One week into the formal Victorian election campaign, and it’s becoming clear we have a contest between Labor’s Tammany Hall and the Coalition’s Keystone Kops.
Incumbents Daniel Andrews and Labor run a political well-oiled Tammany-style political machine. As premier, Andrews presides over an odd yet robust alliance of Labor faithful, union bosses and Brunswick basket-weaver progressives that, in four years, has taken huge strides on making the state of Victoria reflect their values and agendas, all the while looking after their own. Divert public money to fund your election campaign? No worries. Firefighters Union wants the Country Fire Authority board sacked and dedicated volunteers shafted for its members? No problem. Sweetheart deals for nurses, ambos and paramedics? No objection. Tearing up signed East-West road link contracts, wasting over a billion dollars, because they felt like it? No bother. The Legislative Assembly speaker and the deputy fraudulently abusing their parliamentary entitlements to feather their own nests? No dramas.
But Labor ministers interviewed by the police about their role in the Red Shirts election funding scandal that has dogged the Andrews government since 2014? No way.
Add to this the most Green Left agenda in the state’s history – for starters, ‘treaties’ with Aboriginal Victorians (aka more money for rent-seeking activist organisations). A fanatical commitment to the Safe Schools programme. Orgies of virtue-signalling orgies to satiate noisy visible but progressive small minorities, especially Melbourne’s out and loud alphabet soup community. Rushing the closure of the Hazelwood coal-fired power plant to satiate its Gaia-worshipping allies. Doing all it could to scupper the federal Coalition’s efforts to put reducing power bills ahead of reducing CO2 emissions.
The Andrews government is a government of mates and luvvies, not of mainstream suburban and regional Victoria. Yet according to the latest Victorian Newspoll, Andrews Labor leads the Coalition 54:46 on a two-party basis four weeks from polling day. Instead of being punted for moral and political turpitude, it looks good for increasing its majority.
Why? Because of two things. One, in 2014 Labor cleverly campaigned on building simple-to-understand and practical local infrastructure projects, particularly the removal of a particularly Victorian safety hazard, busy level crossings. While flirting on the edges of corruption and indulging in social engineering, Labor got these projects planned, underway and many already have been completed – tangible evidence of a government doing something.
Even as the election campaign gets under into full swing, traffic is being diverted and trains suspended to keep the work going: in politics, that’s not an inconvenience but reminding voters you’re on the job. Add to these grandiose, pie-in-the-sky but catchy infrastructure plans with pretty artists’ impressions and snazzy videos but no immediate need to account for the uncosted billions required in future decades, like a ring railway around suburban Melbourne.
Andrews talks of big visions, big plans, with vague promises of lots of jobs. Anything to distract attention from the seamy underside of four years of Labor rule – and he’s getting away with it.
But the real reason Andrews and his mediocre team of union and factional hacks are sitting pretty as the campaign hots up is his opposition. Over on the Coalition side, it’s amateur hour. Liberal leader Matthew Guy is just as much a political professional as Andrews and is a very astute political and parliamentary operator. Over the term, Guy’s succeed in landing blows on Labor, especially over the red shirts and CFA scandals. But try as he might, the Opposition hasn’t been able to sustain these attacks, and get the electorate talking about Labor’s venality.
That Guy’s frontbench reflects, shall we say, variable quality and its own factional hackery doesn’t make him a leper among state party leaders but its collective mediocrity and inability to hold Labor to account over the past four years, and to seize the political agenda, has hampered his ability both to capitalise on Labor’s weaknesses when it counts most, and to develop strong, agenda-seizing policies of his own.
His own unfortunate and unsought encounter with unsavoury company – the infamous Lobster Cave fundraising dinner – hasn’t helped Guy prosecuting a case against the Andrews government’s moral bankruptcy.
Guy also isn’t helped by his National party partners. The Nats’ public impact has been negligible since 2014, and when they do make an impression it’s because they have lost one member to gambling addiction, and another is facing trial on fraud charges arising from his pre-parliamentary career.
But the biggest lead in the Guy saddlebags is the party organisation known as 104 Exhibition Street or just ‘104’. Party president Michael Kroger wasted far too much time and money unsuccessfully alienating and fighting his internal critics, let alone the party’s biggest donor, the Cormack Foundation, a pointless dispute that needed the mediation of Josh Frydenberg and John Howard to resolve at the eleventh hour. The party’s executive committee, notionally dominated by Kroger supporters, are now at each other’s throats, with the pages of the Australian Financial Review increasingly their battleground as leak after salacious leak, and self-serving letters to the editor, create juicy copy for reporters and columnists, let alone the Liberals’ electoral opponents.
On early signs, that internal turmoil’s seriously affecting the Coalition’s election efforts. Last Sunday, both Labor and the Liberals launched their campaigns with policy speeches and rallying faithful in gaudy t-shirts and flashing the obligatory placards for an event that nobody will watch. There’s only so much space on the nightly news, and only so many state political reporters to cover it on the one day. Being the incumbent, Andrews got the lion’s share of the coverage while Guy was reduced to second fiddle on the biggest day of his political life. Where was the Liberals’ strategy, media management and self-awareness? To be denied political oxygen is the game of politics, to deny oneself that oxygen is – words fail.
And what of the Liberal slogan, ‘Get Back in Control’? Someone in 104 needs to say that to their own people, let alone to the federal Liberals whose vote-losing shenanigans in Canberra have made Guy’s already uphill task heroic if not quite futile.
So simply by winning the battle of the duelling launches, and not getting into any trouble, Labor won the first week.
But it’s not all bad for the Coalition. Some strong candidates, who will contribute much in the future, have been selected in both safe Liberal and winnable Labor seats. Emulating how Labor’s David, Steve Bracks, rolled his Goliath, Jeff Kennett, in 1999, Guy has announced some very shrewd policies targeted at regional Victoria, including big infrastructure investments in very fast trains and slashing regional payroll tax to almost zero. He’s also been tactically smart in micro-campaigning for four marginal Labor seats in Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay sandbelt whose loss in 2014 cost the Coalition office.
Yet, after four years, there is as yet no compelling and positive Coalition narrative to counter Andrews’s ‘we promised, now we’re delivering’ mantra.
This, however, means little if the campaign momentum stays with Labor. If we aren’t going to be distracted by sideshows, such as a Greens candidate suddenly resigning after her vile social media past caught up with her, and a Socialist upper house candidate (who happens to be the son of a former state Labor treasurer) looking a serious chance of winning a seat at the expense of either Labor or the Greens – despite his campaign adviser being the notorious Safe Schools troll Roz Ward, the Coalition must step up the pace, find some internal discipline, and start showing Victorians that while Andrews and Labor are morally bankrupt snake oil salesmen, the Coalition has a clear mainstream vision for the state and sensible, costed policies to support that vision.
Victorians deserve better than what they’ve got and, in spite of everything, Matthew Guy is still competitive. Like Ted Baillieu in 2010, Lone Hand Guy can yet produce a boilover against an increasingly cocky Daniel Andrews and his Tammany cronies.
With pre-polls opening in less than a fortnight, he must break a few Liberal heads to get his campaign bus on the right road, and fast. But whatever you do, don’t write Guy off: after all, in those Mack Sennett silent movies the Keystone Kops may have bungled their way through, but they always won in the end.
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