Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Big Ted Wakes!

There was a full moon in Melbourne this week - a 'super moon' - and there was a definite feeling of something different in the air. The spirit of change.

Footy was back, or nearly back. The days were getting shorter and darker. People moved furtively about in the gloom, discussing their teams chances over the worlds best coffee. And over on Spring Street, somewhere in the depths of the State Parliament building, something ominous was stirring...

Big Ted Baillieu, our premier of six months, was waking from his fitful slumber:

But before we get to that, a brief history lesson.

We don't change Governments very often in this country, conservative bunch that we are, normally giving the incumbent mob around ten years or so to do their worst and earn our ire. In the last twenty five years there have only been 2 changes of Federal Government, and three changes at Victorian State level.

One consequence of this is that it gives the Opposition a good chunk of time to come up with a wish list of things they'd change when they finally do get their turn. And after ten years or so of waiting, they're normally itching to get a chance to enact their program.

Think the Hawke Government in 1983 and its rapid program of economic reform; floating the dollar and deregulating the banks. Or the Howard Government in 1996 and its swift moves to deregulate the Labor market and begin work on the GST. Or even, at a local level, the Kennett Government in 1992 and it's rush to declare war on the population of the state, burn down all the villages and cancel Christmas.

So we don't change Government very often but, when we do, we normally see fairly swift changes enacted. As Paul Keating noted, before the 1996 election,

'When you change the Government, you change the country.'

But this has not been Big Ted's style, since taking office late last year.

In fact, in the six months since that time he has appeared to be more interested in working on his camouflage techniques than enacting any sort of legislative agenda, while the State parliament has been about as busy as the Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, before the Oompa Loompa's arrive:

'No one goes in... and no one comes out!'

And this brings us back to the original point of this piece, which hopefully hasn't been lost along the way. The Liberal Party in Victoria are finally on the move. Yes, after the miserable lassitude of the last few months they're slowly getting on with the business of breaking their election promises.

This process started slowly, which seems fitting for a group determined to pace themselves.

During the last election campaign, Baillieu and co ran pretty hard on Labor's poor performance on public transport. Much was made of the shortcomings in Victoria in this area - late and cancelled services, aging infrastructure, poorly negotiated contracts with the private operators, myki - but rather less of what was to be done to rectify them. The Liberals slid along on a vaguely worded promise to 'fix' the system.

So anyone that took this promise seriously must have been surprised to see that the new Governments first moves in this area were to cut services. Trains running from the suburbs to the city loop are to be trimmed considerably at leak times as part of a new timetable. Now while Baillieu may not have promised to run more trains, you'd probably struggle to find too many regular punters who regarded fewer services as much of a public transport 'fix.' Nevertheless, Baillieu has tried to defend this by claiming that fewer services will mean a better functioning system, to the infuriation of anyone out West who'll have to wait longer to get into town.

But with the next batch of broken promises, he's struggling even to get cover from vagueness or semantics.

During the election campaign, Baillieu gave a public commitment to significantly increase the pay of Victorian school teachers. Increased such that, in his words at the time, Victorian teachers would be 'the best paid in the country' (currently they rank about mid table). It should be noted that this policy announcement still sits on the Victorian Liberal website (see link above).

Last week he announced, by way of the Government's first pay offer to teachers, that this would not be happening after all. In fact, the Governments new pay offer, an increase of 2.5%, would not only move Victorian teachers backwards, in comparison to how teachers are paid in other states but, as it is below the current inflation rate of 2.9%, would also represent an actual pay cut, in real terms.

Offering to cut pay having promised to substantially increase it? Not even John Howard had the brazen 'non-core promise' cajones to try that!

Baillieu explained away this dramatic about face by saying:

'I am very keen to get the best possible outcome for teachers through an EBA process, and we remain committed to that, and...'

... oh fuck me, I think if I write out the rest of his weasel word excuse I'll probably want to go and drown myself afterwards. So we'll leave the obfuscation to Big Ted and just state in much simpler language that's he's been caught out ditching a policy that he obviously never took seriously. And for this he deserves to get as much grief and criticism as possible.

And this isn't the only policy reversal that fits into this category either.

Having got the state's teachers offside, Big Ted then made similar moves to infuriate the states police force and community care workers in the same manner: by denying them a reasonable pay increase. Again, the Government's offer is to be a pay increase of 2.5% to both sectors, again, below the rate of inflation and so representing a cut in wages in real terms. The police union were particularly aggravated by this:

considering how much time Baillieu spent droning on during the election about the crime wave gripping the state and how he was going to hire about 400 000 new coppers. While he may not have broken this promise, to turn Victoria into something akin to a medium security prison, yet, it's obvious that he does intend for his newly expanded law enforcement battalions to be poorly paid. Which has all sorts of implications, including public safety, staff moral and recruiting.

Having said all of that though, I guess it's still hard to know exactly how to feel about what is happening at the moment down on Spring Street.

On the one hand, it's good to see that the Premier and his Senior ministers haven't succumbed to some mysterious new form of polio that renders them crippled and paralysed, unable to speak or move. On the other, though, it's a shame that they have to demonstrate this by breaking a number of their key election promises and shafting the state civil service. Since I'm feeling conflicted, perhaps it's best if I leave the summing up to 'Sharon of Melb' who posted this comment on the Herald Sun site yesterday, under an article about Big Ted:

Sharon of Melb: Baillieu has to go. All he has done is hang out with Oprah and swum in the sea.

I'll have to consult 'Sharon of Melb' more often. She's much more concise than I am.

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