This past weekend the state of Victoria held an election. The result was an overwhelming victory for the Labor Party, securing a third four-year term for the government of Daniel Andrews — which will make him the state’s second longest serving premier. The result confirmed that the Labor Party’s chief rival, the Liberal Party, is now deeply unpopular in the state. Although votes are still being counted, the party’s primary vote — the number of first preferences it received — looks like it will dip below 30 percent. That’s its lowest vote since 1952, leaving the party with less than 20 seats in the 88 seat lower house.
Unlike the United States, where there are many solid “red” and “blue” states with very little chance of governments changing hands, Australian states have usually had highly competitive elections and regular changes of government. Independent electoral commissions that prevent gerrymandering are one reason for this, but the other is that Australians see changing governments as a constructive way to prevent parties from succumbing to the excesses of power.
Yet this highly competitive system has relied on the public being able to trust both of Australia’s major political parties. With the Labor Party now set to govern Victoria for 23 of the 27 years between 1999 and the next election in 2026, it is clear that the state’s public no longer trusts the Liberal Party.
The party’s traditional vote is fracturing in multiple different directions. Some of its once safe seats in Melbourne’s east and southeast have now been fully converted into Labor seats. This is an extraordinary loss of faith in the party from what should be one of its natural constituencies — middle income professionals. The Liberal Party has demonstrated an extraordinary deaf ear by opposing a desperately needed new circular rail project — the first stage of which will run through the east and southeast suburbs. This is a project that voters have now endorsed twice. The Liberal Party’s difficulty in being able to speak to an increasingly diverse electorate also hinders them in these seats.
While middle income professionals have abandoned the party to Labor, continuing on from a trend at the federal election, seats of the highly educated wealthy elite are also now vulnerable to “teal” candidates – a loose movement of female independents who are economically liberal (or conservative, depending on your political dialect) but socially progressive – with a keen focus on environmental issues. With counting ongoing as of this writing, the Liberal Party may hold on to seats that overlap with those they lost at the federal election, but this movement has demonstrated that the alliance of economic liberalism and social conservatism that the Liberal Party represents is riddled with contradictions that many voters can no longer abide by.
The other constituency that the Liberal Party has lost – and the one it seems most concerned with – is that of the reactionary fringe. These are people mired in online conspiracies and obsessed with the American culture wars. Several new parties formed for this election trying to capture this particular vote and although their support is small, the Liberal Party seems unusually concerned with their issues. The problem for the Liberal Party is that the more it tries to placate these voters – who mostly cannot be placated – the more the party turns off the far more numerous mainstream voters that actually decide elections.
For the Liberal Party to become viable in Victoria again there are some major structural issues it needs to address. The first is the realization that its symbiotic relationship with the Murdoch media is to its detriment. Whereas once the path to power in Australia ran through the pages of the News Corp tabloids, this era is now over. Melbourne’s Herald-Sun may remain the country’s largest circulating paper, but it is now read with a skeptical eye or as a dark work of satire. Its editorial line – which is often hysterical in its hostility toward Premier Andrews – now has the counter-effect of securing votes for Labor.
The second is to not take its election loss as a psychological reward. Conservative politics throughout the West is currently trapped in a spiral of negativity and an often comical flailing at the modern world. When parties retreat further into in-groups in order to shield themselves from reality, electoral losses vindicate their sense that the world is against them. It leads them to double down on positions that are not popular but provide a sense of emotional security.
Next March, New South Wales (NSW) will also hold an election. The state is now only one of two jurisdictions in the country – along with the state of Tasmania – to have a Liberal Party government (in coalition with the National Party in NSW). Current polling indicates a Labor victory is in the offing. This would create an extraordinary scenario of almost total Labor dominance across the country.
With the Liberal Party formed in 1944, it served its purpose as a Cold War party – thriving in the unique conditions of the time. Yet it may be the case that the new conditions of the 21st century are no longer suited to the party’s ideas. It may have to dramatically reconfigure itself, or be replaced.