 2010 election outcome would otherwise have been the same if the decision on preferences had been different. At the time, it was seen as a boost to Baillieu’s standing, showing him to be a decisive leader, and it certainly heightened Labor’s obsession with the Greens and the inner city, which diverted vital resources from its marginal seats.

Maybe without that distraction, Labor would have found the extra 262 votes to hold Bentleigh, creating a hung parliament. We will never know.

But it’s interesting that there seems to have been so little soul-searching among the Liberals as to whether they did the right thing with preferences. The narrative that the Greens are the real enemy has taken firm hold.

And that in turn lends even more interest to tomorrow’s Western Australian election, where the Greens and the Liberals have quite surprisingly managed to come to terms. For the first time since the Queensland state election of 1995 (the koala motorway election), the Greens are directing preferences to the Liberals in two seats, North West Central and Warren-Blackwood, both in an effort to get the Liberals up ahead of the Nationals.

In return, the Liberals are preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor in the only lower house seat that might matter, Fremantle, and also in four of the six upper house regions (my colleague Poll Bludger has the details).

For the Greens, this is a good opportunity to show some flexibility. There’s no real doubt about the overall outcome, and there’s not much in the way of policy difference between the two major parties anyway. Building some bridges to the Liberals is a sensible move.

The Liberals’ motivations are not so clear, but in a sense it’s a case of “Only Nixon can go to China”: because no one would suspect the WA Liberals of being a progressive organisation in the first place, they can afford to be pragmatic about their preferences.

Baillieu had no such flexibility. It didn’t matter that preferencing the Greens had been standard practice in the past, or that it made perfect sense in terms of the Liberal Party’s raison d’etre: (a) beat the ALP; (b) defend the economic interests of the middle class, on both of which the Greens are better allies. Anything that looked like sympathy for the Greens would have just fed the notion that Baillieu was a dangerous radical.

So he decided to placate the Right by shafting the Greens. In the short term it worked well, but as he found out this week, some people really can’t be appeased.