Despite all the billions of dollars committed and promised on Victoria’s beleaguered health system this election campaign, it will be cost of living that looms as the major issue for voters when they begin to cast their ballots in 34 days’ time.
Interest rates rises are already hurting household budgets and it is likely another rate hike will be delivered three weeks out from election day.
So, voters will be looking to both sides of politics to see who can deliver them some relief.
Labor has already handed out $250 for people to visit a power price comparison service and Matthew Guy’s opposition entered this discussion over the weekend with an easy-to-understand election pitch to voters of cheap local public transport, followed by a commitment on Tuesday to halve V/Line fares.
It marks a move away from the near-daily focus on the health system, at which both sides of politics have pledged billions of dollars.
The opposition’s promise of $2 daily local public transport fares is likely to provide the biggest cut-through of the Coalition’s campaign, so far.
Their policy is simple, it’s memorable and would be delivered almost straight away (next financial year).
“It’s straightforward, it’s easy. It helps with cost pressures that families are experiencing,” Mr Guy said on Monday during his first day selling the policy in Melbourne’s CBD.
Even some of his opponents privately concede that it is a good piece of politics, especially for disengaged voters.
However, delve a little deeper and there are some big questions about how the cheaper tickets will affect Victoria, and whether or not it is a good piece of public policy.
Not much public transport use in outer suburbs
Strategists believe the policy is also unlikely to be a vote shifter in the outer suburbs, where public transport use is less, and where the key battleground electorates are located.
“The people who benefit from the reduction in fares are those where the services are already good quality. That tends to be wealthier households in the inner- and middle-suburbs,” RMIT Professor Jago Dodson says.
There is, however, a swag of middle-rung suburbs the Liberals lost in the 2018 “Danslide” that the party needs to win back to be competitive in November.
The further out from the city, the less public transport patronage there is. The opposition say these cheap fares will encourage more users to the network and reinvigorate usage after two years of COVID-19 interruptions.
Labor is also pinning its hopes that voters will see the benefit in having better services through infrastructure upgrades — a signature policy of the premier’s throughout his time in office — rather than cheaper services.
On Sunday, Labor announced even more level crossing removals on the Frankston line.
Questions over how opposition will pay for promises
Despite shelving the Suburban Rail Loop, the opposition has committed to two train line extensions, which Mr Guy says will be funded out of the budget, but he has also promised to rein-in state debt.
The cheap fares across the local and regional public transport network will cost $1.5 billion in lost revenue.
The Coalition will have to spell out how the savings will be made.
Speaking in parliament in 2019, Shadow Treasurer David Davis conceded there was a cost of lowering fares, saying “forgone revenue means less options in public transport elsewhere”.
“We actually have a line to walk on these sorts of approaches — on one hand, holding fares low that usage is high and choices with cars and other modes are reduced but, at the same time, collecting enough fares to enable us to run the quality of service we want,” Mr 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 issues with fares in Victoria, the opposition’s plan has “gone a lot too far” and the association holds fears about what the lost revenue will mean for network improvements.
The policy is due to last four years, but the reality is cheap fares like this are very hard to roll back if implemented.
However, do many voters — who only pay passing attention to the campaign — worry about these things?
Up until now, health has dominated the campaign.
The opposition triggered an arms war on hospital funding, which the government has willingly joined with even bigger commitments than the Liberals.
The opposition says it will use money from dumping the suburban rail loop to fund its health promises, but that does not leave much room for spending elsewhere, which is why questions over how it will fund the $1.3 billion hit to the budget will persist.
Voters apathetic towards the election
Predicting elections is a mugs game, especially in such an increasingly volatile and fragmented political environment.
Across the board, the view is that the election is Labor’s to lose. The adage “oppositions don’t win, governments lose” rings loud.
Statewide polling consistently shows Labor with a comfortable lead, but there appears to be a great deal of apathy towards the election.
All parties expect the election to be tighter than those polls suggest, with a growing third party vote predicted.
The Coalition are banking on anti-Andrews sentiment to swing voters in the voting booth, especially among disengaged voters.
Ted Baillieu trailed in most polls until the last days of the 2010 campaign. Like Matthew Guy, he was running for the second time against a long-term Labor government although, unlike Mr Guy, Mr Baillieu made significant ground on Labor at his first attempt.
Voters are likely to see more of Premier Daniel Andrews as the campaign heats up. He is a masterful campaigner — even Liberals concede this through gritted teeth — which will, again, change the dynamic of the next six weeks.
The cheap fares policy should kick some goals for the Coalition, but off-field the campaign is beset by infighting and allegations of a toxic workplace — WorkSafe is assessing a complaint about behaviour at campaign HQ.
A highly defamatory website of Liberal factional smears is angering the party and is a distraction from its bid to win office.
There’s also tension between the leader’s office and campaign HQ about strategy.
It’s hardly ideal for a party struggling with brand damage in Victoria, after years of poor performance and resentment remaining from the former Morrison government.
However, Labor is also dealing with frustration among ministers and backbenchers with the centralised control of the Premier’s Private Office (PPO) and the lack of information and attention some MPs desire.
Several Labor figures have quipped that the PPO only has two gears: hubris and panic.
Hubris is something Labor needs to avoid to secure a third term, party figures concede.
Both sides dismiss off-field issues as part and parcel of election campaigns when MPs and staff are worried about the outcome.
After the federal election in May, and two years of COVID-19, voters are weary of politics and politicians. It’s hardly the ripest environment to campaign.
The key will be delivering cut-through policies that voters do not need to think too deeply about.
With cheaper train, tram and bus fares the Coalition might have found a valuable weapon, but it will need to find a lot more to win an extra 18 seats needed for government.
And that’s before Labor ramps-up its efforts to help the hip pockets.