Features Australia

Darkness descends on Patterson Lakes

Tony Abbott must heed the lessons of the Liberal loss in Victoria

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

The jewel in Victoria’s Carrum electorate is the canal suburb of Patterson Lakes, a place well known to regular readers of this magazine. Patto reflects its upwardly-mobile residents’ material success: oversized houses crammed with the latest in gadgets, European cars in the garage and wannabe superyachts worthy of a Russian oligarch moored out the back.

Last Saturday, one of Patto’s finest, state Liberal MP Donna Bauer, faced her electoral day of truth. Having unexpectedly won Carrum from Labor in 2010, Bauer worked tirelessly to serve her electorate, leaving no stone unturned in helping her constituents, and being so dedicated a local member that even non-Liberals expected her easy return. She even kept working as she coped with a personal cancer crisis this year.

Yet Bauer joined premier Denis Napthine as a casualty of the decisive defeat of Victoria’s Coalition government by Daniel Andrews and his resurgent Labor party. She, and other Liberals in Melbourne’s sandbelt suburbs, couldn’t withstand a warm, fuzzy Labor campaign with a few level crossings and other populist goodies thrown in.

For an essentially competent Coalition to become the first one-term wonder in six decades (the last one at least had the excuse of being a Labor government torn asunder by the Great Split in 1955) has gutted Coalition supporters.

What went wrong for the Baillieu-Napthine government boils down to four factors. First, this was a Seinfeld government, seemingly about nothing. There was little Jeff Kennett-like vision for Victoria’s future. With some notable policy successes, including child protection and honouring its election promise to put Protective Service Officers on railway stations at night (which will be the Coalition’s most tangible legacy), Baillieu and then Napthine ran solid, workmanlike governments that administered public services and infrastructure efficiently, but won no votes for doing so.

Only towards the end did imaginative infrastructure plans emerge, especially the East-West link that’s proved popular with everyone except inner-city Nimbys and Andrews (who will can it) and did the Coalition start to draw something resembling a big picture. Too little, too late. Second, the Coalition never quite explained what it was doing, why it was doing it and what would be the long-term gain from short-term budgetary pain. Tough but perfectly defensible decisions, like reductions to TAFE funding to stop taxpayer funds being wasted on Mickey Mouse vocational courses (Labor apparently believes Victoria needs more personal trainers) were sheeted home easily by the opposition as acts of a callous government. Most memorably, ‘ambos’ and paramedics turned their government vehicles into mobile billboards spruiking their outrageous pay grievances for well over two years. After Saturday, surprise surprise, the mops came out immediately.Third, Baillieu and Napthine never made Andrews wear the many fiscal albatrosses of the Bracks-Brumby years. Labor appointees were left in place and Labor figures appointed to key roles. From the start behaving like an accidental government, the Coalition missed easy opportunities to define its Labor predecessors, including inexplicably sitting on a damning Commission of Audit report identifying massive inherited waste. It’s not the Labor way to return such generosity to a fallen foe: indeed, in his first post-election interviews, Andrews already is painting a Labor primary vote of less than 40 per cent as a massive rejection of the Coalition and an endorsement of his ‘plan’.

Most damningly, the Coalition never fully capitalised on Brumby’s extravagant but unused Wonthaggi desalination plant that costs Victorian taxpayers $1.8 million a day for the next thirty years. ‘Desal Dan’ only got a regular run in the dying days of the government. That Brumby’s unbreakable contract carries huge opportunity costs in terms of lost investment in hospitals, education, roads, public transport and essential service workers was barely exploited. Andrews as opposition leader should have worn it like a crown of thorns through every Coalition press release and budget paper from the day they were sworn in. It never happened.

Similar miscues apply to federal issues. Sure, the election of Tony Abbott hasn’t gone down well in Victoria (home of the Age). Sure, Hockey’s now infamous first Budget torpedoed the Napthine government’s own well-received effort. And lately, the federal Coalition’s apparent inability to organise a piss-up in the Senate brewery reflects badly on the Liberal brand. But Abbott was elected to clean up the fiscal vandalism of the Rudd-Gillard years, and that didn’t mean unalloyed good news. The Napthine government always risked being collateral damage. Even so, relations and communications between the two governments were, frankly, pathetic when it mattered.

Finally, personnel. Rogue Frankston MP Geoff Shaw rorted the system, going on to depose Baillieu and destroy the Napthine government, ably abetted by Labor. But the Liberals preselected this erratic and unstable character in the first place. Similarly, the Coalition left underperforming safe seat MPs untouched in 2010, and far too much heavy ministerial lifting was done by too few. Worse, promising new talent like Bauer has been unseated. The price of putting off renewal in 2010 has been paid with interest.

And Baillieu’s premiership was dominated by too much control freakery in the premier’s office. Ministerial staff selections dragged out, perceived factional loyalties trumped ability and experience, ministers weren’t trusted and excessive command and control caused internal disharmony and risk aversion just when the government should have been consolidating. Sound familiar?

So political darkness has fallen on Patto. Napthine shouldn’t have lost, but was outsmarted by a better Labor campaign exploiting voter resentments and union grievances. Governments no longer get second chances if they stumble badly, and there’s little margin for error in a term of four years, let alone three.

The parallels between why the Coalition lost in Victoria and the Abbott government’s underperformance are too striking to ignore. If Abbott wants to avoid Napthine’s fate and not let an unreformed and unrepentant Labor back in, he has no time to waste.

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Show comments
  • Terry Barnes

    A postscript: since I wrote this article the primary vote of the member for Carrum, Donna Bauer, has surged ahead of the Labor candidate on postal, pre-poll and absentee votes. As of today (6 December) she has almost 46 per cent of the primary vote, and could either just hold on or just fall short when final preferences are distributed early next week.

    If she does survive, she will be a big addition to the Victorian Liberal team in Opposition, and would show her all-too-many lazier colleagues how a hardworking local MP can ride out a swing.

    I very much hope that my political obituary of Donna Bauer proves premature!