Can Guy turn his political fortunes around before the November poll?

Can Guy turn his political fortunes around before the November poll?

August 11, 2022

It’s been almost one year since Matthew Guy took back the leadership of the Victorian Liberal Party and some of his closest allies are starting to ask: what if he’d never challenged?

In this political hypothetical, Guy remains spokesman for jobs and trade and a range of other portfolios in Michael O’Brien’s team.

Matthew Guy (right) and deputy leader David Southwick after last year’s spill which resulted in Michael O’Brien being dumped as Liberal leader.Credit:Justin McManus

He never would have found himself rushing to hire staff after a messy leadership spill. He never would have opened up his Hotmail account to find a drawn-up contract from Mitch Catlin asking him to forward it onto a wealthy Liberal Party donor.

In this scenario, O’Brien would be leading the Coalition to the election and forced to overcome the political hurdles of the past 12 months. Factional fallouts, an MP caught drink-driving, the expulsion of Bernie Finn: each one of them would have been an O’Brien problem.

Had O’Brien gone on to win the state election, Guy would have become a senior minister of the Crown in his government. If the Coalition had lost, Guy would almost certainly be in the perfect position to take back the leadership without a messy mid-term leadership coup.

But the events of September 7, 2021, changed all this.

Mitch Catlin resigned last week as chief of staff after it was revealed he had asked a Liberal donor to make more than $100,000 in payments to his marketing business.Credit:Tash Sorensen

Instead, 3½ months from polling day, the Coalition is behind in the polls and Guy is desperately trying to move on from the donor scandal that claimed his chief of staff and, subsequently, his communications director and diary manager.

There are unsubstantiated whispers Guy might next week be confronted by colleagues over his leadership and judgment failures, but so far, no one is threatening to challenge or step up and offer an alternative.

Guy is understandably frustrated by the events of the past fortnight. The Labor government has been plagued by scandals since it was elected in 2014, and more recently, like Guy’s office, lost a number of senior political staff, albeit with a lot less fanfare.

The Andrews government has certainly done enough to lose the election, but the Opposition has been such a shambles that it has been unable to capitalise on Labor’s woes.

The Andrews Government has also been plagued by scandals.Credit:Joe Armao

Guy’s political judgment is rightly being questioned by colleagues. But he has also been dragged down by a substandard parliamentary team who have long assumed that by simply being something other than Labor, they would attract support.

It’s a tactic which relies on the old political theory that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them. While it still holds true, this theory also requires a good opposition to help them to do so.

As one Liberal strategist put it this week: “No one needs a review or poll to tell you that voters want to get rid of Andrews, but we aren’t a party people want to vote for either.”

Organisationally, Guy has also had to deal with rampant factionalism at an administration level, and a party which has failed to attract new members at a grassroots level, particularly in growth areas.

“You have all these organisation failings and brand failings that can’t be turned around in three months,” another Liberal insider said this week.

Then there are the threadbare policy offerings from the Coalition. Pollsters believe the election can be won or lost on health as well as cost-of-living policies. But with 13 weeks until early voting centres open, the opposition has little to sell.

Frustrated by scandals sucking up airtime, health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier drew the short straw and addressed the media on Wednesday just hours after news broke that the opposition had lost its communications director.

Crozier made it clear she thought Victorians weren’t interested in the staff turnovers in Guy’s office given the elective surgery waiting list had blown out to 87,000. So, when questions turned to how the Liberals and Nationals were going to halve that list – as promised – reporters were told to bide their time.

“There are so many things that can be done, but we will be saying more about that closer to the election,” she said.

Rising prices will also be a pivotal concern for voters heading to the polls in November. Interstate governments are offering vouchers for before-and-after-school care, road tolls rebates and payments for pensioners and low-income earners.

If the Coalition is serious about moving on from its fortnight of scandal, releasing policies which target cost-of-living pressures would be a good place to start.

Working in the Coalition’s favour is the fact support for Labor has slipped since the last election, particularly in the party’s traditional heartland. If Coalition MPs unite and start releasing some alternative and attractive policies, there is a chance the Opposition can turn its electoral fortunes around.

Guy knows that if he doesn’t lead his party to government, or seriously improve his party’s position, his days of leading the Liberals will be over. It was a scenario he was warned about when he made that fateful decision to challenge O’Brien almost one year ago.

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