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.

Taking The Myki: Poor Advice Is Baillieu’s Political Millstone

Considerable baggage accompanies the ticketing system which is now the price to pay for travelling on Melbourne’s trains, trams and buses; it was a Labor Party disaster, and now embodies the central problem faced by Ted Baillieu’s conservative government.

I want to take readers back, e’er briefly, to November 2010; Victoria’s eleven year old Bracks-Brumby Labor government was defeated — narrowly — in a large 6.1% swing that returned 45 Coalition MPs in the state’s 88-member lower house, and resulted in Liberal leader Ted Baillieu becoming Premier of Victoria.

The prevailing view within the mainstream press was that this was an accidental victory, and that the Liberals and Nationals were unready to govern; yet this view ignored the methodical (if unflashy) campaign Baillieu had waged based on a systematic working-over of the litany of faults, faux pas, mistakes and misdemeanours committed over the life of the beaten Labor regime.

The government of Bracks and Brumby — despite the hype — was wasteful, arrogant, took its constituents and their money for granted, and was guilty of a long list of policy misadventures that cost the state of Victoria and its long-suffering residents very dearly indeed.

Many of the issues Baillieu campaigned on — the so-called North-South Pipeline, the desalination plant at Wonthaggi, the Police force under Christine Nixon, rocketing state taxes and a flagrant disregard for accountability with public funds, to name a few — had become emblematic of yet another discredited state Labor regime.

And none of these issues was more emblematic than myki, the smartcard-based transport ticketing “solution” designed to replace Melbourne’s Metcards.

In a way — and thinking back to the 2010 campaign — the ubiquitous blue and green logo was successfully attached by the Liberals to the ALP as a badge of dishonour, and “myki” became a four-lettered euphemism for everything wrong with the preceding 11 years of governance in Victoria.

How things change.

Today, the Baillieu government — according to The Australian‘s quarterly Newspoll survey — has given up all of the gains it has made in terms of public support since the 2006 state election, and now trails the ALP 45-55 after preferences.

Yet it is my contention that not only is Baillieu’s position retrievable, but that in fact voters in Victoria would prefer to be offered tangible reasons to re-elect him, as opposed to the alternative, when the next election rolls around in a little over 18 months’ time.

If anyone doubts this, have a look at the relevant Newspoll numbers: support for the state Coalition may have slid, but it is Baillieu’s personal approval numbers that had collapsed.

From a high of 52% job approval in September/October 2011, Baillieu most recently recorded an approval rate of 33% just over a year later; in the same time, disapproval with his performance has soared, from 29% in 2011 to 48% a couple of months ago.

And these figures — published in today’s edition of The Australian — are actually a mild improvement on the previous quarterly survey.

The point is that whilst the Coalition would easily be beaten at an election in which the Newspoll numbers reflected the result, the change in voter sentiment as measured by Newspoll is far more reflective on Baillieu personally than it is on the government as a whole.

The other, more telling, point is that Opposition leader Daniel Andrews — an affable enough fellow completely out of his depth — has failed to translate the change in voter sentiment to his own personal ratings in any way whatsoever.

His approval rating of 32% is almost identical to what it was a year earlier; his disapproval rating, at 34%, has actually increased.

And on the “preferred Premier” measure, Newspoll finds that Baillieu continues to head Andrews on the question by a 39-30 margin in an unmistakable message that whilst voters may be less than happy with Baillieu, Andrews is not perceived as a viable alternative.

And in turn, for these reasons — and taking account of the fact that the government is only two years old — even the voting intentions Newspoll records in the ALP’s favour can reasonably be assumed to be soft.

So here we are…

Looking back over the Coalition’s record in government to date, it is clear that Baillieu and his ministers have been very poorly advised.

From a purely political perspective, it is equally clear that the poor opinion poll results Baillieu is now recording are a direct result of that poor advice.

Myki — and its record over the past ten years — represents everything that is wrong with the way the Victorian government has operated, and the processes surrounding it since Baillieu’s ascension to power is proof of it.

For those unfamiliar with it, myki is a smartcard-based ticket for use on public transport whose use is predicated on a touch on/touch off action by commuters at the commencement and conclusion of a given journey.

Originally unveiled in 2003 at a project cost of $300 million, myki was finally rolled out across Melbourne’s public transport network and regional V-Line trains last year, many years late, and with the project cost having ballooned to $1.35 billion.

Following his election in 2010, Baillieu decreed that myki would be the subject of a review to determine whether it was fixed and retained, or abandoned.

And sure enough, the decision was made to retain myki on the basis that to abandon it — and write off well over $1 billion of taxpayer funds — was a waste.

It was the wrong decision; and whilst the Premier’s wish to ensure that wastage of taxpayer monies are kept to the absolute minimum possible, myki is both a political mistake of the worst type as well as a running, festering sore that will continue to soak up taxpayer money well beyond the cost of buying a train ticket.

Right from the start of myki trials some years ago — when Labor was still in power — there have been endless problems with incorrectly calculated fares, readers that failed to scan, and soaring levels of complaints to the Ombudsman about transport ticketing issues.

The system is a user’s nightmare; far from being a simple touch-on, touch-off exercise, a new phenomenon at train stations across Melbourne — especially in peak times — is great queues of travellers waiting to pass through station barriers as myki readers take a couple of seconds to reach each card.

