Abbott now a major problem for Denis Napthine

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Herald Sun: Abbott now a major problem for Denis Napthine. James Campbell. 21 May 2014.

The best thing for Denis Napthine to do at the moment might actually be to say and do as little as possible about the Federal Government and let Daniel Andrews have as much space as possible, writes James Campbell. Source: News Corp Australia

You have to feel for Denis Napthine. Less than a month ago, the poor bloke unveiled a Budget that included mouth-watering items such as the second stage of the East West Link, a massive expansion of the suburban rail network and the long-awaited railway line to the airport.

This smorgasbord of goodies came after a Budget lead-up that had seen promises to remove a slew of Melbourne’s worst level crossings, especially along the Dandenong railway line.

But instead of spending the past two weeks getting out in the community selling this basket of goodies — as any premier with an election to win in six months would no doubt have preferred to be doing — Dr Denis’s time has been taken up with a far less pleasant task: trying to distance himself from a horror show Federal Budget.

Tony Abbott might be terribly popular in western Sydney and in two elections he has carried all before him in Queensland, but he has never been popular here.

Even after the shambles that was Labor’s second and final term in government in Canberra, the two-party preferred result in Victoria in September was ALP 50.2 per cent to the Coalition’s 49.8 per cent.

Or, as one Spring St insider mused earlier this week, one constant the State Government has had to deal with in the past three years is that Tony Abbott is “toxic” in Victoria.

If back in September it was 50.2 per cent to Labor, how are things looking now? If you believe Newspoll, not so good. Their latest numbers say that given a chance, 45 per cent of Victorians today would vote to make Bill Shorten prime minister

Forty-five per cent is the primary vote. The two-party preferred vote in Victoria, again if you believe Newspoll, is science fiction stuff: 61 per cent to 39 per cent.

What can Denis Napthine do about that? The answer is not much. Since last Tuesday the Premier has been making the best of the dreadful hand Tony Abbott has dealt him. He’s talked about how disappointed he is and the impact the Federal Budget’s cuts are going to have on services, especially the $129 million set to disappear from the health budget.

Unsurprisingly, in the face of relentless news reports about the end of bulk-billing, changes to the Family Tax Benefit that will leave many out of pocket and big increases in the cost of university degrees — not to mention the end of the automatic right to the dole for anyone under 30 — there has been little time to get out and sell his election-winning Budget. Indeed, it’s looking as though two weeks after it was launched to great fanfare, the SS Vote Denis might have slipped below the waves carrying all hands.

The Premier’s problem is that however cross he might be with Abbott, he can’t go the full Jay Weatherill on him. Weatherill, the Premier of South Australia, was able to ride the resentment South Australians felt at the end of car manufacturing in that blighted state to an election win earlier this year. But he’s a Labor man.

Napthine’s problem is that at the end of the day, he’s a Liberal. There’s no guarantee that any skin he takes off Abbott will do him any good. Indeed, the danger is that more he complains about how the Federal Government has treated Victoria, the more he is playing into Labor’s hands.

So what is the alternative? Say nothing and hope the storm passes? Daniel Andrews and his colleagues would jump all over him for not standing up for Victoria. The sad fact is there are no good alternatives for Napthine at the moment. He can’t run as the anti-Abbott candidate — that slot is already taken by the Labor Party. Nor can he get any airspace to tell the world why we should vote for him.

If you talk to people around the Government at the moment about their problems, they are quick to tell you that the public distinguish between the state and federal governments. It’s wishful thinking. It might once have been true back in the day before the internet when everyone watched the 6 o’clock news. These days, when a huge segment of the population get their news from Facebook updates, the chances the public is going to distinguish between nice Dr Denis and mean Tony are slender indeed.

On second thoughts, the best thing for Denis Napthine to do at the moment might actually be to say and do as little as possible about the Federal Government and let Daniel Andrews have as much space as possible. The more the public gets a long, hard look at the alternative premier, the more questions are going to be asked about how ready he and his team are to come back to government.

Denis Napthine’s best chance of getting re-elected is to make the election a referendum on Daniel Andrews. It might be a good idea to keep quiet for the next few weeks and let him have his head.

James Campbell is state politics editor

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