The resignation of Ted Baillieu as Leader of the Liberal Party brought an end to his premiership just two years after guiding the Coalition to a narrow victory in 2010.
Baillieu, an architect by trade, had a lengthy history with the Liberal Party before entering parliament in 1999. Most notably, he was the Victorian Liberal Party President during the years of the Kennett Coalition government.
He began his parliamentary career when he was preselected for the safe Liberal seat of Hawthorn in 1999.
Baillieu’s rise to the premiership began when he replaced Robert Doyle to be leader of the Liberal Party in 2006.
While Baillieu led his party to defeat in the election held in November of that year, it appeared that his job was relatively safe as the Party did not appear to have a candidate that would replace him.
After grinding through another four years in opposition, Baillieu led the Coalition to a shock election victory in 2010 when it ousted the Brumby-led Labor government, winning 45 seats to Labor’s 43.
The political problems Mr Baillieu grappled with during his two years as premier have their roots in the unexpected victory of 2010.
Holding a majority of just one seat always meant that his government would be one seat away from crisis. The decision of the Frankston MP, Geoff Shaw, to resign from the party over as yet unspecified disagreements with Baillieu’s leadership precipitated the premier’s downfall.
Baillieu was also grappling with secret police phone recordings a story broken by the Herald Sun, which appeared to undermine his authority and power within the government. Bubbling issues concerning healthcare, law and order and the pay and conditions of the state’s teachers were also beginning to take their toll on his government’s popularity.
As recently as the start of this week, Newspoll showed that the opposition was holding onto a significant lead in two-party preferred terms.
Victoria’s new premier
The incoming Premier, Dennis Napthine, is also a long-serving MP. First elected to parliament in 1988, Napthine currently represents the seat of South-West Coast and was Minister for Ports, Regional Cities, Racing and Major Projects in the Baillieu Cabinet. He was also a minister in the Kennett government.
Napthine first became leader of the Liberal Party in opposition following the Kennett government’s loss in 1999. Opinion polls, however, showed Napthine was failing to gain the support of voters and the party replaced him in 2002 with Robert Doyle. After being unceremoniously dumped by his party over ten years ago, Napthine’s rise to the highest public office in Victoria suggests that persistence pays in politics.
While the change of leadership serves as a circuit breaker for the government, it also raises many new challenges for the Liberal Party and the Coalition government.
In the first instance, Napthine will have to work to garner the support of the disaffected Geoff Shaw. Getting Shaw’s undertaking to support the government’s budget and fend off no-confidence motions would be an ideal start for the incoming premier. If he is unable to do so, then the government may yet fall.
What of generational change?
Another challenge for the Liberal Party concerns its next generation of leadership hopefuls. Matthew Guy, the state’s planning minister and former chief-of-staff to Napthine, has been touted as a future leader. Guy, however, is in the upper house.
While there is no constitutional rule that would forbid Guy from becoming premier, it is traditional for leaders of the government in Westminster systems to hail from the lower house of parliament. Indeed, in 1968 John Gorton became the only prime minister in Australian history to come from the upper house. Within a few weeks, he contested a by-election for a lower house seat which he subsequently won.
Guy’s failure to take over immediately from Baillieu can partly be attributed to the fact that he is currently in the Legislative Council.
While other potential leaders exist within the parliamentary wing of the party, the decision to install Napthine suggests the party placed its faith in the “old-guard” rather than take a chance on its new generation.
Baillieu was seen as an unconventional politician and his exit from office came swiftly. He leaves the government in the same situation with which it started; holding a slim majority that can be undone by the decision or action of a single MP.