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Victorian State Election – An overview
by Tony Phillips
With the Spring racing carnival finally out of the way Victorians are beginning to wake up to the fact that there is an election on November 25th. The election timing could be seen as a something of an underhanded trick, coming amidst so much distraction, tailor made to keep an opposition from building up steam, and this would not be incorrect. However, it’s something of a bi-partisan, two ruling parties preferred trick, since Victoria these days has fixed four year term elections. The government of the day doesn’t choose the timing of the election, everyone knows it’s coming, it just always happens to come at a time when there is little space for politics until near the end of the campaign.
It is thus the case that only now have the two major parties held their election launches, despite having been in campaign mode for weeks. And it is now that I feel some obligation to provide a starting point for some Webdiary coverage of the event. Below I provide an outline of various aspects of the election. We shall see more as things pan out and no doubt as Webdiarists make their own contributions.
The Power of Incumbency
Like every other government in Australia the Bracks-led ALP government is in the box seat coming into this election. Years of economic prosperity have underpinned a "don’t rock the boat" mentality, and provided a raft of funds for putting out political bushfires. As with any long term government, wounds and dissatisfactions have mounted over the years, but at this stage it seems not nearly enough to bring the government down. Much of the most damaging detritus has been out long enough to have become stale, particularly the reversal, just after the last election, on tolls on the Eastern ring road. Thus the biggest miasma affecting the ALP is the relative lack of talent on the front bench and accompanying lack of verve and competence shown in running major projects.
Bracks is particularly helped by two structural factors. The first is that a Federal Coalition government, particularly one more or less mid term, and a little on the nose on issues like climate change and industrial relations, provides a push for swinging voters to go for a more worker, climate, and services friendly government at state level. Second, the crushing size of the victory at the last state election - the Liberals were left with just seventeen seats out of eighty-eight in the lower house - left the opposition very short on talent and energy, and with massive ground to make-up.
On top of all this, Bracks has happily exploited all the other natural advantages of incumbency, including the surreptitious use of tax-payer funded advertising in the year leading up to an election. He hasn’t reached the high and shameless rorting stage of the Federal government, but he seems to have certainly taken a few pointers from the precedents they’ve set.
The New Kid
After years of urging the Liberal’s Ted Baillieu stepped up this year and allowed the ailing opposition leader Robert Doyle to be put out of his misery. Doyle was sometimes convincing and did work hard, but far too often came across as the private school master he was in a previous life. You often got the feeling he would have been at home teaching gym, albeit as a more popular gym teacher than most are.
Not merely a servant to the wealthy, Baillieu is the real thing, a tall and rangy blue blood millionaire from one of Victoria’s old rich families. He undoubtedly has talent, the question has always been about his willingness to apply it. Having finally answered his party’s call he has hit the ground impressively, launching new and often counter-intuitive policies in a constant stream since early October. While the ALP has hit him with attack ads about his wealth, and wheeled out the usual "he’s got his figures wrong" arguments, he has countered by just ignoring this and producing more promises and policy innovation. However, it is starting to become a bit wilder and out there, sudden promises of a desalination plant and new dams look more like quick fix politics than thought out policy.
Most interesting is the way the Libs have felt the need to counter the slash and burn, privatise and reduce, legacy of the Kennett years. It is extremely surreal to see a Liberal and Labor leader going toe to toe on promises to increase health services, improve public transport and public education infrastructure. But it does tell us something about the way the successful mustering of negative ghosts of governments past is now such a large part of elections present.
The changed landscape
Perhaps the most interesting part of this election, if we assume the polls are right and the Coalition won’t win, is the quite radical electoral reform that will get its first outing at this election. Until this parliament the ALP has only very briefly ever held control of the Upper House in Victoria. Perhaps partly in response to this, partly in reaction to the destruction of accountability pursued under Kennett, and partly due to an undertaking given to the independents whose support allowed Bracks to form his first government in 1999, Labor has used its majority to change the Victorian constitution with regard to the Upper House. The new Legislative Council consists of eight multi-member seats each returning five members through proportional representation. Moreover, unlike the Federal Senate system, the voting is also partly optional preferential, voters can either support a party list or number at least five individual candidates in the full list of candidates below the line.
The result seems almost certain to make a government controlled upper house after this election, and most future ones, highly unlikely. At this stage the Greens and Nationals seem most likely to hold a potential balance of power. As can be seen by the accelerated erosion of accountability that control of the Senate has handed the Federal government a true upper house of review is a valuable creature. It is perhaps the last refuge to relevance parliament has in these executive dominated days.
Years of growth, the GST funds, and a slavish devotion to Public Private Partnerships and truisms of neo liberal economics, means that for once economic management is a minor issue in this election. A minority might raise questions regarding the uselessness of continued piling up of surplus in good times, when spending on infrastructure might be a better idea, but the primitive but simple "surplus is good" mantra remains. This means that ironically therefore the issues in this election revolve around spending, and especially on decaying or poorly supplied infrastructure.
For now let me just list the major issues prevalent so far:
Drought and Water Supply - as it is federally, the drought is imposing itself, albeit without quite as much reflection back to the larger issue of climate change. The drought is actually so unprecedented in its scale (Melbourne having truly massive water storage capacity) that it’s hard to gauge its traction. People are worried and the Libs are offering quickfix big solutions, a new dam and desalination. The ALP is standing on steady-as-she-goes management plus a continuation of its incentives to save water.
