Opinion article

Both sides splash the cash ahead of Victorian election

The lead up to this weekend's Victorian election has seen both the Government and Opposition splashing the cash on big promises, particularly around infrastructure. Professor David Hayward analyses the respective policy shopping lists and tips a narrow win for the Government. 

That’s a heck of a lot more cash than was splashed about last time round when Labor won on the back of almost $11 billion of commitments, and also the time before that when the Coalition scraped across the line in a tightly fought contest with $7.1 billion of promises (adjusted for inflation).

The big ticket items are for transport infrastructure. There’s an awful lot for roads, but even more for public transport. Labor’s biggest single item is the proposed suburban underground rail system. 

This is a visionary proposal that has been well received. Yet it has come from left field, having ironically avoided the scrutiny of Infrastructure Victoria, which was established by Labor as an independent watchdog to ensure that proposals like this get fully tested before they become government policy.

The Coalition is also promising to spend a lot on public transport, but for the regions rather than the suburbs. Their vision is a $15–19 billion European-style train system linking the regional centres and hopefully helping to make them better places to live instead of an over-crowded Melbourne.  

Roads get their fair share of the action, with both parties committed to an airport rail link ($5 billion), and the North East toll road ($15 billion), and the Coalition promising to spend $4.1 billion putting busy intersections underground, and another couple of billion on resurrecting the East West toll road, which remarkably Labor spent $1.3billion on not so long ago to stop it from getting started. 

On top of this, Labor has committed $1.2 billion to subsidise solar panels for homes, $60 million for subsidies for solar hot water and a further $40 million to purchase solar power batteries for households that would like to have them. 

The Coalition in turn has promised to spend $40 million to pay half the cost of new TVs and fridges for low income households who want to replace power hungry white goods with energy efficient ones. Labor is promising $400 million for a new dental scheme for kids in schools, and another $1 billion for free kinder. 

The Coalition has put a lot of political capital in fighting crime and restoring 'control', a buzzword for law and order. Judges are to be scrutinised, would-be terrorists constrained and kept out of the city, wayward youths sent to boot camp, criminals sentenced to longer prison terms, and bail all but removed for those charged with serious offences in the interests of making Victoria safer, even though overall crime rates are on a sharp decline.

Paradoxically, if the Coalition is to get across the line it will most likely be a result of these initiatives that don’t cost a lot to deliver, but which pander to Victorians’ sense of fear following several years of high profile violent crimes, often linked to African refugees.

Just a day out from the election, Labor has its nose in front, enjoying a small but significant majority in the main opinion polls, not just state-wide but in those marginals that will ultimately determine who wins. 

Not long ago the Greens seemed a sure thing to pick up a swag of inner city Labor seats, but that threat has receded as Election Day draws near. Internal bickering and some poorly chosen candidates have left the Greens at risk of losing votes when they should be picking them up in droves.

On balance, a narrow Labor win would seem a fitting result, for the Government has behind it a strong set of policy achievements, which have seen Victoria win the gold medal for economic performance while at the same time becoming the nation’s most progressive social reformer. 

From family violence to assisted dying, from rental reforms to cultural inclusiveness, Labor has set a cracking agenda of social change. It has done this while cranking up capital spending to levels not seen since Henry Bolte’s Liberal Coalition Government first did it way back in the 1960s, helping to drive the economic growth that has kept unemployment falling. 

The social reforms and economic successes should all but guarantee the Government another term. That things are still rather close reflects four years of political mistakes by Labor that have taken the gloss off the policy wins. 

There have been ministerial resignations and sackings, Labor members caught with questionable expense claims, a minister who used his official car and driver to ferry his dogs around, and an investigation into alleged irregularities in the use of government funding to pay for campaign work that remains under police investigation.

What better way to concentrate the mind than promising to spend a lot on very many visionary big ticket items? Those unsure if all of this is affordable can take comfort in the fact that most of the promises don’t start rolling off the production line the end of the next term and won’t be in place for up to another decade. 

But by then Victorians will have new leaders and a whole set of new promises to consider. 
About the authors

David Hayward

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David Hayward is Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Future Social Service Institute (FSSI), a collaboration between RMIT University, Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) and the Victorian Government. He has served on multiple state government appointed committees associated with the roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the recommendations of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. He is a former Dean of Business at Swinburne University (2004-2009) and Dean of Social Science at RMIT University (2004-2016).