When The Power Index sat down with Melbourne’s business, media and political elite to ask them how power works in the southern city, all shifted uneasily on the subject of Premier Ted Baillieu.
“We’re different people, I wouldn’t want to compare myself with Ted at all,” said Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, before moving quickly on to other topics. Media buying guru Harold Mitchell nominated Doyle as the city’s most powerful figure, commending the Premier only when prompted.
But the more common response was private resignation. Powerbrokers stayed polite while the tape was running but were far from respectful when they went off-the-record.
Take this on-the-record pronouncement, for example, from a leading business figure: “In any state, you start with the question of the premier. I think both Steve Bracks and John Brumby did a good job and obviously Ted’s clearly important and doing well.”
Off-the-record it was a different proposition: “He’s been slow. You need to decide what your agenda is and get on with it. He’s a decent bloke, he’s a good guy, but you’re judged ultimately by what you do.”
Has Baillieu in effect abdicated, leaving the state rudderless? Is there no appetite for a repeat of Jeff Kennett’s brutal asset sell-offs or John Brumby’s daily “announceables”?
Under normal conditions, the premier of Victoria should be the most powerful figure in Melbourne. He or she pulls significant levers that shape the city’s economy and culture, despite the influences of the global market and Canberra.
Despite repeated messages left for press secretaries and advisers, all of The Power Index’s requests for an interview with the Premier went unacknowledged. It’s been a hallmark of his government to treat the media with contempt — last month Baillieu announced 3600 public sector cuts but failed to front a doorstop for a week.
But others were less reticent. One senior Liberal powerbroker from an opposing faction said his party, and by extension the state, had become irreparably broken.
“He’s just not respected by many people, he’s not powerful in the business community, he doesn’t have lots of allies and friends. He doesn’t make any tough decisions … I mean what power is he exercising? Not much. You know he says things like people should drink responsibly and drive responsibly. They’re all soft, weak, nebulous issues and that’s why we’re not going anywhere.”
But why is this so?
“For the very obvious reason that Ted isn’t up to being premier of Victoria. He’s only up to being a junior minister. He’s never had a policy idea in his life,” claims the senior Liberal.
Baillieu bragged during the 2010 election campaign that he would bring his life experience as an architect — his first job out of uni — into the political realm. But a draughtsman’s doodling is a long way from Friedman and von Mises.
“He’s not an ideologue, he’s not really interested in public policy. He sort of just starts from a blank sheet of paper and says ‘well what do I do?’,” our source says.
Indeed, Baillieu never seems to have completely shed his patrician yoke, where bedrock wealth and summers at Portsea aren’t necessarily conducive to creating a sense of urgency.
Insiders tell of Cabinet proposals sitting in limbo for months before being signed off with hours to spare. They talk of the party losing $5 million from donors while Baillieu failed to bed down fundraising guidelines that should have taken a week. And a leader that promised “no secrecy, no spin” is now so paranoid that even the simplest of FoI requests take months to process.
Former federal Liberal Party bagman Ron Walker fervently defends the “frustrated” Baillieu, saying he is a victim of the state’s balance sheet blues inflicted by Labor. The hulking state assets that gave Kennett a license to spend don’t exist now.
“It’s easy to borrow money and get things done and be applauded by the community,” he explained, “but all that infrastructure that Kennett was paid for by selling assets and turning the states into an income powerhouse.”
Political experts with longer memories agree, but for slightly different reasons. Monash University politics professor Nick Economou says that Baillieu is delivering the kind of cautious government Victorians prefer when the state is humming along without industrial strife or an economic crisis.