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November 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Now Listen, Steve

November 19, 2006

by Jason Dowling - The Age

All the signs suggest it's likely to be a weakened Steve Bracks and Labor that win on Saturday and steer Victoria for another four years.

The majority of voters, if the polls are accurate, believe Bracks deserves another term, but the moderate swing back to the Liberals also suggests Labor is likely to be punished for a range of failings over their seven years in office.

The polls also suggest Victorians are not yet convinced the Liberals are ready to govern but voters are returning to the Liberals. The party is shaping up as a formidable opposition under Ted Baillieu, who may build a solid launching pad for a 2010 bid.

So barring a political miracle next Saturday, that's how it's likely to unfold. To win, Baillieu would need to claim more seats than Bracks did in 1999.

Bracks has done his best to ensure there will be no 1999-style backlash against the sitting government in regional Victoria by concentrating Labor's efforts in country areas and launching the party's campaign in his home town of Ballarat.

It was from Labor's 1999 election launch in Ballarat that Bracks orchestrated the regional ambush that unseated Jeff Kennett so he has attempted to nullify that area of attack with high-profile visits and endless funding commitments.

He has also moved to head off discontent over the public school system with a massive infrastructure investment pledge as the centrepiece of his campaign launch.

But Labor has also managed to quash discontent from another contributor to the Bracks Government's 1999 win the Police Association.

Only months ago, the association was an outspoken critic of the Government, even ambushing Police Minister Tim Holding at an official function.

Led by its shrewd secretary, Paul Mullet, the police union has now emerged as one of the Bracks Government's most vocal supporters. It hardly takes game show host Andrew O'Keefe to figure out a "deal" has been done.

Labor has successfully blunted potential areas of attack that could cost it government. Like a football team a few goals up in the last few minutes, they have been happy to kick the ball around in the back half, keep possession and wait for the clock to run down.

It has been a low-profile, small-target campaign, carefully orchestrated by the Premier's dozens of advisers and spin doctors. The election cannot come fast enough for Labor.

But not all voters will be sold on Bracks' carefully orchestrated set-piece campaign, which in most part has missed the human element.

There are plenty of wounded voters who feel disappointed with, or abandoned by, Bracks and Labor.

Voters hoping for reform of the state's dependence on poker machine revenue would be bitterly disappointed with Labor's likely decision to lock in the current number of machines for another 20 years. There is a whiff developing around Labor and the gambling industry.

Former Labor minister David White's work for gaming giant Tattersall's is an embarrassment for a government that receives more than a $1 billion from gambling taxes a year and, if re-elected, is about to announce new multi-billion dollar contracts for lottery and poker machine licences.

In the eyes of many, Labor's reliance on poker machine revenue is disgraceful and an unhelpful legacy to future state governments.

It is not just gambling where Bracks has come under attack.

Parents would be wondering why it has taken Labor seven years to decide it is time to rebuild run-down schools that were built decades ago especially from a party that counts education as its number one issue.

Outer eastern metropolitan voters have numerous reasons to be angry, particularly on transport.

There is still no Rowville rail extension and tolls have been added to a road they were promised would be toll-free.

Even the epiphany that, yes, having zone three public transport fares only in the city's east is a little unjust, come four years after the Liberals flagged the policy.

On water, the Bracks Government was one of the first in Australia to appoint a water minister, but results have been patchy. Little of Melbourne's water is recycled and only now is there a business study on recycling the Gunnamatta effluent outfall seven years after Labor came to office.

Despite Labor's failings, it is almost certain to win and has scored some points.

Labor has in most part delivered what it promised more money on health, education and police, while keeping the budget in the black.

Hospital waiting lists, school infrastructure, police shortages, drought these are the daily problems of most state governments, and the Bracks Government recognised before many, including the Liberal Party, that they were among the most important issues to Victorians.

Labor's campaign theme, "When it matters Steve Bracks", will have resonance with voters who, as the Premier puts it, are "not out there with baseball bats" ready to punish the Government.

There is no great push for change in Victoria, and the steady-as-she-goes Labor leader is likely to get the nod from a cautious electorate not ready to take a gamble.

The problem for Baillieu and the Liberals is that they have not shown the two things necessary for them to win the election: that Labor is no longer fit to govern, and that the Liberals would do a better job.

The negative campaign against Labor has so far focused on cost blow-outs in advertising and the fast rail project, among other issues. These are hardly the kind of mistakes that bring down governments.

On the policy front, Baillieu has lived up to his mantra of being a "can-do" leader. In fact, there is nothing he can't do.

Here's just a sample: South Morang rail extension, extending the tram line to Doncaster, free kindergarten for most, free public transport, cutting poker machines, new technical colleges, new hospitals, lower stamp duty you get the point.

Baillieu and the Liberals have articulated clearly the wish list of the Victorian public and their vision for public spending in the state.

They have also followed very closely former Liberal director Lynton Crosby's method of winning elections: target specific seats and specific voters with specific policies.

Baillieu has made big promises in key electorates, from Frankston to South Barwon, Cranbourne to Belgrave, seats where he thinks he has the best chance of winning.

But he has a big problem in convincing voters these promises are affordable and achievable.

While voters may like what they hear, they are yet to be convinced, or are prepared to take the chance, that it can be delivered.

The Liberal leader has also failed to adequately address the issue of his vast share portfolio and how he would combat perceived or actual conflicts of interest if he was elected premier.

But it is not just on Baillieu's shares that the Liberals are falling down put bluntly, the Liberal team has failed to shine.

While Baillieu has performed well so far in the campaign, the remainder of the Liberal leadership team has hardly made a squeak.

It is hard to sell a political one-man show. Unfortunately for Baillieu, the Liberals do not have a strong team on offer.

On Saturday, Bracks will likely become one of Labor's most successful state politicians. But voters are about to send him a clear warning Labor's record has many and obvious shortcomings and it is time the party started listening less to connected lobbyists and spin doctors and more to the people that put them there.

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