View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Victorian blame game brings more nasty static for end of Abbott’s parliamentary year

Victoria changing to a Labor government has provided a headache for Prime Minister Tony Abbott. AAP/Lukas Coch

In his statement on Labor’s Victorian election win, Tony Abbott referred to just one policy issue: the East West Link, which was a central Liberal promise.

The Prime Minister declared he was “determined to do what I can to ensure this vital national infrastructure project proceeds to completion”.

Abbott had previously said the state election was a “referendum” on the project, and warned the A$3 billion federal funding committed to it wouldn’t be available for any transport alternative in the state.

Victorians have voted in Labor despite its commitment, repeated on Sunday, to scrap the plan.

So what is Abbott now intending to do? And why would he bother anyway, other than to highlight that he won’t countenance the new state government’s transport priorities? Unless he hopes to capitalise on whatever difficulties Premier-elect Daniel Andrews runs into in getting out of the contract.

The Liberals are fighting publicly over the federal contribution to Denis Napthine’s loss (on a two-party swing, according to ABC analyst Antony Green, of about 3.5% although there is no exact calculation at this stage) and the implications for the Abbott government.

Jeff Kennett was typically straight talking. “We hear the call for Australians to come aboard Team Australia but as far as the federal government has been concerned there has been no Team Liberal,” the former premier said. “There is no doubt their performance on a number of issues, particularly their handling of their budget has caused great concern throughout the electorate.”

Federal Liberals were trying to minimise or deny the extent to which Victorian voters had cast a reflection on the Abbott government. They say the state polls didn’t shift much in three years – which was going back well before Abbott became PM.

The truth lies in-between. Voters were unimpressed with the state government’s performance and disgusted with its chaotic parliament. But the federal budget, with its array of nasties (many of which haven’t even been passed because of the Senate) and the general style of the federal government played right into Labor’s hands.

Then there were the federal grenades that lobbed in the immediate run up to the election – including the decision to implement fuel excise indexation by regulation and last week’s shemozzle over the Medicare co-payment.

And how do those arguing there was no “anti-Abbott” element account for the fact that he was, as much as practical, kept out of the campaign, and made no appearance south of the Murray in the closing days, in contrast to Liberal deputy Julie Bishop who campaigned in two marginal seats on Friday?

Abbott and some around him are out of kilter with Victoria and probably always will be. He and Treasurer Joe Hockey are not just from NSW but are Sydney-centric. As is highlighted by some Liberals, there is no Victorian in the federal leadership group.

Kennett suggested the federal government has two standards when it comes to NSW and Victoria. Referring to the fuel indexation regulation he said: “Tony was putting tax on [Napthine] after tax on him. He wouldn’t have done it in NSW.”

Victorian voters don’t like the cut of Abbott’s jib and Abbott would see Victoria as a left-leaning state. Even in last year’s federal election, Labor narrowly carried the two-party vote.

But while Abbott was a deadweight in the state election, federal Liberals are able to argue the picture is not as black in the two states about to face elections in the first part of next year.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, appearing on Ten, pointed out that both the NSW and Queensland governments were ahead in polling. The “vast majority” of federal seats under 6% were in NSW or Queensland, he said. In other words, Victoria won’t matter as much as these states in the federal election.

But Abbott should not minimise his “Victorian problem”. Just as federal opposition leader Bill Shorten, publicly playing up the result, would be unwise privately to over-estimate the implications for him of Saturday’s Labor win – although it is important for Labor’s federal rebuilding effort.

The Victorian outcome is an object lesson in what can happen to a first term government that loses its way.

While federal Liberals are noting that the state government was behind for years, they must take account of the fact that in federal polling their trailing is becoming entrenched – although they would counter that it’s Victoria that drags them down.

A year ago Abbott might reasonably have hoped he would go into 2015 with all states in Liberal hands. Instead it is a four-two breakdown. South Australian Labor held on at its election earlier this year.

That will complicate significant issues on the national agenda including reforming federal-state relations and taxation. It’s hard to see the Labor states saying anything but no if Abbott wanted to urge changing the rate and base of the GST.

In the immediate term, the blame game will further disrupt the end of the federal parliamentary year.

This last week of parliament is unlikely to bring the government any joy. Its earlier hopes of a compromise being found that would see the higher education package through the Senate won’t be realised, on what crossbenchers are saying.

It remains hoist on the barbed wire fence with the co-payment, with no obvious way of getting it implemented but a big hole in the mid-year budget update if it admitted it was walking away from it.

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