THERE will never be a need to put the words “Ted Baillieu” before a focus group because, after the events of last night in Melbourne, we all know they evoke only the cuddliest sentiments. Top bloke, warm, wonderful, funny, principled, a thorough gentleman, man of dignity and honour – it was being laid on with trowels by journalists, party types, ministers and even, albeit in a murmur, by the government-in-waiting on the opposition benches. Victoria’s ex-Premier is such a prize it must mystify residents of other states why he had to be shown the door.
Victorians know better, and conservatives best and most bitterly of all, their po-faced and entirely insincere eulogies to a defunct political career notwithstanding. Anyone moved to pathos by the spectacle of Baillieu’s resignation speech need only have listened to what he was actually saying in order to feel the gorge rising once again.
It was all there in the few and final words of a failed leader, from a further reminder of Team Ted’s chronic incompetence at managing the news to the confirmation that, as a conservative, Baillieu was but a shell. Put to the ear, as Victorians have been obliged to do for slightly more than half a four-year term, and all we heard was white noise. If there was a single conservative conviction rattling about in the void of his alleged leadership, you would never have known it.
It was footage of those moments when Baillieu was choking tears that made it onto the late-night news, as you might expect, for there are few more compelling spectacles than the sight of the mighty laid suddenly low. Only the week before, prompted by the need to do something, anything, that might lift his government’s poll ratings from their Gillardian depths, an imperious Baillieu announced a blizzard of dubious headline-grabbers. Those convicted of driving under the influence would be forced to fit their cars with breath-activated ignition cutoffs. Stiffer penalties for anyone caught driving with cocktails of drugs and alcohol in their systems were promised. Inevitably, there were to be more speed cameras, which already extort some $600 million per year, mostly from otherwise upright Victorians who stray four or five kilometres per hour above the limit.
By week’s end, the daily deluge of edicts from on high reached its absurd climax with the announcement that all motorcycle riders soon will be obliged to wear boots. Even allowing that it is the business of government to protect the toes of idiots bent on folly, does that mean chic scooter chicks in thin-soled Toorak Road stilettoes will pass muster while riders in stout brogues do not? If Baillieu’s heir, Denis Napthine, persists with that policy we will just have to wait for a ruling from the as-yet-unlaunched Department of Shoe Leather Identification and Appraisal.
Of all those initiatives, not one is likely to garner an extra vote, while most will further erode this government’s support. Take those Interlock devices, for example, which are to be imposed on drivers – and any blameless, unconvicted members of their families who share use of the same vehicles — long after fines have been paid and suspensions served. According to Victoria’s Traffic Accident Commission, 1.24 million roadside breath tests were administered in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers are readily available. Of those, a mere 4,000-or-so drivers were found to be over the limit, which amounts to less than 0.04%. Forty years ago, more than 1000 Victorians were shredding themselves on the road every year; today, in a state with twice the population, the annual toll hovers around 300 lost lives. Behaviours have been transformed and thousands saved, yet Baillieu persisted in pursuing a policy of diminishing returns even as reported assaults, robberies and rapes rose, some by double digits.
A Premier anxious to impress the electorate, to make government the servant of the citizenry rather than its master, might have considered switching some of those police resources from a battle won to the front that has not been going so well. But not Ted, whose lack of core beliefs allowed a vacuum to expand at the heart of a government narrowly installed by voters thoroughly sick and tired of the former Labor government’s spin and profligate incompetence. What they got from Half A Term Ted was more of the latter and none of the former, even when a little spin would have been entirely above board.
To understand Baillieu’s ineptitude at spruiking his government’s merits, consider a story that erupted late in 2012. Three teenage thugs attempted to escape from a youth detention centre, with one allegedly slashing a guard’s throat before being stopped before they could go over the wall. Recaptured, they were placed temporarily in solitary confinement at an adult prison. When the ABC’s state edition of 7.30 latched onto the story, no government spokesman took up the opportunity to go before the cameras and explain the how and why, even though it would have been an easy sell. After all, what else was to be done with the alleged offenders? It would have been irresponsible to put them back in the same low-security facility from which they had attempted to escape. And while their apple-cheeked youth would have delighted many an old lag, they could not have been placed in the open section of an adult prison for their own safety. Until more secure accommodation could be arranged, a spell in solitary was the only sane solution.
These would have been easy points to make, especially if the almost-successful attempt on the guard’s life had been stressed, yet the stage was surrendered to a Labor shadow minister who basked in 10 minutes of easy questioning from another of the ABC’s sympathetic talking heads. Team Ted, missing in action — not for the first time and, sadly, far from the last.
But back to that farewell speech, when those things dearest to Baillieu were given heartfelt voice. So what were the high points of his time in office, the things he valued most? Two items topped his list: the belief that multiculturalism is Victoria’s “greatest strength” and his abiding love for our local “arts community.” Apart from testifying to the pernicious influence of his party’s multi-cultists on the ex-Premier’s thinking, the former also explains why that affront to free speech, the state’s anti-villification statutes, survived party room efforts to scuttle them; likewise that lawyers’ picnic, the Human Rights Charter.
And his abiding affection for “the arts community”? No black-clad luvvie has ever been known to knock back a grant – or, for that matter, admit to voting Liberal (if such an unlikely ballot has ever been cast, that is). A Premier who doesn’t know where to find his real friends has even less claim on the trappings and power of office than does the subsidised author of some unwatched and unwatchable bolshie agit-prop to the taxpayers’ wallet.
It was not the daubers of state-funded transgressive art who brought down Baillieu, of course, but the ongoing and toxic residue of his government’s failure to close the open sore of matters related to the police. A strong Premier, one with convictions, might have taken office and immediately fired then-Police Commissioner Simon Overland, who could count few admirers and many enemies in the Coalition ranks. Instead, like the scheming eunuchs of an Ottoman court, it was all whispers and hidden tape recorders, followed by leaks and transparently unconvincing denials. The farce that policing in Victoria became during the last days of the former Labor government does not bear repeating, nor a recounting of the jostling rivalries and palace intrigues that, at one point, saw the Office of Police Integrity at loggerheads with the Ombudsman. Meanwhile, garden-variety policing, seemingly an afterthought, suffered as a consequence.
Now those tape recordings have borne their bitter fruit and the Premier who allowed such a mess to fester is gone, and thank God for that.
With less than two years until his government must face the voters, Napthine has a lot of lost ground to make up. If he has the ticker and the core conservative beliefs to do so, that is.
Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online