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The election clock is ticking for Denis Napthine

Date

Farrah Tomazin

Illustration: Matt Davidson.

Illustration: Matt Davidson.

There's a tried and tested formula that comes with staring down consistently bad opinion polls.

Step one is to roll out the usual cliche - "there's only one poll that counts" – while embarking on a frenzy of positive announcements in a bid to reframe the debate.

Step two involves deflecting the blame, pointing to external factors – the media, political opponents, your predecessors – as underlying reasons you haven't had enough clear air to sell your agenda.

And step three (sometimes applied without the first two tactics) simply involves hoping for the best – unless your electoral prospects keep getting worse. In which case, start panicking.

With 90 days before the state election, Napthine government MPs have mastered the art in recent weeks, confronted by more opinion polls suggesting they could soon become the first Victorian administration since 1955 to be booted after only one term in office.

This month's Galaxy poll had the Coalition trailing Labor 48-52 per cent on two-party-preferred terms, while last week's Newspoll had an even wider gap of 45-55, with a Coalition primary vote at 35 per cent – 10 points down since than the last election.

Polls are fickle, but the inescapable fact is that the government has been behind in almost every set of data in the past few years – even changing leaders did little to reverse its fortunes. As one senior Liberal told The Sunday Age recently: "The big question now is whether we can turn the Titanic around before it hits the iceberg in November."

The good news for Denis Napthine is that history is on his side. In the months before the 2010 election, every published opinion poll had the Brumby Labor government on track to win another term against Ted Baillieu's opposition. Only on the eve of the campaign did the numbers reverse. In the end, Baillieu didn't just pick up an extra 13 seats, he won the election with a swing of 6 per cent - higher than the swing Jeff Kennett achieved after the Cain/Kirner years when Victoria's economy was on the ropes.

The bad news, though, is that time is running out, and Napthine faces several stumbling blocks between now and November 29.

The first relates to political strategy. In recent weeks, Labor has repeatedly outmanoeuvred the Coalition with populist announcements – legalising medical marijuana, cracking down on pupping farms, tackling the scourge of ice – which has left cabinet ministers looking flat-footed as they try to catch up.

Even Daniel Andrews' pledge on Wednesday to create an "ice taskforce" and tough new penalties for dealers was impeccably timed - Labor spin doctors heard a whisper the government was planning a major "drop" to several selected media outlets. Not surprisingly, they decided to get in first.

The second stumbling block is the Abbott government. Just as the toxicity during the Gillard/Rudd years became a drag on state Labor's brand, government insiders fear the public's animosity towards the Prime Minister and his team is starting to rub off more broadly in Victoria.

In the wake of federal budget cuts announced in May, Napthine has had little choice but to distance himself from Abbott when he can, make up for federal shortfalls where possible, and return the focus to his own budget, which was well received until Canberra sucked out much of the oxygen.

The third challenge comes down to the issues that matter most to voters – such as transport, health and jobs – and whether people are convinced by the government's pitch.

When ministers talk up the East West Link as the "congestion busting" solution to Melbourne's traffic woes, critics point to the lack of a public business case and the lack of a mandate as reasons to defer contracts and put the project to a vote.

When ministers spruik "record investment" in hospitals and health, critics point to ambulance response times, beds and waiting lists as signs of a system in crisis.

And when ministers trumpet Victoria's surplus and AAA credit rating as evidence of "a stronger economy," critics point to the alarming rate of job losses over the past few years.

Last week's figures showing youth unemployment had surged to 13.8 per cent was particularly troubling – not only because the jobless rate among 16 to 25-year-olds had hit a 15-year high – but also because the outlook had deteriorated in 12 out of 17 regions. Coupled with the Coalition's early cuts to TAFE (admittedly due to the unsustainable system Labor created) little wonder Brotherhood of St Laurence chief Tony Nicholson warns that Victoria is "hurtling towards a social disaster".

The government, however, begs to differ. Napthine argues the numbers are flawed, because they don't account for the majority of young people who are "quite rightly" in school, university or vocational education and training. Once this cohort is included, he says, "the unemployment ratio for young people is 4.2 per cent, which is well below the national average".

The premier also insists he has a plan for jobs, which partly relies on the government's $27 billion infrastructure agenda creating thousands of employment opportunities as projects, such as the East West Link and Melbourne Rail come into fruition. Maybe so, but if you're a young person who has spent month after month unsuccessfully applying for work, a major projects pipeline delivered over the next 10 years is hardly going to help you in the short term.

With three months before the election, the contest is far from over, and Napthine reckons he still has a pretty good story to tell. The problem is, unless he can outwit Labor, keep Abbott at arms' length, and recalibrate the debate on the big issues, the majority of voters may not be listening come November.

35 comments

  • Farrah - you said it yourself:
    "The problem is, unless [Napthine} can outwit Labor, keep Abbott at arms' length, and recalibrate the debate on the big issues, the majority of voters may not be listening come November."
    It is simply: Time to dump the LNP from the Victorian State government.
    They have clearly not delivered on what was promised.

