For all the billions of dollars pledged and promised to Victoria’s beleaguered health system this election campaign, the cost of living will be the biggest issue for voters when they start voting in 34 days.
Interest rate hikes are already hitting household budgets and another rate hike is likely three weeks before Election Day.
Voters will therefore look to both sides of the policy to see who can give them some relief.
Labor has already handed out $250 for people to visit an energy price comparison service and Matthew Guy’s opposition entered this discussion over the weekend with an easy-to-understand election speech for voters of cheap local public transport, followed by a commitment on Tuesday to cut V/Line Rates in half.
It marks a departure from the near-daily focus on the health care system, in which both sides of politics have pledged billions of dollars.
The opposition’s promise of $2 daily local transit fares is likely to provide the Coalition’s biggest campaign breakthrough yet.
Your policy is simple, memorable, and would be delivered almost immediately (next financial year).
“It’s simple, it’s easy. It helps with the cost pressures families are experiencing,” Guy said on Monday during his first day selling the policy in Melbourne’s CBD.
Even some of his opponents privately admit that it is a good political piece, especially for disinterested voters.
Dig a little deeper, however, and there are some big questions about how cheaper tickets will affect Victoria, and whether or not it’s good public policy.
Public transportation is not widely used in the outer suburbs.
Strategists believe politics is unlikely to change the vote in the outer suburbs, where public transit use is lower and where key battleground constituencies are located.
“The people who benefit from the reduction in rates are those whose services are already of good quality. That tends to be the wealthiest households in the inner and middle suburbs,” says RMIT professor Jago Dodson.
However, there is a mid-tier suburban swag that the Liberals lost in the 2018 “Danslide” that the party needs to regain to be competitive in November.
The further away from the city, the less patronage of public transport there is. The opposition says these cheap fees will encourage more users onto the network and reinvigorate usage after two years of COVID-19 disruptions.
Labor is also hopeful that voters will see the benefit of better services through infrastructure upgrades, a trademark policy of the prime minister during his time in office, rather than cheaper services.
On Sunday, Labor announced yet more grade crossing removals on the Frankston Line.
Doubts about how the opposition will pay the promises
Despite shelving the Suburban Rail Loop, the opposition has committed to two rail line extensions, which Guy says will be financed from the budget, but has also promised to rein in state debt.
Cheap fares on the local and regional public transportation network will cost $1.5 billion in lost revenue.
The Coalition will have to explain how the savings will be realized.
Speaking in parliament in 2019, Shadow Treasurer David Davis admitted that lower fares came at a cost, saying “lost revenue means fewer options on public transport elsewhere”.
“In fact, we have a line to walk on these kinds of approaches: on the one hand keeping fares low because usage is high and options with cars and other modes are shrinking, but at the same time collecting enough fares to afford us execute the quality of service we want,” Davis said in 2019.
This is exactly the concern of the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) and other experts.
PTUA’s Daniel Bowen says that while there are tariff problems in Victoria, the opposition’s plan “has gone too far” and the association fears what the loss of revenue will mean for network improvements.
The policy is meant to last four years, but the reality is that cheap tariffs like this are very difficult to reverse if implemented.
Yet many voters, who pay only passing attention to the campaign, care about these things?
So far, health has dominated the campaign.
The opposition unleashed an arms war over hospital funding, which the government has voluntarily joined with even greater commitments than the Liberals.
The opposition says it will use the money from getting rid of the commuter rail loop to fund its health promises, but that doesn’t leave much room to spend elsewhere, which is why questions will linger over how it will fund the $1.3 billion hit in budget.
Apathetic voters before the elections
Predicting elections is a game of cups, especially in an increasingly volatile and fragmented political environment.
The general view is that the election is for Labor to lose. The saying “oppositions do not win, governments lose” sounds strong.
Statewide polls consistently show Labor with a comfortable lead, but there seems to be a lot of apathy towards the election.
All parties expect the election to be closer than polls suggest, with a growing third-party vote forecast.
The Coalition relies on anti-Andrews sentiment to sway voters in the voting booth, especially among disinterested voters.
Ted Baillieu trailed in most polls until the closing days of the 2010 campaign. Like Matthew Guy, he ran for the second time against a long-term Labor government although, unlike Guy, Baillieu made significant favor of Labor on his first try.
Voters are likely to see Prime Minister Daniel Andrews more as the campaign heats up. He is a masterful activist, even liberals acknowledge him through clenched teeth, which, again, will change the dynamic of the next six weeks.
The cheap rate policy should boost some goals for the Coalition, but off the field, the campaign is beset by infighting and accusations of a toxic workplace: WorkSafe is evaluating a complaint about behavior at campaign headquarters.
A highly libelous website smearing liberal factions is angering the party and is a distraction from their bid to win office.
There is also tension between the leader’s office and campaign headquarters over strategy.
Hardly ideal for a party struggling with brand damage in Victoria, after years of poor performance and resentment from the previous Morrison government.
However, Labor is also grappling with ministers’ and MPs’ frustration at the centralized control of the Private Prime Minister’s Office (PPO) and the lack of information and attention that some MPs want.
Several Labor figures have joked that the PPO has only two gears: arrogance and panic.
Hubris is something Labor must avoid to secure a third term, party figures admit.
Both sides dismiss off-field issues as an integral part of election campaigns when MPs and staff are worried about the outcome.
After the federal elections in May and two years of COVID-19, voters are tired of politics and politicians. It is not the most mature environment for campaigning.
The key will be to offer cross-cutting policies that voters don’t have to think too hard about.
With cheaper train, tram and bus fares, the Coalition might have found a valuable weapon, but it will need to find much more to win the 18 additional seats needed by the government.
And that’s before Labor steps up its efforts to help back pockets.