Monday, November 29, 2010

The landslide that no one saw coming

LABOR'S fortress had two walls to defend. On one front were the eight seats it has held since 1999 in Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo, along with rural Ripon and semi-rural Macedon and Seymour. On the other were the wide arc of seats extending south of the Yarra, from the eastern foothills to the southern bayside sandbelt.

For 11 years as Treasurer and Premier, John Brumby has nursed with great care the regional seats that put Labor into power. In the campaign he seemed to be there every second day, announcing a new hospital here, a footy ground upgrade there, and a road duplication over yonder. And it worked.

Amid all the onslaught of what is likely to end up as a 7 per cent swing to the Coalition in two-party terms, Brumby's regional wall largely held. South Barwon crumbled away at one end, Seymour at the other, but the core of the structure remained intact.

But while Labor was defending on one wall, the Liberals were climbing over the other. Of Labor's 18 seats south of the Yarra, no fewer than 10 were taken by Ted Baillieu's men.

It was a mirror image of the 1999 poll that brought Labor to power. That day, Jeff Kennett was focussed on retaining his marginal seats south of the Yarra, and did so but was felled by Labor and the independents storming regional and rural ramparts.

Did Brumby fall because he turned his back on his urban ramparts to defend his regional wall? A week ago, few would have suspected that Labor would end up losing Carrum in a swing of 9.2 per cent. Bendigo East, Ballarat West and Bellarine were all seen as frontline seats, but not Bentleigh. No one tipped Eltham to end up as the state's tightest race.

In the real world, landslides are always unexpected. Until the final polls, few insiders saw this one coming. Its impact was felt virtually all over the state: of the 81 seats where reliable two-party results have been calculated, 71 recorded swings to the Coalition of at least 3 per cent, and the median swing was 6.6 per cent. That is likely to rise even higher as pre-poll votes are counted.

Geographically, it's hard to see much of a pattern. Neighbouring seats recorded very different results. John Brumby suffered a 10.4 per cent swing against him in Broadmeadows, his new neighbour Bronwyn Halfpenny dropped 9.8 per cent in Thomastown, yet her neighbour in Mill Park, Lily D'Ambrosio, felt hardly a tremor, losing just 0.6 per cent.

In Bendigo East, the Minister for Skills and all that, Jacinta Allen, held on easily against a swing of just 0.8 per cent, yet across the road in Swan Hill, Labor's vote plunged to just over 20 per cent, shedding a quarter of what support it had in the seat.

In city and country, after 11 years of rule, the grievances erupted almost everywhere. Even in the inner city seats made safe by Liberal preferences, Labor's primary vote fell by 8 per cent. The biggest eruption saw East Gippsland reject favourite son Craig Ingram in a 21.6 per cent swing.

The best thing for Labor in Saturday's defeat is that so many survived it. Of the 43 seats where it leads, 16 held on with margins of 1, 2 or 3 per cent. Of the Liberals' 45, only seven were that close. It could easily have been far more damaging.

Where it happened is simple: everywhere. Why it happened is another matter.