DENIS Napthine was one of the Coalition’s survivors when the Steve Bracks-led Labor Government pulled off an unexpected win in the 1999 Victorian election.
Mr Bracks, Williamstown based but with significant regional heritage, targeted seats in regional Victoria – not the least Ballarat – claiming then premier Jeff Kennett was a city-centric leader who would not deliver for those living outside Melbourne.
Fast forward to 2014 and Premier Napthine, the member for South West Coast, is attempting to hold onto power using the Bracks formula.
The current government’s election strategy to defy Labor’s Daniel Andrews has been directed at primarily winning seats in the Ballarat and Geelong regions to offset expected losses in metropolitan areas.
In the context of Ballarat, it has seen our three marginal seats, Ripon, Wendouree and Buninyong – which are all being contested by existing Labor members – become one of, if not the most pivotal, election battleground.
If you asked the Coalition hierarchy 12 months ago, its number one electoral objective in the Ballarat region for the election would have simply been – defeat Geoff Howard in Buninyong.
Ironically, a week out from the poll, it is a division within the Coalition which is close to handing Mr Howard another term in Parliament. After 15 years in Parliament, Mr Howard was seen as extremely vulnerable in the new seat of Buninyong. The general consensus from the Coalition was that he had delivered little for his constituents when Labor was in power and was a symbol of the past failures, rather than the future.
Liberal Party candidate Ben Taylor is not wet behind the ears. He almost unseated Mr Howard at the 2010 election and has considerable recognition through his time on Ballarat City Council.
What Mr Taylor did not have, however, this week, was a purposeful strategy to deal with an attack that wasn’t from Mr Howard.
Sonia Smith was preselected by the National Party, tRhe same Nationals who are in Coalition government with the Liberals in Victoria and at national level.
The same Nationals whose stereotypical policies rarely stray from sticking up for farmers and advocating for rural infrastructure.
So when Ms Smith became vocal on the cost of living, and making Buninyong the epicentre of Australia’s renewable energy future, pundits were forced to double-take to check if the party alongside her name was a mis-print.
Even given the clear differences between Ms Smith’s strongly held personal policy views and that of the party she represents, few could have predicted that she would go a step further and launch a very targeted and public outing of Coalition colleague Mr Taylor on the issue of abortion.
Abortion is no more an issue in Ballarat than any other part of Victoria. And the views of Mr Taylor on the issue itself are not of the greatest consequence in the scheme of the election result in Buninyong.
What is relevant is that the party of which Mr Taylor is a member is led by a Premier who is staking his claim of continuing governance on the basis of trust.
This is where the quandary which has been created this week becomes potentially fatal. Mr Taylor was harangued to elaborate on his position on the state’s abortion laws. His constant response was to reiterate the party line that there will be no change, rather than clarifying his personal stance. The stand-off has undermined his trustworthiness.
If this approach was based on the advice of the party, it only served its purposes – and that of Ms Smith.
Over in Wendouree, the redistribution has created arguably Victoria’s most marginal and crucial seat.
There is none of the animosity seen south of the border in Buninyong.
Despite the knife-edge margin, there has been no degeneration to personal politics from Labor’s Sharon Knight or Liberal candidate Craig Coltman.
There has, however, been a funding promises focus like that rarely seen in Ballarat in the past 15 years.
The Liberal Party has offered to move VicRoads – and hundreds of employees – to the vexed, or cursed, Civic Hall site. Labor has offered $25 million to create a much-needed convention centre in the neglected train station precinct.
Labor kicked a goal by promising to bring the Western Bulldogs to Eureka Stadium and Liberals scored a slam dunk by announcing National Basketball League team Melbourne United would play in a newly developed indoor stadium.
Both parties seeking to invest in the city’s northern sporting precinct is a win-win for Ballarat’s future.
The Liberal Party has staked its health reputation on a massive redevelopment of Ballarat Health Services and Labor in education by committing to “rebuild” the TAFE system and offering to re-establish technical schools.
There have been dozens more pledges, few costed and even fewer with definitive start and end dates, despite questioning.
Ripon, which takes in large portions of outer western Ballarat, has been in Labor hands since the remarkable 1999 poll. But the electoral redistribution hurts it chances.
If ever it was to fall, it will be next Saturday. There will be major interest in just how well Nationals candidate Scott Turner polls in Ripon. Mr Turner is the antithesis of his Nationals counterpart in Buninyong.
He is a ‘fair dinkum’, ‘she’ll be right cobber’, type of candidate. Against the backdrop of Labor (Daniel McGlone) and Liberal (Louise Staley) candidates who don’t look entirely comfortable in rural settings, the Nationals think they are a chance.
A Nationals victory would seem unlikely but more feasible than Labor retaining the seat.
With the Nationals commanding a significant influence in two seats and a number of minor parties also standing in the region, it will be intriguing to see the impact on the Greens vote. Candidates Tony Goodfellow (Buninyong) and Alice Barnes (Wendouree) have rarely strayed from a tried and true alternative message which, in light of dissatisfaction with the major parties, is a sensible approach.
Amid the funding promises, there has been a lack of innovative new policies to fix existing or future social problems. There have been some commitments on family violence and stemming the impact of the crystal methamphetamine abuse but there’s little comprehension on what such policies will look like on the ground.
We’ve had a significant divide on the issue of improvements to transport systems, with the Liberal Party attempting to make the election a referendum on the East West Link. In a local context, while it is undoubtedly true that Ballarat business would benefit from smoother western avenues to Melbourne, the issue exemplifies the distortion between what political parties believe is in the best interests of the state and what voters want for their communities.
Outside this, health, education and jobs have underpinned the broader debate, as was expected. We would argue neither major party can guarantee resolution for youth unemployment, such is its complexity, and it should be elevated in priority status by whichever party forms government.
For Ballarat, the best outcome next Saturday is change. No matter how it is sliced and diced, a mix of Coalition and Labor members across the three seats will encourage greater scrutiny and debate.
It will encourage the major parties to continue to make Ballarat a focus, which is vital to ensure services and infrastructure develop in line with population growth and the needs of our existing residents.