Victoria: Opportunity For Liberals In Labor Election Win

LIKE IT OR NOT, Labor’s win at yesterday’s state election in Victoria was legitimate, outright, and captured the public mood; the Coalition ran a poor campaign that missed opportunities, did not sell its achievements, and failed to adequately target its opponents. Yes, Victoria now has a complete moron as Premier and yes, Labor will damage the state. But opportunity beckons the beaten Liberal Party. It up to the party to now seize it.

About the only good thing I can find to say of the defeat of a very good state government is that from a Liberal perspective, the loss was modest, and could of course have been much, much worse; taking office four years ago with its parliamentary representation barely restored to its losing position under Jeff Kennett in 1999, re-election was always going to pose problems.

But armed with 51.6% of the vote last time, and bolstered by a favourable redistribution and a Premier in Denis Napthine who might as well have been born for the job, I thought the Coalition was a strong chance as late as yesterday morning.

It wasn’t.

First things first: Victorian Labor is to be congratulated on its state election win; whatever anyone thinks of its sometimes dubious tactics or the personnel it presented to voters for their approval, absolute clarity must surround the acknowledgement that Labor won: it wasn’t an accident, with (presently) 52% of the two-party vote, and the Coalition is not returning to opposition as a “government in exile.” Labor may perform very badly in office, and the portents in this regard are in no way promising. But it won. Nobody should pretend otherwise.

I have sat on the sidelines of this campaign — again — and reconsidering my membership of the Liberal Party as I am, will simply call a few things as I see them today.

Readers will have seen the endorsement I made of the Napthine government yesterday, and I stand by every word of that assessment.

Yet it is an indictment that a governing party with that kind of record in office to sell — and the clearly defective opponent it faced — was unable to stave off the electoral challenge Victorian Labor posed, and whilst the Abbott government might have been a factor, nobody is going to convince me it was a decisive factor. More on that later.

As I write, Labor looks likely to end the election with 48 of the 88 seats in the lower House; the Coalition 38 (Liberals 31, Nationals 7); and one Green (Melbourne) and one Independent (Shepparton). With more than a million pre-poll votes to be counted these tallies may, of course, shift around a little over the next few days, but the bottom line is that Labor has won.

The nearest comparable result in Victoria was 1985, at which the Cain government was re-elected by a similar margin, albeit with momentum this time flowing toward the ALP rather than toward the Liberals, led even in 1985 by Kennett.

First, the critique.

Any self-effusive rhetoric about having contained the carnage must be avoided by the Liberals at all costs.

The Victorian division of the Liberal Party, for at least the time since the Kennett government was defeated, has performed — at the ballot box, where it actually matters — in mediocrity; extend the assessment back to 1982, when John Cain ended 27 years of Liberal state government in this state, and it’s hard not to view its performance as little better than abominable.

At the state level, Liberals (and the Coalition) will have held government in Victoria for just 11 of 36 years by the time the next state election in 2018 falls due: a complete indictment on its performance in its home state, once held jubilantly aloft as the “jewel in the Liberal crown.”

Add in the party’s federal performance over the same period, and the picture becomes even more damning: Coalition candidates have won a majority of Victoria’s federal electorates at just three of the 12 federal elections since (and including) 1983; when it is remembered that the huge anti-Labor swing in Victoria in 1990 was aimed at Cain’s rancid state government, and that several Liberal gains at this election were lost to the ALP in 1993 before returning to the Liberal fold in the Howard government landslide three years later, it is difficult to ascribe full kudos to the Victorian Liberals given from 1996 onwards, the party has never held a majority of Victoria’s federal seats despite national Liberal landslides in 2004 and 2013.

Whatever works in the other states — and remember, fully a quarter of the Abbott government’s MPs are located in Queensland — either does not work in Victoria, or whatever the Victorian division does is simply inferior to the campaigning smarts of the ALP, or both.

Either way, the party organisation in Victoria wears responsibility for a pretty ordinary electoral track record.

And even though the state Liberals under Kennett won a majority of the two-party vote in 1988 despite losing again to Cain, the fact remains that since (and including) 1982, the Liberal Party — either on its own, or in Coalition — has now lost seven of the last 10 state elections in Victoria.

The party is riven with factional divisions: there are Kennett people, Baillieu people, Kroger people, Costello people, and apparently a “christian conservative” group emerging that seeks to shanghai the party into a savage lurch to the social Right: some of these people are good people, of course; but these groups seemingly spend as much time trying to nobble each other as they do on fighting the real enemy — the Labor Party — and whilst the party’s record might be better than those of one two of other state divisions, it is not unfair to say that from a Victorian perspective, it’s nothing to crow about.

People who are determined to remain unaligned with these warring groups, seeking purely to work to advantage the Party and/or lay a glove on the ALP, are too often pushed away from centres of real influence within the party, and the doors slammed in their faces.

Serious questions must be asked of the party’s state secretariat — “104” as it is known, located (unsurprisingly) at 104 Exhibition Street — where, twice in five years, head office has caused major political headaches for the party as a whole: firstly with a website denigrating former leader Ted Baillieu, and later with an as-yet unspecified role in disseminating the contents of the leaked dictaphone conversation between Baillieu and a journalist in an effort to smear internal adversaries.

And again, 104 has hardly presided over or delivered a glittering record of electoral achievement.

My point is that however hardworking the occupants of 104 might be — or how well-intentioned some of its more conscientious footsoldiers — the Liberal head office simply doesn’t deliver.

Given political parties exist purely to win elections — a point never lost on the ALP — this is a luxury the Liberals in Victoria can simply not afford.

It goes without saying, therefore, that 104 must be in line for a cleanout: and that cleanout should start with the state director, Damien Mantach, who has now presided over a state election loss and a poor federal result in Victoria, as well as a shocking state election result when in charge of the party in Tasmania some years earlier. The purge should run deep.

Readers will have heard me say, from time to time, that Labor is much better at raw politics than the Liberals are, and yesterday was a classic illustration of it.

In no way would I ever advocate some of the most distasteful tactics — such as putting unionists into emergency services uniforms and going out harassing people to vote Labor, or outright lying about policies and issues — being adopted.

But for too long, the Liberals have harboured the wrong people selling the wrong message, and this inability to sell the Coalition story has caused untold electoral damage to conservative forces in recent years, both in Victoria and beyond.

Where, for example, was the hard-hitting campaign built around Daniel Andrews’ defence of doctored public hospital waiting lists, and at the very time ambulance unions were doing Labor’s political bidding to boot?

Where was the high-impact “memories” campaign — a la “Still The Guilty Party” in 1996 — to ram Labor’s shortcomings around myki, the desalination plant, the North-West Pipeline, and other Labor failures down the throats of voters who will still be paying for these debacles in 20 years’ time?

Where was the forensic narrative around the state of the state’s books, beginning the day Baillieu was elected? Victoria was plunged back into debt by the very Labor government that claimed to have learned the lessons of its excesses under Cain. But the now-beaten Napthine government has carried the political cost of fixing it, with any political dividend carted away yesterday by Labor once again.

These are just a few examples of the heavy lifting an effective secretariat ought to be doing, but isn’t. Gutting it and starting from scratch is hardly going to be deleterious to the Liberal Party’s political interests.

And while we are at it, hard questions need to be asked of some of the staff that found their way into Coalition ministerial offices over the past four years, and those whose “expertise” in political judgement allowed them through the door in the first place.

Equipped with a cabal of ministerial staff that arguably could and should have covered for some of 104’s obvious deficiencies, there are no ministers who spring to mind whose offices earned a reputation in government for driving the Coalition in a different — and more politically astute — direction. The obvious exception is Denis Napthine himself. Regrettably, however, the old adage about one swallow not making a spring was proven deadly in its accuracy yesterday, and Napthine’s Premiership is yet another political asset the Liberals have squandered.

I make the usual disclaimer that I know some will accuse me of sour grapes; and indeed, the Baillieu government was the first of the latest generation of Liberal governments from which I was centrally excluded when it recruited advisers.

