Few political organisations are as consistently baffling as the Victorian division of the Liberal Party. Since Labor’s upset election win under Steve Bracks in 1999, which ended the Kennett era, the Liberals have been waiting for Victoria to return to their version of normal.
This “normal” is an electoral environment where a state Coalition government is the public’s default choice. The thinking seems to be that Victoria’s political orientation – which has, with only a few brief interruptions, skewed left for several decades – will miraculously change all on its own. Meanwhile, the Liberals remain as they are, ready to take up the reins and do a patch-up job on whatever they deem to be Labor’s failings.
Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Matthew Guy.Credit:Eddie Jim, Jason South
Should that day come, will the party have done a deep, searching reassessment of itself? Established new networks and social connections in the community, especially among young voters, whose support levels for the Liberals are anaemic? Reorganised itself and used its time in opposition to restock its parliamentary ranks with fresh faces and voices – potential future leaders and capable senior ministers? Given that it’s been out of office for eight years now and there’s been no shoulder-to-the-wheel attempt to do those things so far, it seems unlikely.
Instead, it’s heading to the election led by a recycled leader who took the Coalition to a massive defeat four years ago. The fact that the party turned to Matthew Guy when Michael O’Brien’s leadership ran out of road last year tells us much about the condition of the Liberal Party since Jeff Kennett left the parliament 23 years ago.
Kennett was a once-in-a-generation political being who, by the time he lost power, had dominated his party for almost 20 years. The Liberals have never really recovered from his departure, as their subsequent leadership travails have shown. It’s a sorry story.
Kennett was succeeded by Denis Napthine, who was toppled a few months out from the 2002 election by Robert Doyle. Labor won 2002 in a landslide. Doyle hung on but shortly before the 2006 election made way for Ted Baillieu. Baillieu was a reluctant recruit, who put his hand up only after Kennett threatened to return to politics.
Former Victorian Liberal premier Jeff Kennett.Credit:Jessica Shapiro
The 2006 election result was a third win for the ALP under Bracks, but not a bad loss for the Liberals. Four years later, at last, with Bracks having resigned mid-term, replaced by the recycled John Brumby, the Coalition got back into power. Victoria had returned to “normal”.
But all was not well. The Baillieu government was slow-moving and lacking in direction. Beyond establishing an integrity commission, it looked lost, and factionalism worsened. Baillieu was fatally undermined, and Napthine was reinstated – 11 years after having last served as leader. At the election in 2014, the Labor Party under Daniel Andrews won office. In a single term, the Liberals had thrown away their chance to rebalance Victorian politics.
Note the pattern: recycled leaders as a rule don’t produce good election outcomes. All three Labor leaders who’ve taken the party out of opposition and into government in the past 40 years – John Cain, Bracks and Andrews – did so at their first run. There’s value in presenting a fresh face to voters.
Luck plays a big role in politics. If 166 of the 39,256 voters who cast a valid ballot in the seat of Hawthorn in 2018 had backed the Liberals’ then shadow attorney-general John Pesutto and not Labor’s John Kennedy, it would likely be Pesutto squaring off against Andrews this time. That would have produced a different contest from this one, which gives off the vibe of a couple of patched-up sluggers whacking away at each other again.
But political parties must also make their own luck. After Labor’s humiliating defeat in 1992, the state party looked to be broken. Early in its time in opposition, the ALP used by-elections and a preselection to introduce Bracks, Brumby and Rob Hulls to its parliamentary team. That trio, along with the recently elected John Thwaites, restored Labor’s credibility and laid the foundation for the ALP’s subsequent decades of electoral success. The Liberals have made no similar concentrated and deliberative effort to rebuild.
Instead, it’s same old, same old. All too often there’s been a sense of a haphazard campaign rollout, with a profusion of disjointed spending promises mixed with predictable attacks on Andrews. Guy has been doing this more artfully than in 2018 but not in a way that makes him look like a man transformed.
What seems to be missing is the why. Why him? Is he a different, better leader now or is he just a fellow who thinks he deserves another crack? What has he learned about Victoria and Victorians that make him a better bet to be entrusted with the state than he was four years ago? Time is running out for him to tell us.
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