Federal Politics

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A slow dance of one step forward, half a step back

Two years out, a long road ahead, and this state needs much more done.

THE Baillieu government has accumulated more political liabilities than might normally be expected at the halfway point of a first term.

There have been difficulties implementing some of its key policy promises, most notably the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission. It faces unresolved questions about an internal plot to overthrow the former police commissioner, Simon Overland. It has struggled to explain broken promises, including one to make teachers the highest paid in the nation. And then there is the Geoff Shaw saga - including a finding by the Ombudsman that the Frankston MP misused his parliamentary vehicle entitlement - which continues to raise existential questions; the Coalition, it should be noted, retains a tenuous one-seat grip on Parliament.

Then there are criticisms from the business community about the need for a forward agenda, and claims that the government has failed to adjust to changing circumstances. Financial challenges, including declines in state and federal revenues, have limited the scope for new spending, particularly when the government vows to maintain a budget surplus and retire debt. All the while, the government continues to face questions about how it will find funds for the infrastructure that is much needed to tackle transport congestion.

In broad terms, the Coalition has been slow to adjust to being in power. The patchy performance of Mr Baillieu's frontbench hasn't helped. Strong performers include Attorney-General Robert Clark, Energy Minister Michael O'Brien and Planning Minister Matthew Guy (notwithstanding some early problems).

Treasurer Kim Wells has done a solid job balancing the books, but he has failed as an economic salesman at a critical time for the state economy, and this has damaged the Coalition's credibility. Deputy Premier Peter Ryan is a strong orator. He has done a good job overhauling the state's emergency management system, but his credibility continues to be damaged by conflicting accounts about whether he had been made aware of the Overland plot.

After being elected on a platform to ''fix the problems and build the future'', the political challenges facing Baillieu personally, and his party more broadly, are formidable by any measure. Opinion polls suggest the Coalition would probably lose if an election were held today. But halfway through the cycle, it would be a mistake to read too much into this.


Generating momentum over the next two years will be difficult, but there are signs Mr Baillieu is awakening to the challenges. In the past two months, he has been busier than at any time over the past two years. There have been regular media appearances as well as a series of policy decisions, including a shake-up of the emergency management system, an overhaul of the system for funding fire services and a fresh round of spending cuts and revenue measures to keep the budget in surplus following more revenue downgrades.

That momentum, however, is not helped when the premier releases his half-term economic review on the Friday before Christmas week, nor does he demonstrate much respect for voters when he leaks details to a patsy media organisation.

The Labor opposition, on the other hand, has avoided the mistakes of the past. After Jeff Kennett's 1999 election loss, for example, the Liberal and National parties expended much of their energy railing against what they saw as the voters' mistake; the Coalition challenged the Bracks government's right to govern - a strategy that backfired in 2002 with a landslide win for Labor.

To the credit of Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews, the destructive infighting typical of first-term oppositions has been largely absent, although factional tensions are simmering. Yet, despite some notable policy offerings, including a plan for jobs and investment canvassing a range of options to revitalise the state economy, Labor is struggling to make much of an impression as an alternative government.

The task for Mr Andrews will be to rise above the challenges of managing his own party and to present himself as a credible alternative to a premier who is showing a clearer resolve.