Victorian election: with 100 days to go, what are the big issues?

Guardian Australia: Victorian election: with 100 days to go, what are the big issues? 21 August 2014

To kick off our new blog, our Melbourne editor explains why unemployment, Tony Abbott and (obviously) the East West Link will all affect this critical state election

Denis Napthine (R) and Daniel Andrews. Political parties often want to focus on a narrow range of contested issues – our job is to broaden that out. Photograph: David Crosling/AAPImage

One hundred days out from the Victorian election, welcome to our new blog. The idea is that this is a place to talk about politics, dig into issues you’re interested in, discuss, argue and share.

Do let us know what’s going on in your electorate, and feel free to contribute pieces, long and short, in your area of expertise or interest. There are three of us based in Melbourne, and our emails and Twitter handles are at the bottom of this post.

As always, we’ll share the best we see from anywhere around the web, so let us know if we miss something.

And remember, Guardian Australia has a secure drop if you want to let us know something anonymously and confidentially.

To kick off, here are five issues we think will be, or should be, central to this campaign. It’s not exhaustive – health and education are always crucial – but it’s a start. Political parties often want to focus on a narrow range of contested issues. Our job, with your help, is to broaden that out.

Issue one: where are the jobs?

In July, the unemployment rate in Victoria hit 7%, a 12-year high (the national figure was 6.4%). As the Age’s economics editor, Peter Martin, pointed out, the last premier to lead the state to an election with such a high unemployment rate was Jeff Kennett in 1999 – and he lost. The state’s population is galloping along and not enough jobs are being created to cope with it. The economy is straining, and the looming closure of the car industry in 2017 and the decline of manufacturing is particularly hurting Victoria.

Workers outside the Alcoa plant in Point Henry, Geelong, which the company plans to close. Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP Image

Outside Melbourne, the job rate is even worse in many areas – it’s 10% in Geelong (the three-month average figure is 8.4%). Saul Eslake, chief economist for the Melbourne-based Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says the Victorian economy has been “remarkably resilient” given it isn’t a resource state and its industries have been vulnerable to the high Australian dollar – its major events program works a treat, too – but the years when it outperformed NSW are over.

“I think Victoria is struggling,” Eslake told Guardian Australia. “I don’t think the Labor party is finding this any easier, to define an economic vision. Where are the major drivers of growth in Victoria going to come from given that the long established drivers are clearly under threat or in decline?”

The Napthine government’s response is a $27bn infrastructure program – mostly in transport projects – to boost jobs and economic growth. Labor has announced a jobs program of its own and a competing transport plan. It would be a relief if there was some bipartisanship on infrastructure projects – and trust that they’ll actually be delivered – but that’s been elusive so far.

Issue two: the Abbott factor

To get a sense that Victoria really is Australia’s big progressive state, consider this: at the September federal election, when voters were exhausted with the Rudd/Gillard Labor government, the Coalition still couldn’t win the two-party preferred vote in Victoria. Labor received 50.20% after preferences.

Monash University politics lecturer Paul Strangio says that the state has been progressive since the 1980s and conservative parties here need to be – and usually are – dominated by “small l” liberals who understand the local mindset. For instance the premier, Denis Napthine, opposed the federal attempt to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.

Denis Napthine and Tony Abbott: conservatives would prefer the PM stays away. Photograph: Joe Castro/AAPImage

Last year, Tony Abbott mused that “Melbourne is my second home” but most conservatives would prefer he stay away. Labor is, of course, joyous, with one insider saying Abbott is “like an alien” in Victoria. An analysis of Newspoll, which included the budget backlash, found that while the Abbott government had lost ground since the election across the country, Victorians had revolted: Labor was ahead of the Coalition in Victoria by 58% to 42%.

Locally, the government is countering with digs at Labor’s perceived weakness – its close ties to unions that have been accused of misconduct and alleged corruption, especially the CFMEU, a generous donor to the Victorian Labor party.

So why is Victoria so progressive? There are lots of theories on that, one of them being the weather.

Issue three: the environment

OK, we’re the Guardian, but we still think this matters, even if only the Greens are likely to try to push it to the centre of this campaign. Neither the Coalition nor Labor have been eager to discuss climate change and how Victorians will need to adapt to what scientists, including those in the CSIRO, say will mean more frequent and intense bushfires and deadly heatwaves.

Scientists, including those in the CSIRO, say climate change will mean more frequent and intense bushfires. Photograph: Reuters

For instance, the federal Department of Environment says that, without global action on climate change, the average number of days above 35C in Melbourne is likely to increase from nine to 26 by 2070. Mildura, in the north of the state, is expected to face as many as 107 days of very high or extreme fire risk every year, up from 80 now. That’s potentially life-changing, and life-threatening.

