The Game Is Afoot: Napthine Breathes Life Into Liberals In Victoria

THE POLITICAL landscape in Victoria has been redrawn in the past eight weeks; the replacement of Ted Baillieu with Denis Napthine as leader of the Liberal Party — and as Premier — has reinvigorated the troubled Coalition government, which now stands every chance of being re-elected in 2014.

I was waiting to post on this subject until a bi-monthly Newspoll survey of state voting  intentions had been conducted for The Australian; this was finally published on Sunday, but with the ongoing shenanigans in Canberra, it has had to wait a day or two longer.

Eight weeks ago, it appeared Victoria’s Coalition government was on a downhill run toward defeat; led by a low-profile — but very decent — figure in Ted Baillieu, it was beset by crises (many of its own making), hobbled by the presence of controversial Frankston MP Geoff Shaw, and haemorrhaging popular support in published opinion polls.

This column went so far as to defend Baillieu, advocating a cleanout of his government’s advisers rather than a leadership change: after all, the mess in which the Coalition found itself was by no means confined to the remit of any individual minister, let alone Baillieu, and it stood to reason that fresh heads might logically be the better first step before any leadership change was undertaken.

I won’t say we were wrong to advocate this; I am aware some changes were indeed made but not of the full extent of those changes. But nobody can deny that the leadership switch has been a panacea, and its effects have been stunning.

Denis Napthine has seemingly done the impossible, reinvigorating the flagging government to the point that what increasingly looked like a one-term administration may well instead record the thumping re-election many thought would follow its narrow win in November 2010 as a matter of course.

The way he has gone about this is an object lesson in old-fashioned, accepted political techniques that mightn’t be flashy or trendy, but they work.

And in doing so, he has exhibited a leadership style more in the mould of former Premier Jeff Kennett than anyone imagined — not least if his initial stint as Liberal leader between 1999 and early 2002 is any guide.

As Premier, Napthine has been active and visible: unlike Baillieu, he seems to have a real affinity for media relations, and the exposure this has brought to the state government has been helpful — to say the least.

He has been quick to respond to issues that matter to Victorian voters; when he took on the Premiership, the pending potential eligibility for parole of Hoddle Street mass murderer Julian Knight was one of many vexed matters requiring leadership, and Napthine provided it: Knight, he declared, would never be freed whilst he was Premier.

And that was that.

Napthine has also moved to neutralise some of the biggest issues the government had faced; its dispute over pay with the powerful Victorian Teachers’ Federation has already been resolved, for example, after dragging on for more than two years under Baillieu.

And he seems, at the minimum, to have found a way to mollify Shaw — now sitting on the crossbench — insofar as the wild rhetoric Shaw directed against Baillieu during his final days in office has now ceased, and been replaced by effusive praise for Napthine.

Suddenly, there’s a sense that things are happening in Melbourne and across Victoria that — let’s be honest — wasn’t there; I have opined previously that Baillieu’s government was a good one in light of the climate it operated in, but the message is always dependent on the method and the messenger, and it seems the ascension of Napthine has resolved that too.

There are certainly challenges: exactly what Napthine does about myki in the long term — a sore that continues to fester, and a legacy of the 11-year ALP government Baillieu displaced — remains to be seen. But myki continues to be a headline machine, and the story it peddles is one Victoria could well do without.

The same goes for the desalination plant at Wonthaggi, which — courtesy of a contract signed by the Bracks-Brumby government — is shortly set to add hundreds of dollars per year to Melburnians’ water bills for decades to come, despite no water having ever been ordered from the completed plant and none likely to be required for the foreseeable future.

How Napthine manages the politics of that will be of enormous interest.

But to date, Napthine presents as a man on a mission; bent on taking his state with him and, in turn, this is showing up in the public polling done since he took over as Premier.

Already, Newspoll (published, as I said, on Sunday) shows the Coalition in a 50-50 dead heat with the ALP after preferences — a 3% swing to the government in about six weeks.

