Tuesday, November 23, 2010
AFTER the sheer awfulness of the federal election campaign, Victoria's campaign has been a breath of fresh air that almost restores your faith in politics. Two decent, intelligent and capable leaders. Policies that address real rather than image problems. Mostly positive messages rather than negative ones. We could almost be living in a different time.
I suspect that a lot of readers will instantly disagree. Our last Nielsen poll found only 53 per cent approved of John Brumby's performance as Premier, and 45 per cent approved of Ted Baillieu as Opposition Leader. Fellow columnist Shaun Carney (20/11) and I are in a small minority who are impressed by both. Let me explain why.
State government is about providing services, and the demands on it come from every quarter. Collectively, our expectations are unrealistic: we demand more services, better infrastructure, lower taxes and a budget surplus. And we just can't have all of that.
Australia is a high-wage, low-tax country. That means infrastructure projects are scarce and expensive. We don't tolerate governments going deep into debt as they did when most of our infrastructure was built. Public-private partnerships to provide infrastructure sometimes work well, sometimes don't.
It is difficult, verging on impossible, for any government in this political culture to provide us consistently with First World infrastructure. Yet if it doesn't, we don't forgive it.
Services are squeezed constantly to provide savings to finance new spending. Departments are asked to do more with less real resources. Maintenance work is put off; overworked staff leave for better jobs elsewhere; and governments face 10,000 urgent needs but can afford to fund only 1000.
The Brumby government's failures are well known. Myki was a fiasco. The desalination plant is a very expensive solution to the water shortage when cheaper options were on offer. Spending on hospitals has soared, yet demand and costs rose even more. And Labor has refused to run an open government.
Its strengths are less obvious. We remember projects that run over cost or over time. We forget those that are delivered early and at lower cost. Who remembers now that the channel deepening project was completed a month early, and $248 million under budget?
Compared with the policy paralysis of federal Labor, Brumby impresses me with his willingness to engage with alternative views, change his mind, make bold decisions, and get things done.
Initially, Labor was slow to respond to the drought, the implications of rapid population growth, and the dramatic shift back to public transport. But it has shifted tack dramatically, taking on debt to finance record levels of infrastructure spending to catch up the backlog. We may not like the debt, but we need the infrastructure.
It's 11 years since the Coalition was in office, and that means Baillieu's team must be taken on trust. But I don't see any reason to distrust them. Like all oppositions, they are not so much lazy as under-resourced. Baillieu is not the most natural politician, but is an intelligent, disciplined, tolerant and progressive leader who represents the broad church of the Liberal Party rather than the fundamentalist right.
He has led the way in important areas: advocating free kindergartens, tackling problem gambling, establishing an anti-corruption commission, cleaning up government advertising, restoring authority to principals in government schools, and tackling Victoria's high construction costs. These are issues that matter across the board.
The Age profile of Baillieu (6/11) included an insightful comment by his long-time colleague Robert Peck, national president of the Association of Consulting Architects and a former Melbourne city councillor. Asked if Baillieu would make a good premier, Peck paused, then responded: "He would make an excellent leader provided there is sufficient policy and team back-up in the cabinet and in the party."
I can't judge the quality of Baillieu's team. But, as with Labor, I have concerns about some of his policies, if not insuperable ones.
First, by last weekend the Liberals' website listed 244 policy announcements, nearly all involving new spending. Many were small, some big but long-term, and there was some duplication. But it is inescapable that the Coalition has pledged billions of dollars of new spending and far from clear that all of it can be afforded, even after its savings.
I don't buy Labor's line that the Coalition would drive Victoria into deficit. It is far more likely that if the money isn't there, a Baillieu government would junk some of the promises to keep the budget in surplus.
Second, the Coalition's planning policies imply that the solution for Melbourne's housing shortage is to keep widening the urban growth boundary. As the Victorian Council of Social Service points out, this year's widening alone released enough land to build more than 284,000 new homes. The problem is not the urban growth boundary, but the obstacles to redevelopment around the inner city, the activity centres and along rail and tram corridors. That's where prices are highest, and demand is most intense. Yet the Coalition's policy is virtually silent on this.
It has run an effective scare campaign on law and order, yet as The Sunday Age reports (21/11), crime rates have fallen almost 30 per cent in a decade. Victoria has always had fewer police than other states, and for one good reason: we have less crime.
But both sides have strengths and weaknesses. Labor has made a good case to be given a fourth term. The Coalition has made a good case for a change. Only you can judge.