The Australian: Voters shun second chance. 27 November 2014. John Ferguson Victorian Political Editor Melbourne
John Howard on the hustings in Melbourne’s east yesterday. Picture: Lawrence Pinder Source: News Corp Australia
For nearly 60 years Victorian voters have given their state governments a second chance.
The last Victorian government to be jettisoned after just one term was that of John Cain Sr, a towering figure who was cut down by the great Labor Party split of 1955-57.
That split handed Liberal premier Henry Bolte 17 years in office, and two more Liberals another decade in power, before Labor’s John Cain Jr and Joan Kirner took charge of 1 Treasury Place for a combined 10 years.
They were followed by Jeff Kennett, with three terms for the Liberal Party, and then Labor for another 11 years.
This potted history is important because it underlines the gravity, both political and historical, of this weekend’s general election. It underpins how, across the long term, the Victorian electorate loathes to kill first-term governments.
If incumbent Liberal Premier Denis Napthine loses, he will be consigned to the sort of painful, weeping history that only the Cain family can fully understand. It also would send a clear message to Tony Abbott in Canberra; a message that will be delivered in two packages.
First, the Prime Minister would be deprived of the millions of dollars of in-built campaigning resources an incumbent state government would afford his 2016 bid for re-election.
Second, it would raise the spectre of a new virus in Australian politics, one where voters make swift and unforgiving judgments of first-term governments.
This is where the Napthine government and the Victorian Liberal Party find itself two days from polling, with Labor the frontrunner and voters considering making the ALP the party of choice in Victoria.
If Labor wins on Saturday, it will mean the Liberal Party has been in power for just 11 of the past 32 years in Victoria. Federally, the Labor Party holds 19 seats to the Coalition’s 14, making Victoria Bill Shorten’s national stronghold.
Yesterday, no lesser Liberal than Kennett nailed the problem facing Napthine and the Liberal machine more broadly when he delivered the party an election scorecard of eight out of 25 and Labor five out of 25.
He failed his own side: “Sadly, no grand vision has been enunciated by either party. I think this lack of vision, lack of narrative, is in the main why the public juices have not been stirred. We have nothing to buy into,’’ Kennett lamented in his weekly Herald Sun newspaper column.
To which Napthine replied at his morning press conference yesterday: “We all know that Jeff is a very outspoken commentator on a whole range of issues. And we all know how Jeff operates.’’
Yet for all his faults, Kennett was right. This campaign has been underwhelming, a fight between two sides of politics that has lacked policy gravity, intellectual intensity and, in some cases, honesty.
Neither major party has bothered even to produce a stand-alone population policy, even though population growth killed the Brumby government in 2010 and may yet help kill Napthine’s.
Underlying every policy is the race to make Melbourne the nation’s population capital by 2030 and the fact growth of almost 2 per cent in the March quarter pushed the state’s population to just under six million people.
In percentage terms it is the nation’s second fastest growing state behind Western Australia, which is coming off a lower base.
“We’ll be having more to say about that,’’ Labor’s Daniel Andrews said when asked about his population policy before the campaign began. But so far, nothing.
Andrews’s campaign has been strong visually but otherwise weak. He has lost 10kg, thrown away his tie and refused to take questions on Liberal policy. Instead, he has played the small target, focusing on kerbs and gutters, often trivial, locally based announcements that play to the suburbs. On the big picture, Andrews is a failure. His decision to oppose the first stage of the $17 billion East West Link project means that if he is elected there will be no substantive state building infrastructure under way in Victoria for many years.
Perhaps worse, his decision to scrap the (already signed) contracts for the cross-city road and tunnel project will expose taxpayers to a $1bn-plus penalty and risk trashing the state’s reputation as a safe haven for foreign investment.
Just as cynically, Andrews is pretending Labor will consider building the replacement to the Port of Melbourne — the nation’s busiest container port — west of the city near Geelong.
This is all about shoring up votes in Geelong and overlooks the obvious and inevitable choice of the Port of Hastings, 80km south of the CBD.
To pay for all these kerbs and gutters, there will be no new taxes and fines, fees and charges will not rise above inflation, there will no public-sector job cuts, no increase in debt and no asset sales beyond the promised sale of the Port of Melbourne.
Andrews will be in a financial straitjacket tighter than anything Hannibal Lecter ever wore.
