Watching from across the waves, the Victorian election slowly play itself out, was quite an experience. From here it seemed clear that the odds were against the Brumby government and the late polls confirmed it.
Labor was going out as it had come in a decade ago, as the polls closed in the final days.
But the twitter feed of shock and horror was like energy coming out of a supernova, of the general lines of “how/whatthe/f-ck s-it b-lls/ted c-chicken f—-ing baillieu” etc, leavened only by one J. Sparrow’s slow and meticulously documented descent through a gin bottle (“8.20pm. Well, at least Wyatt Roy won’t win anything tonight … 8.09pm The result is patchy and unclear. Like a skin disease. Leprosy, perhaps … 7.50pm. This gin is starting to kick in. I best have one of Jeff Kennett’s Kool Mints to sober up”).
After the result — a loss, but hardly a crushing disaster — the ALP is consoling itself with the suggestion that it lost simply because its time was up, nothing to be done, electorate moves on, etc, etc. That suits the political careerists within the state political arena, who can happily see governments with minimal power change hands every decade, leaving one free to concentrate on the real business, maintaining control of the party.
It suits also the party strategists who lost the thing, a group now near wholly composed of student-politics bots, who drank the Kool-Aid at 18 and never looked back, or forward, or saw anything coming.
It’s all ambergris of course. A decade is not that long, and Labor had ample opportunity to keep itself in sufficient shape to gain another term, had there been enough thoughtfulness and genuine commitment at the centre to make it so.
Modern Victoria is a Labor-oriented state, a place that sees itself as left-centre social democratic. The ALP has held it for 22 of the past 30 years, and they got it back two terms after driving it into the ditch. The Liberal Party only made itself electable by becoming the last small-l liberal outfit in the country. The air of petty reactionary ressentiment that came off Dennis Napthine and Robert Doyle never appealed.
Baillieu saw that a different style was required — however different the substance remains to be seen — and he was lucky that, as he moved into that space, Labor willingly vacated it. Brumby Labor became such a creature of corporate power over everyday life — construction companies, retail giants, transport privateers — that it appeared at times to be a regional autocrat, administering the state on behalf of distant imperial rulers.
Over the past five years, through VCAT, the Met, the roads and God knows what else have p-ssed off such a vast number of suburban and regional Victorians that one would almost suspect it was the main purpose of their existence, with actual building freeways, etc, a side-line. It was blundering, it was stupid, and it was increasingly pig-headed and self-destructive. Labor got so p-ssed off with so many of the socially involved middle middle classes that make up its majorities, that it seemed more interested in ramming it up ’em, than it did in rebuilding a winning coalition of voters and interests.
You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it. Once you did, it was unmistakable. I remember seeing Rob Hulls address a meeting of suburbanites concerned by VCATocracy about five years ago, in his trademark lets-step-outside-and-i’ll-gut-you style. They were a mix of Labor and Liberal types who had rocked up.
They weren’t when he left, having systematically enraged a whole room of people who were simply interested in due process and the lack of democratic fairness in planning. It was a pretty impressive anti-achievement, and it appeared to be the expression of belligerent personality — which came to colour the whole government — rather than any genuine political imperative.
The roots of that failure were in an earlier success, of sorts, when Labor remade itself after the Kirner government. Labor was not only discredited but broke as a party. The rebuilding of it, by turning it into a corporate booster party powered by money flowing through the Progressive Business for Labor ginger group, could be defended as a necessary evil; it also had the effect of consolidating the power of the ultra-Right within the party, evil of a wholly superfluous kind.
That reconstruction got them back into the position whereby they could take advantage of the madness of King Jeff, but it also locked them into pretty hard-core relationship with the construction industry first off, followed by whatever global transport corp was being paid to mismanage public transport and so on. Kennett had started to falter when he meddled with the Auditor-General’s office, and Labor should have remembered that Victorian voters care about this stuff — in NSW Rene Rivkin could turn up with a blonde’s head on a spear and become leader of the legislative council. In Victoria, touch the Auditor-General and you pierce our heart.
Yeah, there’s other stuff. The fairly squalid — but exaggerated — mayhem in central Melbourne and other Laura Norder stuff plays a part, but what’s remarkable is how small a role this plays in the Libs’ pitch, and how much of what’s in there is leftish social liberalism. Baillieu is offering Victorians a different relationship to the state, and that’s what they voted him in for.
Labor could have had that too. Its relationship to the construction industry didn’t have to be quite so slavish, its handling of public transport quite so lackadaisically incompetent. It could have combined its boosterism with an acknowledgement that people wanted a say in the way their lived environment is shaped, and get sick of being told that full-scale bulldozing is all that stands between the state and insolvency.
It could have had that — had it not identified such an approach with the Cain/Kirner era, something they hated more even than Jeff Kennett. Baillieu took a leaf from David Cameron’s book and saw that conservative parties can give themselves a post-Thatcherite gloss and gain whole new tranches of voters. They’ll be out in a term if they don’t live up to it to some degree. If they do forge a new social liberal politics, they could be with us for some time.
And Labor will never be back in the game until it finds a way to recombine these themes in a way that goes beyond the ancient feuding of ghost Lefts and Rights. I suspect that almost anyone but Rob Hulls would be better for that job. And I’m certain that Labor will spend a couple of years taking the fight to anyone but the government. As the twitterrage expressed, they could have kept this one, had they really wanted it, but they were already in another place. Ah well, pass the gin, give us a Kool Mint, and let’s suck it and see.