Leaders have delivered a choice between clear alternatives
Source The Age November 26, 2010
A solidly performing government faces a resurgent opposition.
THREE months ago Australians elected a hung Federal Parliament after what was perhaps the most dispiriting campaign in living memory. Whether or not tomorrow's state election will produce a similarly inconclusive result cannot be known, although such an outcome is less likely after the Coalition's decision to place the Greens last on its how-to-vote cards. Victorians will go to the polls knowing that the alternative government has clearly marked out this contest as a choice between itself and the incumbent. It will also be a choice between clear policy alternatives. In that respect, this is politics as it used to be, and it is anything but dispiriting. For that alone, Premier John Brumby and Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu deserve recognition: they have conducted this campaign with neither the diffidence of a Gillard nor the relentless negativity of an Abbott.
For much of the past four years - indeed, for most of Labor's 11 years in office - The Age's chief complaint about the Liberal and National parties has been their invisibility. Any real opposition that the Bracks and Brumby governments encountered was usually extra-parliamentary, a fact that certainly contributed to the Bracks government's emphatic victory in 2006. Mr Brumby, however, does not have quite the same advantage as he seeks a popular mandate for the government that Steve Bracks bequeathed to him. Mr Baillieu's achievement as Liberal leader has been to unite the party behind him with a cohesion it has rarely had since Labor wrested power from the Kennett government in 1999. As Opposition Leader, Mr Baillieu has persuaded the Liberals and their partner in the re-formed Coalition, the Nationals, to adopt stances that boldly distinguish them from Labor, especially in policy areas where the government is most vulnerable: public transport, water, urban planning, hospital waiting lists, corruption, and law and order. Even three months ago, the Coalition had carved out a distinct position only on the last of these - perhaps because it is the one on which it is easiest to manipulate voter anxieties without acknowledging the facts.
By the beginning of the campaign, however, the Coalition had a raft of policies in place, some of which The Age has long advocated. The mess that is Victoria's public transport system will not be fixed simply by injecting more money into it but by establishing a single authority to take responsibility for it, and this the Coalition promises to do. Why Labor resists such a solution, which might have been thought ideologically more appealing to a social democratic party, remains a mystery. On water, the Coalition has proclaimed the principle that Melbourne's needs should be satisfied from its own resources, not from depleted regional river systems. And on corruption, Mr Baillieu says a Coalition government would establish an independent anti-corruption commission with wide investigative powers, abolishing the hapless Office of Police Integrity.
On all these issues, The Age welcomes what the Coalition proposes. The willingness of Mr Baillieu and his colleagues to pander to popular prejudice on questions of law and order, however, is cause for deep unease. The truth is that crime rates are falling, yet the Coalition has ignited a frantic bidding war with Labor over police recruitment and, more worryingly, wants to limit the courts' discretion in sentencing by ''benchmarking'' penalties. The result would be a more fearful and vindictive, but not a safer, Victoria.
Both Labor and the Coalition favour a bigger Victoria and a bigger Melbourne, and neither side is likely to regard the urban growth boundary as anything more than an indefinitely revisable line on a map. The kind of mixed-density development within the boundary that would make a bigger Melbourne sustainable seems to have been relegated to the too-hard basket. The Coalition can at least plead that it has not tried to hide its attitude to planning, whereas Labor's decisions, from the extensions of the boundary to the chicanery exhibited by Planning Minister Justin Madden's office in regard to the Windsor Hotel redevelopment, have often been marked by a contempt for openness and accountability. These are signs of the arrogance that afflicts even good governments after they have held office for several terms.
Nevertheless The Age believes that the Brumby government deserves to be returned. By comparison with its counterparts in other states, especially its scandal-ridden Labor cousin in NSW, this government's stewardship of the state's affairs has been remarkably successful. Its besetting problems with service delivery, most notably the deficiencies in the transport system, are in part a consequence of the steady growth Victoria has experienced under this government. And that growth, which belies the notion that the mining states are the sole drivers of Australian prosperity, owes much to John Brumby's vigorous advocacy of this state's interests. By retaining his government, Victorians would be choosing the security it has provided over the risk in turning to an opposition that has only just begun the task of presenting itself as a credible alternative government