28 June 2010
Elections are nasty things. We spend so much time waiting for them, talking about them, thinking about them, that we often forget the point of them.
Victorians will be faced with a serious choice at the November election, which is now five months away. For the first time in about 10 years, a credible opposition is out selling its opinions, and actually making gains in the opinion polls. As a side note, next time you hear a politician stamp their feet and tell you they don't pay attention to opinion polls, please remember you now have two famous words at your disposal - "Kevin" and "Rudd". I have no doubt politicians keep a close eye on the opinion polls, the way TV execs watch the daily ratings figures. It's only a matter of time until the electorate, like the advertisers, demand immediate ratings for the past day's performance. But let's quietly hope that never happens.
John Brumby is a good man. But he is also under a lot of pressure. His cabinet has not had a stunning four years, and are showing all the obvious signs of a tired government - or to use a phrase that's become chic over the past week - "a good government showing signs that it's going bad". I can only imagine the shudder running through every Labor leader in this country since Wednesday night.
John Brumby has a plan for Victoria, as much as a state premier can have a plan. It's decisions outside of Brumby's power that he has to deal with. Population growth, hospitals, GST funding, and the list goes on. Over the past three years he has risen above the other state Premiers to become the most senior and most respected in Canberra.
The trouble is, he's stuck with some under-performers, and his government is beginning to earn a reputation that saw Jeff Kennett's legacy reduced to a shed.
The sight of Brumby's managers pushing an elderly woman aside when all she wanted was to talk to the Premier about regional ambulance services was disgusting, and a terrible headline on a day when he was announcing his regional blueprint.
The government's recent water announcements, particularly for Ballarat, look like pork-barreling to shore-up support in the regions. It will probably work. Support there in the regions is always unstable, and a constant reminder that life isn't all about the traffic flow on the Monash freeway.
But the government's biggest problems are not the issues, but people's memory, and the growing "vibe" that this government is tricky. The Auditor-General's report into how contracts are put to tender bring back memories from 1997, when Jeff Kennett was accused of running a secret state. John Brumby is nowhere near that league ($3b compared to about $40b), but the principal is the same.
Politics is all about momentum, and the momentum is growing against this government. Should it be worried? Of course, every government should be worried. Should it panic? Not if they want to be re-elected. While the polls have been heading south for our Premier, you wouldn't know it. He has stayed true to his personality. We haven't seen the same sort of uncharacteristic panic we saw from John Howard leading up to his defeat. The Brumby government may be involved in a "get tough on crime" game with the opposition, but at least it's admitting it got it wrong.
So what are the main issues for Victorians? Sounds more like a question for you than for me. So speaking as a member of the electorate, and not as a reporter, I would say law and order, transport and health.
Health is getting a bad reputation, due to ambulance delays and long waiting lists. But I'll pose a question: When was the last time that the hospital system was perfect? And where in the western world is the health system fast, efficient and free? Remember, it's the Victorian model that the Federal government wants to implement across the country.
So let's talk law and order. I believe sentencing is an issue. I believe the number of appeals that are granted by the Court of Appeal because of small technicalities reflects the community's concern that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of protecting criminals against harsh sentences. It's not always the case, but there are a lot of people wondering why judges aren't penalised for making mistakes during trials, in the same way you or I would be for making mistakes. That's more of a big picture issue that won't be touched during this campaign. Alas, on this topic, I could write all day.
And finally, transport. When the Lord Mayor of your capital city comes out and says he wouldn't be surprised if the government axed Myki, you know it's bad. When Martin Pakula's only way of getting Myki to work is by penalising inner-city workers who use City Saver tickets, you know the government has made a big mistake. Last Friday I wanted to catch the tram from Port Melbourne to the city for dinner, then catch the tram home later that night. Because it was 5.30pm, I had to buy an all-day ticket, for what was essentially 5km of travel each way. It's cheaper and easier to drive and park the car. I once put this point to Lynne Kosky and her answer was "you're a fit young man, why didn't you walk". I thanked her for the compliment, but suggested she run that slogan at the election. Not surprisingly, she resigned the next week.
Governments can't think like that. People have all sorts of reasons why the health system, the transport system, and the legal system doesn't work for them. And people have complicated ways of deciding who to vote for. Sometimes it's because they like the look of a person, some people refuse to vote for a certain party because of what happened years in the past. I once voted for a particular party because I had a friend who worked for them, and was scared she'd lose her job.
All the government can do is line all their cards in a row and hope the public prefers them over the other mob. Unfortunately, it's never that easy.
Politics, it seems, is a nasty game.
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