The Victorian Election Everyone Will Be Watching

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The stakes in today’s Victorian state election are high, and they’re also potentially a window into the immediate direction of politics outside the nation’s multicultural capital. Ben Eltham reports.

I once saw Arts Minister Mitch Fifield give an impromptu speech at a small art gallery in Melbourne. After praising the art and making some backhanded criticisms of George Brandis, Fifield moved on to a more important matter: why he wished he was a minister in a state government.

Federal governments had little power, lamented the man whose cabinet responsibilities include two television networks, Australia Post and the national broadband network. If you really wanted to pull the levers of government, Fifield remarked, the best place to do that would be as a state education minister. All those schools! All those students! All that opportunity to shape young minds.

One of the enduring truths about government in Australia is that the states matter. While the Commonwealth has the money and the army, the states and territories are charged with the bulk of the day-to-day responsibilities for the services that ordinary citizens depend on: schools, hospitals, road and rail transport, police, fire brigades and paramedics, national parks, agriculture and mining, many consumer regulations, not to mention the whip hand in urban planning in Australia’s largest cities.

Who governs in the state capital makes a big difference, therefore, to the lives of voters. Good state governments can get a lot done, on the ground: they can ensure children get a decent schooling, that roads are regularly maintained, and that hospitals are properly staffed. They can even, occasionally at least, make the trains run on time.

Bad state governments can generate misery: think of the incompetence and corruption of the Queensland National governments of Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson or the New South Wales Labor governments of Bob Carr and Morris Iemma.

All this is worth remembering as we head into a round of state elections that will determine the provincial governments of the majority of Australians. First cab off the rank is Victoria, which goes to the polls today.

Daniel Andrews’ Labor government is seeking re-election for a second term. Hoping to defeat them is the Liberal-National opposition led by Matthew Guy. After a tight campaign, opinion polls show Labor well ahead in the final week. But Labor sources also caution that the true picture in marginal seats is considerably closer.

Victoria is a compact state with a strong economy and a growing population. That population growth – estimated at 125,000 a year for greater Melbourne – has put plenty of pressure on services like public transport and schools. But it is making Melbourne an increasingly diverse and interesting place.

Regional differences matter, even within greater Melbourne. Outer suburban Dandenong, for instance, is becoming a regional centre in its own right, with a growing migrant population and exciting diversity in food and international culture. Inner Melbourne, meanwhile, is a bastion of progressivism, with four Greens currently in the lower house. In the countryside, the National Party still holds a significant number of rural electorates, while regional towns like Geelong and Ballarat are Labor strongholds.

This geography has made the south-east Melbourne suburbs down the Frankston train line key marginal seats. Labor won four of them in 2014 to unseat the Napthine government, and it needs to hold them tonight, and limit Greens gains in the inner city, if it is to retain office. The Coalition will need to pick up those seats, hold on to its own, and also hope to gain some wildcards such as winning back inner-city Prahran from the Greens.

By any measure, Andrews has run a very progressive government. Highlights of his first term include ground-breaking assisted dying legislation, a history-making royal commission into family violence (followed by a huge funding increase to the area), record spending on health and education, and a big infrastructure push. Andrews has been surprisingly left-leaning on social issues, has spent up big on bread-and-butter services, and has still managed to keep the budget in surplus. It’s an impressive record.

Andrews is a Labor insider, a veteran operative, and an underrated retail politician. While no-one would call him charismatic, he’s shown himself to be a tough and determined campaigner. His enemies both within and outside the Labor Party have consistently underestimated him.

Perhaps Andrews’ smartest ploy has been to deliver transport infrastructure on the ground, where voters can see it. His government has embarked on a highly targeted program of level crossing removals that doubles as a big new investment in suburban rail. New train stations have been built and many congested intersections have had their road and rail separated. Cynics have pointed out that the projects seem clustered in marginal seats. But they appear to have resonated with voters: the elevated rail built in Melbourne’s south-east has measurably improved train timetables.

The opposition leader is the Liberal Party’s Matthew Guy, another young man in a hurry. Just 44, Guy’s ambition has been evident from early in his career. He rose quickly to the top of the Liberal Right, aided by some ruthless tactics and a talent for getting himself on the television news. But his precocity has also made enemies.