There’s the sleeper issue of coal seam gas and whether Victoria’s moratorium on it will be lifted – just after the election. It’s doubtful any of the big parties, Greens aside, will want to discuss that either, but community action groups have popped up around country Victoria and are determined they won’t get away with it.

The government commissioned former federal minister Peter Reith to do a report which strongly recommended the moratorium on fracking be lifted and new CSG licences issued. The question will be whether the government, and Labor, articulates a clear position, at least in principle, before the November election, and either argues the case for the unconventional gas industry with strict oversight, or declare it’s too risky environmentally or politically. Or say nothing.

The future of wind farms in Victoria is also at stake, with the government’s restrictions on where they can be built reportedly costing the state in jobs and investment, and with Labor pledging to loosen the rules. We’ll keep an eye on the response to the Morwell coalmine fire when the inquiry reports in late August – the rehabilitation of the mine, and preventing another public health and environmental disaster.

Issue four: law and order

Almost daily now the government gives a “drop” to local tabloid the Herald Sun on its latest “tough on crime” initiative. In the past few days, there’s been Australia’s toughest “king hit” laws; the seizure of assets suspected of having being obtained unlawfully; and allowing the publication of the name of anyone charged with breaching a family violence intervention order.

Victorian police: the Napthine government is getting ‘tough on crime’. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAPImage

The Napthine government has been active on law and order, increasing sentences, reducing the discretion of judges and adding prison beds to cope. It’s been a big shift in approach in this state and it’s undoubtedly popular, especially in the outer suburbs and regional towns. Labor has, with few exceptions, been reluctant to resist, although it is more sceptical of mandatory sentences.

The broader question is whether any of this has been effective in reducing crime, and whether the cost is justified. Victoria’s peak legal body, the Law Institute of Victoria – as well as many other legal groups – is scathing about the trend, demanding evidence that any of it has worked. It says most of the measures have been borrowed from NSW, and haven’t worked there either.

What has been welcomed is the attention on family violence after a number of horrific cases, including the death of 11-year-old Luke Batty at the hands of his mentally ill father in February. For the first time anyone can remember, family violence will be an election issue. Over-worked and under-resourced domestic violence groups believe now is the time to better coordinate services and increase funding. All sides of politics are sensitive to this issue, with Labor leader Daniel Andrews calling it a “national emergency” and pledging a royal commission if elected. The police union, a powerful lobby group, is suggesting that offenders who repeatedly breach intervention orders be force to wear GPS tracking devices.

Issue five: transport and planning

Melbourne has just been named the world’s most liveable city, which pleases even ironic Melburnians, but it has growing pains. The government’s Plan Melbourne estimated the city would grow to be home to 7.7 million people by 2051, up from 4.3 million now. How to house more people, how to move them around when gridlock already chokes the city at peak times, how to make it a good place to live whether you’re rich or poor, live in the inner or outer suburbs, is beginning to be talked about seriously.

Central to the discussion are contested transport plans, worth billions of dollars and to take decades to complete. The centrepiece of the government’s plan is the East West Link, an 18km motorway running from east to west through the inner northern and western suburbs, to be built in two stages.

It is the East West Link that has caused the biggest controversy, because of its cost. Photograph: Daniel Fogarty/AAPImage

There’s also a new rail tunnel from Southern Cross station to South Yarra, an airport rail link, and level crossing upgrades. Labor is opposed to the East West Link, pledging instead to upgrade 50 level crossings (a major headache in Melbourne), build a truck off-ramp to cut congestion on the West Gate bridge, and build a rail tunnel from South Kensington to South Yarra.

It is the East West Link that has caused the biggest controversy, because of its cost (about $18bn for both stages), the growing and sometimes ideological debate about whether roads or public transport should be prioritised, and an issue that dogs state governments – transparency. (Here’s my colleague First Dog on the Moon’s take on the road.)

Napthine calls it a “congestion buster”, but well-organised, inner-city groups are campaigning hard against it, there are two legal cases attempting to force the release of the full business case, and there has been a lot of coverage of residents unhappy about having their homes acquired and demolished.

As well, the government says it will sign the contract in October – just before the election – and it is under pressure to delay the signing to let Victorians have their say. Opinion polls suggest the government has not yet convinced most voters that the East West Link should be the highest infrastructure priority, but Labor wants it both ways. It is against the project, but says it will honour the contract if it is signed by the government before election day.

So what do YOU think should be the big issues, and what do you want us to write about? Do let us know. These are our contacts:

Gay Alcorn Twitter: @Gay_Alcorn

Oliver Milman Twitter: @olliemilman

Melissa Davey Twitter: @MelissaLDavey

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