A decade is a long time in politics. Ten years ago this month, the Coalition led by Ted Baillieu took office in Victoria, after winning an election on a platform of fixing the problems and building the future.
This year, the problems are mounting and the future has never seemed less certain. The pandemic required us to let go of much of what made Victoria so special. Melbourne’s laneways were emptied. The city was cut off from the regions. The arts are in strife. The AFL grand final was played interstate, although poetic justice ensured it was an all-Victorian affair.
What I want to suggest is that the experience of the Baillieu government offers valuable lessons for how Australia can regain its bearings in this disrupted world.
The Baillieu government was something of an outlier in the combative politics of the 2010s. At a time when many centre-right parties were blundering down the populist rabbit hole, this was a government of the centre that embraced the core character of Victoria: multicultural diversity as well as international engagement, aspiration and ambition as well as social justice, the arts as well as sport.
The Baillieu government embodied a strand of progressive liberalism with deep roots in Victoria, in the tradition of former premier Rupert Hamer and former prime minister Malcolm Fraser. It was no coincidence that the only seat Malcolm Turnbull won from Labor in 2016 was in Melbourne.
This approach enabled the Coalition to win the 2010 election with a massive primary swing of 6.8 per cent against Labor. Proper cabinet processes, with a rigorous approach to public service advice and cabinet submissions, enabled the government to deliver an extensive and ambitious agenda developed in opposition.
The essential contribution was on the economy. After a decade in which Victorian government spending growth outstripped revenue growth, the Baillieu government rebuilt the budget’s capacity for investment and stabilised state debt. Resources were constrained not only by the previous government’s cost overruns, but by reductions in Victoria’s share of GST revenue and the global financial crisis.
Budgets were crafted with the instruction not to cut services that disadvantaged Victorians relied on. While continued spending growth at the level of the previous decade would have resulted in a $4 billion deficit, instead surpluses were achieved.
Victoria remained in surplus until 2020. By early 2013, Victoria had the strongest budget position in the nation – the only state rated AAA/stable by both major credit rating agencies.
The Baillieu government fixed the roof while the sun was shining. As Victoria plunges deep into deficit, the solid budget foundations laid in the early 2010s look more necessary than ever. This strengthened financial position enabled record investments in infrastructure, education and health.
An unprecedented international engagement strategy expanded Victoria’s presence in key growth markets in Asia and beyond, while building relationships for Victorian businesses through ‘super trade missions’.
The 2012 mission to China alone resulted in an estimated $1.5 billion in exports, $280 million in foreign investment and 1500 jobs.
These missions were continued by subsequent Victorian premiers and emulated by interstate and federal governments. The government also invested in international education and developing Victoria’s ‘Asian literacy’. This was achieved without endorsing any foreign geopolitical agenda.
Beyond economic matters, the Baillieu government introduced Victoria’s first modern integrity regime, including the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC).
The government carefully nurtured Victoria’s social fabric with a series of progressive reforms.
The work on protecting vulnerable children from abuse, with the nation-leading Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Non-Government Organisations, is an example.
At every turn, the government supported and celebrated Victoria’s multicultural community. This was demonstrated in funding and programs but also in the personal commitment and connection of the leader.
One recollection: In 2011, Premier Baillieu spoke at the Victorian Foundation for the Survivors of Torture. Some might imagine that this was not a natural forum for a Liberal politician, at a time when others were running a divisive ‘stop the boats’ agenda.
However, Premier Baillieu affirmed that ‘there really should be very few things that are less controversial than the decent treatment of refugees’.
He recalled the long history of ‘boat people’ and irregular migration to Australia, even referencing his own great-grandfather jumping ship to settle here.
It was a short speech but a remarkable exercise in inclusive leadership.
The Baillieu government ended prematurely following internal sabotage, culminating in the events of March 2013.
The Coalition government’s average result in Newspoll two-party preferred was 50.4 per cent before the leadership change and 47.7 per cent after it – the difference between winning and losing.
This was one case among too many of the culture of party coups and revolving-door leadership that so degraded trust in Australian politics in the last decade. In that context, Mr Baillieu’s resignation was an island of selflessness in an ocean of self-interest.
No government is perfect, but in two years and three months, the Baillieu government achieved economic, social and governance outcomes that have stood its successors in good stead.
Also, the government did not make any catastrophic mistakes in administration.
In the decade since the Baillieu government’s election, there have been hopeful signs that several Liberal or Coalition governments have adopted similarly pragmatic and nonideological approaches to contemporary challenges.
The model is rigorous economic management as a basis for investments in services, infrastructure and progressive reforms.
The example of the Baillieu government should also be instructive for the Victorian Coalition as it seeks to return to government.
As the late The Age political editor Michael Gordon wrote of Mr Baillieu: “He had a four-year strategy to retain power but didn’t get the chance to implement it”.
By the time of the 2022 state election, the Baillieu team’s 2010 victory will have been the only Coalition win in Victoria in over a quarter of a century, and counting.
Dr Stephen Minas is an associate professor at Peking University’s School of Transnational Law. He was an adviser to former Victorian premier Ted Baillieu.