Victorian Chaos Is A Boon For Labor

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I hail from Queensland, where politics has always been just a bit different. Snarky jokes about Queensland’s populist politics and inability to embrace daylight saving have long been heard in the cafes of Fitzroy; the strident recent scare campaign by the Newman government over motorcycle gangs has only added to that administration’s Bjelke-Peterson comparisons.

But in 2013, the state out of step with the rest of Australia is not Queensland, but Victoria.

Queensland, like New South Wales and Western Australia, is held by a Liberal-National government with a large majority. Queensland, like New South Wales and Western Australia, has a strong premier with high approval ratings (although Newman’s sky-high ratings might be fading somewhat). South Australia, too, is turning conservative: its long-term Labor government is limping, and the Liberals look set for a big win in 2014.

Victoria, by contrast, is led by an undistinguished Coalition government on a knife-edge majority of just one seat. In Ted Baillieu and then Dennis Napthine, it has not enjoyed the sort of strong, steady conservative leadership that voters love in Barry O’Farrell or Colin Barnett. Unlike the iron grip with which the Coalition holds Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia, the conservatives retain Victoria by barely a fingernail.

There are bunch of reasons for this, some of them political, some demographic, some cultural. But they add up to a rather unusual situation. In 2013, Victoria is the black sheep of Australian politics.

The outstanding fact about Victorian politics is how progressive Victorians are. The state that gave us Robert Menzies and Jeff Kennett is currently the most left-leaning of all the states; only the chardonnay-swilling bureaucrats of the ACT lean further.

Despite the sound thrashing given to Julia Gillard’s government at the September election, the ALP polled 49.3 per cent in two-party preferred terms in Victoria, a full three points better than the national average. Labor held most of its ground in Victoria, another instance of a long-term trend making Victoria Labor’s national strong-hold. Adam Bandt has now carved out a safe seat for the Greens in inner Melbourne, showing how left the southern capital is.

This progressivism spills over to the conservative side of politics. Victorian Liberals are traditionally far more moderate than their northern colleagues, as befits the state of Deakin. While the Victorian party has its share of hard-line ideologues (Peter Reith, Kevin Andrews), it is also home to a patrician, socially liberal strain of conservative politics, in which civil liberties and social virtues are balanced against economic growth. The tub-thumping populism of a Campbell Newman would be seen as distasteful by many in the Victorian Liberals, perhaps recalling the untimely demise of their own populist, Jeff Kennett.

All this is useful background to the sticky situation that Dennis Napthine now finds himself in. Struggling to hold a majority together in Parliament and buffeted by some nasty poll figures, the Coalition government in Victoria looks shakier by the day. Although most expect it to hold on until the 2014 election, the Coalition is a good chance to become Victoria’s first one-term government since 1955.

The past few days have highlighted the dysfunction. The Parliament has been a scene of utter chaos, as beleaguered Speaker Ken Smith struggles to retain the confidence of the House. That confidence – and the government itself – rests with the vote of one man: maverick independent Geoff Shaw, a former Liberal who is up on dozens of criminal charges related to the misuse of his parliamentary entitlements.

Shaw is a polarising figure who revels in his ability to bring down the government. Although he is nominally an independent and does not sit in the Coalition party room, he appears to have been instrumental in the downfall of Ted Baillieu and the unexpected ascension of Napthine.

It wasn’t meant to turn out like this. The Coalition won office in 2010 in a surprise defeat of Labor’s John Brumby. To say the victory was unexpected is putting things mildly: the mild-mannered Ted Baillieu, a blue-blooded architect, was not considered particularly electable. Once in office, Baillieu’s hands-off management and aloof media style soon resulted in dismal poll figures and the perception of a “do nothing” government.

After replacing Baillieu in March, in a sudden coup driven in part by Shaw’s antics, Napthine has proved an assured performer. He comfortably out-rates Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews in preferred premier polling, and has handled a number of crises calmly.

But Napthine is up against it, and not just because his government depends upon the vote of the unpredictable Shaw. The ongoing chaos in the House is in many ways similar to the instability of the last federal parliament, and voters appear to be taking a similar view: they hate it. Labor has effectively pursued destabilising tactics, and the uncertain status of Shaw’s vote means that every session is potentially the government’s last.

The last sitting of parliament had to be called off by Speaker Ken Smith after Shaw suggested he might vote against the Speaker; the current sitting continues only because Smith has thrown out a number of Labor members, gifting the Coalition a temporary majority.

In such an environment, Labor has every incentive to keep destabilising. As the events of the last term of federal parliament have shown, the Government tends to get blamed.

The shenanigans in parliament are also, of course, deeply distracting from the business of government. In recent weeks, Napthine has been unable to get any positive messages out. There doesn’t appear to be much governing going on at all. Instead, attention has been focused on the grim business of hanging on to power.

Current polling suggests Labor is in the box seat in any snap election caused by a vote of no confidence. But even if Napthine and his government do hang on until the scheduled election next November, the progressive demographics of Victoria make the ALP favourite to win back the state.

With South Australia and Tasmania likely to vote out their Labor governments and go conservative early in 2014, Victoria may end up as the only hint of red in a wall of blue governments nationally. While the rest of Australia drifts right, Victoria is keeping left.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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