Those who ran central vetting at the time know who they are, and I simply say that if I am wrong — and if their judgement was, indeed, sound — then Napthine would have been re-elected yesterday.

I don’t pretend for a minute that on my own, I would have made the difference. I’m not that arrogant, fatuous or delusional. But if I was shut out, it stands to reason that other good people who might have been more effective were also shut out. Again, the prosecution of factional rivalries and loyalties (and in my case, a decades-old grudge held against me in another state from 20+ years ago) are not conducive to the best interests of the party politically. They simply reduce the party’s effectiveness, and drive good people away, who rightly say “fuck this, there’s no point.”

In my own case, I am at most one federal defeat away from saying exactly that. The way the Abbott government is being run, I won’t have long to wait.

Of Abbott’s government, can I simply say voters aren’t stupid; they can tell the difference between state and federal issues, and in a Victorian context the only time anyone could conclude this contention was breached was at the 1990 federal election. That said, recommencing fuel excise indexation in the first week of the campaign proper was political stupidity on the part of Abbott’s regime that Napthine could have done without.

But scare campaigns around Tony Abbott weren’t going to cut much ice when the Liberals had already been in office in Victoria for four years anyway: it might have been a sound strategy if the tables were turned, and Napthine was fighting yesterday from opposition, but he wasn’t. This election was decided on Victorian issues, and it would be a dangerous fantasy for state Liberals to conclude otherwise.

There is already a lot of talk about long-serving Liberal MPs who were yesterday re-elected to safe lower house seats, and whether some or all of them should quit Parliament in the new year to allow the state party to regenerate; there is some merit in these discussions but as ever, such considerations are a double-edged sword: after all, these MPs secured an additional term in office 24 hours ago in return for a commitment to serve a full four years.

On balance, however, the party should probably pick a date next year — perhaps after the Andrews government’s first budget, which it isn’t hard to think will offer a seam of by-election campaign fodder to work with — and have those motivated to depart all pull the pin at the same time.

The question really should come down to who is likely to serve in or add something to the next Liberal state government, and who isn’t; and in this sense, Sandringham MP Murray Thompson should be the first one pushed out the door.

It is no longer enough to hold a safe seat in Parliament on the basis of being his father’s son; it is not acceptable at all to continue to sit in a safe seat as a backbencher, now aged 60, when the Liberal Party is crying out for its next generation of ministerial-level talent to be brought into Spring Street.

Other names that at some point will need to be moved on include Denis Napthine, for rather obvious reasons; Kim Wells in Rowville, who was a disappointment as a minister and, after 22 years, seems cooked; Transport minister Terry Mulder, Education minister Martin Dixon and Attorney-General Robert Clark are among several who have served the party very well indeed, but who should — all around 60 years old, and with six decades in Parliament between them — probably think about what a life beyond politics might hold for them.

The one exception to the “renewal” argument I might make is the member for Brighton, Louise Asher, who has also been around for more than 20 years, but who has spent a lot of time mentoring and training new Liberal MPs in areas such as parliamentary procedure, stewardship of their electorates and so forth, and aside from any further ministerial contribution she might make, the value of this ability to provide a guiding light for Liberal newbies should not be underestimated.

In fact, if the party gets serious about preparing for its return to office, the continued presence of someone like Asher will be critical to its fortunes. But after 22 years in Spring Street and effective ministerial service in both the Kennett and Baillieu/Napthine governments, Asher is probably entitled to make such a call herself.

And all of this matters, because Victorian voters (as is their right) yesterday elected a government that is likely to rival Cain’s for the damage it will wreak upon Victoria. With a swing required to reclaim office in the modest vicinity of about 2-3% and half a dozen seats or so, Victoria’s Liberals now confront a big opportunity to return the dubious favour visited upon them by Labor yesterday, and inflict a first-term defeat on Andrews in 2018.

Assuming, that is, that he even makes it that far.

We have discussed the odious Andrews at great length in this column since it commenced, and I promise to hold the Andrews government rigorously to account: this enterprise begins today with the lowest expectations imaginable, and so anything Andrews does in office that could be construed as positive will surprise pleasantly.

Perhaps he will change his tune in government; I hope so. But the immature specimen who has appeared more interested in operating as a juvenile and puerile student unionist than as the alternative Premier of Victoria is not someone I believe is likely to cover himself in glory, having now ascended to Napthine’s office in Treasury Place.

At the outset, Andrews is likely to run the most left-wing, union-dominated government ever seen in Victoria, and his — and Labor’s — closeness to the militant and violent CFMEU ought to alarm, not encourage, voter sentiment.

I think and hope Andrews will find his pledge to tear up contracts for the construction of the East-West Link is undeliverable: undeliverable, that is, without blowing a $4 billion hole in the state’s budget.

But then again, Labor on his watch has already shown it cares little for such quaint principles as value for money, prudent stewardship of public finances, or any respect at all for what is, at root, the money of the taxpayer.

Andrews’ leadership will remain something of a wait-and-see; there were suggestions behind closed doors some months ago that recognising the liability he is to them, some of his colleagues were manoeuvring to replace him, but just couldn’t agree on a candidate. Their judgement of Andrews was spot on. Time will tell whether he grows in his role, or whether mediocrity comes to characterise his government — and, if that occurs, whether Labor reverts to type with a game of musical chairs.

The Police investigation into the dictaphone affair, meanwhile, continues. If it explodes early next year in the ALP’s collective face, some surprising heads could roll as a result.

All of this and more provides openings for the Liberals and a Coalition — hungry, trimmed of fat, and its back-of-house restructured — to make real inroads in Victoria in 2018.

Rural Victoria, a traditional Coalition heartland, has been parked with the ALP since 1999 and it has indisputably been allowed to stay there for too long. Some kind of politically saleable formulation to make it illegal for unionised public sector employees to campaign politically in uniform should be devised. The influence of unions generally on government, and the division and disruption they are likely to cause, will be extreme. New policies will have to be developed, tested, and marketed. There is much for the Liberals to get on with, some of it not pleasant or particularly palatable if they are interested in fixing their operations, but all of it should begin tomorrow.

The first order of business, however, is to find a new leader: someone representing the next generation of Liberal talent, who is engaging and personable, connects well with voters, has a sound grasp of policy and the mechanics of governance, and who — unlike Baillieu — is serious about wanting to be Premier, and is prepared to commit to doing whatever it takes to achieve that objective in 2018.

Step forward, Matthew Guy.



Endorsing Denis: Napthine The Clear Choice In Victoria

WITH POLLING STATIONS set to open shortly, voters in Victoria will today elect a government to lead the state for the next four years; The Red And The Blue endorses Premier Denis Napthine and his Liberal team to win a second term in office, and encourages all Victorians to support his government. Napthine and the Coalition offer vision, a clear plan for Melbourne and beyond, and the energy to deliver. Labor, by contrast, cannot be trusted.

When even the Fairfax press editorialises against the Labor Party — which The Age did yesterday, offering the Premier its fulsome endorsement at today’s state election — it should provide anyone seeking guidance on which way to vote with pause for thought; a similarly clear recommendation from Murdoch masthead the Herald Sun was to some extent to be expected, but The Age‘s advocacy for a Liberal government was a bolt from the blue.

It was also entirely correct.

No government arrives at its first re-election hurdle without at least some negatives to outweigh what, in the ordinary course of things, should be a glittering itinerary of achievements upon which to campaign, and perhaps the most obvious of these in the Liberals’ case was the replacement of former Premier Ted Baillieu with Napthine a tick over 18 months ago.

Yet this change — far from really amounting to a negative at all — revitalised the government; what had been a pedestrian and at times directionless administration was transformed overnight into an energetic outfit led by an evergreen figure who clearly relishes the opportunity that accidentally fell his way, and has been determined to make the most of it.

