It didn’t seem worth the effort of chilling the champagne yesterday in Victoria. No matter how you torture it, optimism can only be stretched so far and the notion that a pollster-defying Coalition victory might, just might, eventuate went well beyond the elasticity of rational hope. Anyway, within an hour of the voting’s close, a solid belt of the hard stuff seemed more appropriate than flutes of frivolous bubbles. As the first returns came in, swings of 3% here, 4% and 5% elsewhere confirmed the commonsense conjecture that the Liberal heartland of Menzies, of Bolte and Hamer and Kennett, would reject the alleged conservatism of Denis Napthine & Co., the first such one-term ouster in almost 60 years
By 8 o’clock it was a Danslide. The final tally needs a few more days, but incoming Premier Daniel Andrews appears certain to command a majority solid enough to govern in his own right. The sun had yet to set when the grim result became a certainty, but for Victoria’s hapless, hopeless Liberals it had never really risen, not once, through four pointless and wasted years.
And here’s the funny thing: Terrifying as is the prospect of a Greens-tinted, union-dominated Labor government, it was bloody hard to give a stuff about the Liberals’ loss of power. That wasn’t the grim fatalism of the fourth stiff vodka so much as the full and final acceptance that, when it comes to the practice of politics, Australia may never have seen such a bunch of feckless and incompetent losers as Victoria’s Liberal Party. Fear for the future aside, by any reasonable reckoning the Coalition’s thrashing was no less than the useless bastards deserved.
Over the days to come we’ll hear the media’s gabblers lay blame and explanation at the feet of many different factors: the East-West tunnel, crimping TAFEs, the craven refusal to do something about Frankston’s now-ex MP Geoff Shaw before it was too late. If you listen to the ABC or read The Age, expect to be informed that the electorate loves wind turbines and voted accordingly. And expect also to be ear-bashed with the Abbott angle, the line that Victoria turned up its nose at a putrescent Prime Minister. With the exception of the guff about wind generators, there will be more than a grain of truth in all of them – yet none is better than a broad-stroke theme. The primary colours on your typical pundit’s palette will never paint the full picture of this government’s demise. For that you must look to the pointillism of countless failures of will and nous and principle.
Here’s just one example: Back in 2012, a couple of very nasty teenagers escaped from a youth detention centre, cutting a guard’s throat on their way over the fence and very nearly killing him. Recaptured, they were stored for the time being in the solitary confinement wing of an adult prison because authorities had nowhere else to put them. Segregated from the old lags, they were safe, as were the guards and fellow inmates at their former home, who were spared a pair of would-be murderers stalking the rec room. When the ABC reported the case, then-Minister Andrew McIntosh was asked to comment, but no word of explanation was forthcoming. As was so often the case, the coterie of dim bulbs and eunuch courtiers that constituted the Premier’s brain trust had not quite managed to formulate an official response. So, come 7.30’s local edition on Friday night, the opposition spokesman had the lead item and seven uninterrupted minutes of prime-time TV in which to lambast McIntosh for brutal inhumanity. His ABC interviewer set up the assault to perfection, even managing a passing mention of the fact that the youths were Aboriginal, so there was a dash of implied racism as well.
Nor was McIntosh alone in being hobbled by his masters. Ministers were often denied the right to staff their own offices, with advisers and mouthpieces imposed from above. If the Liberals’ four years could be summed up in a single sentence it would be this: “The minister was unavailable for comment.” Finally given the chance, voters weren’t so reticent and yesterday they commented very loudly indeed.
Or take the matter of ideology – a dirty word, it seems, to a government that was so often indistinguishable from the Labor administration which preceded it. Again, look to the fly-blown carcass of a cabinet and two premiers – Ted Baillieu was, if anything, more of an empty space than Napthine – that persisted in funding its enemies. You didn’t need to believe that politics, successful politics, needs to be a blood sport to foresee the worst when Baillieu, new to office, shared an affable table with a bunch of luvvies at the Premier’s Literary Awards. They took the grants that flowed from Spring Street – then went right back to laughing at their benefactors.
When Vice Squad cops raided a taxpayer-funded St Kilda gallery and carted away “art” that featured pictures of apple-cheeked lads with monstrous erections, you waited for the minister to withdraw support or, at the very least, wonder aloud why the public purse should be underwriting industrial strength obscenity.
Somewhere, standing by a machine or sitting at a workaday desk, a Victorian resident was paying the taxes that hung those pictures on the wall. He or she might not even have heard of the raid, but a minister standing up for genuine art, not to mention good taste, might have made an impression. When you did hear from Arts Minister Heidi Victoria, it likely had something to do with the latest multimillion-dollar list of grants to the usual suspects. All you could do was wince at the spectacle of such grinning idiocy. “You stupid blonde creature,” you felt like screaming, “you just don’t get it, do you?”
That artist, by the way, was only recently acquitted, which raises another matter: why did the Baillieu/Napthine years see no effort to clean the bench? There were plenty of opportunities to make a fuss, to note that Victoria’s judiciary is replete with Trades Hall ambulance chasers and party hacks. Every time some tinpot magistrate steeped in a respect for “otherness” turned lose a miscreant who went on to perpetrate further outrages, or when some brute was spared jail on the grounds of “cultural difference”, the government could have raised a stink. That stuff plays well with the electorate, which has trouble grasping why, to cite the most notorious case, a multiple rapist was released on bail pending appeal after yet another violent assault. He celebrated his freedom by setting up an ice-dealing franchise before abducting, raping and butchering ABC editorial assistant Jill Meagher.
Early on, not long after Baillieu’s surprise election, an old friend spoke over dinner of a Labor supporter and how his prospects of being made a judge were neglible. He spoke too soon. Not long after, while legal sorts with conservative pedigrees were passed over, our left-leaning mate was elevated. Likewise with the public service, where stay-behind Laborites leaked continually against their ministers and embedded greens white-anted by fair means and sly the government’s environmental initiatives.
Advance your enemies, betray your friends – that might be another epitaph worth inscribing on the Liberal headstone.
As to the next four years, well, it is a horror-show script. For starters, the incoming government has sworn that it will shut down much of the state’s coal-burning capacity to generate electricity. Plus, there are some $30 billion dollars worth of promises, a union thugocracy waiting to issue orders, and emergency service workers to be lavishly rewarded for their truculence with pay raises that will set the scale for many, many more of similar size to come. If Victorians wish to glimpse the future, look not to Andrews’ promises but across Bass Strait, where Tasmania’s basket-case economy sets the benchmark.
When the non-entities at the Liberal Party’s core intone their eulogies for the Napthine crew, you can bet they won’t mention that their fallen heroes never missed a chance to demonstrate the lack of ticker. For several years emergency service workers have been running a guerrilla campaign against the government. Every Melbournian who drives has sat in traffic behind an ambulance emblazoned with hand-written, anti-government slogans. Why did Napthine allow this blatant abuse of public property to continue? Can anyone old enough to remember Henry Bolte seriously accept that he would have tolerated such impertinence? He’d have sacked the first crew that turned their vehicle into a billboard, and then gone for the throats of any colleagues who went on strike in support. But Bolte had some fight in him, not like this sorry lot.
They say that if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything, which would be a generous appraisal of Victoria’s Liberals. Apart from reducing the rate at which government spending continues to expand, achieving an insignificant surplus in the process, Baillieu and Napthine and the back-stabbing, spiteful sheltered workshops that were their cabinets stood for nothing.
And nothing, now that the votes are counted, is all their four squandered years have produced.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online