About 80% of Victorian Labor’s election promises that target a single seat are being directed to electorates the party already holds in what has been described as an attempt to “safeguard” seats as polls tighten.
Guardian Australia’s analysis of election promises up to 20 November shows almost $44.2bn has been pledged by the major parties, with the opposition promising to spend $34bn – more than triple the Labor government’s commitments, which total $10.2bn.
The analysis assigned an election promise as either local, multi-electorate or state-wide, based on whether it would benefit an area wider than a single electorate. Only election promises made by the two major parties were counted.
Labor’s promises are targeted towards its own seats, with 79% of its 264 local promises going to Labor-held seats, representing 81% of the total funds. Labor won 55 of the 88 seats at the 2018 election, or a little under two-thirds.
Nearly one in five Labor promises is going to a Coalition seat, representing 14.4% of the funding pool, although just 3.4% of dollars are being directed to the 21 Liberal-held seats.
The Coalition has made 250 election promises targeting specific seats, with costed promises totalling $2bn. These are skewed heavily towards marginal seats, with 58% of promises being made in electorates requiring a swing of 6% or less to change hands. This is despite marginal electorates only making up 40% of all seats.
While the Coalition is spending big on marginal seats, more than half of this is in its own electorates as the party seeks to retain 20 seats on a margin of 6% or less, compared to Labor’s 12.
The Coalition has made an additional 82 pledges that are uncosted, while Labor has 14. The parties are expected to release their full policy costings on Thursday ahead of Saturday’s election.
Kos Samaras, a former Victorian Labor assistant state secretary who is now a pollster with RedBridge Group, said it was clear the party was conducting a “deep defensive strategy”.
“Labor is really investing in the seats it’s trying to defend, while the Coalition is clearly on the hunt. What the election promises tell me is Labor thinks it’s going to lose some seats so it’s trying to safeguard particular ones,” he said.
The opposition remains the underdog, but polls suggest the race is tightening in its final days. The Age published a Resolve Strategic poll on Tuesday showing the major parties were tied on first preferences, although Labor was ahead on a two-party preferred basis.
Labor can absorb a loss of up to 10 seats and remain in majority government, while the Coalition requires a net gain of 18, which Samaras said goes a long way in explaining the party’s different approaches.
Journey to the west
However, both parties have spent up big in Melbourne’s western suburbs, an area that has been considered safe Labor territory for generations.
Werribee, which also takes in the fast-growing suburbs of Wyndham Vale, Manor Lakes and parts of Hoppers Crossing, has received the most local election commitments, with the parties pledging a combined $214.5m – the equivalent of approximately $4,629 per voter.
Werribee is currently held by the treasurer, Tim Pallas, on a 13.4% two-party preferred margin, though it dips to 9.2% when factoring in independent candidate, Joe Garra, who outpolled the Liberals to run second in 2018 but is running in neighbouring Point Cook this year.
The neighbouring electorates of Tarneit, Point Cook and Melton also make the top 20 for money promised, with $100.3m, $89.3m and $81.86m worth of pledges respectively.
It comes amid fears within Labor that these seats could record significant swings against the party, given they were among the hardest-hit by both the adverse health and economic impacts of the pandemic. At the federal election in May, Labor suffered a drop in its primary vote in the area, as well as the growing suburbs in the outer south-east.
The opposition leader, Matthew Guy, has campaigned heavily in the west and said he sees a pathway to the 18 required seats to form government through Melbourne’s “growth suburbs”.
Also crucial to a Guy victory is the Nationals winning Shepparton off independent Suzanna Sheed, and the Liberals winning back the Geelong-based seat of South Barwon, which Labor’s Darren Cheeseman holds on a 3% margin. It’s no surprise the two electorates round out the top three with $208.5m and $109.9m worth of commitments pledged by the majors.
Uneven cash coverage
Cash has also been splashed in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, seats which the Liberal party lost during the 2018 “Danslide”. This includes Bayswater, which has received $102m worth of commitments from the major parties. Following a redistribution, the seat, currently held by Labor’s Jackson Taylor, becomes Liberal on a 0.6% margin.
Labor’s $75.37m of pledges in the electorateis well above its spending on neighbouring seats, including Ashwood ($19.46m), Box Hill ($25.4m) and Ringwood ($6.02m), which are all held on margins of less than 3.5%.
Samaras said he was concerned about the disparity between spending on the seats.
“Spending big in Bayswater is a good investment because Jackson Taylor is working really hard, he’s door-knocked half of the electorate himself, he’s a great local member,” Samaras said.
“But there are other electorates that they should be doing the same for – seats like Ashwood, Box Hill, Ringwood. They’ve got a slightly bigger buffer, but they’re not safe Labor seats either.
“People will lose their seats on Saturday night that did not get the same level of support as other marginal seats.”
Another example of this can be seen in inner Melbourne, where Labor is fending off challenges from the Greens. The party has made $83.97m worth of promises in Richmond, held on a 5.8% margin, compared to $20.75m in Northcote, held on 1.7%.
‘There’s a lot of reasons to not spend’
One thing in common between the two major parties, however, has been their relative restraint when compared to the 2018 election. According to the parliamentary budget office, the Coalition made 432 election commitments, compared to Labor’s 260 that year.
In 2018, transport dominated: the Coalition promised to spend $68bn on transport projects, and Labor $95bn, of which about half was for the Suburban Rail Loop, which, having now been budgeted, isn’t included in the 2022 analysis.
Marion Terrill, the transport and cities program director at the Grattan Institute, said for this election, the Coalition’s promised transport spend is a quarter of last time at $16.7bn, and Labor’s just 2% at $2.3bn.
“It may well be a reflection of the fact that compared to four years ago, Victoria’s got net debt of $100bn and that’s rising to $168bn by 2025-26 – and on top of that, we’ve got the flood recovery bill coming our way,” she said.
“There’s a lot of reasons to not spend or to not do the big splashy that was the characteristic of the 2018 election.”
The Coalition has also announced it will “shelve” the $34.5bn first stage of the Suburban Rail Loop to pay for its election promises, though $9.6bn of state funds at most will be freed up by doing so.