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.
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.