If the Liberal Party loses Aston at today’s by-election, it will only hold three seats in suburban Melbourne, a city made up of almost five million people.
It would be just one more seat than those held by the teals and two more than the Greens. Labor has 19.
To say it the situation is dire for the Liberal Party in Melbourne is an understatement. A loss would be diabolical.
The good news for the state party — and it’s been hard to come by lately — is that it does start this by-election as the favourite.
The seat was created in 1984 and was held by Labor until 1990, but it has not won it since.
At the May election embattled MP Alan Tudge, who has since resigned, suffered a 7.3 per cent swing but still retained the seat by 2.8 per cent.
This time the Liberal’s candidate is Melbourne City councillor and barrister Roshena Campbell, who lives in Brunswick.
She’s previously sought preselection for the party in the seat of Casey, which includes Healesville and Yarra Glen.
The fact she doesn’t hail from Melbourne’s outer-east has been central to Labor’s attack on her during the by-election.
She has since rented a property in the seat and has promised to move to Aston should she win.
Even if she does win, the size of her margin will be scrutinised by political hardheads and pundits. If it is only a partial swing to her, critics will seize on it as a further sign the Liberals are in trouble in suburbia, and that Peter Dutton’s leadership remains a negative in Melbourne.
But for Liberals struggling in Melbourne, scrapping over the line will be spun as a positive.
“A win is a win,” one senior party figure said.
And should Ms Campbell win, it will be an important step towards the party’s need to diversify its representation — her parents migrated from India to Sydney in the 1970s. It’s an issue the party’s election performance reviews have identified.
There’s also hope that candidates like Ms Campbell will encourage professional women to return to the party after the cohort abandoned the Liberals under Scott Morrison.
History is on the Liberals’ side
Only once, in 1920, has the government won a seat off an opposition at a by-election. And the average swing in a by-election is 3.8 per cent against the government.
But Labor is not without hope.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is enjoying solid approval ratings and the post-election “honeymoon” period is still in bloom.
A few MPs believe a victory is within reach, especially given the dire performance of the Victorian Liberals at the state level, this week characterised by the failed attempt to expel MP Moira Deeming.
ALP true believers are taking hope from the 2022 swing and Premier Daniel Andrews’s crushing state win but Labor insiders, who have been tempering expectations, note that the 2022 federal election was unique.
Scott Morrison was a deeply unpopular prime minister, and the candidate was nowhere to be seen given he was under a cloud of controversy over settlements with his former staffer with whom he had a consensual affair.
It is unknown whether Mr Tudge was a drag on the vote in 2022, or actually helped save the seat. It’s described by Liberals as a “known unknown”.
Aston first real test of Dutton’s leadership
The by-election is a litmus test for the Liberal Party, and its the first real test of Peter Dutton’s leadership.
He hasn’t shied away from the contest, visiting the electorate five times during a period in which there were several sittings of parliament and the lead-up to the NSW election.
The Prime Minister hasn’t been missing in action either, he’s also visited four times, and last week he attacked Ms Campbell’s lack of connection to the community.
“We’re a long way from the Melbourne City Council,” Mr Albanese said during an event at Swinburne University in Wantirna.
“We’ve got a fantastic candidate who secured the unanimous support of everyone, who ran last time, who hasn’t shopped around for a seat.”
Labor’s Mary Doyle, who was also the federal election candidate, lives just outside the electorate but says her kids went to school in the area.
The Liberals are throwing everything at Labor. Cost of living, in a division where 42 per cent of households have a mortgage, is a top concern.
Ms Campbell’s campaign is also focusing on Labor’s decision to cut funding to major infrastructure projects in the area when it came to office.
The challenge for the opposition is to convince voters that the state of the economy is only due to Labor’s stewardship since May, and not the Coalition’s leadership over the past decade.
Chinese-Australian voters could be a big factor
At the May election, Chinese-Australian voters turned off the Coalition in a big way, helping Labor win in seats like Chisholm.
Nearly 15 per cent of voters in Aston are Chinese-Australian, and Labor is targeting the community, highlighting Mr Dutton’s rhetoric against China.
The other big challenge for Labor is the expected lower voter turnout
The AEC is upping efforts to ensure voters remember to go to the polls, but after two general elections last year there is voter apathy.
“I dislike voting full stop because I don’t like either side of politics. I think they’re all a bunch of douches,” one voter told the ABC’s 7.30 this week.
Both sides agree that lower turnout will hurt Labor’s vote, given they’re more likely to be low-income or migrant voters who tend to vote ALP on election day.
There are only three other candidates in the field, including a Greens candidate — the party picked up 12 per cent last May — a libertarian candidate and a representative from the Fusion Party.
Between them One Nation, United Australia Party and Liberal Democrats won 11.3 per cent of the primary at last year’s poll, but they’re not competing this time.
Recovering that stack of primary vote will be critical for Ms Campbell’s chances of victory.
As the by-election has bubbled along quietly in the suburbs, it hasn’t gathered many headlines — perhaps as a result of political disinterest after double elections in 2022 — but the result on Saturday could be seismic if it all goes badly for the Liberal Party.