Napthine, who has had to wait for more than a decade for the Premiership he must have believed had passed him by, has proven an effective salesman for Victoria, and a stout defender of its interests: his extraction of billions of dollars in federal funding for critical infrastructure projects is a case in point; his willingness to confront colleagues in what should be a friendly Liberal government in Canberra to ensure the best deal possible for his state is another.

And in a welcome throwback to the Kennett era, Napthine has proven more than willing to poke fun by allowing himself to be photographed in silly hats and awkward poses: all in the name of spruiking Victoria, and all in the name of keeping the best state in Australia moving in the right direction.

Early in the government’s tenure, under Baillieu, unfortunate missteps were made — particularly on TAFE policy — with changes including the closure of underperforming TAFE colleges poorly sold within local communities, and substantially reversed upon Napthine’s ascension to the Premier’s office.

The interminable dispute over teachers’ salaries that dragged on, literally, for years — underpinned by the admirable but ultimately unworkable principle of merit-based pay, thanks to the militancy of powerful education unions — was another running sore that could have been staunched far sooner than it was. Yet here, too, it was on Napthine’s watch that a deal was finalised, and in very short order indeed once he had been sworn in as Premier.

The disastrous legacies of the Bracks-Brumby government that Baillieu inherited — myki, the fiasco of the desalination contract plant, public transport systems that were neglected and under-invested in for eleven years, and Labor’s infamous North-South pipeline, to name a few — presented the Coalition with a series of no-win propositions that were no fault of its own; the botched myki ticketing system, years late and billions of dollars overdue, was deemed cheaper to retain and try to fix than abandon altogether (which, in hindsight, it perhaps should have been), whilst ironically, a forensic investigation of contractual arrangements around the desalination plant revealed there was no avenue whatsoever to dump this white elephant in the lap of the contractors who built it, saddling Victorian taxpayers with billions in residual obligations over the plant for decades to come.

Perversely, all of these problems, with their roots deep in the last Labor government, have been used intermittently and remorselessly by a shameless Labor opposition to try to embarrass the government, and to attempt to score political capital through a transfer of blame for its own misdeeds to the Liberal Party.

Yet despite these obstacles and setbacks, the Coalition has engineered the strongest budget balance sheet of any Australian state. It is the only state with an AAA credit rating, and its $2bn budget surplus is the envy of all of the other states — to say nothing of the Commonwealth.

The dividend from that is the raft of state-building projects that Napthine now presents to voters as he seeks the re-election of his government.

The East-West freeway link — a roadway identified as crucial to Melbourne’s development by Labor’s own infrastructure review in office six years ago — represents the first attempt in more than a decade to do something meaningful about Melbourne’s clogged freeways, congested urban areas, and its dangerously overworked West Gate Bridge; Labor leader Daniel Andrews has pledged to tear up the contract to build it, and this particular piece of economic lunacy will punch a $1.1bn compensation hole in the state budget, in addition to mandating the return to Canberra of $3bn in tied federal funding grants that had been allocated to the road project by the Abbott government.

In a further insight into Andrews’ dangerously delusional thought processes, he has announced that the federal funds would not be returned to the federal government; he believes, instead, that Victoria would be free to retain them — and redirect them to whatever pet fancy an Andrews government might deign to indulge. This is arrant nonsense, and the misunderstanding on his part it betrays of how federal-state relations operate should serve as a further, potent warning to voters of his complete unsuitability to serve as Premier.

In fact, Andrews himself admitted on the stump during the week that if Labor is elected today, it will come to office with no slate of major projects on offer at all; in addition to the East-West Link, the Napthine Government has made extensive pledges around suburban rail and capacity expansion, inner-urban renewal, a rail connection between the Melbourne CBD and the airport at Tullamarine, new port facilities, and a slew of more localised but nonetheless critical infrastructure investments that will not only maintain Melbourne’s liveability and enhance its status as the best city in the world, but provide thousands of jobs — and billions of dollars in economic benefits — to boot.

By contrast, Andrews has committed Labor to remove 50 suburban level rail crossings within eight years — it managed fewer than 10 in its last 11-year stint in office — and a “West Gate Distributor” that will purportedly get trucks off the over-burdened West Gate Bridge, with no indication of where it will run when constructed (or whether it will be built at the same elevation as the bridge to avoid the shipping traffic below) and which makes no practical sense to any of the (hundreds of) people I have asked for opinions about it over the past few weeks.

But the obvious inferiority of Labor’s policy pledges is not the only reason for voters to refuse to elect the party to office today.

Daniel Andrews leads a mediocre team that boasts few obvious potential standouts as ministers; aside from its shadow Treasurer, Tim Pallas — and perhaps up-and-comer Jill Hennessy, whom I am assured by usually shrewd and reliable sources is brilliant — the rest of Labor’s line-up looks like what it is: an assortment of spivs, hacks, union lackeys, seat warmers, time servers, and the dregs of its last period in government.

Andrews himself hardly presents as a competent candidate to be Premier; after all, it was on his watch as Health minister during the Brumby government that Labor was caught red-handed manipulating and doctoring the true state of public hospital waiting lists for PR purposes, and to compound this outrage, Andrews had the idiocy at the time to front the Melbourne media and defend the practice.

He graduated to being an apologist for fictitious hospital waiting lists from presiding over the debacle of awarding lottery contracts as gaming minister: yet another disastrous exercise in mismanagement that is now coming undone, and which has potentially exposed the Victorian taxpayer to liabilities of well over a billion dollars to sort the stinking mess out.

And Andrews himself inspires little confidence; he gives every indication that he never really accepted that his days as a student politician ended, and this has been reflected time and again in the juvenile, puerile, childish antics and pronouncements he has made as leader over the past four years: in particular, the “circus” analogy he has insisted on trying to draw, and which remained a constant before, during and after the Liberals replaced Ted Baillieu with Napthine.

Ominously, Andrews is close to the notoriously militant, violent, thuggish CFMEU; despite damning evidence tabled at the Heydon Royal Commission into the trade union movement and the extensive criminal history of its leader, John Setka, becoming public knowledge, Andrews has persistently refused to terminate Labor’s affiliation with the CFMEU, exclude it from Victorian Labor’s internal procedures, or to stop accepting donations from it.

Given the ALP is also close to other unions with question marks over the legality of their behaviour and which he has also refused to disown, it is no exaggeration to suggest that an Andrews government would be run for and on behalf of some of the worst elements of the trade union movement: and these thugs, who now represent a miniscule proportion of the overall population, ought to be about as welcome in Treasury Place as the proverbial fart in an elevator.

The big sleeper issue over the past four years has been miscreant former Liberal MP Geoff Shaw, and the at times chaotic state to which his antics have reduced state Parliament; and as adept as Andrews has unquestionably been in exploiting these to maximise the political damage to the Napthine government, this does not qualify him to be Premier.

Shaw has been a thorn in the side of the government for no other reason than the fraught state of the numbers in the lower house, with 44 Coalition MPs, 43 from Labor, and Shaw; had Napthine enjoyed a 10-seat buffer, Shaw would have been expelled from Parliament months ago.

I suggest to those voters angry about the damage done by Geoff Shaw that there was little — if anything — the government could have done to deal with him, over and above what it has done, without either exposing the State to legal risk through proceedings brought against it by Shaw and/or losing a by-election in his Frankston electorate that would have gridlocked Parliament and brought government to a halt.

This latter scenario would clearly have been in nobody’s interests, and would not have even facilitated a change of government as a way to clear the air: thanks to changes made to the state’s Constitution by Labor when it last held government, no election could be held until today. The fact Andrews has succeeded in making a lot of noise for the sake of causing trouble does not correlate with some culpability on the Coalition’s part that could somehow have been avoided.

On the contrary, the entire fashion in which Labor has prosecuted its response to the Shaw matter accurately mirrors both its conduct over the past four years and the campaign it has now concluded to attempt to win back government: smug, sanctimonious, devoid of any basis in fact or honesty, but vicious in its confected outrage and the bile aimed at its conservative opponents. I have often said in this column that those who yell the loudest are often the most likely to be heard, and this is certainly true in Victorian Labor’s case. But hot air and noise are no basis upon which to construct any serious manifesto for governing a state such as Victoria.