Public Transport – Baillieu made a good impact with a bold declaration that he would abolish the outer zone of the public transport system. This was an immediate gift to the commuter families in the outer suburbs and a tick in the global warming box as well. Labor has been forced to match this and continues to sell itself as having restored public transport services that were cut under the previous Liberal government. The Libs came back with free public transport for students, including tertiary students who currently only get a subsidy via purchasing a voucher.
Neither side has mentioned re-nationalising the metropolitan transport system, despite the clear lack of its superiority to the previous public system, so neo-liberal ideology’s commitment to privatising public wealth for its own sake still holds sway here.
Housing – property in Melbourne continues to be a major area of speculation and wealth distribution. The Libs have come out swinging in one of the few areas state government’s have power, stamp duty. They have offered to cut it by up to $3,000 for properties under 600,000 and the ALP has again reacted by offering a similar deal: but only of around $2600 for houses under $500,000. The ALP’s policy looks less generous but is actually better targeted, since the cuts only apply to purchases of a principal place of residence. The ALP also has released a policy promising better provision of affordable rental housing. However the promise is vague and their track record is very poor.
Health - is always an issue but mental health has come to the fore here, alongside promises of reduced waiting lists and better ambulance services. Notably the ALP is offering to create a Minister for Mental Health, something the Libs promptly matched. Shame the Chaser isn’t still running to take advantage of this one.
Education – here the focus is primarily on infrastructure. Many public schools were sold off in the 1990s and those that remain are frequently old and in poor condition. Upgrading every public school and kindergarten was a centrepiece of the Bracks’ campaign launch, though those who think for a moment about the history of how the government has delivered on such promises won’t be holding their breath. It will happen but not overnight, or maybe even in the life of this parliament. The Libs have gravitated more toward a policy of improved services, new schools and the old "better teaching of the 3Rs" strategy, though with a welcome and enlightened policy regarding language teaching in schools. Indeed they’ve put the latter in a multicultural context, not something the Feds under Howard, with their eye on the rednecks, would ever do.
Urban Planning – this is a perennial Melbourne issue that was a major feature in the collapse of Liberal support at the end of the 1990s. The slickly named "Save our Suburbs" middle class lobby group reacted against the incursion of often very ugly and poorly planned medium and high density dwellings. The ALP has subsequently been ultra sensitive to their concerns but developers do have lots of clout and the demand for housing does keep rising. Spot fires thus continue to rage, sometimes in important eastern suburb seats. From opposition it’s also very easy to offer promises of the "we would never do that variety." Labor does often appear in disarray on planning and some gains could accrue to the Libs from this.
The Dogs that are not Barking
As interesting as the question of what the issues are is also the observation of what issues are not getting any play. This can frequently tell us as much about the context of power as listening and reading to the flow of material from the political players can. In the case of the Victorian election up until now I would nominate three issues gone missing.
The first and most important is police corruption. Melbourne has just come through an underworld war with bodies turning up with monotonous regularity. Piecing it together it seems that drugs, and by whom they are to be distributed, appears to have been the core reason for the mayhem. Meanwhile the police, and especially the drug squad and armed offenders squad, have been dogged by allegations and criminal charges. It is not unreasonable to connect the crackdown on groups of corrupt police with the underworld wars, since the corrupt police are often those policing (in the sense of regulating, for a cut) the underworld’s networks of crime. Remove these police and crims start killing each other over turf.
Despite informed media commentary, and whistleblowers insisting for more than a year that only the tip of the iceberg of Victorian police corruption has been touched, the issue has run dead in this campaign. Both Liberal and Labor have put up the shutters, apparently both in thrall to the Police Association run by the colourfully named Paul Mullet. The association has been quick to defend officers charged with corruption or illegal behaviour, to my mind with little regard to what this does to the reputation or interests of its honest members. One might say that if the old chestnut about the unions running the state under Labor was to be recycled the police union is the obvious example. A caving-in by the Premier to explicit Police Association demands for more resources and more weapons on Tuesday only underlines the point.
Another sleeper issue is housing, especially rental housing. The steep rise in house prices has created fundamental fissures of inequality between segments of Victorian society, especially across generational, though also class, lines. This process has reached another critical stage with the collapse of housing affordability, rising interest rates and a rental squeeze all coming together. Policy to address this would need to be innovative, would be expensive, and would tread on a lot of toes of those making much money from property. Thus so far, much silence.
Wind farms are an interesting issue that isn’t spinning, since they could cut both ways for the different parties. The ALP has made much of its support for wind-power over the years, claiming both green credentials and "growing the state" brownie points. However, in the countryside, where the farms are, quite vocal groups of locals have decried them as both inefficient and an ear- and eyesore. With their eye on country voters the ALP seems to be keeping relatively quiet. Meanwhile, with their eye on the green urban middle class, the Libs seem to be giving the issue a miss as well.
It’s still a bit early for one but the smart money would be on Bracks, probably with a loss of less than eight seats. Baillieu is doing a good job but his low recognition, weak team, structural disadvantages, and no real history with the electorate, except via association with Kennett, are all working against him. He will thus struggle with the trust factor, especially since his promises are mostly on unfamiliar Tory territory and therefore hard to credit.
Congratulations to all of you for reading this far and keep your chins up, because there’s now less than two weeks to go.