Andrews also has made virtually no effort to modernise the Labor brand. He has refused to distance himself from the criminal elements of the militant construction union, whose votes his faction profits from, and Andrews looks all the world like an old-school Socialist Left acolyte.
The Socialist Left has its hands on the crucial health and public transport portfolios and the right-wing shadow treasurer, Tim Pallas, will have his work cut out making the budget add up.
Andrews treats the shadow cabinet with contempt, his strongest critics argue: “It’s a rubber stamp, that’s all,” one member of his frontbench lamented this week. “He comes in and tells us what decisions he has made.’’
IN DEPTH: Victoria decides
Labor’s standout idea is to promise the nation’s first royal commission into domestic violence, a problem police believe is as much at the root of crime as drugs and alcohol. Andrews is also backing the return of so-called tech schools for would-be tradies and has pledged to remove 50 railway level crossings at a cost of billions.
Napthine, meanwhile, will spend heavily on new trains, build both ends of the East West Link and — on the never-never — has promised to build a rail link to Melbourne Airport. He also has delivered a budget splattered with fresh, black ink.
So why is he facing the same fate as Cain Sr in 1955?
Despite the various scandals, loss of an elected premier and challenges imposed by Abbott, the past 2½ years of Napthine have been broadly competent.
For reasons only a disgruntled electorate can explain, it continues to mark his and his government’s card harshly.
In straight policy and economic terms, Napthine would win any race with Andrews.
Yet the published polls suggest Andrews has outfoxed Napthine. Andrews is a ruthlessly efficient operative who is strategically strong.
Napthine was told many months ago that he should “take the gloves off’’ and tear Andrews apart. Had Napthine done this, it is likely he would not be fighting for his political life today.
Earlier in the campaign, Napthine told The Australian about his reluctance to switch to the negative. “I’m not personally a negative person and I will always run a positive campaign and a positive agenda,’’ he said. “I’m not going to change, that’s not my character.’’ This stubbornness is at the heart of Napthine’s final-week challenge.
The government and its senior ministers also have been on the Kool-Aid, deluding themselves about the weight of their achievements. They have seriously overstated their position in the community.
The electorate, perhaps furious with the parliamentary chaos that surrounded former Liberal MP Geoff Shaw, has struggled to buy the government’s story.
The government seems to be hoping that a surplus of cash makes it an honourable administration. It doesn’t and it hasn’t. Remember that Victorians dumped Kennett in 1999 despite the fact he had transformed the state economically and produced a final budget surplus north of $1bn.
Then — as now — voters wanted more. Perhaps most alarming for the Liberal Party, if it loses, is the lost political opportunity in Melbourne’s western and northern suburbs. They are traditional Labor strongholds, yet they are increasingly being filled with aspirational voters.
John Howard was on the hustings yesterday in Melbourne’s east, but his Howard battlers are on the other side of town. If Napthine beats the odds and wins on Saturday he has the capacity to do in those Labor suburbs what Howard did in Sydney’s west in the 1990s.
Construction of the full East West Link would hand the west its biggest infrastructure payload in decades, something Andrews claims he will not do. It would free up congestion on the western entrance to Melbourne and give the aspirationals an easier run into their work. It has great potential to transform intergenerational voting.
That is if Napthine wins.
Four years ago yesterday, Labor expected to be returned to office and it wasn’t until the Wednesday night of the 2010 campaign that the anti-Labor shift started to kick in. This is the Liberal Party’s best hope in Victoria.
The Australian understands there is a band of up to 10 seats where the two-party preferred margin is shifting between 52 per cent and 48 per cent, depending on when the polling is taken. Of these, probably seven will decide the election.
“I can see us just getting over the line or Labor just getting over the line,’’ one senior Liberal says. “We’re not pretending that it’s going to be easy, but we are still fighting hard.’’
The reasons for the government’s position are complex but there is a clear final-week emphasis on Abbott in Labor advertising.
Liberal strategists are watching this closely and believe the recent federal budget and the Prime Minister’s general performance has been a drag on Napthine’s vote. While federal Liberal MPs contest this analysis, there are many in and around the Napthine government who believe Canberra is a significant factor in their poor standing in the published polls.
If Napthine loses, the blame game will start almost immediately.
It took Labor’s calamitous post-war split to end the last one-term government in Victoria. Almost 60 years later, the Coalition is dangerously close to receiving the same treatment.
Victoria, the Labor state?