Saturday’s result in Victoria was in many ways a reverse image of the last big surprise a state election turned up in that state, namely the defeat of Jeff Kennett’s government in 1999.
On that occasion, a Coalition government was driven to a shock defeat by an unforeseen trend in the regions; this time, a Labor government has enjoyed an unexpected landslide on the back of a swing no one saw coming in Melbourne.
The only thread common to both was victory for Labor – and it’s interesting to note that Labor tends to be the beneficiary of election night surprises in Australia, and has been since at least Paul Keating’s re-election in 1993.
The swing in Melbourne of around 6% was well beyond even the most optimistic of Labor’s pre-elections assessments, delivering the normally conservative eastern suburbs seats of Box Hill, Ringwood, Mount Waverley and Burwood.
The only consolation for the Liberals was that it wasn’t as bad as it looked on the night, when the deepest of deep blue-ribbon seats such as Brighton, Sandringham and Hawthorn appeared to be on the chopping block.
It turned out that well-heeled voters in these inner urban areas had flocked en masse to the pre-poll voting centres, casting votes for the Liberals that saved the day for them when added to the count later in the evening.
Interestingly, this was not replicated further out in the suburbs — the “sandbelt” seats of Bentleigh, Mordialloc, Carrum and Frankston, which held their accustomed place on “seats to watch” lists right to the last, produced stunning 10% swings to Labor both at pre-polling and on election day.
With the wisdom of hindsight, Labor’s successes here are being interpreted as an endorsement of the government’s public infrastructure priorities, specifically the removal of level crossings along the electorally sensitive Frankston line.
Conversely, the election played according to script in regional Victoria, where Labor is struggling to reel in the highly marginal Liberal seat of Ripon, and the bigger danger to the conservatives proved to be from independents.
In many ways, the widening of the urban-rural electoral divide occasioned by the Labor swing in Melbourne can be seen as a sign of the times.
Earlier this month, the Democrats owed many of their best results in the US mid-term elections to affluent urban voters who traditionally voted Republican for economic reasons.
Even in the direct absence of the Donald Trump factor, these voters’ Melburnian counterparts found plenty to react against in an Australian conservative movement that has experienced a rush of blood to its head in response to the populist turn in global politics.
Some of this was home-grown – the Liberal opposition clearly overplayed its hand on law and order, and state president Michael Kroger rightly features as a villain of the piece for his harnessing of conservative forces to assert his dominance over the state party organisation.
But for all the platitudes federal Liberals offered over the weekend about an election “decided on state issues”, the brand damage that made this more than just a normal defeat was unmistakeably the work of politicians in Canberra.
As luck would have it, a lot of the worst results corresponded with the electorates of federal MPs who helped bring the party to its present state by backing Peter Dutton’s bid for the leadership.
If Saturday’s swings are replicated federally, Duttonite casualties will certainly include Michael Sukkar in Deakin (where Ringwood was lost with a swing of 7.7%) and Jason Wood in La Trobe (covering the business end of Bass, gained by Labor on a 6.9% swing) — and perhaps even Greg Hunt in Flinders, whose margin is inside the 8.6% swing that has the Liberals on the brink of an unprecedented defeat in the Mornington Peninsula seat of Nepean.