“Sky High” Guy’s tenure as planning minister in the Baillieu and Napthine governments was notorious for his pro-developer stance, as a series of poorly-planned apartment towers were greenlighted. Notable failures include the Fishermen’s Bend redevelopment, a future suburb of 40,000 where Guy forgot to include zoning for a primary school or public transport. Guy was also instrumental in the knifing of moderate premier Ted Baillieu, but his successor Denis Napthine proved ineffective.

Since becoming opposition leader in 2014, Guy has pushed the Liberal Party in Victoria rightwards on many issues, campaigning strongly on law and order and crime. He opposes the safe injecting room currently saving lives in Richmond, and wants to jail anyone who breaches bail, a move that lawyers and criminologists say will lead to massive overcrowding of remand facilities. His campaign platform is straight out of the populist Brexit playbook, telling Victorians to “take back control” and pledging to limit population growth (which, for a state government, is almost impossible).

There is no doubt that Guy has made crime a major issue in some parts of the electorate. Although official figures show overall crime levels are static or falling, there are pockets of concern in family violence and violent gang crime, including a widely publicised spree of armed robberies in recent years. Crime leads the television news many nights and is a regular feature in the Melbourne tabloid daily, the Herald-Sun.

But whether will change votes remains to be seen. Like many issues, crime means different things to different voters, and in a variegated electorate it is questionable whether law and order is the winning hand Guy and his supporters seem to assume.

Indeed, it may be that the relentless focus on law and order has ultimately hurt the Liberal Party, as it has largely conceded the central campaign ground of public services and infrastructure to the government. Labor has a good story to tell on health, education and transport, and Guy has not been able to win many hearts with his negativity.

The campaign has been marked by some twists and turns, but perhaps the key moment was the terrorist attack of Hassan Khalif Shire Ali on Bourke Street on November 9th. The attack killed a much-loved Melbourne restaurateur, Sisto Malaspina, and exposed dangerous shortcomings in Australia’s terrorism preparedness. National security agencies admitted they had the assailant on a watch list and Victoria Police admitted he was on bail. The issue should have played to the Liberal Party’s advantage.

But Guy’s tasteless campaigning outside Pelegrini’s restaurant left a bitter taste in many mouths. He appeared to misjudge the public mood, which was saddened at the murder but also defiantly in favour of the multiculturalism that Malaspina embodied. Guy’s strident law and order campaign has at times shaded into outright xenophobia and dog-whistle racism. That might play well in some sections of the right-wing media and in some key marginal seats. But it may be dragging down the overall Liberal vote.

There are some intriguing sub-plots to the election too. The Victorian upper house is elected by the old group ticket voting system, which has once again given the backroom preference dealers a chance to register speculative micro-parties with the express aim of electing chancers and nobodies. The upper house is likely to see the election of a swag of small parties, including the Aussie Battler party and perhaps even the Victorian Socialists. They will join the Greens and perhaps the Reason Party’s Fiona Patten with the likely balance of power, whoever holds government.

It will also be interesting to see how the Greens perform, given their well-publicised internal issues in recent weeks. Led by upper house member Samantha Ratnam, and still smarting from the defeat of Alex Bhathal by Ged Kearney in the Batman by-election in March, the party has had a woeful final week of the campaign, culminating in a candidate for the lower house being accused of rape. If Greens voters do desert, Labor and to some degree the Socialists look likely to reap the rewards.

But the main game is who will hold government, and by the end of the final campaign week that still looks likely to be Daniel Andrews and Labor. If Labor can win a second term, it will cement a progressive and dynamic government in power in Victoria, with a mandate for social spending and infrastructure investment. Andrews has a chance to be a major reforming figure in Australian politics, at the helm of a socially liberal and social democratic government. It is an opportunity that those who know him say he is fully aware of.

By contrast, a Coalition victory will send shockwaves through the left of Australian politics, because it would signal that populist law and order and anti-immigration rhetoric can work, even in a progressive and multicultural electorate. A Liberal victory will vindicate Guy’s negative and xenophobic campaigning, and may open the floodgates to an exceptionally nasty federal election campaign next year.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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