DISAFFECTED voters often say there is no difference between Labor and the conservative parties, that politics in Victoria and Australia is akin to a price war between supermarkets selling the same product.
But as Ted Baillieu prepares to bring down his second budget, stark differences are clear between Labor and the Coalition in style, approach and values.
This month's 30th anniversary of Labor premier John Cain's election is an opportunity to reflect on these distinctions. It is a reminder of Labor's long-standing reformist credentials and a time for the party to highlight progressive values it has held for more than 100 years.
John Cain's victory in 1982 delivered a wake-up call for Victorian institutions asleep after a quarter-century of easy prosperity, optimism and relative cultural certainty under conservative rule.
He set about building on the work of another great progressive Labor premier, his father John Cain snr, who in the 1940s and 1950s reformed workers compensation, long-service leave, adult education and conservation.
John Cain jnr and his successor, Joan Kirner, delivered a modern progressive agenda that reflected Labor values of social justice, a fair go and investing in the future.
There are mixed views on the economic performance of John Cain's administration, but his credentials as a reformer are unchallenged.
He introduced ground-breaking freedom-of-information legislation to strengthen government accountability. Occupational health and safety legislation meant Victorians could go to work knowing their right to a safe workplace was enshrined in law. World-first anti-tobacco legislation and establishing VicHealth put preventive health programs on the public agenda.
His modernisation of the economy kick-started an infrastructure boom that transformed Melbourne, while new environmental laws, liquor licensing reforms and investments in our cultural and sporting institutions transformed the Victorian way of life.
The oldest parts of the MCG are the lights that John Cain built in 1988, while the rest of the MCG, the Tennis Centre and many other icons have been built in stages by successive Labor governments.
It is a measure of his success that these reforms and facilities are now part of everyday life in Victoria. They are so ingrained in the fabric of our social, economic and political life that we only notice them when they are under threat - as they are today.
Having won office pledging to improve public transport, health and accountability, the Baillieu government has reverted to the conservative political norms of cutting services, sacking public servants, reducing funding for community groups and providing open slather for developers.
A high Australian dollar, international uncertainty and the multispeed national economy are combining to make these challenging economic times. In recent months, companies have sacked thousands of Victorian workers. Labor believes government should protect jobs and take on responsibility to insulate Victoria from the worst effects of global financial uncertainty; the Baillieu government has taken a ''hands off'' approach.
It has abandoned the Bracks Labor initiative to support local content in procurement, and the national productivity reforms that John Brumby pushed through the Council of Australian Governments.
It has earned Ted Baillieu a reputation as a ''do nothing'' Premier. But what some might call laziness is also the long-held conservative belief that governments have no legitimate role in securing investment.
Labor has always sought to ensure the dividends from economic growth are reinvested in targeted programs and services to build a fairer community. Conservatives don't share this goal.
Even before next week's threatened tough budget, the Baillieu government has made $2.2 billion in cutbacks to services including health and education that unfairly target the disadvantaged who depend on government services most.
When Ted Baillieu became Premier, he promised a ''stronger, fairer and safer'' Victoria. Seventeen months later, people are beginning to realise the government they voted for is very different from the one they have now.
The Premier portrays himself as a moderate, a progressive even. But his record is not in keeping with the boast. Winding back the Equal Opportunity Act to make it easier to discriminate against Victorians is not the act of a moderate. Reintroducing cattle to the Alpine National Park is not the act of a progressive among conservatives.
It is easy to claim to be a progressive. Ted Baillieu is finding out it is a lot harder to deliver a consistent progressive agenda, especially when times get tough.
Next week's budget will test what remains of the Premier's ''progressive'' credentials. His choice is clear. He can take a long-term view and fund improved services, deliver new jobs, protect the environment and provide a plan for the future. Or he can continue to take Victoria backwards.
The point is this: don't buy the line that Victoria's major parties are the same. There are real and powerful differences.
Daniel Andrews is leader of the state opposition.
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