Ten years ago Ted Baillieu broke the Liberal’s post-Kennett electoral drought by leading his party back into power in Victoria.
The election result was a stunning political upset. Baillieu mugged an overconfident John Brumby by winning 13 seats with a massive six per cent state-wide swing. He also secured an unexpected majority in the State’s new upper house.
Baillieu won because he ran with a positive, workmanlike agenda. “Fix the problems — Build the future” was his campaign slogan and, while it never created goosebumps, it made a virtue out of simplicity.
After eleven long years of Labor mismanagement, underperformance and calculated deception, Victorians hungered for a government which played a straight bat on promises and respected the taxpayers on expenditure. Baillieu offered this in spades with his relaxed and urbane approach.
With a laser-like focus on the public’s policy priorities, Baillieu’s Liberals zeroed in on the Government’s weaknesses in project management (Myki, Regional Rail Link and the Desalination Plant), train service reliability and rising crime on and around public transport.
They even managed to wedge the premier on education by carving out an ambitious agenda for making Victorian teachers the highest paid in the country –- an issue which proved critical in swing seats such as Bentleigh where teachers reside in high numbers.
Whatever people may think of Baillieu’s ultimate political legacy, the electoral scoreboard doesn’t lie. Large aspects of his approach from 0pposition worked and worked well. This fact matters for one simple reason. The only real measure of success in politics is the ability to win elections.
With Victoria crossing the halfway mark of the 2018-22 electoral term, attention is naturally focusing on whether another upset win is possible.
Many within the Liberal Party are convinced a more progressive agenda is necessary for connecting with a Victorian electorate two million people greater than the Liberal’s last election landslide. Others in equal number believe the articulation of a confident conservative vision is required to win the new political battlegrounds of the twenty-first century – the outer suburbs and growth areas.
Whichever strategy is adopted, the key to achieving majority government will require the knitting together of a new electoral coalition which does not yet exist.
Many young Victorians, and by young I mean people 40 years or younger, would be surprised to learn that for five decades Liberal governments, and later Liberal-led coalitions, were seen as the natural parties of government.
From the election of the first Bolte Government in 1955, through to the defeat of the Kennett Government in 1999, Liberals had occupied the state’s corner office for 35 of 44 years — and in the same timeframe, Labor managed to control both houses of state parliament for a grand total of two weeks.
Yet for much of the twenty-first century, Victoria has been a Labor stronghold. A formidable fortress of seats, funds and policy innovation for Labor’s state and federal parliamentary delegations.
Whether it was blindsiding Kennett in 1999 or overpowering Napthine in 2014, Victorian Labor has nearly always been able to pull together the votes to deliver the political goods.
Heading into 2022, the odds still favour a Victorian Labor return. But all is not well with the comrades.
As with the electoral period 2006-10, the shine has well and truly come off the current state Labor government. Key ministers have been sacked, professional reputations have been tarnished and the Party machine itself operates under political house arrest.
Worse still, the government continues to be dogged by its role in the tragic COVID-19 deaths of nearly 800 people, an escalating debt crisis, serious corruption allegations and a police command scandal which will haunt Victoria for a generation.
All of this has happened under Labor. None of it is excusable. And every element should justifiably bring about the end of their regime.
What the state Liberals do with this huge opportunity is entirely up to them. Like Baillieu and Kennett before him, O’Brien and his team need to pull together their own unique coalition of voting blocks to secure the support necessary to win back power.
If Labor can maintain a ten-point lead will all this lead in the saddlebags, then there is nothing holding back the Liberals with their own set of internal challenges.
Too few Liberals have been marking Baillieu’s historic victory this past month.
That is a real shame.
Hopefully, it was because they were studying new ways of repeating it.
Asher Judah was the Liberal Candidate for Bentleigh at the 2018 State Election. He tweets at @asherjudah.
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