Baillieu will face lengthening odds if he ignores the numbers game
IT'S official. Ted Baillieu has the mid-term blues.
Two years after winning office, the Coalition trails Labor in the polls; Baillieu's approval rating has fallen for the sixth consecutive time; and the government has an image problem it can't seem to shake.
First-term governments usually have a phase when they consolidate their support, capitalising on a reservoir of voters' goodwill. Judging by the latest Newspoll, Baillieu's reservoir is starting to dry up.
While conservative governments lead Labor in New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland, Victoria bucks the trend. For the first time since the 2010 election, Labor (led by a largely unknown Daniel Andrews) holds a commanding lead against the Coalition, with 55 per cent of the vote compared with 45 per cent after the distribution of preferences.
More telling, though, is Baillieu's personal rating, which shows a longer-term decline.
Victoria's past three premiers - Jeff Kennett, Steve Bracks and John Brumby - all increased their approval ratings within their first 18 months in office. Baillieu's satisfaction rating has continued to plummet, from 52 per cent in September-October last year, to 31 per cent.
Publicly, the Premier insists he doesn't care much for the numbers, let alone the leadership questions that follow. ''I'm not playing that game,'' he replied when asked about his political fortunes last week. Privately, though, Liberal hardheads are worried - and with good reason.
Instead of commanding the agenda, the government has spent months struggling to explain a growing list of broken promises (teacher pay, job losses), delayed policies (anti-corruption commission) and questionable priorities (TAFE cuts).
There have also been a string of self-inflicted hits, from the undermining of former police chief Simon Overland by Deputy Premier Peter Ryan's police adviser, to the car rorting of Frankston backbencher Geoff Shaw.
And even when there's something positive to say, the government has somehow managed to score an own goal: last month's apology in relation to past adoption practices was overshadowed by the so-called ''wankergate'' scandal involving Shaw's gestures in Parliament.
The government blames its woes on the financial position inherited from Labor, and the financial shackles it faced after coming to office, such as GST revenue losses, a slowing property market and flat jobs growth.
But other factors can't be overlooked.
The first is cabinet. Not enough ministers are on the front foot delivering a convincing message to an increasingly sceptical public. Planning Minister Matthew Guy is an energetic standout, Attorney-General Robert Clark has been an effective law reformer, and frontbenchers Mary Wooldridge, Michael O'Brien and Peter Walsh have been impressive.
But the profile of Treasurer Kim Wells has been so low it has reportedly sparked internal pressure for a mid-term reshuffle to boost Baillieu's economic credentials ahead of the 2014 election. Teaching Profession Minister Peter Hall was well-liked by the education sector, but faced a backlash after threatening to quit over his own TAFE cuts - only to fall back into line when his concerns were publicised. Even Deputy Premier Ryan, once a heavy hitter for the government, was damaged by the Overland scandal and hasn't been in the spotlight as much since.
The second problem is the Coalition's communications strategy. Baillieu now has 20 spin doctors in his media unit, yet the government's approach is often reactive, rather than proactive. Responses to questions can take hours - sometimes even days - before they emerge. And opportunities for MPs to spruik their achievements are often missed.
As one frustrated MP put it last week: ''It's not that we're doing nothing, we're just bad at telling you what we're doing.''
Which leads to the third issue: Baillieu's trademark ''no-frills'' style. Kennett, Bracks and Brumby never missed a chance to explain what they were up to and why.
Baillieu treads softly: no flashy announcements, no big moves. But with this comes a tendency to avoid scrutiny and risk, or as some senior Liberals describe it: the ''bunker-down'' mentality. Doorstops aren't held as often as they should be and, when they are, answers to questions are often shut down with classic ''Baillieu-isms'': ''I reject the premise of your question''; ''I'm not going to pre-empt that''; or ''It's a matter for him/her/them''.
Every leader needs a good story to tell, a compelling narrative about what they stand for. Brumby had the notion of a ''fairer Victoria''. Beyond the administration of public services, Baillieu's story is much less clear.
Not that the Premier seems worried. ''I'm comfortable with where I'm at,'' he told The Sunday Age recently, during a quiet moment in his parliamentary office. ''We've known from the start that we have to stay ahead of the pack, and that's exactly what we're endeavouring to do. None of it happens overnight.''
Still, with the government losing ground only two years into its term, it might be time to turn it up a notch.
■ Farrah Tomazin is state politics editor. Twitter: @farrahtomazin