‘They were having a go at Victorians’: how the Liberals miscalculated the ‘anti-Dan’ election strategy

by Benita Kolovos
Liberal strategists believed Victorians wanted to send Daniel Andrews a message. Instead voters swung away from them in several blue-ribbon seats

Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, appeared once alongside the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, during the six-week election campaign and spoke for just three-and-a-half minutes, during which he reminded voters of the state’s “darkest time” – its several lockdowns.

It was a bold move, given the pandemic had been conspicuously absent from the campaign up to that point, partly due to fears within Labor that it could lose votes in blue-collar areas worst affected by it.

Andrews repeated a line he used during his daily Covid-19 press conferences, which became a ritual for millions of Victorians, who for more than 250 days were subject to restrictions such as a curfew and five-kilometre travel limit.

Senior Liberals including the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, “proved to be Liberals first and Victorians second”, the premier said.

“They thought they were bagging our government, but they were bagging every Victorian who was following the rules and doing the right thing, and that might be one of the reasons why they’re in a bit of trouble in their seats,” Andrews said.

Less than two weeks later, Frydenberg, who has long been touted as a future prime minister, has lost his seat of Kooyong.

The electorate – which has been held by the conservative side of politics since its creation at federation and was once the seat of Robert Menzies – has chosen Monique Ryan, a progressive independent, to represent them.

Much like other teal independents, Ryan campaigned for greater action on climate change and the establishment of a federal integrity commission, but she drew on similar language as Andrews to describe her opponent, most effectively as the “treasurer of NSW”.

Across the Yarra River, Liberal MPs Katie Allen and Tim Wilson have also lost their blue-ribbon seats, to Labor’s Michelle Ananda-Rajah and independent Zoe Daniel respectively.

The three seats consist largely of wealthy, well-educated constituents, many of whom were cushioned from the worst of the pandemic. But as Andrews suggested, there was a feeling among these voters that the Liberal party had abandoned the state during the pandemic.

“The Liberal party thought that they were having a potshot at the Labor party, but … they were having a go at Victorians,” Tam, a voter in Higgins, told Guardian Australia.

“I took it personally. It has definitely swayed my vote.”

Voters we spoke to in the three electorates were outraged by the constant negative comparisons between Victoria and NSW, the lack of financial support after jobkeeper wrapped up but lockdowns dragged on, and most notably, the sluggish vaccination rollout.

This was on top of several other issues such as climate change, integrity, the treatment of women in parliament and other workplaces, and growing inequality.

But Liberal strategists were confident there was another story playing out in the outer suburbs of Melbourne.

They believed there was an “anti-Dan” sentiment and attempted to capitalise on it, issuing how-to-vote cards urging voters to “send Daniel Andrews a message”. An ad campaign, targeting voters in Corangamite and McEwen, attempted to paint Albanese as Andrews’s puppet.

The result? The seats of Corangamite and Dunkley are marginal no more, with a 7.7% and 4.2% swing to Labor MPs Libby Coker and Peta Murphy respectively at the time of writing.

In McEwen, there was a small swing towards the Liberal party but Labor’s Rob Mitchell retained the seat comfortably. Strategists were predicting Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and One Nation could secure up to 20% of the vote, but instead it was the Greens that came in third, with more than 14% of first preference votes – a 4.6% swing in a seat the party put little resources into.

In nearby Hawke, a new seat, there was a 2.8% swing to the Liberal party but Labor’s Sam Rae will retain it with more than 57% of the two-party preferred vote. Again, it was the Greens, not UAP or One Nation, that came in third.

In Melbourne’s east, the state’s most marginal electorate was easily won off Liberal MP Gladys Liu by Labor’s Carina Garland, while in neighbouring Deakin, Michael Sukkar remains in danger of losing his seat.

In the previously safe Liberal seat of Aston, embattled cabinet minister Alan Tudge suffered a 7.4% swing against him, and in Menzies, another heartland electorate named after the party’s founder, candidate Keith Wolahan had a narrow lead on his Labor opponent.

Asked to explain the party’s drubbing in a state once described as the jewel in the Liberal crown, Senator Jane Hume conceded: “We thought there would be a bigger Dan Andrews effect in Victoria and there hasn’t [been], which I find disappointing.”

“We have had such negative feedback about those harsh lockdowns in Victoria, and we thought that may play out in those outer suburban areas. Clearly, they haven’t,” she told Nine.

Former Labor campaign strategist turned pollster Kos Samaras said the research his firm RedBridge conducted ahead of the election found “no evidence” to suggest a dislike of Andrews would translate to votes for the Liberals.

“The Libs drove their buses out to safe Labor seats hunting for votes and left their homes burning. They’ve been absolutely decimated,” he says.

“It’s a complete repeat of the 2018 state election.”

In 2018, there were swings against Labor in the outer west, but more significantly, the Coalition shed 10 of its 37 lower house seats, including the blue-ribbon seat of Hawthorn, which is a part of Kooyong at a state level. It also came dangerously close to losing Brighton, part of Goldstein, to a 19-year-old candidate, Labor’s Declan Martin. (Perhaps an indicator that the disillusionment in those two federal seats is not new.)

But if yesterday’s results are replicated on a state level at the November election, it would spell even more trouble for the opposition. Their leader, Matthew Guy, would lose his seat with a 7.9% swing against him, while the Liberal seats of Malvern and Kew would be under threat, and Labor could retain Hawthorn.

The Victorian Liberals have been setting the stage for an election fight on character, with Guy describing Andrews as an “arrogant and unchecked” leader who will send Victoria “broke” as a result of lockdowns.

During his budget reply speech earlier this month, Guy repeatedly referred to the government as a “one man show” and the “Dan show”, in an apparent reference to the daily press conferences.

“That hectoring voice, it’s driven us all mad for far too long. We all want to change the channel,” he said.

Guardian Australia spoke to six Victorian Liberals who are confident this strategy is working, despite the federal result. The majority described the upcoming vote to expel one of its most rightwing MPs, Bernie Finn, from the party as an important step to bring the party back to the centre, though some noted it will leave the party without a representative in the west.

“People know there’s a difference between federal and state issues, between Dan Andrews and Scott Morrison,” one MP said. “They know Andrews and his government were the ones imposing restrictions on us.”

One said: “The obsession with Dan Andrews hasn’t worked in the past and the federal election result should put an end to it”.

“Let’s focus on the issues – the health crisis, triple zero delays, the lack of funding for integrity agencies, remembering integrity is one of the key things the teal candidates campaigned on,” they said.