    Commenter
    Jump
    Date and time
    August 31, 2014, 7:44AM
    • As opposed to what Labor did - they delivered a transport ticketing system that cost nearly $1.5 Billion many years late and it is already due to expire and has to get a new contract. They built a huge desal plant that has never had the switch flicked to deliver water for this state. They delivered a very fast train program that was a billion dollars over budget and improved time by mere minutes. Libs have been dismal but Labor is not the answer. The whole parliament needs a clean out with some fresh talent and new ideas.

      Commenter
      the_Truth
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 31, 2014, 9:57AM
    • Let us also not realise that the plan to tackle ice is smoke and mirrors. Making it an offence to traffick to students - there is already an offence to traffick to people under 18 which carries 20 years. All the laws in the world aren't the answer unless you employ another 1500 (at least) police to actually get out and enforce the laws. Labor - empty talk again and people without the capacity to think will fall for the BS again.

      Commenter
      the_Truth
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 31, 2014, 10:00AM
    • the_truth

      Sorry mate, political parties get voted out not in. Napthine is gone and deservedly so. EastWest link will be the Lib/Nat Desal.

      Commenter
      Jimmy
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 31, 2014, 2:31PM
    • The biggest problem for the Napthine government is the fact the unpopular Federal budget will still be around when the election is held. Usually a government brings in unpopular measures soon after being elected with the hope that they will be forgotten about by the time the next election is held but the unpopular budget is still causing trouble 6 months after its introduction. The way things are going it is likely that the budget will still be around at election time. Unless Hockey does some back flips Napthine will suffer from the Federal budget.

      Commenter
      peteozi
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      August 31, 2014, 3:37PM
    • Hi Jump I'm just looking for the article on the March!

      Commenter
      A country gal
      Date and time
      August 31, 2014, 4:18PM
  • "outwit Labor, keep Abbott at arms' length, and recalibrate the debate on the big issues"
    These three matters are nothing but clever and cynical moves - in other words, politics. What the people need is an intelligent, carefully considered strategy - in other words, leadership. I doubt that either major party has the necessary integrity and skill to provide the latter.

    Commenter
    barfiller
    Date and time
    August 31, 2014, 8:17AM
    • It is interesting that this article mentions no policy achievements of the Baillieu/Napthine government only the proposed unpopular and secretive East West link. This is probably because there hasn't been any in the last 4 years. This government were surprised to find themselves in power in 2010 and had very little idea about what they should do (Public safety officers on train stations being their signature policy ). Yes they promised great things in public transport (don't they all) but these plans were quickly shelved. In Education they made drastic cuts to TAFE, dismantled Labor program's in school education, reduced and decimated the regional support structures and muddled around for 4 years with the occasional glossy paper. In Health they have outsourced surgery to the private sector at great cost so that their abysmal statistics can look better and they have had a bitter and unresolved dispute with paramedics. In planning there has been the hint of scandal (Ventnor) and an unbridled powershift to property developers who are rapidly building the High Rise slums of the 21 st century. In energy/manufacturing policy they have virtually destroyed the burgeoning wind sector and they stood lamely by as Abbott destroyed the car industry. Culturally there is an internal battle raging between the religious right and the more progressive forces, Baillieu was a casualty of this war. The Shaw disaster has been a huge distraction but it has also drawn attention away from the fact they have been a lazy, ideological and vision less mob. They are representative of the right wing IPA ideology that has infected the coalition. They don't actually believe in government for the public good, only government to ensure private privilege.

      Commenter
      Graeme Henchel
      Location
      Dixons Creek
      Date and time
      August 31, 2014, 8:24AM
      • I don't think I've heard a more accurate summary of the last 4 years of this government anywhere, ever - well said.
        To add to this, I think small and ongoing issues, names the Paramedics Pay Dispute and the much maligned East West Link have snowballed over the years to become a real thorn in the side of this government. Not to mention the fact that the first 2 - 3 years of this government, there was very little planning and inaction on public transport with numerous "feasibility studies" conducted into significant election promises then promptly shelved. A blatant example of tokenism for PT only for the EWL to move at lightning speed towards construction and the poor Melbourne Metro Rail Tunnel disfigured beyond repair.
        A very, very average government in my opinion.

        Commenter
        Chris
        Location
        Ascot Vale
        Date and time
        August 31, 2014, 9:26AM
      • Nicely put, Graham. As to the East-West link, I'm bewildered as to why any government would ram something like this through without any supporting studies. All their studies have been kept secret, because obviously the costs outweigh the benefits. Napthine looks certain to bull-headedly sign the contracts for the first stage just one month before an election which will almost certainly oust him. And we'll be the ones left paying for it, both in taxes and in tolls What can you say about that kind of "leadership"?

        Commenter
        Luke
        Location
        Nunawading
        Date and time
        August 31, 2014, 3:11PM

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