On any measure, a government losing three ministers to a branch- stacking scandal – replete with revelations of factional warfare, vicious hatreds, violent threats, and a whiff of corruption – has had a bad week indeed.
Yet Victorian Labor’s subterranean goings-on, whose spectacular eruption last week threatened to blow a hole in the ALP nationally, are the tip of the iceberg.
Whatever misdemeanours the fiasco over the empire-building activities of former minister Adem Somyurek and his acolytes has laid bare, lawless antics are the stock-in-trade of the Andrews government. The Liberals should be surfing a wave of public disgust to victory at the state election due in late 2022.
Whether they do – or, indeed, can – is questionable. But first, some history.
In 2012, Queensland’s Liberal National party slaughtered Labor, winning a 13.7 per cent swing, 62.8 per cent of the statewide two-party vote and almost 90 per cent of the seats in parliament; less than three years later the LNP was defeated by a 14 per cent swing and the loss of 35 seats to Labor. An election rout – in an era of volatile voter behaviour – need not signify a decade in opposition.
In 2018, the Coalition was trounced by Daniel Andrews, winning 42.9 per cent of the two-party vote and 27 of the 88 seats in the Victorian lower house. As recently as May, further losses to Labor in 2022 were distinctly plausible – even likely.
I made a psephological analysis of the 2018 election results as part of my submission to the Liberal party’s campaign review; on current boundaries (albeit with a redistribution due), the Coalition needs a swing of 9.7 per cent to win in 2022, with Frankston – which caused great angst when held by Geoff Shaw – the litmus seat. I concluded a swing near 10 per cent was too much to achieve within one term, given deep flaws in Coalition strategy, policy and messaging. With five Melbourne seats and three in the regions vulnerable to a further 2 per cent swing to Labor, 2022 loomed as an apocalypse. I’m not so sure now: the lawless Andrews government has gifted the Liberals a rich seam of fodder with which to work.
I first heard of Daniel Andrews in a trainwreck interview as health minister in 2009 on 3AW; an auditor-general’s report had found hospital waiting lists were falsified throughout Labor’s last period in office. Tellingly, the flustered Andrews refused to admit any impropriety. Even former premier John Cain – whose reprehensible government engineered the disintegration of Victoria’s economy and public finances – lamented the loss of the principle of ministerial responsibility given Andrews’ failure to resign or be sacked.
With the benefit of hindsight, Andrews’ cavalier approach to standards and probity was instructive. Early in the coronavirus shutdown, he earned national plaudits for his stewardship of Victoria in driving down and almost ending the rate of new infections in the state.
Yet his foolish decision to allow 10,000 anarchists to march, at close quarters, through central Melbourne to protest a case of police brutality in another country 10,000 miles away – without punishment for breaching lockdown protocols – is increasingly looking like a turning point. Suddenly, issues he got away with in his first term – a minister having dogs chauffeured at taxpayers’ expense, $388,000 the ALP repaid for using electorate staff to campaign in the ‘red shirts’ affair, his directive that ministers not co-operate with police inquiries – are again providing grist for Melbourne’s press.
Suddenly – by coincidence or due to the Black Lives Matter march Andrews unwisely condoned – new coronavirus cases have risen to a point restrictions that were being lifted are being reapplied, at a time Victorians are fed up with them, and when acceptance of them is scant in the aftermath of that protest. And suddenly, an opportunity to ram home a narrative based on the lawlessness of the Andrews government is ripe for the Victorian Liberals to seize.
Andrews’ Belt and Road contract with China is, in likelihood, illegal; the Constitution clearly assigns responsibility for foreign affairs to the Commonwealth. The ‘deal’ is a national security risk. Senior ALP figures across Australia begged Andrews not to sign it, and later to abandon it. Similarly, laws to ‘criminalise’ so-called wage theft are probably unconstitutional: the Victorian legislation purports to address breaches of federal law. Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter has indicated High Court action to extinguish the Victorian legislation is likely.
A commitment Andrews is yet to enact is the half-baked promise of a quota for humanitarian migrants over and above the federal migration program. This, too, is almost certainly unconstitutional. It may have generated huge swings to Labor in migrant seats like Footscray or Dandenong, but it’s still illegal.
At every turn, it appears there is no law the Andrews government won’t break to remain in office. Suddenly, its first-term misadventures look piddling by contrast. And lest the narrative focus solely on the lawless enterprises of a punch-drunk party at war with itself, evidence abounds that basic functions of government have been abrogated.
Major projects run billions of dollars over budget and years late; there are questions over whether the West Gate Tunnel – with much of western Melbourne dug up behind scaffolds – will ever be finished.Some hospitals are no better resourced than when Andrews was health minister, or when as opposition leader he seemed more concerned with stoking industrial unrest in the health sector than finding solutions. And on Labor’s other piece of alleged home turf, any given edition of the Age or the Herald Sun yields ready proof of the woeful literacy levels Victoria’s ultra-unionised teachers impart.
Meanwhile, debt in Victoria has exceeded levels racked up by the Cain-Kirner government and continues to balloon; some of this funds essential infrastructure, which is fine. But one day, these debts must be repaid. In the vernacular, Victoria is being shafted by its government. The opportunities for the opposition are obvious. But its ability to capitalise is debatable.
It’s fittingly euphemistic that an area of Melbourne known, with affection and derision, as ‘Franger’ is the pivot point on which Dodgy Dan and his fractious regime will stand or fall come election day in 2022. Branch stacking? It should be the least of Labor’s worries.
Yale Stephens is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer.
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