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.
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.