Victoria is a state that has been and continues to be further to the Left of the political spectrum than other Australian states. This is largely attributable to (a) Victoria’s historically industrial/manufacturing economy and (b) heavy urbanisation, contributing to an inner-city little ‘l’ liberalism. The duality of industrial and progressive elements are stronger here than in any other Australian state. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that polls project a Labor win in this Saturday’s election. While the Napthine government has been attempting to distance itself from the Federal Abbott Government, there can be no doubt that the Coalition’s unpopular policies of the last year are leaving a residual bitterness in swinging voting blocs against neoconservatives.
As political parties slam one another with negative television adverts, one cannot help but think that both major parties are attempting to capitalise on fertile centre-left ground. This causes certain problems for Labor and the Coalition, not least since far-right and far-left parties are eating into the edges of the political spectrum. In this article I will outline my understanding of State politics, and how each of the three biggest parties are deserving or undeserving of election. Let’s first have a look at the political Right.
Napthine deserves to be booted. This isn’t necessarily my personal endorsement of Labor or the Greens, but rather a condemnation of terrible governance practices by the state LNP. The obvious bogeyman of the Coalition is the East-West Link. While the project itself attracts heavy popularity in the polls (roughly 60% of Victorian voters support the development), the methods by which it has been approved and tendered shriek corruption. Firstly, the economic case for the project has not been released. If the Coalition were certain the project was economically viable, it would not make sense to keep hidden a report affirming its usefulness. The only conceivable reason to keep the report hidden is to hide its findings – which have more or less been found by other independent studies, including a panel of urban planning academics from multiple universities – to condemn the project in purely economic terms. The return on investment is minute: less than half of the return expected on Labor’s proposed metro upgrade. The only real stakeholder proponents of the East/West link are those businesses which stand to gain from the road, and the Coalition.
In the months leading up to the election, Napthine re-negotiated the contract with construction firms to include a kill-clause, effectively paying these companies $500m if the road isn’t built. This is controversial because Napthine willingly exposed Victorian taxpayers to this fine for virtually no other reason than to spite a victorious Labor government and those who voted for them. State Labor overtures of “blackmailing” voters into re-electing Napthine were underdone. If nothing else, this act demonstrated a political temerity and contempt for Victoria by the Napthine government bordering on clinical psychosis. It proves that the Coalition cares only for power – not for wellbeing of Victorians.
To add insult to injury, those companies winning the tender for the project had been whining and dining the bureaucrats in charge of the project. The Planning Minister Matthew Guy ignored prior planning principles to slice portions of Royal Park that weren’t necessarily for the toll-roads construction. And despite public funding expected to exceed $18 billion for the project, the East-West Link will be a toll-road, administered and run by a private entity for financial gain. Why public funds should be spent to benefit predominantly international companies is confounding, to say the least.
The other problem with the East West link is that it destroys public and private land for the sake of a toll-road. Royal Park will be but a shadow of itself following the project. Alexandra Parade will lose up to two lanes (public) which will now become on and off-ramps for the toll-road. This means that the Coalition is addressing traffic congestion by incentivising toll-roads and dis-incentivising public roads. If you don’t pay, traffic will be worse. This makes perfect sense in the neoliberal worldview of ‘user pays’ – but it is contrary to common and equable governance. The effect on local businesses and home-owners is substantial. While Napthine has paid over five-fold the estimated value on a strip of land belonging to Scotch College – an elite boys’ school – homes appropriated by the State Government for the construction of the East-West Link have been notoriously undervalued. The government has been unwilling to compensate businesses that will lose business as a result of being blocked off on an entire side of the street. Many of my friends support the idea of the East-West Link. But how the State Government has manipulated the political process to reach this stage has left that sixty-percent of the electorate in support of the road with serious reservations.
The Federal Government has pledged $3 billion to the project in an effort to entice the swinging voter into thinking this is free money. But this will be juxtaposed to the $18 billion in taxpayer funding aforementioned. And while Abbott has made it clear that if there is no road, there will be no $3 billion, he neglects to mention that this funding was originally designated for rail infrastructure by the former Labor Government. In other words, this money was appropriated and reserved for Victoria’s much-needed public transport upgrades. Then the Coalition requisitioned the funds to its own ends.
The other major deterrent to the re-election of the Napthine Government has been its austerity programs. Only this year have they increased spending commitments, realising that cutting funding to public services (leading to longer ambulance-wait times, less nurse-to-bed ratios in hospitals, and serious demand for more schools) is electorally unpopular. In fact, in some marginal seats, the Coalition is now pledging up to five times that of Labor. This, coming from a party which heralds “sensible savings” as an ideological tenet. While Labor is by no means exempt from this measure, spending in marginal seats is excessive in comparison to safe Labor seats. The Coalition has pledged $10 million to Camberwell High School this election, while neglecting $10 million necessary for the upgrades at William Ruthven Secondary College in Reservoir (a pledge, incidentally, that Labor has taken up). Why schools with little need for this money should be prioritised over severely underfunded schools is a mystery. I suspect it has something to do with consolidating the wealth of the inner-eastern suburbs – the traditional heartland of the Liberal Party. So much for the Coalition’s pledge to be equitable in their education funding.
