Here’s one interpretation of the Victorian election result: Victorians have, probably quite sensibly, decided to learn from the lesson of NSW and Queensland and not give an old Labor Government another go round.
There’s little evidence that governments in their second decade ever improve, even if they change leader. That’s certainly the case in NSW. It’s a harsher call in Queensland, where Anna Bligh and Andrew Fraser still have some reform mojo about them. And occasionally old governments, particularly those up against it in the polls, reach for good policy (Kristina Keneally, for example, now has the honour of having the best political funding legislation in the country).
But on all available evidence, a fourth-term government under John Brumby was, while unlikely to go the way of NSW Labor, equally unlikely to improve its performance. There’s an interesting study to be done on just why parties that are in power for an extended period get stale, but it appears to be an iron-clad rule in Australia at the state level. Given state governments are now in essence giant local councils, a first-term Baillieu Government seems as good a bet as a fourth-term Brumby Government — which was pretty much how the voting has turned out.
The race to impose meaning on an outcome no one picked beforehand is now on in earnest. Partly it depends on your political position. For example, if you hate the Greens, the election was a repudiation and major setback for them, despite their picking up – at this stage of the count – a small increase in the Lower House and a 1% increase in the Upper House. The sordid truth, of course, is that for a level of government devoted pretty much entirely to service delivery, the Greens’ primary appeal of being different to the two major parties is unlikely to cut it electorally, not when education, law and order and health are the key issues rather than climate change and asylum seekers.
Nor, as will almost certainly happen in Sydney next March, was the Brumby Government so wretched that progressive voters opt to vote Greens rather than for their traditional party. The Greens have done about as well as they could expect.
If you hate the Liberals , it seems, this is another example of Labor’s failure to communicate its achievements effectively, with the assumption that voters have somehow been suckered into voting in a Liberal Government by a slick election campaign that distracted them from what Labor has achieved in 11 years.
And if you hate Labor, this is just the latest example of the tide turning against Labor, albeit in a rather arbitrary fashion that means this looks likely to be only the first majority Liberal Government since John Howard’s 2004 win.
The fact is, our health and education data show that state level of government in Australia performs reasonably well at service delivery, regardless of who is in power. It is better, by virtue of economies of scale and better bureaucrats, than local government, and less corrupt too. But centralisation has driven a flight of talent from state government. The days of a strong, effective reforming politician like Nick Greiner or Jeff Kennett pursuing a career in state rather than federal politics is long over, given you can only ever be a glorified administrator in state politics. The best we can hope for is for a continuation of competent, stable government, which is exactly what Baillieu promised.