The normally placid, even somnolent, world of Victorian politics was shaken on Monday when premier Ted Baillieu announced the departure of his long-time chief-of-staff Michael Kapel, who will take up the position of Victoria’s commissioner for the Americas based in San Francisco.
It’s fair to say that Kapel has been a controversial figure in the Baillieu government. He was central last year to the “Overland affair“, in which he met with disaffected deputy police commissioner Ken Jones. Although the investigation did not accuse Kapel of any wrongdoing, there was a widespread impression that he had acted unwisely.
He has also been in the job for five years — most of it the thankless slog of opposition — so it is entirely possible that his departure is a willing one. And even if he has been forced out, the Americas job is a pretty good consolation prize, albeit one for which his suitability is rather less than obvious.
The previous commissioner (whose name is oddly absent from the premier’s press release) was former Liberal MP Victor Perton, appointed by the Bracks government in a burst of bipartisanship. (Former Labor MP Andre Haermeyer was appointed to Frankfurt at the same time.) Although jobs such as this are commonly seen as sinecures, the gregarious Perton had the right qualities for a diplomatic position; Kapel, known as a backroom operator and one who makes enemies easily, seems less suited.
But the real attention is on Melbourne rather than San Francisco.
Kapel’s replacement is Tony Nutt, probably the Liberal Party’s most widely respected machine person. Originally from Western Australia, Nutt has been state director in NSW and Victoria, senior adviser in John Howard’s office for almost a decade, and most recently Baillieu’s head of the cabinet office.
Not being native to the state, Nutt has an almost unique ability to stand above the fray in the Victorian Liberal Party, and he probably deserves a lot of the credit for the lessening intensity of the party’s factional warfare in recent years. The fact that he could move so seamlessly from the organisation to the premier’s office, despite their antagonistic history, is testament to his skills.
But it is also symptomatic of the Liberal Party’s attitude to success.
As long as Baillieu was an opposition leader with only a rough chance of ever winning an election, his administrative committee could kick him around with impunity. Once he pulled off the unlikely victory, however, things all changed — senior figures whose views on Baillieu were unprintable just 18 months ago have quickly become boosters for him. His position is helped, of course, by the lack of any credible leadership alternatives.
While in opposition, Baillieu was often criticised for failing to put the factional perspective behind him. In government, however, that has been succeeded by a new line of attack: that his is a “do nothing” government, lazy, unprepared and directionless. This has been a particular theme of his old enemies, the Murdoch press.
To some extent this is a cross that all governments have to bear. The media want action, drama, excitement; planning and preparation are boring, while rapid decision making sells newspapers. But wise governments avoid rushing into things — the mistakes will be remembered long after the speed with which they were made has been forgotten.
It is also a conscious strategy on Baillieu’s part, one that served him well in opposition. He naturally plays a long game, preparing the ground carefully before making his move. It’s partly a matter of trying to keep his opponents guessing, but it’s also informed by the experience of his predecessor, Jeff Kennett, whose problems were seen to stem from trying to do too much too quickly.
The changing of the guard at the top, however, may be a sign that the premier feels it is time to shift gears. His poll results have been less than stellar — the last Victorian Newspoll in particular registered a sharp drop in support — and if significant achievements are to be in place by the time the 2014 election rolls around, now is the time to get started.