Warning: contains flippant remarks.
Time for a look at my home state of Victoria now. With an election looming on November 27 that looks to deliver another significant result to the Greens, and perhaps another minority government, the major parties have repeatedly hammered home the point that they want to lead in their own right. It’s fair to say, however, that the Greens were the elephant in the room when the leaders’ debate between Premier John Brumby and Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu took place, with moderators and panellists repeatedly mentioning their likely effect on the election outcome.
In a nice touch of serendipity – or perhaps irony – the debate was held on the 5th of November.
The first question was predictable. Both leaders were asked why they deserved Victorian votes.
Ted Baillieu led off with a litany of Victoria’s woes. Although he was a ‘proud Victorian, a very, very proud Victorian’, Baillieu shook his head sadly over problems of violent crime, deteriorating country roads, a planning system that ‘cannot be trusted’, children in state protection being neglected, rising water and power bills, and – startingly – long and ‘secret’ waiting lists for hospital treatment. He slipped in some stock phrases from the Federal Liberal playbook about ‘endless waste and mismanagement’ before promising a series of law and order reforms guaranteed to warm the hearts of conservatives everywhere – more police on the streets, a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to violent crime (whatever that means), and tougher sentencing. After that he waxed lyrical with promises to do everything from fix country roads to changing how hospitals are managed and embraced the idea of a ‘modern, open accountable government’ that would put an end to ‘cover-ups, secrecy and incompetence’. In short, Baillieu promised to save the world.
John Brumby went for the folksy approach, regaling the panel with the story of how he’d visited apprentices at Geelong TAFE. These politically savvy and civic-minded young people represented all Victorians, it appears – what they wanted was a strong economy, good jobs and for Victoria to keep its AAA credit rating. Accordingly, Brumby pledged to create 300,000 new jobs over the next five years, pointing out for good measure that Victoria has – thanks to Labor – the lowest payroll tax rate in 36 years. It was important to keep the jobs coming, he asserted.
Something strange happened then. In a rare display of psychic power, Brumby started channelling Prime Minister Julia Gillard. He rhapsodised about the ‘transformative power’ of education, something he’d always been ‘passionate’ about, and felt was of intense importance to every Victorian. To prove it, he listed the government’s achievements – the placement of more than 10,000 new teachers and support staff into the system, new buildings and schools across the state, and more investment in education to ensure every child had the opportunity to gain ’21st century skills’ (though presumably, not the ability to use Twitter).
Ian Henderson, the moderator, indulged in a little forward planning at this point. He commented that there was now a third force in politics, not represented at the debate – though perhaps for the last time. This was no doubt welcome news to many Greens voters who already suffered through the Federal campaign with little attention. Why then, asked the moderator, are voters dissatisfied with the traditional duopoly?
Brumby refused to be drawn. Others could make that judgment, but the ALP was about putting forward ‘positive policies, especially ‘progressive social policies’.
Then the dance began in earnest. Baillieu, asked about where the Liberals would direct their preferences, went on the attack. There was a Greens/Labor alliance in Tasmania, and now one in Canberra. Labor had done deals in the past with the Greens!
Moderator: ‘So what will you do?’
Baillieu: ‘Mr Brumby needs to answer if he’s done another deal.’
Moderator: ‘I asked for your preferences.’
Baillieu: ‘The issue is, will John Brumby preference the Greens.’
Brumby chimed in, noting that Liberal preferences were likely to determine the outcome in inner city seats (as they did in the election of Greens MP Adam Bandt). This was ‘a raging issue’, he said; there was a crisis in the Liberal Party about where preferences should be directed.
‘I’ve never heard so much hypocrisy in my life!’ declared Baillieu, brandishing an ALP how to vote card from the last election that directed preferences to the Greens. ‘John Brumby has to delcare if another deal has been done’.
Moderator (with apparently infinite patience): ‘When will we find out what you’re doing?’
Baillieu (finally, in a grumpy tone): ‘Before the election.’
This ridiculous exchange went on, reaching its absurdest height when Baillieu declared that Brumby – in saying he had not spoken to the Greens, did not envisage a power-sharing deal with them and was competing to govern in his own right – was, in fact, ‘going out of his way’ to avoid answering a question on preferences. He seemed unaware of his own apparent inability to answer any question on Liberal Party preferences whatsoever. Asked about disillusionment in his own core support base, Baillieu snapped, ‘I don’t accept that, the question is for John Brumby, he’s had a long term relationship with the Greens’.
At that point the moderator and panellists gave up, but their expressions were unmistakable pictures of frustration and not a little disgust.
The debate moved on, and Brumby’s answers featured an interesting element not usually present in debates – the mea culpa. He acknowledged that he had spoken hastily and thoughtlessly when he told journalists they ‘didn’t need to know’ information about proposed new trams. Although he was right to withhold commercial-in-confidence information, he said, he should not have answered in that way. He also admitted that an Ombudsman’s report into child protection showed that his government was not doing enough, and that he’d moved to put new funding and new measures in place. Finally, when asked about Black Saturday, he said that it was clear the system had failed, and for that he was sorry, he accepted that responsibility and was committed to the best possible response in any future crises.
Baillieu constantly interrupted everyone else – in fact, his entire manner could best be described as ‘don’t waste my time’. He relentlessly pursued Brumby on the question of government advertisements, though was unable to name any ad that was a ‘Labor party political ad’. When Brumby was asked about the number of people in ‘communications’ jobs in the government (between 800-1000), Baillieu refused to accept his answer. Brumby pointed out that many people in communications were not concerned with the public at all, but rather keeping lines open between and within government departments, but Baillieu was adamant that it was about ‘spin’.
