The victory that might have been

While the Opposition Coalition has achieved in the Victorian elections a major swing of over 6 per cent against Labor, this has yet to be translated into a majority of seats and it is possible there will be a hung parliament, which would be confined to the two main parties as no Greens or independents won seats. A striking feature of the election was the strong majorities achieved by the National Party in the ten (one new) out of the eighty-eight seats it won (geographically the Nationals “govern” more than half of Victoria!). 

Another important aspect of the result is that the recommendations to voters by the written media – every paper advocated continued support for Labor – completely failed to identify the opinion shift in the electorate. And it failed to address the scope for remedying the basic deficiencies in government policies. 

The final result must wait the counting this week of the very large number of votes lodged before the poll (over 700,000) and there is no guide as to what the swing might be amongst those voters. But, although each major party has indicated a preparedness to govern, another election seems inevitable if there is a hung parliament, particularly if (as rather prematurely predicted by the Sunday Age) the Coalition were to secure a majority in the Upper House.

It is probable that Baillieu benefited from the increasingly poor example set by Victorian Labor’s counterparts in NSW and Queensland. The clear implication there is that a longer period in office does not produce results. The increasing problems with Federal Labor policies, such as on asylum seekers, would also have helped.  

The Opposition Leader has naturally welcomed the swing as supporting his keynote argument viz., that after11 years of Labor it was time for a change and 15 years of the same government would be unacceptable. But a question remains as to whether the Opposition differentiated itself sufficiently: it is not unreasonable to suggest that a potentially major victory may have been lost. 

To a considerable extent the rhetoric of the election campaign was based on the theme in Irving Berlin’s song “Anything you can do we can do it better”. The announcement of policies was largely confined to minor differences in the detail promulgated by the other side or claims of errors therein. Because many such claims by the Coalition regarding Labor’s record were well justified, they undoubtedly contributed to the swing to the Coalition.

A particularly valuable role was played here by National’s leader Peter Ryan as shadow minister for Police and Emergency Services in responding to widespread calls for tougher policing and sentencing policies in circumstances where measured crime has not increased but violent behaviour has. By contrast, the Coalition responded poorly to government claims that its economic policies had allowed Victoria to successfully avoid the global financial crisis. In fact, real GDP per head in Victoria fell in each of the last two years – it has increased only 2 per cent since 2005-06. This was tantamount to a recession and was a worse performance than for Australia as a whole (which experienced a recession only in 2008-09) and for the state commonly regarded as the worst performer – NSW.   

Most importantly, the Coalition failed to present itself as having the major aim of lifting the relative role of the private sector in the state and as requiring the public sector to subject itself to increased competitive forces. Under Baillieu’s leadership there was a consistent and puzzling refusal to make use of the enormous advantages that the Kennett government reforms gave Victoria and, indeed, the Bracks government that succeeded it. Those reforms, to which I contributed through various pre-Kennett reports published on ways to improve efficiency of government services, are still well-recognised as putting Victorian government services ahead of those in other states. 

The Baillieu fear seems to have been that such policies would be continued if he was elected and that fear was exploited by Labor by continual attempts, including as part of its election campaign, to associate Baillieu with (inter alia) the sale of schools under Kennett. It remains a puzzle as to why Baillieu failed, in the early stage of his leadership, to clear the air by espousing the well-recognised benefits from the Kennett reforms (including the cuts in public sector employment which has grown by 20 per cent since then). Should he win the current election he should correct this major error and shuffle his Cabinet to include some of the younger members who are more prepared to take risks. 

Equally, there would be an opportunity to widen the basis of education and health policies in various ways. These could include not only establishing a more competitive framework within the public sector but encouraging the growth of private schools and hospitals that already play an increasing role in the provision of these vital services and reduce the demands on taxpayers. 

Baillieu has also shown a risk-averseness in regard to climate change policies. Much more could have made much more of Labor’s absurd water policies of refusing to build more dams, of constructing the north-south pipeline and of building a desalination plant. These policies, which are based on false advice by CSIRO that there is a long term downward trend in rainfall and opposition to dams by greenies, were (and still are) open to serious questioning. Brumby’s policies of shutting part of Hazelwood (but not explaining from where the lost electricity would come), and of claiming credit for a policy to obtain 20 per cent of energy from renewables, are equally absurd particularly given the absence of international agreement on such policies. The abandonment of such policies would not lose votes given the Greenies would preference Labor.   

An initial policy by a Baillieu government would be to announce the construction of a major new dam, an inquiry into climate change strategy in current circumstances of polling overseas showing majority belief that warming reflects natural causes, and a full scale inquiry into the arrangements accepted by the Brumby government in regard to the construction of the desalination plant. Media reports suggest that the latter involve compulsory unionism and wages and conditions for employees that are well out of line with market rates. In short, at the expense of the taxpayer the Brumby government appears to have caved in to unionism, as the NSW government has done on many occasions. 

Whatever the final outcome of this election, it signals the opportunity for state liberal and national party coalitions to advocate and implement policies directed at improving the efficiency of government services and challenging the basis on which Labor pursues a number of those policies. 

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