The race that stops the nation will not be the only one commencing in Victoria today. Among the duties scheduled for Governor Alex Chernov on Melbourne Cup day are the issuing of the writs for the November 29 state election, which will officially place the government in caretaker mode and formally initiate the 25-day campaign period.

To mark the occasion, I have today pressed the button on the Poll Bludger’s seat-by-seat election guide, which reviews the state of play in each of the 88 lower house electorates alongside maps and charts displaying demographic indicators and past election results.

With the Coalition going into the contest with 44 seats to Labor’s 43, this is an election where electorate-level trench warfare looms especially large. The voluminous polling to emerge in the past week suggests the Napthine government has its back to the wall, and that any victory it might be able to cobble together will require skillful rearguard actions and judicious sandbagging of key seats.

But as the electoral pendulum shows, that will be no easy task. Under the new boundaries to take effect at the election, there are no fewer than four seats in the Liberal column with barely existent margins of less than 0.4%, and they are joined by another four in the sub-2% zone.

The redistribution casts a long shadow over the election, having been the first conducted since the turn of the century. Dramatic changes over the intervening decade had to be accounted for, including acres of new suburban sprawl in outer Melbourne growth centres such as Point Cook in the west, Craigieburn in the north and Cranbourne in the south-east.

By contrast, stagnation was evident not only in rural and regional areas, which usually bear the brunt of downsizing in redistributions, but also in the middle ring of Melbourne suburbs that emerged to accommodate the post-war baby boom.

As a result, the redistribution brings into being new electorates at Werribee and Sunbury in Melbourne’s west and north-west, while abolishing safe Liberal Doncaster in eastern Melbourne and creating three safely conservative seats in northern Victoria (Murray Plains, Euroa and Eildon) where previously there were four (Swan Hill, Rodney, Benalla and Seymour).

Given that Labor came within an ace of retaining office in 2010 from an under-nourished two-party vote of 48.4%, the exchange of one seat in the country and another in the eastern suburbs for two in the party’s western and northern Melbourne heartland might sound a very good deal.

But Labor has been made to pay in other ways, with no fewer than five of its members emerging from the redistribution in notionally Liberal seats. All told, four Labor incumbents at the election will need swings in their favour to keep their parliamentary careers afloat, including deputy leader James Merlino in Monbulk (a Liberal margin of 1.1%), Sharon Knight in Wendouree (a 0.1% Liberal margin in a seat previously called Ballarat West), Danielle Green in Yan Yean (0.1%) and Lisa Neville in Bellarine (2.5%). A fifth, Joe Helper, will be retiring in his western regional seat of Ripon, which is widely expected to fall to either the Liberals or the Nationals.

Other Labor members have had their margins substantially diminished, not the least being Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews, whose healthy 8.5% buffer in his eastern suburbs seat of Mulgrave has been pared back to a dicey 2.4%.

Between the two newly created Labor seats and the five which have been moved to the Coalition side of the pendulum, Labor goes into the election with a notional total of 40 seats, as opposed to the 43 it holds from the 2010 election. To reduce it to a crude question of uniform swings, Labor would make it to the magic 45 with a shift in its favour of 0.9% — in which case the crucible would be the south-eastern Melbourne seat of Bentleigh, just as it was in 2010.

Ordinarily, I would caution here that governments seeking second terms typically enjoy the advantage of the “sophomore surge” effect, whereby the seats won to take office are defended by members enjoying the benefits of incumbency for the first time. However, circumstances have conspired to deprive the government of most of this advantage this time around.

As noted, four of the notional marginal Liberal seats are in fact being defended by Labor members. There is also a particularly low-hanging fruit for Labor in Frankston, where troubled member Geoff Shaw is making a quixotic independent bid to retain the seat he won for the Liberals in 2010. The redistribution has done Labor a further good turn here by adding strong territory for them at Frankston North, which has slashed the Liberal margin from 2.1% to just 0.4%.

The redistribution has also had the effect of giving marginal seat-holders unfamiliar new turf to campaign on. Mordialloc and Carrum, respectively held for the Liberals by Lorraine Wreford and Donna Bauer, are neighbouring seats along Melbourne’s south-eastern bayside that decisively shifted in 2010 on the back of discontent over the performance of the Frankston rail line. While both have maintained their character as Liberal seats on narrow margins, they have been redrawn so heavily that they retain only half the voters they had with the 2010 boundaries.

Other seats lost by Labor in 2010 — Prahran (4.7%), Forest Hill (3.5%) and Burwood (6.3%) in Melbourne’s east and south-east, together with the outer Geelong electorate of South Barwon (4.9%) — will not be so easy to crack.

However, wins in such places would merely be icing on Labor’s cake, returning them to the glory days of the Bracks years. The shorter path to victory involves retaining the seats held by its sitting members, and luring the Frankston rail line trio of Mordialloc, Carrum and Frankston back to the Labor fold.

Peter Fray

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