In spite of everything, the Coalition appears to be entering the campaign for the May 18 election in a spirit that can at least be called hopeful, if not quite optimistic.
Their reading of the situation is mirrored in the Labor camp, which is taking a conservative view — for a party that retains a clear edge in the polls — of what seats to target.
The Coalition ended the term on 74 seats out of 150, two down on the 2016 election thanks to the Wentworth byelection and the resignation of Chisholm MP Julia Banks.
A further incremental setback looms with the growth in the ACT’s seat entitlement from two seats to three, a free kick for Labor that will increase the total number of seats to 151.
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Redistribution in Victoria also gives Labor a headstart in the Liberal-held seat of Dunkley, and eliminates the Liberal margin in their already precarious seat of Corangamite.
To get into a position where it is even able to cling to minority government, the Coalition will need to hack a path through seats currently held by Labor.
That seemed a distant prospect for most of the past term, but in New South Wales at least, the Liberals have ratcheted up their expectations after their surprisingly clear win in the recent state election.
Their biggest show is the mystically significant seat of Lindsay on Sydney’s western fringe, which Labor strategists famously structured their entire campaign around in 2010.
A white working-class electorate of tradesmen and machinery operators, Lindsay was gained by Labor in 2016 off a swing of 4% — the first time it had been won by the losing party at an election since it was created in 1984.
Lindsay is ground zero for Liberal campaigns on border control and the alleged impact of Labor’s environment policies on power bills and heavy vehicles. Voters there are better attuned to the purposefully suburban image presented by Scott Morrison than to the urbane and managerial Malcolm Turnbull.
Another opportunity for the Coalition to pump its deflated tyres is the Townsville-based seat of Herbert, which Labor won in 2016 for the first time since Paul Keating was prime minister.
The key issue then was the severe and ongoing economic hangover from the end of the mining boom, which the government hopes it has turned to its favour with its approvals for the nearby Adani coal mine project.
With the rural Victorian seat of Indi expected to revert to type with the retirement of independent Cathy McGowan, and a growing conviction that Kerryn Phelps’s byelection win in Wentworth will prove to have been a one-off, Liberals who have spent the better part of six months engulfed in despair are now daring to imagine what victory might look like.
In the opposite corner, Labor goes into the election with 69 seats carried over from the last parliament, and can be certain of gaining the new seats of Fraser in Victoria and Bean in the ACT, and very confident about the redrawn Dunkley and Corangamite.
At least for starters, Labor’s strategy is to build a firewall out of the clear advantage it enjoys in Victoria, targeting Chisholm, the only seat they lost in 2016, and the eastern Melbourne seats of Deakin and La Trobe, held by Duttonite Liberals Michael Sukkar and Jason Wood.
Labor also expects to gain two seats off its still pitifully low base in Western Australia, where its brand was rejuvenated by the landslide state election win in March 2017.
With that accomplished, it need only tread water in New South Wales and Queensland — and for all the bullish Liberal talk, that seems eminently achievable as things stand at present.
The cosmopolitan inner-Sydney marginals of Reid and Banks present the Liberals with the same vulnerabilities that beset them in Victoria, and the surge of support they believe they have picked up across the state may yet prove to have been a short-term artefact of voter confusion over the state election.
Queensland must also be considered a game of two halves, with the threat to Labor in Herbert balanced by opportunities in Brisbane, up to and including Peter Dutton’s seat of Dickson.
It is with good reason that Labor starts the campaign as short-priced favourites with the bookies.
But with the experience of Labor’s disastrous state election campaign in New South Wales fresh in the mind, and over a month’s worth of campaign obstacles ahead of him, Bill Shorten can take nothing for granted.