Victoria’s Premier Denis Napthine now faces his toughest year in his 25-year parliamentary career. He will have to lead his minority government into an election on November 29 with current polling showing he will lose. 

If the polls prove correct, he will become one of the growing number of Premiers not to secure a second term of office and the eighth not to exceed two years in the chair. 

Already Labor has all but completed its pre-selections. With 12 members announcing they will retire, Opposition leader Daniel Andrews has the opportunity to introduce a ‘fresh image’ to the people.
The Liberals only started their first round of pre-selections in January and the final round nominations won’t close until February 14. 

This puts the momentum solidly in Labor’s camp until at least March, especially with the Liberals facing a number of emerging pre-selection battles, the need for a cabinet reshuffle and the need to get its business agenda back on track following a series of unprecedented ‘blow-ups’ on the first day of sitting of parliament for 2014.

Napthine's burden is compounded by the fact that he has never led the party to an election before. 
He came into office declaring the State was now 'open for business' after controversial independent MP Geoff Shaw and many industry groups and political observers believed that the elected Premier Ted Baillieu was not getting on with the job. Baillieu gallantly stood down in March last year.

But Napthine’s business sign is ‘rattling in the wind. Food processing and automotive plant closures, job losses, long hospital waiting lists, lack of schools funding, emergency services revolts over pay, and community unrest on his big transport initiative, the East West link tunnel, have led to a negative poll.

There is no doubt that he has been very pro-active in trying to address the State’s issues; strongly promoting the return of sound financial management and the State’s AAA credit rating, publicly supporting the future of SPC cannery in regional Victoria when it failed to secure Federal government funding, promoting trade missions to the Middle East and to Asia to drive exports and highlighting the need for the State to get infrastructure projects underway. 

Unfortunately, they are not resonating with the public if the polls are to be believed; nor are they carrying sufficient public ‘endorsement’ from industries.The legacies the Liberals inherited from Labor are also becoming their nooses. They have not been able to clean up Labor’s dysfunctional public transport ticketing system Myki, the lack of overcrowding on trains and trams, the traffic chaos faced by motorists each morning and night, the discontent with the long delayed relocation of the Melbourne wholesale fruit and vegetable markets; all these and more add up for the State to have a vision for the future. 

Napthine now has to be at his strategic best and become the statesman. He has to be capable of promoting the vision and backing it with a pipeline of projects he expects to be realized over the next 10 years that appeal to the people and industry for endorsement and public support. His summer of discontent with the polls cannot be left to linger.

His new Treasurer Michael O'Brien must bring down his May budget to show not only continuing sound economic management to overcome the Labor deficit, but also to pave the way for the future vision to be realised. The key sectors of transport, health, education and law and order are standard agenda items for any election campaign, but they must be wrapped up in the vision. It is the same with the all-important infrastructure issues. 

The much anticipated Port of Hastings development is just one of the big ticket items that needs to be spelled out – from it can lead new and invigorated transport policies, new industries, technologies and manufacturing opportunities with an eye for exports, new rural opportunities for the State to be the ‘Food bowl of Asia’, new jobs, a fast freight rail linking Victoria, NSW and Queensland and new growth centres.

The future of State’s bio-technical and IT hub which had the support of both Labor and the Liberals more than two decades ago now must be taken out of its languishing state and put back on the public agenda, especially before a proposed trade mission to India in the first quarter of this year. People no longer want patchwork and poll-based policies. 

They want to know where the State is going and with what industries and policies; they want Victoria to be ‘on the move’ again - the leadership State. Everyone knows that governments no longer have levers of control over the economy other than vision and leadership. In going down this leadership path, Napthine must limit party unrest and key pre-selection battles to ‘one-day’ issues. 

The perfect example of this is the resignation of the Speaker (Ken Smith, Lib) from his position on the first day of the sitting of State Parliament in 2014 (Feb 4). He cited his reasons as the on-going public dispute with outspoken Geoff Shaw, who holds the balance of power in the lower house. Shaw wanted Smith out of the Speaker’s chair, just as he wanted the elected Premier Ted Baillieu out of the leadership role. 

He achieved both virtually within 12 months. Shaw then went on to inflict more pain on the government by voting with Labor to defeat the Coalition’s business program. The outcome, which one newspaper claimed ‘left government MPs gob smacked’ came less than two hours after Smith stepped down and the new Speaker Christine Fyffe took the chair.

This has left the government without any hope of Shaw supporting its agenda, or control to force votes on Bills.These distractions do not bode well for Napthine and his Coalition government so early in an election year.