Could Napthine's loss be Turnbull's gain?

It is extremely odd that the Napthine Victorian government was tossed out after just one term. Anger over the Abbott Government is heavily to blame. They need Turnbull's talent in Treasury to turn the tide of anger.

By the balance of probabilities, the Victorian Coalition should not have become a one term government. One term governments are exceedingly rare – this is the first in Victoria since 1955.  

Yet it wasn’t as if this Coalition government did anything spectacularly bad.

And it certainly wasn’t the case that Labor presented themselves as spectacularly great or visionary. Labor went out of their way to be small and inoffensive (except on the East-West toll road). Indeed polls taken a few months out from the election revealed that a majority of Victorians didn’t even know who Daniel Andrews was (he’s now the Victorian Premier, in case you didn’t know either).

No informed political commentator judged the Coalition Victorian government to be incompetent, even if they may have complained they were too slow in doing things. They had the budget in good shape with a triple-A credit rating, they were not beset by scandals (former Liberal MP Geoff Shaw’s indiscretion was a personal one, not something at the core of government administration and leadership), and the Premier, Denis Napthine, was not particularly disliked.

Yes, they had some problems such as the ambulance paramedic pay dispute that dragged on for years. And who could forget Baillieu’s personal vendetta against wind farms. This is where he (Napthine, whose own seat was ground zero for wind farms in Victoria, has always publicly supported wind power) pursued restrictions to wind farm development more onerous than those applied to facilities known to spectacularly blow-up, emit toxic smoke and generally pose serious hazards to an awful lot more than just a hobby farmers’ view. And of course hospital waiting times are always far longer than people would like, and Victoria’s rail system strains under archaic infrastructure.

But four years ago most political pundits would not have expected such issues to have them turfed out in just one term, given the prior Labor government had their own share of significant problems. Those included an electronic public transport ticketing project massively over time and over-budget; a very expensive and still unused desalination plant; a very poorly implemented electricity smart meter roll-out; and a train system that was bursting at its seams during peak hour thanks to years of underinvestment (former premier Kennett could also take some of the blame but the problem hit under Labor).

Clearly the deep resentment towards the Abbott Government played a major part in this highly unusual result. Labor’s own polling must have indicated this was a major weakness for the Coalition, otherwise why would they have run the advert below over and over again which merged Abbott’s face into Napthine’s?

Victorian Labor attack advertisement

The problem for the Abbott Government is pretty clear.

Yes they have done what they said they would do in terms of ‘stop the boats’ and ‘axe the carbon tax’. The problem is more with what they didn’t say they’d do.  

Part of the problem is that some within the Coalition and the Coalition’s backers seem to have arrogantly misinterpreted what the voters were endorsing when they voted in the Abbott Government, or perhaps more accurately in many cases voted out Labor.

When Abbott said he’d ‘fix the debt’ voters didn’t interpret this to mean a significant recalibration of the role of the federal government involving greater user-pays medicine and university courses, downgrading federal funding for schools and hospitals, upping the GST and reducing the rate of indexation of pensions. They probably should have, but they didn’t.

Also when Abbott said he’d ‘axe the carbon tax’ voters didn’t interpret this to mean axe anything and everything that treats climate change as a legitimate and serious problem. But one gets the impression many in the Coalition seem to think that’s their mandate.

Another core factor is with how they continue to communicate issues in the same way they did while in opposition – via emotive language that dramatises matters into simplistic extremes. You can get away with this when in opposition, but in government words carry far more weight and involve higher levels of accountability.

For example yelling “budget emergency” might have been useful in opposition, but people were going to be more sceptical when they could see addressing the problem came at their personal expense. And can you ever imagine John Howard saying he’d “shirtfront” the Russian leader?

The root of the problem lies with Abbott, but others must also share the blame – Joe Hockey in particular. In several cases he was executing sound public policy, but his public communication surrounding these decisions seemed deliberately designed to antagonise voters. Daring Holden to pack up and leave, then doing something similar with Shepparton’s SPC cannery, were not the right way to get people on-side about necessary but difficult reform. The Nationals’ loss of Shepparton to an independent and the huge swing to Labor in the seat of Bellarine (part of Geelong) are two cases in point for more careful, nuanced language. And of course his line, “poor people don’t drive”, was politically insane, not to mention factually wrong.

The Coalition desperately needs Malcolm Turnbull’s skills to address the government’s character flaws. They’ll never accept him as leader again, but for their own survival they should consider him for Treasurer because he is completely wasted in Communications.

Turnbull may be seen by the conservatives within the party as not the real deal and a little too close to the causes of the left. But this forms the perfect antidote to an arrogant misinterpretation of the Coalition’s electoral mandate.

In addition he seems to be the one member of the Coalition ministry able to argue a case cogently for the Coalition’s policy agenda, while still acknowledging some of the broader complexities and nuances in the issue at hand. Such an approach may not be great for tabloids, but it comes across on television as more authentic and believable than, for example, trying to argue that a budget cut is merely an “efficiency dividend”.  

Turnbull as Treasurer will probably never happen – the arch-conservatives are too fixated on his acceptance of climate change science. But it is bitter medicine that might do them the world of good.

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