And in fact, it seems Labor has spent the past few years simply waiting to fall back into office in Victoria by default; it has been loose with the truth for years on virtually every issue of substance, mischievous to the point of irresponsibility in its methods, and has simply refused to accept that at an election four years ago, someone else was elected to office.

It is this entitlement mentality — and the arrogantly deluded belief that the only valid choice open to voters is to elect Labor governments — that should most concern anyone contemplating voting for it.

And the disgraceful politicisation of the state’s ambulance service — explicitly using an industrial dispute as an electoral implement to damage the government, including driving ambulances around Victoria with anti-Coalition slogans scrawled all over them (and I don’t care whether Fair Work Australia declared that technically legal or not) is so outrageous, and so reprehensible, that a defeat for the ALP today would be well justified by disgusted voters who wanted to take the Ambulance Employees Association down a peg.

Stories of unionists masquerading as firefighters in a marginal seat yesterday in Melbourne’s south and sexually harassing the local Liberal candidate merely underscore the abuse of public services by unions for partisan political purposes, and this type of misbehaviour should not be rewarded at the ballot box.

There is no sign Labor has learned the lessons of its defeat four years ago, and little to suggest it is in any fit state to countenance restoring it to the Treasury benches.

And a final point before summing up: Victorian electors are not silly. They can tell the difference between state and federal issues. Irrespective of the popularity or otherwise of the Abbott government, today’s election is about who should run Victoria for the next four years. Aside from representing a source of additional funding to augment projects undertaken by the state government, the Abbott administration in Canberra has precisely nothing to do with today’s state election in Victoria.

What all of this means for Victorian voters, as they evaluate the offerings and merits of the respective parties and weigh their decision as to which way to vote, is that one clear — and unimpeachable — theme emerges.

For all its faults, the Coalition has put Victoria into an enviable position over the past four years; a stable and competent government delivering hard-fought outcomes for all Victorians, Napthine’s team has worked hard to undo the legacy of Labor mismanagement, and to build effectively for the decades to come.

Its policy prescriptions and the agenda it has submitted to the verdict of the public will make a great state better: in Melbourne, in the regions, and in the daily lives of the millions of people who live in it.

The alternative, as personified in its leader Daniel Andrews, represents too much of a risk, and poses more questions than answers. Will Labor plunge the state into debt by tearing up the East-West contract? What influence will the unions really wield over a Labor government? And despite its clever stunts and smug campaigning tactics, is Labor really up to governing at all?

I think not.

A cynic might suggest that the refusal of The Age to endorse Labor amounts to payback for the disgusting incident in which the confidential contents of a dictaphone owned by one of its journalists were apparently accessed, copied and distributed by Labor figures for the express purpose of damaging the Liberal Party: and I think it salient to note that key senior figures in the ALP may yet find themselves facing criminal charges over that particular misadventure.

Again, the question of trust does not resolve itself in Labor’s favour.

Yet despite its penchant for supporting the politics of the Left in recent years, I think the journalists at The Age are too professional (and insufficiently petty) to let the incident colour their endorsement today: rather, they can see what other reasonably minded folk across the state can see, and that — very simply — is that the Labor Party is unfit to govern Victoria.

From Melbourne to Mildura, from Wodonga to Warrnambool, and from the Mallee to Mallacoota, this column urges all voters to place their trust, in the very best interests of the state — today, and for the future — in Denis Napthine as Premier, and in his Liberal and National Coalition candidates in both the lower and upper house, for a further four years in government in our great state of Victoria.


Reform Of The Senate: Fixing A House Of Ill Repute

THERE IS MUCH that is wrong with Australian politics, not least the way it is practised by some in the political community; but the Senate — rigged and booby-trapped by “reform” in 1984 — is arguably very near the root of the problem. Far from the “unrepresentative swill” decried by Paul Keating, the end effect of the 1984 reforms has seen the Senate become a house of ill repute that casts a pall across politics — and government — in Australia.

I must apologise to readers for the length of time it has taken for this article to materialise since I flagged it on Monday and I will admit — at the outset — that the bare bones of the idea presented here today were published in this column a little over a year ago, in a more cursory but wider-reaching article that looked at electoral reform in Australia.

This time, however, I want to look beyond the problem (as it exists at face value) as well as expanding on my proposal for Senate reform: for whilst presenting a model for seemingly radical change is well and good, there’s little point in doing so without making the case based on historical context.

One key difference between the article last October, however, and the political reality as it stands today is very simply that the consequences of last year’s election are now writ large for all to see.

The Senate is a mess; aided by the lower quotas required for winning Senate spots that have applied since the Hawke government enlarged the chamber in 1984 — and exacerbated by activities in “gaming” the system, as typified by the so-called “preference whisperer,” with the specific objective of getting inconsequential fringe candidates into Parliament on a sliver of the vote — fully one-quarter of the Senate’s membership is now constituted by minor parties which would hold little or no representation based on the pre-1984 64-member Senate.

So poorly has Australia been served by the process for electing the Senate it isn’t necessary to invent fanciful hypotheticals to criticise it, for the reality is that bad; and far from a simple rant about an unsatisfactory election result, I believe the problem with the Senate cuts to the very architecture of the institution itself, as fiddled and manipulated and rigged over time to suit the agenda of different governments — usually led by the Labor Party.

I would go so far as to say that the Senate — in constitution, by design, and in practice — has become a house of ill repute; the fault for this lies with Parliament, insofar as it has exercised its right under the Constitution over the decades to turn the Senate into something that I don’t think anyone can credibly claim was intended at Federation.

There are a few points I want to be extremely clear about before we go too far. I dare anyone to try to rebut them.

There is no codified “House of Review” function ascribed to the Senate in the Constitution.

There is no right to Senate representation for minorities embedded in the Constitution.

The number of Senators is constitutionally tied to the size of the House of Representatives.

Each of these points will become relevant as we go on.

If we go back to 1984, I don’t think anyone could argue with the need to enlarge the size of the House of Representatives. After all, the voting population in Australia was growing quickly, and the capacity of 125 MPs to properly service close to 80,000 constituents had become a big ask, to say the least.

Yet the Constitution stipulates that the House of Representatives must be as close as practicably possible to double the size of the Senate: increasing the size of one meant increasing the size of both. But thanks to the proportional voting system used to elect the Senate, enlarging that House meant reducing the quotas required to gain election to it, opening the door to minor parties and Independents.

As reasonable as it was to enlarge the House of Representatives in 1984, the Hawke government was motivated, at least in substantial part, by the ALP’s determination to ensure that the events of November 1975 could never happen again: the dismissal of the Whitlam government was an entirely proper and constitutional course of action. But it viscerally scarred the ALP, which resolved that such an outrage could and would never again be visited upon it if the means to prevent it ever became available.

It is Parliament — not voters directly, nor the Constitution — that determines how Parliament is elected; control Parliament, and you can change the way it is elected. After the 1983 double dissolution Labor, with the balance of power support of the Australian Democrats, did exactly that.

The true effects of those 1984 reforms have taken decades to become fully apparent, but the logical end destination of this exercise in retributive Senate redesign was arguably reached at last year’s Senate election; a record 18 of the 76 Senators elected sit on the crossbench, and some of these — such as Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir — were elected with what, in round terms, can only be described as virtually no electoral support.

What Paul Keating lamented in 1992 had become “unrepresentative swill” has now progressed to being a full-blown house of ill repute, with warring blocs of Senators seemingly unable to agree on anything without first emasculating it, and with an overriding flavour to the Senate’s activities of seeking to destroy the government elected in a landslide in the lower house.

Meanwhile, the disenchantment and resentment of ordinary voters with politics grows, with blame disproportionately being aimed at the major parties; in turn, this simply drives the emergence of even more minority entities in the Senate, fracturing governance even further, and perpetuating the whole destructive process.

