It’s not me, it’s you, Victoria.
Peter Dutton’s contention, articulated on Sunday morning as the Liberal Party came to grips with its historic defeat in the once-safe Melbourne seat of Aston, is that the result has been years in the making.
The Aston disaster, he suggested, represented just another stumble in a long-term downward trajectory in Victoria that no federal Liberal leader – not the more progressive Malcolm Turnbull, nor the more conservative Tony Abbott – has been able to arrest.
“Obviously, the difficulties for us in Victoria haven’t been germinated in Aston over the course of the last five weeks,” Dutton told ABC’s . In other words, it wasn’t his fault.
To some extent, Dutton is right, at least when you look at the seat count. The Liberal Party is in terminal decline in Victoria. It won 19 out of 37 Victorian seats at the 1996 federal election as John Howard led the Coalition to a national victory. That was a high-water mark (in recent history).
The count fell to 16 out of 37 seats in 1998; 14 out of 37 seats with Labor’s 2007 federal election win under Kevin Rudd; and then to 12 out of 37 in 2010 with Julia Gillard as prime minister.
The party’s fortunes lifted a bit in 2013, with the Liberals winning 14 out of 37 seats as Abbott led the Coalition to victory. But the Liberal grip on Victoria waned again at the 2019 federal election under Scott Morrison, with the party claiming just 12 out of 38 seats.
New depths were plumbed at last year’s federal election, with the Liberal vote slumping to 29.5 per cent and the party winning just eight out of 39 Victorian seats.
The Aston loss means the Liberal Party now controls seven out of 39 Victorian seats. Australia’s second-largest city is now awash with red, with some splotches of teal and green near the CBD.
While Dutton more or less accurately articulated “what” has happened to his party in Victoria, the question of “why” is far more fraught for a party that remains deeply divided along ideological lines.
It was a question Dutton struggled with on Sunday, pointing to problems in the Victorian division of the Liberal Party and some “ruthless” campaigning by state Premier Daniel Andrews, as if that should come as a shock.
According to and ’s pollster, Resolve Strategic director Jim Reed, the Aston byelection result was a rarity, marking the first byelection in a century in which a government has won a federal seat off an opposition. But he says the result was “hardly unforeseeable, either”.
“We have a very marginal seat vacated under a cloud, a well-known repeat candidate stepping in, a popular Albanese-Labor government out-polling their opposition, all in a state where Labor dominates and the Liberals are self-harming over issues alien to most voters,” Reed said.
Dutton’s obvious contention is that he is not to blame for the disaster. But the opposition leader has long had a fraught relationship with Victoria.
In January 2018 he was ridiculed in the state after suggesting Victorians were scared to go out to restaurants at night because they were threatened by African gangs.
Labor certainly zeroed in on Dutton’s unpopularity in Victoria as a negative for Liberal candidate Roshena Campbell during the Aston campaign, with the opposition leader featuring heavily in Labor’s attack ads.
On Sunday, Andrews accused the party of cuddling up with extremists and racists.
“The Liberal Party are a nasty, bigoted outfit, and people have worked them out, and that might be why they keep losing,” he said.
But perceptions within the Liberal Party about the extent to which Dutton was responsible for the result are mixed.
One Liberal MP from a state adjoining Victoria said while Dutton was less popular outside of Queensland, his unpopularity explained only about “10 per cent of the result”. Another federal MP from Victoria said the Dutton factor was closer to 15 per cent.
Another Victorian MP criticised the Liberal Party’s campaign for failing to counter anti-Dutton messaging by Labor. Dutton has a good story to tell in terms of his police background and reforms to protect children from predators but let Labor define him over his time as health minister, the MP said. “We didn’t counter it.”
Following the Liberal Party’s loss, federal senator Jane Hume claimed Dutton was “very well” received in Victoria. “I think that the more time that we can get Peter spending in Victoria, getting to know Victorians and letting Victorians get to know him, the better,” she said.
Jason Wood – the only Liberal to record a swing towards him, in his seat of La Trobe, at last year’s federal election – suggested the party’s reluctance to use Dutton in the Aston campaign was a mistake.
“You can’t have a campaign strategy where you don’t back the leader, it’s insanity,” Wood said.
Some Liberals have pointed to the chaos surrounding a push by state Opposition Leader John Pesutto to expel MP Moira Deeming from the parliamentary Liberal Party after she attended a rally headlined by British anti-transgender activist Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull that was also attended by neo-Nazis.
Pesutto initially insisted expulsion was the only option, before buckling in front of his party room and agreeing to suspend Deeming for nine months.
On Sunday, Pesutto said the messy episode simply wasn’t an issue for Aston voters, arguing it was a federal byelection in which cost of living and some local issues had featured strongly.
“I am well aware, having lost my seat in 2018, that the party needs to reform if it is to be a winning force again,” he said. “I want to make sure that the Liberal Party is there for everybody in Victoria – it is inclusive, welcoming and engaging. I know that the last two weeks was tough but there was a purpose. It was to say to the Victorian people I will fight for these principles, I will fight for these values, I am done talking about it.”
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