With a state election campaign which could go down to the wire, ALEX SINNOTT looks at the electorates likely to decide the next government.
EVERY vote may count, but Victoria’s political operatives are well aware some voters count more than others.
The people who will decide who wins control of Spring Street in November live in the frosty neighbourhoods of Ballarat, the bayside avenues of Geelong and suburbs of south-eastern Melbourne.
Expect to see Premier Denis Napthine and Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews making efforts to win over voters of those key areas in the next few months, political experts say.
Opinion polling before the state election has revealed the margin between Labor and the Coalition has narrowed in the past month or so.
But the gap in the two party-preferred vote is still substantial: 54 per cent to 46 per cent in the opposition’s favour.
This week’s Age-Nielsen poll also shows Dr Napthine ahead as preferred premier at 46 per cent to Mr Andrews’ 38 per cent, with 16 per cent uncommitted.
The latest figures are a marked improvement for the government compared with last month’s poll, which pointed to a Labor landslide, although it would still leave the Coalition concerned.
It is not all roses for Labor either. While the opposition would win handsomely if an election was held today based on the poll numbers, its inner-city heartland is under attack from the Greens.
While MPs of all persuasions dismiss the veracity of opinion polling, Swinburne University state political specialist Brian Costar says they pay more attention than they let on.
“Looking at this week’s figures, it’s fair to say that 59-41 (per cent) poll was an aberration, a rogue poll really,” Professor Costar said.
“The gap of about 54 per cent to Labor, 46 to the Coalition looks pretty accurate and all the commentary has been that it’ll probably tighten further as we get closer to an election, with the Labor party still on trend to win.”
Health, education and public transport are the key three issues that have traditionally dominated state elections and on that note, Labor gets a tick of approval from this week’s opinion poll.
The Age-Nielsen survey found the ALP scored strongly with voter perception in the first two categories although on public transport, sentiment was reasonably even.
Respondents gave the Coalition the tick of approval for law and order, roads and managing the state budget — areas where Ted Baillieu campaigned strongly at the 2010 state election.
Professor Costar said the swinging voters in Melbourne’s south-east would be particularly focused on public transport given the bumper-to-bumper nature of the daily commute.
“Suburbs running down the Nepean Highway are losing their traditional Labor status but still look at Labor as strong providers when it comes to services, particularly transport,” he said.
While the loss of regional constituencies were key to the Kennett government’s defeat in September 1999, those seats in Ballarat and Geelong remained Labor territory at the 2010 election.
It was south-east Melbourne, including the success of Frankston accountant Geoff Shaw, that propelled the Baillieu government to power in 2010 but those with an eye on the competition believe regional Victoria is where the election will be won and lost.
Political commentator Adam Kempton said the Coalition was likely to lose several south-east Melbourne seats and needed to counter-act the trend by picking up regional electorates.
The former Liberal MP said the weakening reliance on manufacturing had altered the nature of Geelong and Ballarat, meaning the two cities could swing either way.
“I was in Ballarat recently and the city is quite prosperous. Business is strong and Ballarat has changed a great deal in the past few years so the Coalition could make gains there,” Mr Kempton said.
“Geelong is the big question mark, with significant change in the past few years. I understand the Geelong mayor, Darryn Lyons, is supportive of Denis Napthine, but he’s a very colourful figure so who knows whether he’ll have an impact or whether Geelong people will look beyond council to more broader issues.”
While all eyes on election night will be on Geelong, Ballarat and suburban seats like Bentleigh and Yan Yean, electoral trends in south-west Victoria are more predictable.
South West Coast and Polwarth are highly likely to be retained by the Liberal Party, with local MPs Dr Napthine and Transport Minister Terry Mulder holding the seats on substantial margins.
The National Party has fingers crossed for a smooth transition for retiring Lowan MP Hugh Delahunty. The Sports Minister is hanging up the boots after 15 years in the political fray.
Hospital administrator Emma Kealy is standing as his National Party replacement, with competition from Liberal-turned-independent Katrina Rainsford among others.
Mr Kempton said at a local level, the spotlight would be on the often-forgotten upper house as minor parties clamber for their opportunity at a parliamentary seat.
Under the Legislative Council’s proportional voting model, smaller parties are far more likely to gain a foothold in Spring Street.
Due to their command over a large share of votes, the Labor and Liberal parties are almost guaranteed two seats each, covering the upper house electorate which covers Warrnambool, Ballarat, Portland, Geelong, Horsham and everywhere in between.
The fifth and final spot for the vast electorate will be the most interesting.
National Party MP David O’Brien holds the spot after replacing Democratic Labour MP Peter Kavanagh at the 2010 election.
But with preferences playing a significant, if somewhat confusing role, smaller players have a greater chance.
Moyne Shire mayor James Purcell hopes to claim the ideological middle ground with his Vote1 Local Jobs Party, while The Greens are trying to make inroads after several near-miss attempts.
Just like the scattered nature of upper house vote counting, Professor Costar says the winner in late November is anyone’s guess.
“We rarely see a government at any level having to win more seats in order to retain government. This election is make or break for both Napthine and Andrews.”