Ted Baillieu’s shock resignation on the 6th of March, following the departure of the Member for Frankston Geoff Shaw from the Liberal Party, raises many questions about the Victorian Liberal Party and its future. It is rare to see a Premier resign within their first term. Baillieu’s minimal public profile became apparent following the expected victory of the Coalition at the 2010 state election. We all thought it was a small target approach that the Coalition was coming to terms with their win, and discovering how neglected Victoria’s accounts had become following 11 years of Labor under Bracks and Brumby. Victorians gave the Liberals the benefit of the doubt, but as time progressed there was still a lack of presence and sense of narrative. Blame could be directed to the volatile nature of Federal politics, sucking air out of the nightly news bulletin to the detriment of state political matters. If you were to ask Joe Bloggs on the street what the Victorian Government was up to, you would probably draw a blank face.
Baillieu acted with great dignity and honour in resigning; the authority he had as Premier was diminishing. Parallels have been drawn with Kevin Rudd’s knifing in 2010 by Julia Gillard and her backers in the trade union movement, but the contrast couldn’t be greater. Unlike the Labor party, the Liberals do not have a vast factional system, backed by the union. It was not factional heavies that pulled the trigger here, but rather a decision for the greater good of the party and for the governance of Victoria. Baillieu’s office was mired in scandal, and the caucus had become restless; it was time to put these issues aside. Time will tell what becomes of the Victorian Liberals under Premier Napthine’s stewardship.
In times of renewal, the loss of a leader or sitting government, parties tend to be introspective and evaluate their ideological position. A good example of this comes from the Federal Liberals after the loss to Labor in the 2007 election. Spooked by the growing popularity of Rudd, it had become common wisdom to distance the party from everything Howard stood for. It took Abbott to heal the rifts within the party and set it apart from Labor, to great success. Yet those who have followed conservative political history in Australia should remind the Liberals this is the exact attitude taken after the Coalition lost to Whitlam in 1972, the rise of the ‘small-L’ liberals within Liberal ranks precipitated a move away from the conservatism of post-WWII Australia.
The so-called ‘Wets’ were happy to sit closer to the centre of politics and approved of some government intervention in the economy. Conversely, the ‘Dries’, who believed more in market based solutions and deregulation, struggled to make the case against the popular and unprecedented interventionist policies of Labor under Whitlam. The ardent conservatism of Fraser, following the failed experiment that was Whitlam, attempted to right the wrongs of interventionist policy. When the Coalition re-entered opposition, moderate leaders of the Liberal Party Peacock and Hewson failed to galvanise the people to again vote Liberal against a strident Hawke and, to a lesser extent, Keating. It took Howard to reassemble the party, and return it to its true, conservative path. The moral of the story is that conservatives, and only conservatives, can inspire the hearts and minds of the people to vote Liberal. Conservatives have vision for their nation, a sense that there are things to be done, and a certain passion, moderated by stability, that people want in a leader.
Baillieu is a moderate, akin to Turnbull in some ways. He wasn’t a political animal and was often unwilling to play the game. Those who have watched a HBO’s “Game of Thrones” will recall Cersei Lannister, when confronted by Eddard Stark about her infidelity said “When you play a game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Michael Kroger, a Liberal powerbroker who appeared on the ABC’s Lateline the following Friday, said something to the same effect. The political cycle is favouring the conservative side of politics, as is evidenced by their dominance in four states, one territory, and soon enough, on the Federal stage. It is now time to play to the strengths of the Liberals, and emphasise the underlying national conservatism that has a broad electoral appeal. Don’t get me wrong, moderates have their place in the Party; they allow the Liberals to appeal across the political divide to some extent. However, they lack the disposition to lead from the front, and this proved to be Baillieu’s downfall.