Public servants, a dearth of press releases, and ministers and staffers not picking up their phones have all been blamed for the Napthine government’s shock election loss in Victoria last year.
A long-awaited Liberal Party review of the loss, which attracted 400 written submissions, was quietly released on the eve of Melbourne Cup Day, and the opposition, now led by former planning minister Matthew Guy, left it to Victorian party president Michael Kroger to welcome the “invaluable document”. It fingers both the campaign and the government that preceded it for the disastrous loss that kicked out the Liberal government after just one term, ushering in a new government under long-term opposition-leader-turned-premier Daniel Andrews.
The public service was “completely in charge” of the rudderless Ted Baillieu-led Victorian government, the review states, as after 11 years in opposition, the party was unprepared for governing. There was “no satisfactory transition … plan in place” when the Coalition won in 2010 and “little time had been put into the development of even flagship policies”, according to the highly critical report, which was chaired by former Victorian Liberal president and federal MP David Kemp.
The review points out that after its unexpected and narrow win in 2010, the Liberal government, initially under Ted Baillieu, spent much of its early period in government doing relatively little:
“Identification of suitable staff was only undertaken to a limited extent, and while some first class staff were hired, the staff appointment process was very prolonged, delaying decisions and causing resentment, which contributed to the government getting off to a slow start.”
This lack of planning and strategic direction from elected representatives is blamed for the public service gaining what the party sees as an outsized role in decision-making:
“From the early days of the government there was a heavy reliance on cabinet committees, and on submissions from the public service. One senior minister stated: ‘the bureaucracy was completely in charge of that first cabinet’. There were complaints that business went through cabinet committees that should have gone to cabinet.”
Denis Napthine took over the premiership from Baillieu in 2013, but the period he was in charge comes in for criticism too: the 2014 election campaign is accused of talking about specific infrastructure projects like the East-West Link instead of providing voters with an overall narrative of why they should vote Liberal.
The report demonstrates the suspicion many on the Coalition side of politics have for the bureaucracy. It notes in a couple of places that as voters, bureaucrats tend not to support the Coalition. In a discussion on whether Victoria is inherently a left-leaning state, it notes that, for all the factors working against conservatives:
“… there are also some demographic features of Victoria which should give heart to Liberals. For instance, Victoria’s share of public sector employees is 1.4% lower than the national average.”
The party — ironically often a booster of arguments for moving public servants out to regional centres — is even concerned about moving too many bureaucrats into traditionally conservative areas, worried such a move could create more Labor voters in Liberal seats, thus harming their long-term electability in places like Geelong:
“It was also pointed out to the review that the government’s policy of relocating certain aspects of government operations to regional cities (in particular locating the NDIS in Geelong) would have the effect of harming the party’s electoral prospects as public servants working in these areas would tend to be Labor voters.”
The media and the government’s (lack of) communication more generally also prompts much soul-searching in the review. The role of press releases and other stated, written-down policy announcements acts as a sort of metaphor a general unwillingness to engage with stakeholders. The review notes that while in opposition the Liberal Party put out far fewer press releases than Labor, and it says this continued right up to the end of the election campaign in 2014.
A failure to issue press releases during the campaign, the review notes, left the Liberal government “at the mercy of a reporter’s or news editor’s interpretation”.
“Printed media releases are essential to informing the public of the party’s positions. Most media don’t attend doorstops and press conferences — for example, local and country newspapers, throwaways, and most radio stations. Media releases, transcripts of doorstops and press conferences, and speeches should be posted on the website.”
In 2014, it took until the last week of the campaign for “substantive policy documents” to be placed on the party websites, though by then it was too late, and anyway, the review states, “it became clear during the Review that not all ministers were aware of this.”
“One of these was a 70 page Health Policy, but it was too late to attract much attention, and the Australian Medical Association told its members that neither party had released policies. A good environment story was never released.”
The government was also reluctant to brief journalists informally, with a desire to not be driven by the media cycle having morphed into a “general neglect of the importance of communications”:
“This was exacerbated by excessive centralization that impeded the capacity of Ministers to communicate and discouraged them from engaging proactively with the media. The Review has heard the comment that: ‘Mobile phones were switched off’.”
Speaking only to friendly outlets, a familiar theme on a federal level, was also criticised in the review.
“Sound relations with political print and other media journalists are an essential element in an effective communications strategy. The party’s experience in recent times provides a lesson that playing favourites and excessive favouring of some journalists and some outlets over others can be counter-productive. “
It’s not just the media the government was reluctant to interact with. Interest groups and lobbyists were also kept out in the cold, with ministers not returning calls or arranging meetings due to “uncertainty about their roles, fear of being politically ambushed, or for other reasons”.
When it came into power, the Baillieu government committed to reducing the number of ministerial staffers by 25%. But those who found work in the new, leaner regime weren’t well regarded. “Ministerial staff members were not popular in submissions to the review,” it bluntly stated. “Criticisms of lack of expertise and of professionalism abound. Lack of access to Ministers and unreturned phone calls are frequently sheeted home to staff.”
Lastly, the review is damning of the decision to preselect Geoff Shaw, the bag-pipe-playing member for Frankston who subsequently went rogue and was eventually kicked out of parliament, causing no end of headaches for a government reliant on his vote for a razor-thin majority. The issues around Shaw, the review notes, were a “major distraction” for the government, and “conveyed the message to voters that the government had lost control of the parliament”.
It notes that Geoff Shaw was selected by the party to a winnable seat, despite having no party background. After his election, the review notes the beliefs of some ministers that he could have been dealt with more effectively than occurred. “The approach of isolating him that was adopted proved counterproductive, and ultimately led to the breach that was so distracting for the government.”