How much paint will Dan Andrews lose?

It’s the second season of Victoria Votes starring Dan Andrews as premier and Matthew (call me “Matt”) Guy as opposition leader, and it pretty much takes up where the first one in 2018 ended.

This is the takeout message from a virtual focus group of 180 Victorians who shared their opinions with us over the first week and a half of the election campaign.

There is plenty of incentive for voters to send Andrews a message that he is “power mad” and a “bully”. 

The following figures are taken from polls of this group. These respondents are more politically engaged than the average. But their responses over the 21 years we have been doing this are broadly indicative of what happens when voters go to vote.

In 2018 Andrews started close to level with Guy on personal approval and pollsters predicted a close race. By the end of the campaign the ALP scored 57.3 per cent of the two-party vote, and while Andrews’ approval had increased, Guy’s had collapsed, most dramatically amongst Liberal voters. This was a landslide of historic proportions.

That’s pretty much where the main characters started this election, although quantitative polling since the election was called shows the margin between the two parties narrowing to somewhere around 53 per cent ALP on a two-party preferred basis – not historic, but substantial.

In 2018 at the start of the election voters were evenly divided as to whether the state was heading in the right direction. By the end a net 28 per cent thought it was. At the start of this election voters again were evenly divided on this question.

The premier’s approval has also come back to par with just as many approving of him as disapprove (47 per cent /46 per cent) and very few yet to make up their minds, unlike Matthew Guy, who starts more or less where he ended the last election with 64 per cent of respondents disapproving, including 26 per cent of Liberal voters.

So the grounds are there for independents and the Greens to do well as a result of the lack of punch of the Liberal Party.

Andrews is also preferred as premier by 56 per cent to 42 per cent and voters say his government deserves to be re-elected by 52 per cent to 41 per cent. By contrast a net -48 per cent thinks the opposition deserves to win (18 per cent /66 per cent).

The issues that will decide this election should favour the Liberals. The perennial dichotomy between climate change as the most serious issue for the left, and economics and debt as the most serious for the right, is present in the responses.

However, this election the economic issues are shared by more centre and left voters, while climate change is understood as primarily a federal issue, and one where Labor has performed well. This means the economy is more of a swing issue.

Greens voters have shifted their attention to traditional environmental issues, like logging of old-growth forest, so they don’t necessarily give the government credit on environmental issues.

The major swing issues appear to be to do with health – particularly hospitals and ambulances – and poor management of infrastructure.

There is plenty of incentive for voters to send Andrews a message that he is “power mad” and a “bully” for a variety of reasons such as COVID lockdowns, corruption scandals, maladministration, secrecy, high-handedness, and miring the state in debt.

The expectation that he will win is extremely strong at 73 per cent, so a lot of voters could feel they could safely direct a vote to another party, but still end up with a Labor government.

But what sort of message would they send by voting for Matthew Guy? Guy hasn’t shaken the image of sleaze generated by rezonings when he was planning minister in the Napthine government, or when he was snapped dining on lobster at the same function as a mobster. And he has a problem cutting through and gaining attention, variously attributed to his own lack of ability, or media bias, depending on how you vote.

Since our poll Guy has also been hit by controversies around some of his candidates over their religious beliefs. Disciplining them will cause trouble for him with minority centre and right-wing parties whose preferences he needs, and not disciplining them will play into the hands of Daniel Andrews, who branded some of the minor parties “Nazis”.

So the grounds are there for independents and the Greens to do well as a result of the lack of punch of the Liberal Party, and concern about the Andrews style of government.

Ironically, one thing that might limit these gains and direct votes to the Liberals is pity for them. Many voters accept the need for a strong opposition and don’t feel they have it. A number of Labor voters were therefore thinking of voting for Liberal candidates who they thought had potential to redress this problem.

One of these was John Pesutto, once seen as a future Liberal leader, running in Hawthorn. This is also the seat most likely to fall to a teal candidate, Melissa Lowe, so it will provide a testing ground of protest votes. It’s possible there could be a protest against the Liberals as well as Labor.

Labor can potentially win more than 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, but still win fewer than 50 per cent of the seats. Then again, Labor’s campaign came home fast in 2018, and possible Liberal gains could easily evaporate.

So the finale of the second season of Victoria Votes has a couple of endings, but most have him surviving. The major question is – How strongly will he be chastised?