How To Bring Down A Sitting Premier


Melbourne Autumn has been hot and uncomfortable, with a long string of sunny days and warm nights. The hot March nights have made for fitful sleeping and grumpy mornings.

Perhaps the general air of irritability has affected state politics, for in recent days the Liberal-National government of Ted Baillieu has imploded. Although Premier Baillieu was not particularly popular and his government was behind in the polls, the collapse came with little warning.

The rot was exposed on Monday in a damaging front-page article in the Herald-Sun. The Murdoch daily had evidence of a compromising conversation between Baillieu’s chief of staff, former Howard government press secretary Tony Nutt, and former police officer and Baillieu government political staffer Tristan Weston. During the taped conversation, the Herald-Sun reported, Nutt appears to offer Weston a job in return for going quietly.

The background to the tapes lies in the poisonous politics of Victoria’s police force, which exploded into public view when former police commissioner Simon Overland resigned in mid-2011. Overland had been the target of a long-running media campaign orchestrated by Weston (a serving police officer) and assisted by Ken Jones, a deputy commissioner to Overland and a rival for the top job.

At the time, Weston was working from the office of Deputy Premier and Police Minister Peter Ryan. In a plot line straight from The Wire, Jones had been concerned that Overland was massaging crime figures in the run-up to the 2010 state election, and had been leaking and backgrounding the police minister via Weston, who was then passing on the details to the Herald-Sun.

After Overland fell, the whole matter ended up with the Office of Police Integrity, which was running concurrent investigations against both Overland for the stats gaming, and Jones and Weston, for the leaking. To complicate matters further, the OPI and national newspaper The Australian were fighting a vicious media war over the Simon Artz affair. At the time of Weston’s resignation, both Ryan and Baillieu swore they knew nothing about Weston’s role in undermining the chief of police.

So on Monday, when the Herald-Sun revealed that Tony Nutt, the most senior advisor in Baillieu’s office, had in fact openly discussed finding Weston a job post-politics in order to smooth the transition, the issue was always likely to test the Premier. How would Baillieu handle the matter? Very poorly, as it turned out.

To begin with, he looked terrible. Right through his tenure as Premier, Baillieu has had trouble with his media presentation. Baillieu, a tall man, often stares above the cameras rather than directly at journalists, which tends to reinforce the snide remarks made about his blueblood, toffy-nosed upbringing. The impression is a combination of nervous and diffident, with a troubling inability to master emotion in front of the camera that is so important in contemporary politics.

But it is actions, not acting, that have brought Ted Baillieu down. In response to the scandal, he referred Nutt to the new Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission, or IBAC. In doing this, he therefore referred his own most senior advisor for corruption investigation. Astonishingly, he also averred confidence in Nutt, refusing to stand him down.

IBAC is a tale of its own. The establishment of a rigorous investigative corruption commission was one of Baillieu’s few firm election promises. But, with characteristic languor, the government spent months refining the new agency’s brief, and many more months looking for a suitable person to run it. In the end, most independent legal experts consider that IBAC’s enabling legislation is so restrictive that it will be unable to meaningfully investigate corruption allegations of the sort currently being pursued by ICAC in New South Wales against the Obeid family.

In anther week, with another leader, the Victorian Coalition would have been able to ride out the Herald-Sun tapes. Most ordinary citizens care little for the intrigues of Victoria Police — the sheer complexity of the scandal makes it hard to grasp.

But Baillieu’s bad week was just getting started; blow followed blow with the force of a hammer and the speed of a rapier. That same Monday, a Newspoll landed. It showed the government trailing Labor 47-53, with Baillieu’s personal approval figures down to 31 per cent. Then the Bureau of Statistics announced recent growth figures. They showed that Victoria has slipped into recession.

But what really tipped the balance was the defection of Frankston MP Geoff Shaw, potentially threatening the Coalition’s one-seat majority in the Victorian lower house. Shaw, a colourful small businessman with a troubling tendency towards scandal, is currently under criminal investigation for misusing his Parliamentary entitlements (he is alleged to have used electoral resources, including a car, for his hardware business). He recently embroiled himself in controversy when he made an obscene gesture in Parliament, calling his Labor opponents "wankers". 

Yesterday, Shaw pulled the plug, informing his colleagues he would leave the Parliamentary Liberal party and sit on the cross-benches. While the Government’s numbers won’t be immediately threatened, as the resignation of Labor MP Tim Holding removes a Labor member temporarily from proceedings, the move stores up long-term trouble for the Coalition. Given that he can bring down the government whenever he chooses, Shaw is in a position to drive a very hard bargain on legislative matters, including in terms of pork-barelling for his constituents. When quizzed about all of this, Baillieu again struggled under the glare of the spotlight. The Age’s Josh Gordon summed it up in an article entitled "crisis as usual". 

Shaw’s defection proved the catalyst for Baillieu’s enemies in the Liberal Party to move against him. Most assume that Planning Minister Matthew Guy controls the caucus numbers, and that Guy withdrew support sometime yesterday afternoon, leaving Baillieu with no option but to fall on his sword. A crisis meeting was duly held yesterday evening in Victorian parliament. Baillieu resigned. All told, his unravelling took just two days.

But who would take over? Guy holds a seat in Victoria’s upper house. To make himself premier would defy convention and pose a series of difficult questions about why the sitting premier does not hold his own seat in the Legislative Assembly, or lower house. A compromise candidate was therefore worked out. Guy will continue to hold the puppet strings, but he has (perhaps wisely) elected to remain in the wings.

Enter Dr Denis Napthine as the new Premier of Victoria. A rural veterinarian from the west of the state, Napthine holds the safe seat of South-West Coast, centred on Warnambool. A former leader of the party in the wilderness years after the defeat of Jeff Kennett, Napthine is widely regarded as a decent man. He has been a steady if uninspiring performer as a minister, and his tenure as opposition leader in the early 2000s was unhappy; like Simon Crean and Brendan Nelson, Napthine was deposed before ever getting a chance to face voters.

Now Napthine is the premier of the nation’s most diverse and multicultural state. To say the new role will be challenging is an understatement. Victoria enjoys little of the fruits of the mining boom bestowed on northern neighbours, and has just entered a mild recession.

Further, Victoria, especially inner-city Melbourne, is noticeably more left-leaning than the rest of the country, a fact reflected in both state and federal polling. Unlike in New South Wales, Labor is not a synonym for electoral disgust here, and the ALP under Daniel Andrews has proved itself to be a disciplined and effective opposition.

Napthine’s worst problems may prove to be internal. The Victorian Coalition government is clearly riven by internal dissent, and one of its most effective operators, Deputy Premier Peter Ryan, is at the centre of the current corruption investigation. Napthine’s opening press conference last night was a disaster, marred by clanging division bells and a timid delivery by a man who some are already unkindly labelling "the accidental premier". The Coalition will want to avoid the impression that they are replacing one honest but inadequate leader with another.

Timing is everything in politics. The surprise victory of Ted Baillieu in 2010 threw Labor out of office at a time when there was no great groundswell of disgust for John Brumby’s state government. Had Brumby won, he would now be presiding over a state in recession heading a government in its 14th year. Instead, Labor stands an excellent chance of returning to office next year after just one term in opposition.

In the meantime, Denis Napthine has a majority to husband and a government to somehow keep together. Who said state politics was boring?

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.