The Senate majority acquired by the Howard government in 2004 was, in this sense, an electoral oddity; two very solid election wins (2001 and 2004) enabled Howard to carry half the Senate in 2001 and a little better than that three years later. But prior to 2001, the Coalition faced a Senate that was hostile to varying degrees; since its defeat in 2007, it has slipped further and further from being able to get anywhere near controlling the upper house.

Ironically, Labor — thanks to its alliance with the Greens — carried the day in the Senate more than it lost during its time in power.

But while there are exceptions to every rule, most of the non-major party Senators elected in the past 30 years have been either openly hostile toward the Coalition or at least sullenly disposed toward it, and when Labor was last in office, its virtual control of the Senate was tempered by the incompetence of its governance, especially on matters concerning money management, and some of the ridiculous laws it passed as the price of retaining the support of the Greens.

Now, the House of Representatives needs to be enlarged again; its 150 MPs are charged with providing effective service to an average of more than 110,000 electors, which is quite patently a ridiculous expectation of any elected representative.

But enlarging the House of Representatives comes with what only the vested interests who stand to benefit from it would describe as anything other than a constitutional headache: the Senate would need to be enlarged as well, and based on the current system of proportional representation, that simply means the chaos and fragmentation that now characterises the upper house would become even more entrenched.

The Constitution does not prescribe the Senate as a “house of review,” although in practice it undoubtedly fulfils such a function. Yet governments have to be able to govern, and a complete inability to pass legislation makes such a proposition impossible — an absurdity in a system of democracy.

Readers know I have accused Labor of repeatedly fiddling the system by which the upper house is elected: by introducing proportional representation to it in the first place in 1948, and then by enlarging it to try to stop the Coalition from ever controlling it again in 1984.

But if it was Labor — and not the Coalition — with the superior historical record of controlling the Senate, would it have done so? I think not.

And in turn, this points to the ALP having behaved to compensate for its inability to win the votes it needed to win control of the Senate by making it impossible for anyone else — especially those who once could — to do so.

Pardon my French, but that’s fucked, even allowing for the follow-up disclaimer that “that’s politics.”

Every time I have a discussion with people of Left-leaning persuasion about the problem of the Senate, their responses are pure emotive gobbledygook designed to make me sound like an undemocratic tyrant. Don’t you welcome diversity of opinion? Don’t you think there should be a variety of voices having input into government? Do you think it’s a good idea to disenfranchise minorities? And so forth.

Well, to be blunt, I think that if parties and/or candidates are incapable of winning a reasonable stipend of electoral support then there is no place for them in Parliament.

There is no entitlement to a seat in Parliament simply because you want one; there is no right for a particular party to win seats even if it can garner next to no support.

And if someone like Ricky Muir can win a Senate spot with 1,500 primary votes when the quota is 480,000 votes, then it is the system elections are conducted on that is broken.

One of the arguments that often gets thrown at me in response to my advocacy of First Past The Post (FPTP) voting is that in a hypothetical election featuring 12 candidates, someone with 8.5% of the vote might win.

Enter the 2013 Senate election. Muir didn’t even win 0.85%, let alone 8.5%, yet he was still elected. There goes the theory FPTP is worse than the present system.

There is an elected government that has been unable to pass virtually any legislation without it being mangled and emasculated; some would argue this improves outcomes. Yet the same government — beholden to the emaciated version of its program the Senate has enacted — is nonetheless paying a heavy political price in terms of popular support despite the “improvements” forced upon it by the upper house.

There goes that theory too.

And I do hold to the opinion that elected governments should be able to implement their policies; if these are bad, or have adverse consequences for too many people, then the next election is only ever three years or less away in Australia: and the people can vote the government out.

As things stand, the Senate has evolved into a professional wrecking chamber, aiming to destroy the Abbott government, holding an unconstitutional inquiry into an elected government in one of the states, and irrespective of whether you vote Liberal, Labor, Greens or whatever, if you care at all about democratic process in this country, this should enrage and terrify you.

But the Senate has to be enlarged to enable the House of Representatives to grow as well.

To this end — and to borrow from the October article — I propose the following:

  • The wholesale abolition of proportional voting in the Senate.
  • The division of each state into six upper house districts (or provinces, or constituencies, or ridings, or whatever name they are given).
  • Each of these districts — at a normal half-Senate election — to elect one Senator using an optional preferential voting system.
  • At any future double dissolution election, each district would elect two Senators rather than one, in the way Legislative Council members were elected in Victoria prior to 2001, only using optional rather than compulsory preferential voting.
  • The territories — whose Senators face election whenever the House of Representatives does — would return two Senators at each election using the altered voting method.

To enlarge the House of Representatives from 150 to 180 seats, the six Senate regions this plan calls for would simply become seven, with each state electing a total of 14 Senators rather than 12. But those Senators would need to assemble majority support on preferences in single-member electorates.

As I said in October, I also propose two further reforms to apply to elections for both Houses of Parliament: one, to slightly raise the threshold at which candidates become eligible for public election funding, from 4% of the vote to 5%; and two, a threshold introduced to bar candidates who poll less than 5% of the primary vote in any electorate or upper house district from being eligible to be elected on preferences.

Yes, these changes would favour the major parties and certainly — in the case of the Senate — would stop forever the election of fringe groups with no electoral backing from getting to Canberra.

But why is that such a bad thing?

Anyone who can get out and do the hard work to put together a majority of the vote — not necessarily under their own steam, provided they clear the 5% threshold — could be elected to the upper house. Simply surfing complacently onto red leather off the back of a residual few percentage points would cease to be a red carpet ride into the Senate.

Creating upper house districts, rather than forcing candidates to campaign across a given state in its entirety, can only help them in this endeavour. And so too can the fact that in urban areas especially, pockets of (for example) Greens support are likely to be concentrated — such as in the area covered by Northcote, Brunswick, Fitzroy and Carlton in Melbourne — and therefore conducive to returning a minor party candidate.

My point is that the Senate is broken: and it needs to be fixed.

Arguing that Labor (with the Greens) can control things in power, so there is no problem, is simply wrong: the Senate as it stands was explicitly crafted to cause difficulties for the non-Labor parties. And now, finally, it has. Those difficulties will only worsen as Coalition support recedes from its election high last year. Holding the present rabble in the Senate up as evidence of fault on the part of the Coalition is perverse.

And in any case, the Constitution, whilst prescribing nothing, does actually allude to the system I raise here: it makes provision for Queensland (until or unless federal Parliament provided otherwise, which it did) to be carved into upper house districts at the discretion of the state government of the day. To those who say I’m advocating tampering with “democracy,” I’d counter that at least the Constitution contemplated what I am suggesting, and in doing so considered it feasible architecture for the Senate.

There is not a word in the Constitution about “diverse voices” or proportional representation or the political interests of lunatic fringe entities who, on balance, probably shouldn’t be anywhere near a legislative chamber anyway.

What do people think?

The only way this (or any other meaningful change) can be enacted is if a broad coalescence of parties — probably, the Liberals and Labor — embrace the need for urgent structural reform of the way the Senate is elected and constituted.

That means putting aside petty partisan agendas and instituting a ceasefire in hostilities, however hard that might be.

It means, ironically, that Labor is the key to undoing the very damage its handiwork 30 years ago has ultimately inflicted.

Could Bill Shorten engage in a bit of constructive conduct in the national interest?

I think I’ll leave others to answer that one this time.


Defence Fracas: Reshuffle To Move Hockey, Dump Johnston

THOSE READERS WAITING on the promised article on Senate reform should see something from me tonight, but this morning I wanted to comment on the brouhaha surrounding controversial Defence minister David Johnston — and the opportunity to reshuffle the ministry it presents for Tony Abbott. With Arthur Sinodinis sidelined and Johnston apparently done, change now could reap immediate political dividends for the government.

First things first: the article on Senate reform I have been promising this week is partly written, and — barring the kind of unforeseen developments that happen, as issues spring into political focus out of nowhere — should be published late tonight. Any delay will be the result of unexpected developments and/or the need to cover the ground adequately, but the piece is “under construction.”

