Racing to the poll: afraid to lose, afraid to lead

The Age: Racing to the poll: afraid to lose, afraid to lead. October 22, 2014


I’ll build a railway line to a faraway suburb.

I’ll match it, and I’ll you raise faster train times.

I’ll take your faster train times and I’ll build it cheaper.

I’ll build it in a year!

I promise to actually do it.

Me too!

Welcome to the 2014 Victorian election campaign. Here, in the state of tit-for-tat – and we use this nursery rhyme tone quite deliberately – voters are invited daily into the carnivale world of the imaginarium of political spin doctors.

On Tuesday, the Coalition said it would match a promise by Labor to extend the railway line from South Morang to the outer-northern growth suburb of Mernda. The rail extension cuts through the ultra-marginal seat of Yan Yean, which is held by Labor. Premier Denis Napthine said this had nothing to do with the Coalition’s decision. Well, perhaps. There is no doubt the north of the city is booming and that it needs more public transport. A pressing need should be obvious to everyone and all parties and, therefore, it should be addressed. But that is not our point here.

Two weeks ago, the Coalition and Labor released jobs policies within one day of each other. The government said it would create 200,000 in five years, that is, 40,000 a year; Labor said it would create 100,000 over two years, thus trumping the Coalition by 10,000 a year. Again, there is no doubt Victoria needs more jobs, and the parties’ focus on this crucial issue should be applauded. But these figures should be treated with scepticism, given the levers on a state’s economy are not all controlled by the state. They also should be seen for what they really are: examples of election-campaign shadow-boxing.

The state of the lower house, where Labor has 43 seats to the Coalition’s 44, may provide a reason for this timidity, but it is not an excuse. This campaign is threatening to be little more than a conflation of fears and timidity packaged as policy. It does neither side credit that the defining difference between the major parties seems to be a proposed road development through and under Melbourne – albeit one costing billions of dollars. The Coalition is pushing ahead with the East West Link; Labor says it opposes the project. It is true that transport is one of the key issues facing Melbourne, and that The Age is a long-time supporter of the East West Link. So let’s build the freeway link, and let’s extend the rail line to Mernda – but please, give us something bigger than that.

This week, Australia mourns the death of one of its political giants. Gough Whitlam was prime minister for only three years, but he knew the meaning of vision, and how to initiate change. He was a true reformer. Today’s political leaders, including those in the state arena, should be of no less fervour. Regrettably, we have seen scant evidence of it in the lead-up to the November 29 state election. There is a yawning chasm in the Victorian political landscape that neither Dr Napthine nor Labor leader Daniel Andrews have crossed or seem willing to cross. It is the space where strong, determined leadership used to be and which stamped itself on the collective mind through sheer force of its vision. Instead, there is an erosion of expectation.

Indeed, such is the lack of presence among voters that a vox pop published in The Age this week found that one-third of respondents could not recognise Napthine from a picture and two-thirds could not recognise Andrews. What would Gough say?

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