It's getting tougher at the top in a judgmental electorate

Dr Paul Strangio

Dr Paul Strangio

by Dr Paul Strangio

Before the unfortunate Ted Baillieu, the last Victorian premier to fall on his political sword was John Cain jnr in August 1990. With his government locked in protracted dispute with the state’s public sector trade unions and having been undermined for months by internal party dissension, Cain finally decided that his position had become intolerable.

There the parallels between the demise of Cain and Baillieu pretty much end. Cain had been premier for eight and a half years and was in his third term of office when his hand was forced. Baillieu survived only a little over two years and was still in his first term. 

Indeed, one of the strongest impressions to emerge from this week’s turmoil in Spring Street—and events in Canberra over the past few years—is of a politics on speed. Governments and leaders appear to be operating in a compressed time cycle in which rather than follow the more familiar trajectory of honeymoon and consolidation and eventual decay they prematurely age and precipitously unravel.

What has been particularly striking about the common experience of the federal Labor and state Coalition governments is that upon entering troubled waters a first resort has been to change leaders. For some time in Australian politics we have been accustomed to opposition leaders being expendable, but disposing of first term heads of government is quite another matter. 

As we have seen with federal Labor, precipitously removing a leader is liable to have dangerous and unintended consequences. The public has long been conditioned to think of politics in terms of leaders—to believe that at an election they are anointing a leader rather than voting for a local member of a party. While the trend towards personalisation is not as pronounced in the state sphere as in federal politics, undoubtedly some Victorians will feel disenfranchised by Baillieu’s fall and question the legitimacy of his successor, Denis Napthine. And there is the problem of what a governing party that has changed leaders as a first rather than last resort does next should the successor fail to provide a magic panacea. Napthine and the Liberal Party may confront this dilemma in the months ahead.

Baillieu’s sudden fall has also emphasised what a volatile beast leadership speculation is once unleashed, as well as how turbulent can be the animal spirits of a party room. In such a charged atmosphere the risk is disproportionate response. Moreover, it has further illustrated that in contemporary politics leadership speculation (and destabilisation) is usually only a couple of bad opinion polls away. When journalists talk to me about politics these days I am struck by their automatic assumption that a poor poll result should imperil a leader’s security. Questions swirled around Baillieu’s leadership for months, despite the fact that his government’s poll standing was hardly irretrievable especially when it was still so far out from an election.

Looking back at Baillieu’s premiership, it’s clear that he was an uncomfortable fit for an era of accelerated news cycles (and an impatient public). He was a tortoise in a hare’s race. Naturally retiring, circumspect rather than bold, when fronting a television camera he often came across as diffident. Yet it also appeared that having triumphed at the 2010 election against expectations and having weathered criticism about his leadership style while in opposition from both within and outside his party he viewed victory as an affirmation of his leadership approach and believed his unassuming method would also ultimately prevail in government.

His government’s early practices certainly defied the axioms of modern political media management: Baillieu was so elusive that it almost seemed he had chosen to put journalists on a starvation diet. Brave though this might have been, the strategy proved counterproductive and was one reason that a reputation for inertia became stubbornly attached to his premiership.

More mysterious were the Baillieu government’s internal dynamics. While there is preoccupation with the public communication skills of political leaders, it is often overlooked that managing internal dialogue (with cabinet, the party room and outside party organisation) is also critical to leadership performance in office. The antagonisms within the government that bubbled up in recent weeks hint that Baillieu’s handling of internal communications (and relations) replicated his awkward public media management skills. Still largely unexplained, however, is whether philosophical differences played a role in fuelling those tensions.

Looking forward, it remains to be seen whether Denis Napthine can steady what currently looks an extremely fragile government. That challenge is great because the evidence since 2010 suggests that the Victorian Liberal Party, which once proudly regarded itself as the natural ruler of this state but has struggled electorally for three decades now, has lost its governing knack. Poor policy development and dubious candidate pre-selections while in opposition are surely factors here.

Back in the post-war era when the Liberal Party bestrode the state effortlessly, the human face of its ascendancy was Henry Bolte. He came to office in 1955 inexperienced and raw (and stayed until 1972). Bolte had his doubters early on and the first years of his administration were not without stumbles, yet with time he found his metier and prospered. But those were more patient days.

Associate Professor Paul Strangio works in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University.

A version of this article appeared in The Age.