But the fracas that has erupted around “canoe” comments from Defence minister David Johnston has brought to a head the issue Abbott has sought to date to avoid, in the name of presenting a united and stable frontbench: namely, that that frontbench has holes in it, has already been shown to house under-performers and time-servers, and should be the subject of a limited reshuffle to invigorate the government and provide an injection of some of the excellent fresh talent that swells the Coalition backbench.

Significantly, the need to replace Johnston — to date a solid but unexceptional performer before his outburst yesterday — opens up exactly the kind of senior frontbench role into which Treasurer Joe Hockey could be moved sideways: to help rule a line under the debacle the May budget continues to prove for the government, yet to ensure that an outstanding minister of Hockey’s capabilities is retained by the government and deployed in a role perhaps better suited to his strengths.

I wrote in this column last month that as a replacement for Hockey, Abbott could do worse than to appoint Malcolm Turnbull; this column stands by that assessment, and despite the obvious political risks in elevating a leadership rival to the post traditionally occupied by an heir apparent, this critical portfolio simply must be allocated to a minister who can both capitalise on the Coalition’s traditional reputation for economic management, and who can draw the line under the May budget — and, in short, start again.

Turnbull is the ideal candidate, with his background in banking and business and his not-inconsiderable record from a decade as the federal Liberals’ Treasurer: and in any case, the problems caused by Hockey’s budget are potentially existential in nature for the government. The sooner this traditional Coalition strength is removed as a political liability, the better.

And significantly — with Turnbull having this week confirmed cuts of $50 million per year over five years to the budget of the ABC, it is perhaps wise to get him out of the direct firing line of the Left: a group which almost counts the Communications minister as one of its own, despite his membership of the Liberals, and who will be vocal in their fury at the cuts and savage in expressing the sense of betrayal they feel at what Turnbull has (correctly) now done.

But more widely, a reshuffle is exactly what the government needs, and that need transcends any imaginary picture of stability or unity that has caused Abbott to hesitate to date.

The government has its stars — Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, Scott Morrison and Matthias Cormann are names that come quickly to mind.

But it also has underperformers and liabilities such as Johnston, and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, who was tantamount to being the union movement’s best buddy in government when the closures of car manufacturers were being confirmed last year. Add in time-servers like Kevin Andrews in Social Security — and the reality none of these names are likely to feature in any second-term ministerial line-up — and the imperative for a little change grows stronger.

And there is already one vacancy; with the government’s first term now almost half-expired and Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis sidelined for almost all of that time, the luxury of batting one short is a luxury the government, faced with consistent poor public opinion findings, can scarcely afford.

Simply stated, the time appears to have chosen the Prime Minister when it comes to reshuffling his ministry, rather than the other way around; there is an embarrassment of riches parked on the government backbench in terms of new talent, and impressive up-and-comers like Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O’Dwyer, Sarah Henderson and Bridget McKenzie all merit promotion: and it can be argued, with little trouble, that all of them could hardly do worse than some of those they would be slated to replace in any rearrangement of the government’s ranks.

I think the Prime Minister has to act: and whilst I’m the last person to get unduly jumpy about opinion polls (my insistence the Victorian Coalition under Denis Napthine may yet be re-elected on Saturday is a case in point), the danger in being consistently five to ten points down in reputable polling is that the trend becomes entrenched, the sense of embattlement accepted as a default, and the slide toward losing office after a single term a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Much as it quickly did for Julia Gillard after 2010.

It doesn’t need to be like this. The Coalition offers the very best prospects for effective, competent and stable governance in this country, both in the present and for years to come.

The time to move on the personnel side of the ledger is now, and to put the best available team — despite any admirable statements of loyalty from Abbott about the present line-up — into place.

It would be little consolation to anyone concerned if a failure to act contributes to the Coalition fielding the most talented shadow ministerial team ever seen in Australia after the next election.

Were this to occur, it would condemn Australia to more inept Labor government, with spiralling levels of debt and deficit: and, with the government that was elected to fix these things removed from office, there would be no brake or restraint on Labor’s capacity to inflict untold damage on the country’s fortunes if this unpalatable scenario were to materialise.


Lambie, Palmer, And A Great Big Cock-Up

JACQUI LAMBIE’S resignation from the Palmer United Party today warrants condemnation, nothing more; even so, the disintegration of Clive Palmer’s eponymous party is to be eagerly and enthusiastically welcomed, as the get-square implement of a despotic autocrat continues to collapse under the weight of competing egos, a policy agenda with the actual and moral clarity of a sewer, and an electorate awake to the fact it was cynically conned.

It looks like my article on Senate reform is going to have to wait at least another day after all, although with the mooted resignation of Jacqui Lambie from Clive Palmer’s party looming large as I posted this morning, I half expected this might be the case. Nonetheless, I promise readers that by the middle of the week at the latest, the proffered Senate piece will be published.

I wanted to add my thoughts to some of the comment that has found its way speedily into print today after Lambie’s infantile tantrum culminated in her departure from the Palmer United Party, and far from echoing any of the faux grace she attempted to exhibit on the way out the door, readers might be surprised to know that I think what she has done today is reprehensible.

Lambie’s resignation from the Palmer United Party deserves to be condemned in the strongest possible terms: no more, no less.

This abominable and virtually inarticulate specimen, plucked from the Tasmanian boondocks — to continue, it seems, her career as a victim, albeit on a bigger stage — owes her position in the Senate to the party Clive Palmer founded, and as painful as it is to say it, Palmer is actually right to lambaste Lambie for daring to arrogate to herself the role of an Independent just a year after being elected on Palmer’s ticket, as a member of Palmer’s party, and bankrolled by Palmer’s money, which she has admitted herself on the public record that she needed to sustain her campaign.

Whilst nobody will ever now know, it seems inconceivable that Lambie would have been elected under her own steam last year: her Senate spot would have gone to the Tasmanian Liberals, whence it was arguably stolen under a false premise.

And her claims today to have had “a great weight lifted off (her) shoulders” in resigning from Palmer’s outfit ought to instead hang like a millstone around her neck, or be flung back in her face to politically crucify her: for, like it or not, Lambie was elected as a Palmer United Party Senator for Tasmania. Far from a weight being lifted from her shoulders, she has in fact absconded from the job she was elected to, and dumped on those Tasmanians who voted for her.

Her assertion that she is now free to act as a Senator for Tasmania is unbelievably crass: she was already that. And with the degree of levity Palmer was clearly prepared to extend to her for her fancies — despite the obvious acrimony between the two — it is reasonable to assert there is nothing she can achieve now that could not have been achieved had she remained in the role to which she was elected just an embarrassingly short amount of time ago.

Lambie’s resignation is no act of principle, nor a stand for anything that is right, decent, or even coherent. It is a sham.

For the record, I have no truck whatsoever with the unrelenting goading and taunting Palmer has engaged in over the past few weeks, almost daring Lambie to go ahead and leave his God-forsaken rabble; his accusations that she sought to defect to other parties — and even that she was a plant who infiltrated his party to sabotage it — are ridiculous, fatuous, and distasteful in the extreme.

But two wrongs do not make a right, and Lambie has — good to her word — given as good as she has received, returning fire at Palmer through the receptive organs of the media at every opportunity, and the duo have better resembled a warring marital couple than a pair of sober, professional political operatives.

Lambie tried to be gracious today, with remarks about Palmer’s “beautiful family” and suggesting that when “the dust has cleared” there will be opportunities for her to work with her former Palmer colleagues “in the national interest.”

Yet there is nothing about Lambie, Palmer, or the entire Palmer United Party infrastructure that could be remotely construed as being in the national interest, and the only surprise about Lambie’s resignation is that she chose to jump before Palmer pushed her: after all, and as I have opined here recently, being kicked out of the Palmer party would fit nicely with Lambie’s narrative of herself as a victim battling against almost everything and everyone she encounters.

