IPA Today

Long Game Can Turn Underdog To Premier

Written by
7 December 2021
Originally appeared in The Herald Sun

As a lifelong Saints fan I was struck by former St Kilda coach Grant Thomas’ recent reflection on the club now holding the unfortunate record of longest premiership drought after Melbourne’s grand final win.

He said “there are two types of teams in the competition – one that’s in the premiership business and the others that are sort of playing AFL.”

“I get the distinct feeling that the Saints are just happy playing AFL.

Their best is finals, but the gap tells me that there is something wrong,” he said.

As a Liberal Party true believer too, I look at our performance in Victoria, where we’ve held government just four years of out of the last 22 years. The perception is that the Liberal Party at times is just happy playing Opposition.

This is not through lack of passion, intellect and goodwill.

Matthew Guy, (also a Saints fan) has the capacity and the talent to be a great leader of our state.

But winning a premiership doesn’t just require a determined coach. You need years of great strategy, draft picks and smart trades.

What is missing is long-term strategic thinking to win the premiership of majority government in Victoria.

A premiership team also requires brilliant players across the ground: forwards, backs, ruck and rovers.

In each election for the past two decades, the Liberal Party has looked to a select number of Bayside marginal seats and a couple of others to win government through a narrow window.

This strategy overlooks what’s happening in the growth areas of Melbourne. The future heartland for the Liberals is not Albert Park, Bentleigh and Prahran.

Many Liberals prioritise the retention of inner-city seats such as these by adopting the policies of their progressive opponents, a combination of blue and green, which the Institute of Public Affairs refers to as the “teal strategy”.

What is required is a new “heartland strategy”. Future Liberal electorates are more likely to be Point Cook, Bundoora and Thomastown. But the task ahead is incredibly difficult.

Take for example the western and northern metropolitan regions of Melbourne: Labor holds 20 out of 22 seats on an average two party preferred margin of almost 70 percent. The other two seats are held by the Greens.

If 45 seats is the magic number to win government in Victoria, the Liberals allow Labor to win almost half without even breaking a sweat.

It’s like fielding an AFL team with a backline from your reserves.

This means that legislation as draconian as the pandemic Bill, not thought possible in Victoria, can brutally sail through the parliament scot-free because Victorian Labor knows there is little political risk while the electoral geography is so favourable.

While the electoral maths is depressing, it is not an impenetrable barrier.

About 15 years ago the NSW Liberal Party grappled with the same problem; large growth areas to the west and big margins to Labor that seemed practically impossible to overcome.

They realised that migrant communities, arriving in the best country on earth, entrepreneurial small business owners, aspirational working-class communities in the suburbs, should be a natural fit for a Liberal Party constituency.

The NSW Liberals ended up winning seats at a federal and state level that Labor had held since federation, not by showing up with one announcement a few weeks before an election, but by finding local champions and showing up for many terms, outside of an election cycle too, and letting the community know that the Liberal Party spoke for them.

The NSW Liberals have now been in power for more than 10 years. Similarly, the federal Liberals would not hold government were it not for this extraordinary success.

Polling in yesterday’s Herald Sun from bipartisan research firm RedBridge revealed the Labor Party has dropped 10 percent to 32.4 percent on its primary vote since the 2018 election. This is not necessarily good news for the Liberal Party, with its primary vote dipping almost 2 percent to 28.8 percent and a big jump in support for minor parties. The key task will be converting that disaffected vote to the Liberals.

It’s not all bad news, separate RedBridge polling undertaken in June 2021 revealed a softening of the western suburbs vote for Labor, after being disproportionately affected by lockdowns.

Despite 44 percent in Melbourne’s west identifying as ALP supporters, only 36 percent responded that they would vote Labor. This presents a serious opportunity for the Liberals to capture their new heartland.

I have no doubt I will see a Saints premiership in my lifetime, but we’ve got to want it.

If the Liberal Party truly wants its premiership of long-term majority government in Victoria, it has to find its new heartland by being prepared to take risks and go into uncharted territory to win over Victorians taken for granted by Labor.

After seeing the Demons break their premiership drought, Saints fans were desperately wishing for that glorious moment for ourselves.

Liberal true believers are too.

Matthew Guy is the right person for this task. It’s not going to be easy, but that premiership will be a moment to remember.

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Evan Mulholland

Evan Mulholland is the Director of Communications at the Institute of Public Affairs

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