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Victorians look set to elect unlikely premier no. 3

Comfortably ahead in the polls, Labor’s Daniel Andrews leads Coalition leader Denis Napthine into their pre-election debate. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Anyone in search of a prime example of the dictum that a functioning democracy is nothing short of a minor miracle need look no further than the state of Victoria. In the past 15 years, what has been the nation’s most vibrant state in the 21st century has twice elected unlikely – some would say accidental – governments.

In 1999, the Labor Party, under Steve Bracks, fell over the line with a bare majority of the preferred vote and managed to form a minority government with the support of three independents. Seeing off the Kennett government was one of the great upset wins in Australian politics.

Labor was not prepared for victory. It looked to the Carr government in NSW for guidance, organising a series of workshops for its new ministers on how to do their jobs. Bracks regularly consulted Carr on how to be a premier. And it worked. The government found its feet quickly and voters took to it.

In 2002, Bracks called an early election and secured the biggest vote any party had won in the postwar period.

By 2010, Bracks had handed the reins to John Brumby, who, despite being considerably less popular than his predecessor, was still expected to win another term. But he didn’t: the Liberal-National coalition led by Ted Baillieu got up – just. For the second time in just 11 years, Victorians elected a new government without any great enthusiasm.

Again, a government that was not fully prepared took charge. Unfortunately for the state and the Coalition, the Bracks experience was not repeated. Victorians never really got comfortable with the diffident, reserved Baillieu as premier. His government behaved like it was stuck in traffic and by March last year he was replaced by a more conventional political animal in Denis Napthine.

The polls suggested that voters liked Napthine’s energetic style for a while – before again turning against the Coalition.

It appears that the sense of political ennui in the state has hit a new high in 2014. If the latest polls are to be believed, Labor will win this weekend with a small but workable majority. There would be no massive endorsement of a new administration if these figures are right.

Or there could be a repeat of the 2010 campaign. Party tracking surveys started to show a decisive proportion of undecided voters started to move towards the Coalition from the Wednesday before polling day.

In other words, those voters had done their best to switch off from the election until the final moments. Knowing that they would have to vote on the coming Saturday, they took a look and opted for something new.

Coalition losing with a little help from federal friends

At this point, such a last-minute shift looks like being the only thing that can save the Napthine government. This time, it would be driven by the notion that the Coalition deserves a second chance. But it would likely be a government hanging on rather than securing a big tick. Then again, a win is a win.

Complicating all of this is the presence of the Abbott government. Most Victorians chose not to elect the Coalition at last year’s federal election; Victoria was the only mainland state to stick with Labor.

The breakdowns of all public polls show that the antipathy towards the federal government and Tony Abbott has festered away for the past year. The hostility was turbo-boosted by the federal budget and, almost certainly, recent moves like the decision to cut the ABC’s budget and try to get away with calling it a saving. It’s a clear betrayal of a pre-election undertaking by Abbott.

Despite Abbott’s redoubled effort this year to spend more time in Melbourne, he remains an unpopular figure in Victoria. Party strategists report that their qualitative surveys of voter sentiment reveal highly negative attitudes to Abbott. That’s why one of Labor’s most prominent ads morphs Napthine’s face on to Abbott’s.

What else could Napthine have done?

If the Napthine government does fall, some Liberals might ponder the road not taken. That road would have seen Napthine running against Abbott as much as he was running against Andrews and the Labor Party.

Denis Napthine has often been unhappy with his federal colleagues and could have taken this approach in his campaign.

Napthine is unhappy with Victoria’s take from the nation’s GST receipts. He speaks of it from time to time without issuing a rallying call.

And one of the reasons he has had to so heavily promote the East West Link road tunnel project in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs as his chief infrastructure project is because Abbott refuses to stump up any money for urban rail.

The other major project on Victoria’s infrastructure books was what used to be called the Melbourne Metro rail project. This new underground network would connect the southern suburbs to the CBD and the inner north, including the Parkville knowledge precinct. The Liberals committed to it in 2010 but earlier this year, in light of Abbott withdrawing the funding promised by federal Labor, Napthine scaled down the project, gave it a new name and pushed it well into the next decade.

Melbourne needs that project built, preferably in its original form and sooner rather than later. What might have happened if Napthine had dug in and railed against Abbott, calling for him to fund all good infrastructure projects, including urban rail, and not just roads?

Napthine’s acquiescence and the fact that Labor under Andrews continues to feel its way towards the election after only four years out of power has led to one of the least combustible campaigns in recent memory.

The shrinking of state politics

State politics is suffering from the centralisation of power and revenue-raising in Canberra as well as the stripping back of resources in heritage media organisations, which reduces their coverage unless there is a scandal.

At the same time, civic engagement – as measured by party membership – has fallen as Australians lead busier lives and the major parties have become less responsive to their members.

The result is that state politics, even at election time, struggles to get the attention of the community. Certainly the last couple of elections in Victoria suggest that the contest cannot get pulses racing in the way that it did in the ‘80s and '90s under John Cain and Jeff Kennett.

The consequence of this is two-fold. First, the parties give the impression of outlining a vision for the state but in fact are mostly gathering up small, targeted, poll-tested policy announcements and tying them together into “blueprints” on jobs or transport or schools. No leader bothers to talk about anything beyond the specific; that could be dangerous, a sign of getting ahead of oneself. That’s perceived as risky.

ALP advertising is introducing Daniel Andrews, the person, almost four years after he became leader.

Second, the focus on the party leaders becomes ever more intense. In the final stages of this campaign, it appears that the ALP has succeeded in selling Daniel Andrews as a young-ish, smiling, family man. Labor left it until virtually the eve of the campaign – almost four years after he took the leader’s mantle – to put effort into getting voters to notice him.

In the past month, Andrews has lost some weight, got a better haircut and ditched his frumpy, hunched suit-clad appearance for designer jeans, an open-neck shirt and a trim jacket. And his hitherto unseen young wife has been by his side throughout the campaign.

In previous years this might have jarred with a large proportion of voters, looking last-minute and tricked-up. Less so now. The truth is, few bothered to notice Andrews until they had to, which is now, when they know they have to vote. It seems to be perceived as not so much a makeover as a reboot.

Or perhaps voters don’t care much either way. Whether this voter nonchalance is a sign of the success or the failure of the state’s political system might become clearer after Victorians have issued their verdict.

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