Last year, as opinion polls pointed to not merely a Coalition defeat but a clean sweep by Labor of every traditionally competitive seat, Liberal MPs prioritised their survival instincts in sufficient numbers to doom Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who had swept them to victory just two years earlier.
As the new year begins, all indications are that the move has more than achieved its desired result — so much so that it now falls to members on the other side of the parliamentary chamber to fear for their job security.
Trend analysis of all polling conducted since the 2013 election, incorporating both published and unpublished breakdowns at state level, suggests an election held today would all but replicate Tony Abbott’s landslide win of 2013 — and perhaps even go a little further than that in the two largest states.
While the shift to the Coalition over the past few months has been remarkably consistent across the country, it does appear that the differential between what voters thought of Tony Abbott and what they think of Malcolm Turnbull has been biggest in Victoria.
In recent times, the electoral battle in Victoria has been concentrated on a narrow range of marginal seats: Deakin and La Trobe in Melbourne’s east, and the outer Geelong and Great Ocean Road seat of Corangamite.
On present indications, the Liberal members who won these seats from Labor in 2013 should be re-elected in a canter.
The front line now looks to have moved on to two neighbouring seats in eastern Melbourne, both with Labor members who are set to retire: Anna Burke, whose career was chiefly notable for her stint as speaker between the demise of Peter Slipper and the 2013 election defeat, and Alan Griffin, who served as a junior minister in Kevin Rudd’s first term and later emerged as a spear carrier for his extended campaign to wrest the leadership back from Julia Gillard.
Burke and Griffin’s respective seats of Chisholm and Bruce have been held by Labor since redistributions changed their complexion in the late 1990s, and they certainly remain tough nuts for the Liberals to crack.
However, the Liberals have cause to hope that the departure of Labor members who have spent the better part of two decades building up local support will prove sufficient to tip them over the edge.
If so, Bruce could provide a route back to Parliament for preselection hopeful Helen Kroger, the ex-wife of Victorian Liberal state president Michael Kroger and a former Senator, whose re-election bid in 2013 was buried beneath the Ricky Muir preference snowball.
Labor will also be feeling nervous about its Victorian holdings outside Melbourne, particularly Bendigo and McEwen, which were retained by Lisa Chesters and Rob Mitchell on narrow margins after big swings in 2013.
The overall geographic consistency of the recent polling shift is also of concern to Labor in New South Wales, where the Coalition was starting from a relatively high base, since the state’s reaction against the Abbott government had been slightly milder than elsewhere.
There seemed little doubt during the later Abbott period that a number of Liberals who had nabbed traditional Labor seats in Sydney in 2013 — David Coleman in Banks, Craig Laundy in Reid and Nick Varvaris in Barton — would end up as one-term wonders.
Each of the electorates is demographically multicultural, such that all three members felt it prudent to distance themselves from the Abbott government’s early enthusiasm for toning down racial vilification laws.
With Turnbull now in The Lodge, Coleman and Laundy in particular have cause to breathe more easily.
However, the situation facing Nick Varvaris — the only one of the three who supported Abbott during the leadership challenge — has been complicated by the redistribution, which makes Barton a notionally Labor seat through an expansion northwards into the green-left inner-city stronghold of Marrickville.
Even here, though, Varvaris has been given a fighting chance by last week’s finalisation of the boundaries, which curtailed the Marrickville transfer as it appeared in the draft proposal. Varvaris must now overcome a notional Labor margin of around 3.5%, rather than the originally proposed 7.5%.
This change is likely to make Anthony Albanese think again about his plan to move to Barton from his neighbouring seat of Grayndler, where he endures a lingering threat from the Greens.
If the Liberals can hold the line in the seats gained in 2013, the question arises as to whether the Labor members who narrowly survived the Abbott landslide will do the same.
In the western Sydney seat of Greenway, Labor’s Michelle Rowland probably owed her victories in both 2010 and 2013 to accident-prone Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz, who will surely not be given the opportunity to drag the Liberal vote down for a third time.
Her colleague in the neighbouring seat of Parramatta, Julie Owens, was also run close in 2013, although the redistribution has done her a good turn by stretching the electorate north-westwards into the Toongabbie area, which boosts her margin from 0.6% to 2.3%.
Of course, a good deal may change between now and an election, which, it was argued here last week, is unlikely to be held before September.
However, it’s surely ominous for Labor that the government’s mislaying of two ministers over the New Year break appears to have done nothing to slow the Malcolm Turnbull juggernaut, with the first opinion poll of the year — published last week by Roy Morgan — crediting the Coalition with a thumping lead of 56-44 after preferences.