One feature of this debate was the ‘quick question’, which only allowed for a 30 second answer – and it was here that the debate really showed that it was out of touch with people’s concerns. While we spent 20 minutes listening to Baillieu not answer a question about Liberal preferences, we were given almost no time at all to hear the candidates’ views about adoption by same-sex couples. Baillieu simply rejected the idea. Brumby tried to cram some more information into his answer, which amounted to ‘I’m not sure, but I want the Law Review to look at it’.
Baillieu had his moment in the sun on law and order. Violence had been ‘normalised’, it was a ‘major cultural issue’ that they had to ‘turn around’. He commited to a further 17,000 police and to place 940 protective service officers on all major metropolitan and regional trams and trains until the end of service each night. Asked how he could change the culture, Baillieu repeated the ‘more police on streets, zero tolerance’ mantra, then added a potentially worrying coda. Police needed to be given the capacity and powers to enforce the law. He didn’t elaborate on exactly what that might entail, but given the new move-on and stop-and-search powers, one can speculate. On his first day in government, he concluded, he would institute tougher sentencing and do away with home detention. All this, he declared, had been originally rejected by the government, only to be hurriedly adopted at the last moment.
Brumby had some different ideas about changing a culture of violence. He referred to school programs raising awareness of cyber-bullying and tougher liquor licensing laws, as well as general programs of information and awareness for the community.
Quick question number two asked about banning smoking in public places. Baillieu said he would wait to see what VicHealth recommended. Brumby said there were no plans to ban smoking, and started to talk about other programs in place and proposed to help people quit – but was cut off by the time limit.
The Wonthaggi desalination plant came in for some scrutiny. Brumby, asked if he had ignored advice not to proceed, said he had made the right decision. ‘All advice coming to the government from the Bureau and CSIRO is that erratic climate patterns are likely to be more frequent’, and therefore it was important to guarantee water security for the next 30-40 years. Bailieu was confronted with his own promise of a desalination plant, made four years ago, and reminded that he had continually said since that Labor’s plant was ‘never needed’. He responded that the Liberal Party would honour the contracts and build the plant, but that it was ‘huge’, ‘very expensive’, and that Victorians would be paying for water they may not even require. His own plan had been for a ‘modestly-sized, modestly-priced’ plant.
There was grudging acceptance from Baillieu that Brumby’s government had managed the economy well during the Global Financial Crisis, but even that was qualified. The surplus was ‘skinny’, propped up by funds from the ‘Rudd/Gillard government’ – and anyway, it was all ultimately due to the good work of Howard and Costello. Victoria was now in a situation of escalating debt, he asserted, and – apparently advocating a kind of 12-step ‘State Treasurers Anonymous’ program – the first step was to recognise that there was a problem.
Asked how he would bring down this debt, Baillieu made a very odd answer. ‘Imagine how much better off we would be if we hadn’t had those cost overruns in major projects,’ he said.
Brumby argued that the budget was not ‘skinny’, but rather ‘comfortably in surplus’; the only state, in fact, forecasting surpluses over the whole of the forward estimates period. He pointed out that Victoria’s share of debt was lower than when Labor first took power – then assumed the Voice of Doom. Baillieu had promised he would not add ‘one more dollar’ to the debt, but had also promised $7.5 billion in spending. In order to keep both commitments, he would have to cut spending to hospitals (including the new children’s hospital at Monash), schools and public sector jobs.
Quick question number three asked if either leader would introduce a $1 betting limit on poker machines. Brumby said he was in the process of instituting pre-commitment technologies, but had no plans to introduce betting limits. Baillieu jumped in to add hastily that he was the ‘first’ to raise the idea of pre-commitment technologies, and might look at lower bet limits.
As mentioned above, Brumby apologised for the systemic failures in dealing with the Black Saturday bushfires. He was at pains to point out the unique circumstances, while not trying to belittle the problem. ‘Systems failed, and for that I am eternally sorry,’ he said. He went on to mention that steps were being taken to deal with future situations, including $861 million spent on warning systems, and boosting numbers of fire fighters. Baillieu’s comment? ‘The government erred before the fires, and has erred in the longer term, but I won’t criticise John Brumby for his performance at the time. There were countless recommendations for change from reports, which were not accepted.’
Finally arriving at closing statements, Baillieu borrowed some Obama-talk and spend time calling for ‘change’. He pointed out he was an architect by training, which apparently proved he was focused on the future. ‘I see problems and I want to fix them,’ he said. He liked ‘nothing better’ than building the future.
Brumby gave out a round of thanks to the moderator, panellists, Baillieu, linesmen and ballboys, before promising that Labor would be the same ‘stable, experienced, strong’ government it was currently – only more so. Hospitals would be built, more nurses, doctors and police employed, and schools and pre-schools supported. For the first time he mentioned the impending closure of Hazelwood’s coal-fired power station, and his commitment to making Victoria the ‘solar capital of Australia’. (One can’t help thinking this should have been mentioned right up front, given the current state of turmoil over tackling climate change in the Federal arena.) Finally, he acknowledged that Labor could do better, and committed to do just that.
In the end, the debate boiled down to this:
* an incredibly rude Opposition leader who seemed unable to let anyone else speak, who was constitutionally incapable of even acknowledging that preference deals might, perhaps, possibly be done, and who was a little too enthusiastic about the idea of putting more police with greater powers on the streets.
* a Premier whose folksy manner seemed forced, but who managed to admit his own government’s failings even as he refused to talk to the Greens, while sounding the alarm on the apocalyptic consequences that would follow if the Liberal Party was elected.
* a Moderator who probably needed a Bex and a good lie-down.
* an audience whose bread-and-butter concerns were relegated to 30 second grabs, while they were forced to listen to 20 minutes of ducking and weaving on how-to-vote cards.
All in all, not a good result.