Federal Politics

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Brumby's sleepless nights

Attacked from left and right, being frontrunner is no bed of roses for the Premier.

So, how goes the state election campaign? Well, it hasn't even officially begun yet (the starter's gun is fired with the issuing of the writs on, believe it or not, Melbourne Cup Day), but there are a few worrying signs for the frontrunner.

For a start, John Brumby and some of his most senior ministers are making the sorts of misjudgments that might not matter most of the time but get magnified when an election is looming.

''I know, but you don't need to know,'' Brumby said at a press conference two weeks ago when pressed by reporters on how many taxpayer dollars the government was using to buy rather than rent Melbourne's small fleet of ''bumblebee'' trams. This from a premier who has long battled to overcome a perception that he is an arrogant leader of a government that has not lived up to its promises to be open, transparent and accountable.

''You live here - if it's so bad, why don't you, you know, rack off,'' Education Minister Bronwyn Pike said on Monday, apparently repeating what she had told some Greens who don't like high-density living in inner Melbourne. She didn't mean it to be a public comment, but it was said in the presence of TV cameras and microphones. Pike is experienced enough that she should have known better.

That Justin Madden has transformed from an asset into a liability for Labor has been underscored by his inelegant efforts to dodge a pre-election debate with his Liberal shadow, Matthew Guy, on the hot-button issue of planning. Madden, like Brumby and Pike an 11-year cabinet veteran, has now agreed to a debate (on radio, not on TV), but his early reluctance to front was telling.


There are other straws in the wind.

The issue of extended clearway times on major roads through suburban shopping strips has become a perhaps unlikely catalyst for an anti-Brumby movement that threatens to spiral out of control for Labor. The anti-clearway brigade - some but by no means all of them card-carrying members of the Liberal Party - are gathering up other grass-roots groups with a gripe against the government and organising what they hope will be a mass rally on the steps of Parliament just two weeks before the November 27 poll.

''Make Brumby History'' they are calling it, and their website's call to arms is a reminder of the number of issues on which Labor may be vulnerable. ''Don't like myki, desal, the Windsor Hotel planning sham, native forest logging, puppy farms, clearways, high-rise towers, the north-south pipeline, street violence, duck shooters, Hazelwood, public transport that doesn't work, government spying on individuals, taking water from the country, government advertising and spin, Victorian College of the Arts funding cuts?'' it asks, before urging readers to ''join the cause''. Exactly how many people this grab-bag of disaffected groups attracts to Spring Street on November 14 will be telling.

The election remains Labor's to lose. The government has a thumping majority - 55 of the lower house's 88 seats, compared to the Coalition's 32 - and the opposition would need to attract a landslide swing of about 6.5 per cent to snatch victory in its own right.

Yet Labor is worried. Brumby is not kidding when he says he expects the election to be close. In fact, Labor strategists are concerned that too many people think the government is a shoo-in, creating a climate in which ''soft'' ALP supporters might think it's safe to lodge a protest vote.

Calculations by Labor number-crunchers suggest that if as few as 8913 people across the ALP's 11 most marginal seats who voted Labor at the last state election change their mind this time, the Brumby government's majority could indeed be history. To put that figure into context, Labor calculates that 9961 former ALP voters changed their minds within the seat of Melbourne in the August federal election.

The extent of state Labor's concerns about the rise of the Greens in inner Melbourne is betrayed by Brumby's very public campaign to try to get the Liberals to direct their preferences to the ALP ahead of the minor party. It's an audacious call: Labor wants the Liberals to fix its problem with the Greens.

And Brumby has another problem: his political ally Julia Gillard is sending very different signals about how voters should regard the Greens. The Prime Minister famously signed an accord with the Greens after the federal election, and now meets regularly with the leader, Bob Brown, and member for Melbourne Adam Bandt to discuss the federal government's policy agenda.

Yet Brumby and state Labor are arguing that the Greens have some ''wacky'' policies (to use Deputy Premier Rob Hulls's description) and pose such a threat to good governance and policy in Victoria that the Liberals should in effect strike a preferences deal with Labor to lock the Greens out of the state's lower house.

Trouble is, Labor is not prepared to do what it is demanding the Liberals do, and rule out preferencing the Greens. Nor will Brumby rule out striking a Gillard-style alliance with the Greens after the election in the event of a hung state parliament.

The Liberals may end up preferencing the Greens last, or they may do what they normally do and put Labor last. They are unlikely to make any such decision until the final days of the campaign. In the meantime, they will enjoy watching the Premier try to fend off the Greens on his left flank and the Coalition on his right.

Sometimes, being the frontrunner is uncomfortable.

Paul Austin is Age state political editor.


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