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.