Austerity measures have also seriously exacerbated Victoria’s jobs crisis. After Tasmania, Victoria has the worst performing economy of any other Australian state. In fact, Victoria’s economy has shrunk during the Coalition tenure of government. That’s not in proportional terms (person to per capita income). That’s in total. Why should Victorians commit to re-electing a party which is damaging the economy? One of Australia’s few expanding industries – services – has been chronically defunded since 2009. The Coalition has defunded TAFEs. Napthine has (reservedly) complied with PM Abbott’s attempts to force the states to raise the GST (a regressive tax). And Napthine has pledged to put a 3D printer in every asbestos-riddled school in the state, without doing anything about the asbestos.
The faults by the government are countless. Meanwhile, their election campaign has revolved around two pillars: the building of the East-West Link, and the denunciation of the CFMEU and Daniel Andrews alleged links to the organisation. This is because they have nothing else to run on. Their record has been pitiful. In comparison, Labor has an easier job of vilifying the Liberals. Labor has to avoid or defend its (alleged) links with the (allegedly) corrupt unions, and has to avoid or defend its investment in the Myki ticketing system and the Wonthaggi Desalination Plant (but we’ll see how taboo the latter project has become in five years, during the next cycle of El Nino and the impending drought). The major project spruiked by Labor appears to be its upgrades of 50 level crossings. The impression voters get is that both Labor and Liberals are selling roads over public transport (and why not? Marginal voters are also overwhelmingly drivers). Labor has also committed to “ripping up” the contracts of the East-West Links, after a period of some months of deliberation within the party.
Labor has also committed to (re)funding the health and education sectors. While the Liberals have also pledged this in a similar scale, it baffles the mind why they would refund something after defunding it. And after four years of governance, State Liberals cannot cry foul of previous Labor mistakes. They were, after all, elected to fix the Victorian economy. Polls are conflicting in the specifics, but in general they show Labor leading Liberals in a two-party preferred vote by close to five points. As of last week, this has remained the case. Any seasoned punter would bet on Labor to win this Saturday’s election. But the Left’s (supposed) incumbency problematic, not least due to some degree of animosity between the Greens and Labor.
In real terms, the ideological differences between Victorian Greens and Labor are less than they are between Federal Greens and Labor. The average voter would be hard-pressed to define this distinction, however. What has become increasingly apparent is that the Greens have gained serious electoral ground from the far Left, predominantly in inner-city electorates that are gentrified.
Let’s not beat around the bush: Labor is wary of the Greens becoming the “Disease of the Heart” while the Liberals ever constitute the “Disease of the Skin”. As Labor has attempted to shape policies in an effort to galvanise swinging voters in the political centre, the Greens have taken the ground on the far-Left. While Labor is quick to decry Leftist factionalism (which is almost certainly the case), the fact of the matter is that Labor has left exposed its progressive base. Your average Greens voter is young, from a well-off family, and is university educated. To these voters, issues to do with road infrastructure signify a disjuncture from their own political interest. What Greens voters typically want is heavy investment in public transport and bike infrastructure. The Greens have also made a (valid) case for investment in renewable energy using Victoria’s industrial complex – a case Victoria Labor has been slow to concern themselves with. An attempt to develop a larger State Park to ensure the protection of the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum has token significance to the serious environmentalists. But realistically, the Greens can only win a small number of seats. These seats have historically been dominated by Labor – and hence the rivalry. The Greens have no deal with Labor as the National Party does with the Liberals. What the Greens hope to achieve, in this instance, is a balance of power in either or both of the State parliamentary houses. This will give them leverage over Labor to enact their key policies. And while the Greens have long been criticised for promoting a bad economic policy, the reality is their broader economic policies are far more thorough and extensive than either of the major parties. Since these policies will never be implementable, they become fodder for simplistic critiques and hence they are assumed to be worthless.
Labor has preferenced far-right parties over the Greens in some upper house seats in an attempt to show their dissatisfaction with prospectively losing a number of inner-city seats. In some electorates, the Greens have neglected to include preferences on their How-To-Vote cards, a symbolic counter-move. What such petty politics does is make it easier for the Right to seize the second-preferences of uninformed voters who will likely vote for minor libertarian parties. What can you, as an informed voter do about it? Whether you vote Greens or Labor (because, let’s face it, if you’ve read this far you aren’t voting Liberal), fill in all the boxes either above or below the line on the ballot. Don’t participate in their factionalism, but participate in their mutual hatred of the Right. And let’s hope that Victoria becomes the second state in the country to have a Labor government (after South Australia). This will have repercussions in the Federal sphere, with other states interpreting Victoria’s swing to Abbott’s unpopularity. Happy voting.
David Owen is a secondary school teacher with a BA (Hons) in History and a major in Political Science from the University of Melbourne.