Victoria’s election is a Daniel Andrews referendum — either side hope it is good for them

Ask nearly any Liberal why the party was turfed from government in May and the two-word answer is nearly always the same: Scott Morrison.

Ask some Victorian Liberals why they think they can defy the odds and win this November’s state election and you’ll get a similar two-word answer: Daniel Andrews.

Every election is a test of the incumbent’s popularity, a community-wide job appraisal.

And given the pandemic and Victoria’s unenviable record, Andrews’s performance will be front of mind for many voters – COVID may be their only recollection of the Premier.

Andrews is odds-on to win a third term in four weeks’ time, according to all the published opinion polls as well as the bookies.

The latest poll by Resolve for The Age shows the ALP’s primary vote on 38 per cent, the Coalition on 31 per cent, the Greens on 12 per cent and independents also on 12 per cent. It points to a third term for Labor.

But both major parties predict a closer result.

Some even say that a minority government is on the cards — Labor would have to lose 11 seats for this to happen.

To win office, the opposition needs to win 18 more seats, without losing any.

Liberals hope to harness simmering COVID anger

It is tough, liberals concede, but not impossible.

Liberal MPs believe the key is to tap into the “anti-Dan” sentiment, especially in the outer suburbs.

Matthew Guy has led a Coalition campaign that opened with big-budget pledges for the state’s health system.(AAP: James Ross)

Labor seats in the outer south-east including Cranbourne, Pakenham, Bass and Narre Warren North are considered the most volatile.

Liberal MPs say they’ve never witnessed such invective from voters directed at the leader.

Shadow Minister Ryan Smith told ABC Radio Melbourne Drive voters were coming up to him and his colleagues demanding they get rid of the Premier.

“This is unprompted stuff, they say that they find the Premier arrogant, they find that he’s autocratic in his approach,” he said.

“And that’s the main topic, that people are very unhappy with the government of the day.”

It’s a scenario privately repeated by a number of Liberal MPs who are buoyed by interactions they say they have with people unloading “vitriol” towards the Premier.

This fuels their belief that the polls are wrong, and they are a decent change to seize office.

“A question I’ve asked in groups a lot is would you take a poll? And the answer almost unanimously, is no,” Mr Ryan said.

But it’s a very contested space.

There are a swag of so-called “Freedom” micro-parties on the right of the political spectrum who are vying for the anti-Dan vote, including former Liberal-turned-independent MP Geoff Shaw, who is running for the United Australia Party on an anti-Dan platform.

When Labor’s primary vote dropped in the outer suburbs at the federal election, especially over the COVID response, it did not all go to the Liberals, with much of it flowing back to the ALP on preferences.

Liberals draw focus to Andrews — but Labor sees him as its ‘biggest asset’

As the election date has neared, the number of large announcements from the Coalition has slowed.

For months Opposition Leader Matthew Guy has promised billions to fix the ailing health system as well as making a bold cost-of-living pitch on public transport fares.

Matthew Guy smiles and shakes the hand of a man in hi-vis. The Coalition has also been making dozens of local funding commitments for local emergency services facilities.(AAP: Joel Carrett)

Like any opposition, part of his job is to hold the government to account for cost blowouts and integrity scandals (there are plenty of allegations against both sides of politics).

It wants to make Daniel Andrews the story.

“I think this is dumb, he is our biggest asset,” one senior Labor figure said.

The Premier is front and center of the campaign – it’s a presidential effort.

His near-daily appearances are currently outpacing the efforts of his opponent, who’s stepped out four times in the past week.

Andrews is using the media spotlight to spruik investment in hospitals, schools and infrastructure — the key planks beneath his past two election victories.

The Premier appears throughout Labor’s positive TV commercials with nurses, doctors and paramedics as well in construction workers on major projects.

Daniel Andrews stands at press conference in high-vis vest. As the acute phase of the COVID pandemic recedes, the Premier’s schedule of hi-vis press conferences is gathering pace.(AAP: Diego Fedele)

He’s also filmed with his kids and other school students as he rattles off Labor election commitments.

He promises to bring the budget back to surplus “without cuts and closures”, a key attack message on his Liberal opponents.

Labor MPs hope ‘grumpy’ voters will reward government with runs on the board

Multiple Labor MPs say they’ve been surprised by the lack of vitriol directed towards them during campaigning in recent weeks – many were bracing for abuse.

ALP sources acknowledge there are sections of the community with deep hatred for the Premier – campaigning is different in 2018 to 2022 due to increased security concerns.

The Premier’s events are carefully staged managed for the press pack.

Last week advisors and security tried to stop cameras filming Andrews climbing a ladder at his announcement of the revival of the State Electricity Commission.

The government is yet to hold any public “street walk” type events through shopping centres.

But even if there is some frustration with the leader, MPs are reporting that many constituents are telling them that they’ll still back the party.

“Even if they’re grumpy they’ll still come back to us because things are getting done,” one MP said.

The CFMEU – an affiliate union of the Labor Party – is urging its members to vote for the Premier even though he is “a prick”, because he delivers work for the sector.

Pollsters and strategists have also noticed that despite frustration with the Premier some voters have a “begrudging respect”, while others feel the opposition offers no alternative and that in times of uncertainty, it’s better to stick with the devil you know.

Despite all of that, Andrews continues to hold a strong lead over his opponents in polls and he’s certainly popular in parts of the state.

His term, especially pre-COVID, was characterized by major infrastructure and social reform delivery.

If it is a referendum on Andrews then the appeal of the alternative is still a factor, and for some voters disgruntled with the current government there’s still no alternative when they look at the opposition.

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.Play audio.  Duration: 2 minutes Rafael Epstein and Richard Willingham take you behind the curtain of the Victorian election

It’s part of the reason that country, regional and teal independents have emerged as genuine contenders.

And as much as the Liberals want to make this about Andrews, some MPs have tried to avoid their own party.

Several Liberal candidates this week have ditched the Liberal name from their campaign material — but deny they’re distancing themselves from themselves.

Strategists from both sides say there is a still a large pile of soft and undecided voters left in Victoria.

The next two weeks are critical for parties to engage with as many voters as possible as pre-polling opens on November 14 and it’s expected more than half the electorate will vote before election day on November 26.

It’s the contest for those voters that will decide if Andrews enters the history books as the Victoria’s longest serving Labor premier or the state heads into a hung parliament, or even a Matthew (or is it Matt?) Guy government.

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