Victorian election Matthew Guy
Leader of the Victorian Liberal Party Matthew Guy (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

Well, William Bowe has all the delicious details on the great Victorian Saturday night massacre, and my colleague Bernard Keane has some of the main lines of argument, so let me go back to 1834, when the seeds of this victory were laid down.

The common observation is that Victoria is now a thoroughly progressive state, and that the Victorian Liberal Party did not even begin to perceive the degree to which this has occurred. How the Libs managed to do that is quite a thing. Victoria, and Melbourne, may have been a hidebound place for decades, but it was always a “social liberal” place keen on collective and statist solutions.

In 1982, the Cain Labor government refashioned the place by drawing culture and the arts deeper into the city’s branding and economy. Jeff Kennett’s ’90s government, crucially, did not reverse this process — instead, twinning it with right-wing economic measures. Through the ’90s and into the 2000s, Victoria’s ensemble of social and economic politics came to be markedly different from other states, especially NSW and Queensland. That was cemented by Kennett’s premature loss to Labor (thanks Jeff! That may have done more to dispel depression than anything you’ve done for Beyond Blue), the Bracks/Brumby stability, and the bizarre pointlessness of the Baillieu government.

But as Victoria was going on its merry way, Sydney was becoming an ever-tighter concentration of capital, power, media and right-wing politics. Across the Anglosphere, it was becoming clear that the Thatcher-Reagan-Howard formula of free markets and enforced traditional values wasn’t working anymore as class and cultures changed. The Murdoch/right bubble has been one area where it survived.

This coincided with a decline in the calibre of Liberal personnel. “Hamer liberalism” — the slogan dear Crikey founder Stephen Mayne will be losing under in 2019 — offered public service as a life path on the right. With that hollowed out, who would become a Liberal? There remain some decent people there, but the overwhelming perception is of a band of far-right Christians, and incompetent real estate agent types, which latter includes the still-current (amazingly) leader, Matthew Guy.

Thus was prepared a perfect storm. A state dominated to an absurd degree by its capital city (a capital city becoming a sort of Eurasian Copenhagen), a distant crazed reactionary media, and a right-wing leadership lacking the intelligence to see what was happening.

Though no one saw the landslide coming, everyone felt the rocks pinging down.

How much this stonking loss was due to the deep structure I’m talking about, and how much happened in the last week or two is hard to discern. Much of the turn away from the Liberals appears to be due to a perception that none of the problems of the Baillieu/Napthine government — lack of vision and leadership — had not been addressed.

But if there’s one moment which felt like the “killer”, it was in the Andrews-Guy leaders’ debate on Jon Faine’s 3LO Radio Melbourne morning show. Radios across the south-eastern burbs are tuned to Faine North Korean style, with no moveable dial, and Guy took that moment to double-down on his commitment to close the Richmond safe-injecting room “within days” of becoming premier in bizzarro altworld.

Guy stuck to this, even when Faine presented the incontrovertible evidence that many lives had been saved. Across the city, you could hear the disgust. Guy had taken the poll findings that people don’t necessarily want an injecting room in their own ‘burb, to mean they don’t want it to exist, or morally disapprove of the principle.

The commitment was, well, un-Victorian. Or un-current-Victorian. Some Bolte-era bourgeoisie was being conjured into air, and fused with Sydney-centric culture warriordom. Symbolic or real, that was the turn from loss to landslide.

But to be fair, there’s a degree of Monday captaining here. Everyone thought this would be a closer election, lineball in the bayside seats, Greens with balance of power. Culture warriordom was one angle worth trying — but only because no work had been done to give a genuine free market alternative path for state development. Instead, Guy’s Liberals offered equal measures of statism — such as building up regional cities, but with no commitment to the grunt work that would get it done.

What this election has done is tell us something about the transformation — not only of Victoria, but of Anglosphere polities. Arguably, this is the first such election in the post neocon-neoliberal era — in which appealing to that particular mix leads to an utterly disastrous result. Liberal leader-in-waiting John Pesutto, Schrodinger’s member, dead and alive in Hawthorn, says that there the party has to turn outward, bury differences etc.

But really, turning inward is exactly what remnant Hamer/moderate/business-oriented leaders need to do — a two-year factional war, blood, purges, the works, to reconstruct the party (after all, no one will give a damn what they say about anything else for ages). Presuming they’re still a force within it.

Yes, yes, Labor is scarcely wholly progressive. Yes, yes, they could stuff it up. More of that later. But most likely by 2026, no Victorian under 40 will have been much aware of anything except Labor governments. That prospect must be terrifying to Liberals, but prior to that it is simply extraordinary.

Peter Fray

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