For some months now – at least since Robert Doyle’s backdown on his “no Scoresby tolls” pledge last September – the Victorian Liberal Party has been agonising over a possible leadership challenge by planning spokesman Ted Baillieu. Will he, or won’t he? Today both The Australian
and (more cautiously) The Age are saying he will.

Disclosure here: I’ve known Ted Baillieu for 16 years, I like him, and I think he’d be a good leader. And on the specific issue he’s said to have fallen out with Doyle on this week – ruling out tolls for future road projects – I think he’s right and Doyle is wrong. Nonetheless, I cannot see the point in changing leaders now.

Doyle was never going to be in contention for this year’s election: leaders just don’t come back from the sort of defeat he suffered in 2002. But if he was going to be replaced, it should have been done quickly, so a new leader could have had a decent chance to get established. To make the change at the last minute just sets up the same cycle again, exactly as the NSW Liberal Party did in 1998 and 2002.

But MPs, especially if they’re panicky about their seats, don’t always act logically. Some of them really think Baillieu will make a difference, although his performance as a shadow minister hasn’t been stellar. Some are mesmerised by the example of Steve Bracks’s success as a last-minute substitute leader in 1999 (the exception that proves the rule?). And some are just out for revenge for Doyle’s destabilisation of the previous leader, Denis Napthine.

Wise heads among the Victorian Liberals know that somehow they have to break out of this cycle of revenge, recrimination and paranoia; it’s just that no-one knows how to go about it. But if Baillieu is going to challenge, he needs to get it over with as soon as possible. And if he’s not, he needs to somehow get his supporters to pull their heads in until the election is over.

Peter Fray

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