The Victorian election campaign is being dominated by internal dissent within the Liberal party over party leader Ted Baillieuâ€™s plan to preference the extreme-left Greens party over the more mainstream Labor government.
Many of his MPs are openly questioning their Leaderâ€™s decision, worried that it will taint the Liberal brand and confuse voters about what they stand for.
Normally parties have been well-served by a stonewall approach to questions on preferences, preferring to keep the sausage-making activity of negotiating with your political rivals behind closed doors.
But sometimes private preference plots prompt plenty of public punch-ups. Laborâ€™s deal with Family First caused it no end of grief despite the architects of the deal â€“ Alan Griffin and other Labor lefties â€“ having very good reason to do it. When the heat reaches boiling point though, itâ€™s generally considered wisest to put protecting the reputation of the party ahead of short-term expediency.
With todayâ€™s coverage in the Herald Sun of the latest round of internal crisis over Baillieuâ€™s plan to elect as many as six Greens lower house MPs in a few short weeks, it is now clear that the strongly expressed private concerns of many Liberals about Baillieuâ€™s judgment are now doing much to undermine the Victorian Liberals push for election. If they donâ€™t trust him, how can we?
Itâ€™s been such a huge missed opportunity for the Libs too. Baillieu could publicly declared he was putting the extreme-left high-tax big-spend Greens party last and dared Brumby to do the same. If Brumby didnâ€™t, he could have rightly tarred Brumby with the brush of the Greens least accceptable neo-Marxist policies. Instead, heâ€™s reduced to micro-announcements about discounted swimming lessons, a war on dog breeders,Â more social workers in schools and yesterday pledging an inconsequential sum of money to encourage Bollywood film production here in the face of a high dollar making that prospect very, very unlikely. Baillieu made the same policy announcement in 2006 apparently. All those talks with Greens radicals about preferences has appeared to encourage a bit of recycling.
Making matters worse today, one of Baillieuâ€™s own backbenchers Gary Blackwood this morning told the ABC:
â€œMy personal view is that I will not be preferencing the greens.â€
No wonder Blackwood did so well in Narracan, a seat Labor would once have expected to hold in the La Trobe Valley. He is clearly a man of principle who is clear about what he stands for.
Tactically, causing trouble for Labor by unseating six of their best and brightest makes perfect sense. It will absorb funds that would otherwise go to other marginal seats.
But strategically, and itâ€™s strategies that win wars, this is a disaster.
Not only is coddling the extreme-left Greens party tearing the Liberal party apart, in full public view, itâ€™s damaging the Liberal brand when it needs to cut through the thick jungle of Brumby government spin and advertising by making it clear what they believe in.
You canâ€™t hope to seen as a strong economic manager and be pushing to elect six Greens to the Legislative Assembly where money bills are initiated.
You canâ€™t be tough on crime and be pushing for a much tougher approach to key law and order issues by actually working to elect six Greens to the lower house who will oppose essentially every single measure to make Police more effective, criminals more heavily punished and our state a safer place to live.
You canâ€™t make a powerful argument about Laborâ€™s silly attacks on coal pushing up electricity prices for those who can least afford it by preferencing to elect six Greens to the lower house who will push to shut down some of the worldâ€™s cheapest electricity sources and replace them with alternatives that will cost more than double, in some cases much more than that.
These are the kinds ofÂ issues that get conservatives elected and keep them there.
Sometimes politicians get too clever by half when all the community wants is authenticity and clarity. Baillieu is seen as very flexible and small â€˜lâ€™ liberal, probably a good thing in this Massachusetts of the South. But politicians like that need to be especially careful to have absolute clarity about what theyâ€™re not flexible on.
Brumby has done much to neutralise economic management during his time as Treasurer and since. But there are law and order and cost of living worries that have cropped up and that any decent Opposition could exploit.
In this one issue about Greens preferences, about where the Liberals are able to prioritise political principle over tactics, it is becoming sadly clear that we donâ€™t have a decent Opposition or certainly not a decent Opposition Leader.
The Herald Sun has spent much of the last year beating up the Brumby government on a wide range of issues where their performance hasnâ€™t been great.
A decent Opposition could and should have worked with them, understood the paperâ€™s vital role in Melbourne and regional Victoria, that itâ€™s an uncannily accurate reflection of who we are and what we prioritise.
Instead they have repeatedly failed to listen.
Itâ€™s as if Ted Baillieu is above what a tabloid newspaperâ€™s concerns might be. Heâ€™s an Age reader, and certainly a keen contributor via their Paul Austin who engages in many a late night phone call with Baillieu.
And the result is carnage. I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s been worse coverage of any political leaderâ€™s election campaign since Joan Kirner in 1992 when Piers Akerman was large and in charge and occasionally depicted Kirner with a hammer-and-sickle.
Playing footsie with the Greens, turning up his nose to the Herald Sun could end up being Tedâ€™s last, big political error. If Baillieu canâ€™t win this time, not even his cunning internal factional power-plays could save him as party leader.
As rich as this lucky heir might be, Ted Baillieu simply canâ€™t afford another week like this. He could turn it all around by going on the front foot about the rising tide of Greens party policy menace. Sadly, it appears he wonâ€™t.