Ever since the election of the Rudd government three years ago — indeed, since before then, for it was not an unexpected event — there’s been a view around that it would mean the end of Labor’s domination at state level. Peter Brent has been a particularly persuasive advocate, although I was sceptical at first.
But now there can be no doubt. An undistinguished but better-than-average state Labor government has been turfed out in a swing of about 6%, only three months after Labor had improved its federal position in Victoria. It really looks as if the unpopularity of John Howard had artificially depressed the Liberal vote in the states.
This is a good result for the Liberal Party, and not just in the obvious sense. It demonstrates that the party has an alternative to the Howard-Abbott model of hard-right populism. Ted Baillieu has consciously branded himself as a social liberal, and even those who held no brief for the Liberal Party have wished him well in the hope of preserving that strain in the party’s heritage.
Witness Leslie Cannold in The Age last week, who said a Baillieu defeat would “risk confining him and his small-l brand of liberalism to history’s dustbin.” More generally, it’s hard to believe that view did not contribute to The Age’s jihad against the Brumby government over the past year or two.
Baillieu has been an opposition leader rather in the mold of Kim Beazley — someone who never looked comfortable in opposition, but could be quite effective when luck ran his way and always gave the impression that if he could pull off a win he might be able to make a success of government. Beazley never got that chance: now Baillieu will.
But the magnitude of his task should not be underestimated. The Victorian Liberal Party is still a deeply conservative institution, and its parliamentary talent is patently thin. Nor is it improving much: of the 16 or so new Liberal MPs, only three or four — Clem Newton-Brown, David Southwick, maybe one or two others — look like ministerial material.
Tim Wilson, a strong Baillieu supporter, touched on the problem this morning when he said “the Liberal Party also needs to start thinking strategically about its plans to renew its parliamentary ranks”. He was too diplomatic to add that this is what it has conspicuously failed to do over the past 10 years, as the amount of dead wood cluttering up the back bench (and even the front bench) amply testifies.
It’s also not a problem unique to Victoria, or to the Liberal Party.
Fewer and fewer people of talent seem to be entering state politics; Labor is increasingly stocked with interchangeable apparatchiks (the new opposition front bench, after the inevitable early retirements, will not be an inspiring sight), while the Liberals recruit mainly from the class of bored small businesspeople wanting to try something different.
Baillieu’s problem is mitigated by the fact that the Liberals don’t have to fill the ministry on their own: coalition with the National Party — a much more cut-throat operation, where fewer duds survive — has brought an infusion of extra talent, but also of course its own problems.
This has been an excellent result for the Nationals. They won 10 lower house seats, their highest representation since the mid-1980s, and the balance of power for the first time in 60 years. They have done so, of course, partly through at the gift of the Liberal Party, but that in itself is an achievement: the Nationals had become so strong that they had to be bought off.
Four years ago, I put the issue like this: “The Nationals cannot be just wished away … Either both sides need to swallow their pride and hammer out a coalition agreement, or the Liberals need to say firmly that there will be no coalition, and that in the event of the Nationals holding the balance of power the Liberals will form a minority government and dare them to vote with the ALP.”
Understandably enough, Baillieu went for the first option. It cost the Liberals a senate seat among other things, but today he probably thinks the price was worth paying.
Even so, he should keep in mind that the second option remains live. The Nationals’ balance-of-power position is more apparent than real; it would be electoral suicide for them to vote with Labor to bring down the government. The Liberals need to remember that in case the Nationals should get inflated ideas of their own importance.
And one of the worst flaws in the Liberal Party’s make-up, its mindless worship of success at all costs, will now count in Baillieu’s favour.
Much to the displeasure of a large section of the party apparatus, he has pulled off a win against the odds, and the membership will be strongly inclined to let him do what he wants with it.
For his sake as well as Victoria’s, let’s hope he uses that power wisely.