Significantly, primary support for the major parties is almost at the levels it was at the 2010 election, with the Liberal Party polling 38% (unch), Nationals 5% (-1.8%), Labor on 37% (+0.8%) and the Greens on 12% (+0.8%).

What should help Napthine is that the seats the Liberals need to win next year to secure a solid majority are mostly outside Melbourne, and the Portland-based Premier — a country vet before entering Parliament — will provide an additional selling point to regional voters.

And it seems the favour of Victoria’s voters is Napthine’s to lose; 50% approved of the job he is doing as Premier in his first Newspoll, with just 19% disapproving.

(Readers can view the Victorian Newspoll tables here).

All of this comes as leaked federal ALP polling — corroborated both by similar research undertaken by the Liberals and by published polls — shows a collapse in its vote in Victoria, especially in southeastern Melbourne, with as many as six federal seats in Victoria likely to fall to the Liberals in what, since 1998, has been Labor’s best-performed state.

And a by-election in an ultra-safe Labor state seat in southeast Melbourne at the weekend, whilst held by the ALP by a similar margin after preferences as it was in 2010, nonetheless featured a 15% decrease in the party’s primary vote in the absence of a Liberal candidate.

It’s obvious Napthine still has some ground to make up — and 18 months to navigate — before a second term can be considered a certainty.

Even so, the conservatives’ prospects look pretty rosy, potential hurdles notwithstanding.

The same, however, can hardly be said for the Victorian ALP.

For most of the time since the 2010 election, Labor has behaved like a government in exile, and given every indication that it regarded the 2010 result as an aberration that would be corrected four years hence.

Its leader — the affable but largely ineffectual Daniel Andrews — has probably spent much of that time believing, not unreasonably, that patience was his only real impediment to being elected Premier.

And much of his presentation tends to echo the manner of student politicians: adolescent and puerile. Andrews is fond of attempting to characterise the government as “a circus,” and often his attempts border on simply being childish.

It’s quite common for a party losing government by a single seat or so after a long period in office to act in such a fashion; in recent times it’s generally been the conservative parties facing the predicament, and invariably the following election has been an unmitigated disaster.

(NSW in 1976 and 1995, Brisbane City Council in 1991, Victoria in 1999, and South Australia in 2002 all spring to mind).

The exception was Labor’s loss to a minority Liberal administration in Western Australia in 2008, and the thumping re-election of Colin Barnett’s Liberal government in March is a sign voters are quite capable of doling out the same treatment in the other direction.

Yet whilst Labor has given the look of a party seemingly content to coast back into government, it is hamstrung, paradoxically, by a lazy frontbench and a fair amount of lead in its saddlebags.

Aside from Andrews, the only member of the shadow cabinet who gets sustained, effective media coverage is Planning spokesman Brian Tee; even this has to be put into perspective, given his opposite number — Planning minister Matthew Guy — is one of the government’s most capable and effective performers.

Andrews himself carries baggage from his time as Health minister under Bracks that Liberal Party strategists will not have forgotten when the next election campaign rolls around; indeed, he will have a lot of uncomfortable questions to answer on the issue of doctored hospital waiting lists that became public on his watch.

And there is no indication that Labor has any fresh ideas with which to govern Victoria: after nearly three years in Opposition, there is not a single signature policy it can point to as evidence of a new vision to offer voters for the resumption of ALP government.

Napthine has changed the game in Victoria, and a lazy Labor Party, bereft of frontbench talent, is suddenly faced with climbing a very steep mountain indeed.

If further evidence were required of just how unsuitable the ALP is at present to govern Victoria, and how far away from that objective it is, it materialised ten days ago at the party’s State Conference in Melbourne.

Never mind that he was revving up the party faithful; Andrews’ deputy — James Merlino — took to the conference stage to introduce his leader, calling Premier Napthine a “callous, knuckle-dragging conservative.”

It smacked of the same bovverish, student-union puerility that has marked some of Andrews’ own utterances.

And if that’s the best the Labor Party can offer Victorian voters, and based on the lightning start he has made, it’s a fair bet Napthine will remain Premier for several years to come.