If there are 50 or so commuters alighting at the same stop, it can take minutes to get out.

And the problem is compounded by the fact that most of Melbourne’s suburban train stations only have one exit through which they can scan myki cards, with two readers at that exit; even then, it’s a frequent occurrence that at least one of them is out of service.

Often when this occurs, commuters are given assurances that they either won’t be charged for their fare, or that their fare will be calculated and deducted in line with published fare caps.

But these assurances are meaningless; there is ample evidence that the general public in Victoria has little faith in myki, and such assurances are tantamount to asking for myki to be taken on trust.

Which in turn is a joke, given the track record myki “boasts” of crediting and deducting six-figure sums of money, in extreme cases, from the accounts of its cardholders.

And failure to touch off results in the maximum published fare being debited from a commuter’s myki account: the system can have all the faults in the world — and commuters are expected to brook them — but failure to touch off for whatever reason even once will see the commuter stung.

Indeed, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence of people touching off (and being shown confirmation on the screen of the reader) and then stung for not touching off anyway.

It is no longer possible to by a tram ticket on a tram; no myki card, no tram ride.

And whilst I haven’t covered everything that is wrong with myki by any stretch, it makes it worse that most people in Melbourne have either had positive experiences with¬† smartcard-based ticketing in places like London and Hong Kong, or are sufficiently convinced that whilst the technology is the right idea in principle, the correct application of it was to buy an adapted version of something like London’s Oyster card rather than to reinvent the wheel and start from scratch — with the disastrous end result that myki represents.

I have used Oyster in London and I have to say that it is absolutely first-rate; it’s simple, reliable, transparent, easy to pay, and quick to use at London’s busy underground railway stations.

Myki, by contrast, is something I have used once — and hated. The reader at the train station didn’t work, I had to queue to get out, and there was uncertainty as to whether I would be charged $3.50 for my two-hour window or travel or far, far more because of a glitch.

I don’t have the need to travel often on Melbourne’s trains, but it does happen; particularly during the AFL football season, when a train to Richmond and a walk to the MCG is, on paper, the quickest and simplest way to get to games.

I’d rather drive, do laps of East Melbourne or the city end of St Kilda Road looking for street parking, and then walk 20-30 minutes to the MCG than to ever use myki.

And whilst this might just be my own experience, the hard fact is that it also represents the majority opinion among the Victorian public.

Whoever advised Baillieu and his transport minister — the highly competent Terry Mulder — to retain myki should be summarily dismissed from their positions, and replaced.

And the fact the Labor Party has successfully managed to brand the problem as “Mulder’s myki” simply illustrates the sheer political toxicity the dysfunctional smartcard represents.

But in case anyone thinks I’m indulging in a single-issue rant here, I could just as easily have used the Wonthaggi desalination plant — for which Victorians will be paying for decades in the form of usurious water bills, and from which water is unlikely to ever be required — for which Baillieu also opted to retain the contractual arrangements of the previous ALP regime.

Or the botched dealings with the Victorian Teachers’ Federation over pay issues for teachers, with Baillieu’s election promise that they would be “not the worst-paid teachers in Australia, but the best-paid” hanging over the government’s head.

Or the botched reforms to TAFE in Victoria, which were so poorly sold that the incorrect public perception is that Baillieu’s government has no credibility in the area of further education.

Or the residually-botched measure of the government’s media relations, and its effectiveness or otherwise in getting the government’s message across to the public.

On this measure at least, Baillieu has in recent months given more press conferences more regularly, and this is certainly encouraging.

Yet the fact remains that the only voices that seem capable of communicating the merits or otherwise of the Baillieu government are those of its opponents who, to understate the matter, are far less than kind.

And significantly — whilst I have used myki as a kind of “marquee balls-up” example for this article — the list of issues I have alluded to here, unfortunately, is not exhaustive.

Entire processes of policy formulation, salesmanship, mass communication and even the simple marketing of key achievements are either non-existent or so deficient as to be as good as non-existent.

And what of a social media strategy? It’s an area the ALP excels at. But go looking for a commensurate equivalent on the conservative side, and it’s found sorely wanting.

The Baillieu government — like any government, irrespective of political stripe — has its faults.

But given objective consideration, it’s actually a very good government; operating in difficult times, in an atmosphere of falling state revenues, a falling share of federally collected revenues such as GST receipts, the deteriorating national economic conditions responsible for those falls in revenue and in spite of its faults, the Coalition is making more than a reasonable fist of a difficult job.

Yet its ills are largely self-inflicted, and responsibility for an overwhelming proportion of those self-inflicted wounds rests with a coterie of advisers whose political judgement — at the very minimum — is so lacking as to be imperceptible.

Perversely, it is often Baillieu himself and the most competent of his ministers who are dumped into the political problems by poor advice that their opponents proceed to make merry hay from.

And far from being the accidental Premier who has proven clueless, Ted Baillieu is an individual of great ability and substance, whose methodical and considered approach to his role — to say nothing of his Hamer-like liberalism, which offers such obvious potential appeal to a swathe of moderate and progressive voters beyond the usual reach of the modern Liberal Party — equip him, potentially, to find his place in history as one of the greatest Premiers not just of Victoria, but of any Australian state.

But no amount of potential will be realised listening to advice from quislings who simply can’t cut the mustard, nor be found in myki-mouse initiatives and similarly lily-livered embodiments of the activity of government.