Most political professionals, whether campaigners or pundits, live in the cities, as of course do most voters, so election coverage tends to be concentrated there. But every now and then, something reminds us that country seats can have a decisive impact on election results.

One such case was the 1999 Victorian election, which surprisingly put Labor into power under Steve Bracks. In aggregate, the swing to Labor was not especially large (about 3.7%), but it won a swag of seats in regional Victoria with above-average swings, capitalising on discontent with a government that was seen to have ignored voters outside of Melbourne.

The interesting thing about Bracks’ victory was that the outer-eastern and south-eastern suburbs, traditionally seen much more as swinging territory, didn’t shift much at all. But after three years, when Labor had governed in a restrained and competent fashion, those seats swung by huge amounts, delivering Bracks a landslide re-election in 2002.

This year, Premier Denis Napthine’s government hopes to be able to reproduce Bracks’ strategy in reverse.

Victoria’s provincial seats presented a tempting target for the Coalition at the last election; the 10 seats stretched across the Geelong-Ballarat-Bendigo area were all Labor-held, most of them with margins below 8% (you can read my preview at the time here). But as it happened, the Coalition won the election very much in the suburbs. South Barwon, with a swing of 6.2%, was the only provincial seat to fall.

Some of those suburban gains are now looking dicey. The bookies have Labor as hot favorites in the south-eastern seats of Bentleigh, Carrum and Frankston. To offset possible losses, the regional seats will be critical.

A complicating factor, however, is the recent redistribution. In addition to South Barwon, three of the provincial seats are now nominally Liberal: Bellarine (2.5%), Ripon (1.6%) and Wendouree (formerly called Ballarat West, 0.1%). But since all of them have Labor members (although Ripon’s is retiring), they should all be thought of as seats the Coalition is trying to gain.

Then there are the five provincial marginals on the Labor side of the pendulum: Geelong (4.0%), Bendigo East (3.2%), Bendigo West (3.1%), Macedon (2.3%) and Buninyong (formerly Ballarat East, 1.6%). The two Bendigos look reasonably secure, but the Coalition will be making a determined effort in the other three.

Macedon (known as Gisborne prior to 2002) is a particularly tantalising prospect, since Labor has scored something of an own goal with a messy preselection battle that parachuted Mary-Anne Thomas — hitherto an inner-city resident — into the seat, despite the local ballot going overwhelmingly to her rival, former federal MP Christian Zahra.

From the government’s point of view, the theory is that country voters have no real attachment to Labor but, being naturally fairly cautious, were biding their time in 2010. Having seen that the Coalition was able to govern without any major disasters, they would, as a matter of course, drift back this time around, converting a knife-edge majority into something more substantial.

In the immediate aftermath of the last election, that reasoning seemed persuasive. It seems less so now; events of the last two years, especially the replacement of a premier and the continuing destabilisation of Parliament by rogue MP Geoff Shaw, have greatly weakened the Coalition’s claim to provide a steady hand on the tiller.

On the other hand, there are still six weeks to go, and the seats are still there if a good campaign can be mounted. Even two or three gains outside of the city would mean a big improvement to Napthine’s chances of retaining office.

* Charles Richardson was a member of the Liberal Party from 1978 to 1996 and worked in the Kennett government.

Peter Fray

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