Victoria may have lost its patriarchal teddy bear and his sunny sidekick when Steve Bracks and John Thwaites resigned, but their successors are determined to reshape themselves in the soft and cuddly mould.
And Labor’s family spin doctors are working overtime to do it.
First, new Premier John Brumby needs to overhaul his reputation as an arrogant, hard-hitting Treasurer. And he’s off to an orchestrated start readers of the local tabloid are now acquainted with Brumby’s family, including his border collie, Storm, and a cat named Chicken.
And new Deputy Premier Rob Hulls is hoping he can lull the voters into forgetting his reputation as resident head-kicker and knuckle man.
Luckily for both of them, they’ve got an inept Opposition to help smooth what should have been a major short-term blow to Labor. Liberal Party Leader Ted Baillieu bungled his response from day one, misreading public and political sentiment, which should have told him to let Bracks resign gracefully (as Howard did).
Instead, Baillieu sledged the departing Premier, then threw a few puzzling insults (the ‘scream team’?) at the new boys almost as an aside, and ended up with the cowardly (and badly spun) waving of the white flag in Williamstown and Albert Park.
It’s unfortunate for a leader to have to admit that his own Party keeps over-ruling him but then again, if Baillieu wasn’t quite so hopeless, Labor wouldn’t have managed to keep the momentum during what should have been a golden week for the Opposition. It’s not surprising that the Liberal Party’s real powers-that-be decided it was a better bet to focus on Kevin in 07.
The by-elections for Bracks’s and Thwaites’s seats will now be a battle between Labor and the de facto State Opposition and Coalition partner, the Greens.
Brumby has shown that he is firmly focused on getting on with the job, rather than the by-elections. Which of course he should be there’s no bigger value in incumbency than actually governing. It shows the voters that you can, well, actually govern.
Labor remains softly, softly on message when it comes to the cuddly recasting of the former hard men. It’s no coincidence that over the past couple of weeks Brumby and Hulls have both been depicted surrounded by wives and children. No doubt Brumby’s first public engagement as Premier was carefully chosen too announcing the Government’s new Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, surrounded by happy children with tambourines at the Hopetoun Children’s Centre in Flemington.
It’s interesting, given the soft focus, that they didn’t go with a woman as Deputy Premier but the obvious choices would have been Jacinta Allen or Bronwyn Pike, and they’re both too far to the Left for the ascendant powers on the Right. Interesting too that Tim Holding has (as one insider told us) ‘about five million portfolios, and they’re not small or easy.’ Holding has a reputation as not having much of a life outside politics, and since the current mantra is ‘It’s all about family,’ don’t be surprised if he’s shopping for an engagement ring and pre-emptively filling out Baby Bonus claim forms even as we speak.
But the new focus on education with particular reference to the littlest littlies and a brand new Minister, Member for Mount Waverley Maxine Morand, with responsibility for Children and Early Childhood Development, add to the Vaseline-lens effect that Brumby and Hulls are shooting for.
The swearing in of the new Cabinet was a not your typical parliamentary affair either: in front of a homely log fire, with babies, toddlers and spouses invited.
But it’s not 100 per cent spin Brumby is taking measures to make Parliament more open and accountable, by televising some debates and making others available via internet streaming.
In the short term, the Brumby ascendancy offers Baillieu the chance to reshuffle his forces. And there’s already talk that Richard Dalla-Riva, who resigned from Shadow Cabinet just six months ago after trying his luck with a reluctant Young Lib at a Party function, may be welcomed back to Ted’s front bench family.
The Age has been idly speculating that ‘laconic, wise-cracking Ted Baillieu (who in fact is a protÃ©gÃ© of Kennett’s) may come to be seen as the Liberal version of the ever-affable Steve Bracks.’
And looking to the next Victorian poll, the ability of Bracks and Thwaites to sail into the sunset without a blemish actually has the potential to cruel the new Premier if the Libs can ever get their act together.
That’s one mighty big if.
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