Federal Politics

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Time for Wells to step out from the shadows

The Treasurer must raise his profile to convince voters.

KIM Wells was noticeably absent when the state government handed down its midyear financial report last month. Instead of fronting the press to explain the figures, as treasurers tend to do, Wells went missing in action while Ted Baillieu called a doorstop to take all the questions.

It's hard to imagine Treasury stalwarts such as John Brumby, Alan Stockdale or Peter Costello releasing their economic reports in the same way. Yet it wasn't the first time Wells has dodged the spotlight. Eighteen months into office, Victoria's Treasurer still rarely appears publicly and when he does he seems awkward or uncomfortable in front of the cameras.

Business figures privately say he's not as accessible as his Labor predecessors. Colleagues say he works hard but is more suburban accountant than fiscal visionary. And even after 20 years in politics (he entered under the Kennett government in 1992) most folks outside Spring Street circles still have no idea who he is.

This could become a problem as Victoria's economic challenges deepen. Baillieu insists the economy is his top priority. The trouble is, many people remain unconvinced the government has a sufficient plan to manage it.

As Treasurer, arguably the second most important gig in cabinet, it's Wells' job to prove otherwise. Having a public profile doesn't dictate how financially competent you are, but having almost no profile at all makes it a lot harder to stamp your authority and sell your message.

Wells, however, takes a different view. He argues being Treasurer is more about the work he does behind the scenes than public perceptions.


His closest Liberal allies agree. They talk of his ''hard lifting'' in government; his ''steady hand'' on six cabinet subcommittees; the countless hours he works going through every line item ahead of the May 1 budget.

''I could be out chasing photo opportunities but in the tough financial climate, it needs for me to be here, hands on, to make sure … we are driving the changes we need for a fair and responsible budget,'' Wells says.

''I get out as much as I possibly can and speak to as many people as I possibly can. But at the end of the day, I have a job to do being Treasurer, which means making sure that every taxpayer dollar that's being spent is done responsibly.''

It's a valid point but some argue budgets are as much about managing politics as they are about managing finances. You've got to explain how you'll achieve your objectives.

Labor's strategy was to develop a narrative and spruik the budget weeks ahead, with public events, selected leaks, and briefings to journalists, business and community groups about the budget's central themes.

This government takes a more hands-off approach. There are fewer briefings. It has even scrapped the formal practice of requesting pre-budget submissions from stakeholder groups. To be fair, it's a lot easier being Treasurer in the boom times than the bad.

Liberals often joke Brumby could attend the opening of an envelope and then boast about how much Labor spent on it.

Wells (pictured right) hasn't been quite as lucky in the face of ongoing challenges, from GST revenue cuts and underfunded projects inherited from his predecessors to international uncertainty and thousands of job losses on the back of a high Australian dollar.

Yet he insists these factors won't deter him from delivering a surplus of at least $100 million this year. He's also promised no tax increases, more infrastructure spending, ''further efficiencies and further savings'' and insists election commitments won't be scaled back or broken.

Mind you, the government has a tendency to muddle its own message when it comes to the economy, so Victorians have a right to be cynical.

In opposition, Baillieu and Wells attacked Labor for taking on new debt to build infrastructure. Yet their first budget increased spending and paid for promises by almost trebling debt from $8 billion in mid-2010 to $23 billion in mid-2015.

They also promised to keep cost-of-living pressures down and insisted there would be ''no change to the public service''. Since then, motorists have been slugged with higher fees, public transport fares have increased and 3600 public sector jobs will be axed to prop up the bottom line.

Wells is a likeable bloke and there's no doubt he's diligently crunching numbers behind closed doors. The trick is to start cutting through.

First, he has to help Baillieu convince voters the Coalition has credible policies to take the state forward. Among other things, this means rolling out projects from his long-awaited ''infrastructure pipeline'' to boost productivity and articulating a clearer strategy to grow jobs. So far, Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews and shadow treasurer Tim Holding have owned this space.

Second, he needs to engage more with business and industry. As Australian Industry Group director Tim Piper puts it: ''Business confidence is engendered by the way the government sells its economic program, so obviously we'd like to see the most senior ministers - and that includes the Treasurer - on the front foot.''

Third, he needs to raise his public profile, not only in boardrooms at the top end of town but to the average voter. After all, elections are often won or lost on economic management. And in case you haven't been counting, the next state election is only 2½ years away.