Tuesday, November 9, 2010
FORMER New Zealand prime minister Mike Moore summed it up nicely. In politics, he said, your opponents sit on the other side of the chamber. Your enemies sit on your own.
Ted Baillieu knows what he means. In recent days, his attempt to get his message out to Victorian voters about what changes a Coalition government would make have been drowned out by factional opponents beating their drum to insist that the Liberals should not direct preferences to the Greens.
Senator Helen Kroger, former Victorian party president, wrote in the Herald Sun that a preference deal with the Greens would be "dealing with an organisation that is fundamentally opposed to Liberal beliefs . . . Their agenda begins with extolling euthanasia and goes on to death duties, gay marriage, increasing taxes, carbon or otherwise, and ripping government funding from private schools. What's next? Legalising drugs and heroin injecting rooms?"
John Howard said the Liberal Party should think carefully before giving preferences to the Greens, declaring: "The Greens are fundamentally anti-free enterprise." Lesser lights, too, had a go, suggesting that Liberals preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor would leave voters confused about what the party stood for.
Great fun for all! The rest of us might think that for these Liberals, the worst election result would be one in which Baillieu becomes premier, and takes the Liberals back towards the political centre.
Let's be clear. There are four seats Brunswick, Melbourne, Northcote and Richmond where the Liberals will come third. Their preferences could decide whether the seat goes to Labor or the Greens. They have no third choice.
Ideologically, the Liberals and Labor are closer to each other than either is to the Greens. That's even more true in state politics, which is essentially about providing services. It's particularly so when the rivals Baillieu and John Brumby are former classmates. Both are pro-business, socially progressive middle-of-the-roaders who just happen to be in different parties.
But they are opponents, whereas the Greens are a marginal force outside the inner suburbs. If the Liberals preference Labor, they will ensure it wins those four seats, freeing it to focus its resources instead on the seats where it is fighting the Liberals. If they give preferences to the Greens, they force Labor to fight on two fronts and divide its energies. Which would you choose?
With one exception, the Liberals have always chosen to give preferences to the Greens, so Labor has to fight on two fronts.
Howard was Liberal leader at the 1996, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2007 federal elections. At all of them, on the mainland, the Liberals gave preferences to the Greens. They did so also at the 2010 federal election, without anyone mistaking Tony Abbott for a Green.
The exception is Tasmania, which gives us a controlled trial for the Kroger view. Tasmania went to the polls in March. The Liberals topped the vote, but both sides ended up with 10 seats and the Greens with five. Liberal leader Will Hodgman had first rights but, under pressure from right-wing powerbroker Senator Eric Abetz, refused to negotiate with the Greens. Labor leader David Bartlett went ahead and did so. So Labor and the Greens now have a coalition government, and it's working well.
The federal election saw the Liberal vote in Tasmania slump to 39 per cent after preferences the party's lowest vote in any state since World War II. Opinion polls show a collapse in Liberal support at state level. And The Mercury reports that Hodgman has now taken on Abetz for control of the party, declaring: "We cannot give away the middle ground. I will fight to make sure that doesn't happen, even if it costs me my job."
That's option B for the Victorian Liberals. All those in favour?
Baillieu has problems enough fighting an opponent like Brumby, who is the embodiment of pragmatism. The Premier is like a grand prix driver in pole position, and Baillieu has to find a way to overtake him. But every time he gets momentum on an issue, Brumby just slides across to block his way. Increase police numbers? Sure, says Brumby,
I'll do that. An anti-corruption commission? Yep, says Brumby, that's my policy now.
Has there ever been a government so assiduous at wooing interest groups from all sides and trying to keep them in the tent? Victorian Labor is a government of professionals. It has a massive advantage of resources over its opponents. And it is ruthlessly pragmatic about giving the public what it wants.
The polls suggest the most likely outcome is that Labor will get back with a reduced majority. The next most likely is some form of coalition between Labor and the Greens. The next most likely is a Coalition government in some form, either alone or through a deal with the Greens.
That's unlikely, but is it impossible? At this point, maybe. Yet the Greens are a work in progress, moderating as they come closer to power. In Germany, the state of Hamburg is now run by a "black-green" alliance of Christian Democrats and Greens, and Saarland by a "Jamaica alliance" (black-yellow-green) with the free-market Free Democrats as well. Don't knock it till you've tried it.
I don't have a dog in this race, but I would like to see Victorians have a choice. Could the Liberal right please get out of the way and let Ted Baillieu offer us one?