In truth, today’s developments should be kept in perspective: yes, they will make a fractious and unpredictably hostile Senate that much harder for the Abbott government to handle, and the mysteriously expanding list of issues Lambie says she wishes to champion will make her difficult to deal with at all. But they will only make a bad situation infinitesimally worse, and continuing the slow disintegration of the Palmer United Party, the welcome aspect of Lambie’s actions today is that is should inevitably hasten its demise.

For the Palmer party is, indeed, disintegrating; already, it has lost half the MPs it has either managed to have elected to various Parliaments around the country, or has managed to coerce away and poach from the Coalition.

Stories of the dictatorial and autocratic manner in which Palmer runs his party are well documented and well known, as is the disturbing trend to friends, family members and loyal lieutenants increasingly filling key roles in the party and being awarded preselection berths.

The policy platform of the Palmer United Party — if it even has one — has all the clarity, real, moral, or otherwise, of a sewer: and I use the metaphor advisedly.

Its only real agenda (and this is an old story) is one of a malevolent, belligerent, get-square crusade aimed at Queensland’s LNP and, by extension, Coalition administrations elsewhere, for the simple reason Palmer was not given what he perceived he was entitled to in return for substantial support of the LNP and for Campbell Newman’s successful bid for the Premiership of Queensland.

Just to cap it, Western Australian Police confirmed today that they are conducting inquiries into Palmer in relation to allegations he siphoned money from his Chinese business partners to help bankroll his election campaign last year which, at the very minimum, contradicts Palmer’s flat denials that he faced any such investigations at all.

The cumulative reality that all of this represents — from the first hint Palmer might start his own party, up until the circus act today — has seen popular support for the Palmer United Party collapse across reputable opinion polls, and whilst it’s impossible to say “never” in politics, it is entirely possible that the point at which Palmer candidates begin to experience defeat (and the loss of their existing sinecures) is now at hand.

To this end, Palmer’s latest enterprise is to stand candidates for upper house sinecures at this Saturday’s state election in Victoria: once again, seeking to play the wrecking role, the spoiler, and to secure a vantage point from which no constructive contribution can ever be extracted.

Simply stated, the Palmer United Party’s claim to any of these spots rests solely upon the fact it is not the Liberal Party, or the Labor Party, or the National Party.

The time for Palmer to cash in on public disenchantment with politics and politicians has now passed, and as I have said in this column before, enterprises like the Palmer United Party merely fuel the very disillusionment with politics they purport to solve, and when the facade is stripped away — as it now has been, with an electorate well awake to the fact the Palmer United Party was just a con job — they feed back in to turning people away from politics even more.

If Palmer comes up empty-handed in Melbourne at the weekend, he will have received exactly what he deserved from Victorian voters.



Snap Election To “Clear” Senate? Don’t Bet On It

A SURPRISING POLL for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph finds that an astonishing 67% of voters want a fresh federal election — a double dissolution — to clear the Senate of obstructive minor parties and “Independents” and get a workable Parliament; the legalities of such an election are unclear , and in any case the move is unlikely based on the behaviour of the ALP. A push to reform the Senate — in good faith — is a potentially more fruitful idea.

The vagaries of daily life have meant that the reform series I promised at the start of the month has largely been subsumed; today, however, comes an opportunity to revisit the theme, and I will aim to do this tonight or (I promise) in the next couple of days.

But Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is carrying an article today, reporting poll findings by Galaxy that purport to show some 67% of NSW voters are in favour of a snap double dissolution election, to clean out the raft of minor party influences in the Senate and make federal Parliament more workable than it is now.

The poll — which shows 67% of respondents favouring such an election, with 25% opposed — represents the kind of thing that was probably always going to turn up at some point this parliamentary term, given the deadlocked shambles the Senate has mostly become.

And it is a fair bet to say it belies the ignorance of most voters when it comes to the constitutional factors governing elections for the Senate, although on this occasion they are probably aligned with each other.

I am not averse to the idea of a double dissolution election, although I would hasten to add that with the farcical Gillard government now consigned to the dustbin of history — where it belongs — extreme caution should be used in agitating for an early election, be it for both Houses of Parliament or otherwise.

For one thing, the Abbott government is unlikely to call one until or unless it can be reasonably confident of re-election in the lower house: and hard, cold political reality suggests that as of today’s date, it can’t be.

For another, there is little point in throwing both Houses open to the electorate when there is no guarantee anyone would co-operate with a Coalition attempt to cut the number of non-major party influences that are elected in the upper House: Labor, under Bill Shorten, exhibits a distinct penchant for causing as much disruption and chaos for the Abbott government as it can.

If it believed, heading into such an election, that the government was likely to be returned, it would move heaven and Earth to increase the size of the crossbench — not trim it.

And if Labor thought it might win, it might do the same thing anyway; after all, the kinds of entities the Senate voting system elevates to its crossbench are, on the whole, far friendlier to the ALP than to the Coalition, and this political truism is so pronounced that there is little point wasting column space recounting sufficient historical examples to bear it out.

Even so, most of those who would bleat the loudest of being able to “work with” the Coalition — the Communist Party Greens and the Palmer United Party being the chief culprits — are also those who most regularly vote in the Senate to obstruct it.

Both have gone well out of their way to cause maximum political damage to the government, and both have occasionally thrown the government a (heavily conditional and qualified) bone to allow themselves to claim the mantra of a “balanced” approach to their activities, which is patent rubbish.

And as I said, these types — along with some of the other undeserving types thrown up by the undemocratic system used to elect the Senate — generally find themselves able to live in harmony with Labor governments, which was the whole point of Senate changes made by the Hawke government in 1984: securing upper houses that are mostly friendly to the Left, with the Howard Senate majority won in 2004 relegated to the realm of the exception.

I’m not surprised the Tele has found frustration — even hostility — with the Senate and its antics, nor that people are already clamouring for something to be done about it.

But a snap poll would, in all likelihood, exacerbate the problem.

My remarks this morning are deliberately brief, and I will return (hopefully) this evening to thrash out a better idea: reforming the Senate altogether, with a plan that does not exclude the minor parties by any stretch, but which means that securing election really would be contingent on securing a reasonable stipend of electoral support.

That would mean no Ricky Muir with his 1,700 votes in Victoria, or the Greens holding the country to ransom with 10 Senators — 6 of whom were elected more than four years ago.

But even then, I know it will be a big ask, for no matter what is placed on the table, there will always be someone happy to play the wrecker in the name of short-term political expediency than in the national interest in the longer run.

And yes, Bill Shorten, I’m looking at you.


Victoria: Smug Labor Campaign Goes Too Far, Literally

IF LABOR LOSES next weekend’s state election in Victoria, then images of its campaign bus breaking the law by running a red light — and almost causing an accident — may well prove the turning point of a lacklustre election campaign that remains to be won. Ahead in polling but not overwhelmingly so, ALP momentum has stalled: Denis Napthine deserves to be re-elected, despite the Coalition’s troubles. Labor may have helped facilitate exactly that.

I haven’t provided the commentary on this state election I would have liked: partly because I have been rather busy, as readers know, but also because when I have been able to publish comment there’s been plenty happening, and arguably other issues have been more salient at the time than what is happening here in Victoria.

One week out from one of the more bizarre state elections I can recall — after all, the last first-term state government thrown out of office (Queensland, 1998) knew the rising menace of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation would puncture its fortunes well in advance, making the overall outcome anyone’s guess — the identity of who will be the Premier of Victoria on Sunday morning remains impossible to predict with any confidence.

None of this is to say I think Denis Napthine’s Coalition government is set to be defeated; on the contrary, I have been resolute throughout the year that Napthine probably would (and should) be re-elected, much to the surprise of some of my contemporaries, although if my views were informed solely by opinion polling I’d now be suggesting anything but.

At the level of the eyeline of the general public, this has been a pedestrian, lacklustre state election campaign; there is no excitement and — significantly — no tangible public momentum for the ALP and its erstwhile challenger, the puerile Daniel Andrews. More on him later.

Both sides appear to have made substantial strategic errors: on the Coalition side, the heavily negative campaign that should have saturated Melbourne’s media has mostly failed to eventuate; the appalling record of the Bracks-Brumby government between 1999 and 2010, with its multi-billion dollar blowouts on major projects (myki, the desalination plant, the so-called North-South pipeline, and the consequent impost Victorian families remain saddled with for decades to come) remain unexploited.

And on the Labor side, running a classic “small target” strategy has left the ALP exposed to real questions about what it would do if restored to office. Yes, we all know Andrews has promised to remove 50 suburban level crossings. But Labor’s pledge to tear up the contracts for the East-West link seems to be a semantic exercise aimed at salvaging four inner city electorates from the Greens, and unlikely to be honoured beyond polling day if Andrews somehow falls across the line.

And that — today — remains a very big “if.”

It’s all been very well-managed, in a sense; for the past couple of years every ambulance in Victoria has toured around the state with anti-Coalition messages scrawled across it in the ostensible name of pursuing industrial action — a dispute the union had agreed to resolve, only to impose additional demands on the government at the last minute to drag the stoush through the middle of an election campaign.

I’m wagering the dispute will be settled on Monday week if Labor wins the election.

Prior to that, unions were caught out using staff at the Alfred Hospital to masquerade as “sick” patients on trolleys in corridors to post images in social media as proof of the “neglect” of Victoria’s hospitals under the Liberals.

The dispute over teacher salaries — initiated on the watch of former Premier Ted Baillieu — dragged on interminably for years, and centred on Baillieu’s perhaps ill-advised pledge to make Victorian teachers “not the worst-paid in Australia, but the best-paid.”

I can see both sides of this issue, to be fair.

But to be brutal about it, the position the government under Baillieu pursued (and later abandoned after Napthine replaced him) would have seen the very best teachers paid substantially more than the no-hopers at the bottom of the pack, who hide in classrooms because they can’t cut it anywhere in the real word. Thanks to the intransigence of the powerful teacher unions and their insidious lowest common denominator mentality, there’s no incentive for teachers to improve their performance at all: a clod remains remunerated at the same level as an education superstar.

Which is perverse, in a sense, because education is one of the few areas this small-target ALP campaign has attempted to fashion any kind of narrative around. Not schools, mind, but TAFE colleges.

Some days it seems all Labor wants to talk about is TAFE; mindful of the fracas over the closure of non-performing TAFE colleges early in Ballieu’s tenure, the ALP says it will reopen all of them. It goes further, promising to “bring back” the technical colleges that were closed by state Labor in the late 1980s, with nary a word on how this will work or how much it will cost.

And it talks about aiming to form a government that “puts people first” when there is no mention, in any meaningful sense, of how much its grab bag of promises will hit the hip pockets of ordinary Victorians.

One subject Labor is understandably reticent to talk about is Health; perhaps the track record of fiddled hospital waiting lists under the previous government — with Andrews as minister not merely responsible, but defending the practice at the time — is deemed too risky a can of worms to open.

But this subject is yet another pressure point the Coalition campaign has declined to probe, and with the ambulance union merrily driving around the state with anti-Coalition propaganda defacing government vehicles, the ALP probably feels content that there is nothing further it needs to do in this field.

Try as it might, the (enviable) Coalition record of astute budget management and the robust position the state is in are themes the government is achieving little, if any, cut-through on.

Labor, for its part, shows every sign of being happy to coast into office — apparently believing opinion polling showing it on track to score a thumping win — in a smug, almost arrogant delusion that Victorian voters genuinely embrace this virtually agenda-free offering and the sanctimonious oaf Labor thinks is a shoo-in to be Premier.

The truth is more mundane, and offers Labor little reason to be as complacent as it has been to date.

For one thing, the sleeper issue of union control of the ALP (and in particular, militant and violent unions like the CFMEU) is an unknown variable in determining how undecided voters break in the final week; the abject refusal of Andrews, or anyone else at the ALP, to disown such an obvious liability is telling, and offers a glimpse into how any government formed by Andrews might operate.

For another, whoever wins this election will lose seats as well as win them, with electorates changing hands in both directions. The “bush” that was once the heartland of the conservative parties (until alienated by Jeff Kennett) shows signs of finally returning to the Coalition fold, whilst a handful of highly marginal Coalition seats in Melbourne appear dangerously vulnerable to the ALP. The election could well come down to a few individual seats, either extremely marginal for the ALP and/or notionally Liberal after the recent redistribution, and who wins the lion’s share of them: and right now, barring a major decisive development in the coming week, these are no more predictable in any reasonable sense than a lottery.

And most of all, the published opinion polling showing Labor on course for a crushing win has tightened, with the most recent round of results averaging 52-48 for the ALP; yes, you’d rather be ahead four points than behind, but at 52-48, this apparent picture of the electorate is on the edge of the “zone” in which the distribution of votes in individual seats could see one side prevail whilst losing the two-party vote.

I’m told the private polling of both major parties shows this overall statewide picture as being even closer, at 51-49 in Labor’s favour, which merely underlines the point.

Daniel Andrews has probably been shrewd in running a campaign that is almost dismissive of Napthine and the government generally; his protestations that the Premier is “not relevant” to his “plan” for Victoria shows confidence of a sort, and is consistent with the vague campaign Labor has run generally that has eschewed confrontation and avoided the litany of liabilities Labor could see thrown at it (and which — unbelievably — the Liberals have almost completely refrained from throwing).

Yet this campaign — which feels in some respects similar to the one fought by Labor in 2002, as it romped home to its biggest win in Victorian political history — could turn on one small but significant event that derails the momentum for one side, and hands an unexpected win to the other in a virtual default.

It wasn’t the fact Andrews’ campaign bus apparently ran a red light at a busy intersection in Melbourne’s southern suburbs on Friday that provided a potent symbol for the government to rally around, nor the fact a major traffic accident was almost caused as a result of the incident.

DANIEL ANDREWS AND LABOR…prepared to ride roughshod over anything in the way of their mad lust for power in Victoria. (Picture: Herald Sun)


Rather, the responses from Labor are emblematic of its utter contempt for decency, the law, and of its law-unto-itself mentality: the obvious thing to do would have been to apologise, chalk it up to human fallibility on the part of the bus driver, and move on.

Instead, Labor claimed the Liberal Party was reprehensible, grubby, indecent for allegedly circulating vision of the incident: with the unmistakable accompanying message that when it comes to slaking its lust for power and pursuing its mad obsession with forming government at any cost, Victorian Labor is above the law, and above the standards expected of normal, law-abiding citizens.

It brings to mind the episode of the stolen journalist’s dictaphone some months ago, for which Labor denied all responsibility, despite the admission the tape’s contents (which were highly embarrassing to the Liberals) were copied by figures at Labor’s Melbourne head office.

(And this, too, is yet another pointer to Labor’s unsuitability for government that the Coalition has declined to capitalise on).

For the record, my input into the government’s central re-election campaign is precisely zero; sidelined by people who have made it abundantly clear that they know better, and that there is no place for my input in the innermost circles of the Liberal Party’s brains trust, I’m forced to watch — in frustration — from the outside, like every other conservative voter who fears Labor could win a thoroughly ill-deserved victory next Saturday.

But if I was betting on it, my money would go on the Premier, Denis Napthine, to be re-elected: by the narrowest of margins, and providing no major embarrassments leap out of the shadows at the government in the last week of the campaign.

To this end, the smug Labor campaign with its inherent sense of entitlement — and the childish, juvenile cretin who is its candidate for the Premier’s office — might just have gone too far on Friday.

The imagery is telling. Labor believes itself to be above the law. And nothing — or nobody — will be permitted to get in the way of its stampede back to the government benches, which it arrogantly believes are its right.

Reasonable people do not respond well to this kind of thing. It is to be hoped, in looking beyond the obvious response to the cacophony of self-indulgent drivel from Andrews and his cohorts, that they are paying attention.