10 March 2013
Over the past two years, the stories emanating from Ted Baillieu's office have echoed the stories that led to Kevin Rudd's political assassination. An office plagued by secrecy, a leader in isolation with his closest allies, and a Cabinet that felt left out of key decisions.
Both Rudd and Baillieu were sent loud warnings in the lead up to their ultimate dismissal. Even the former Premier who mentored Baillieu was sending very blunt messages just weeks earlier.
Rudd had pink batts and school halls, Baillieu had Simon Overland, the OPI and finally, Geoff Shaw.
The party's mistake when it came to Rudd and Baillieu though isn't in their downfall, but rather, in their elevation to the leadership. While Rudd was the shining light of morning TV, Baillieu was the last man standing. Two days before the 2006 election, he famously slumped on the floor of the media bus and told several journalists that he'd just lost it.
By 2010, Labor had been in power for 11 years, and a forth term win requires a brilliant conductor to persuade the orchestra why the government is still relevant.
Ted Baillieu certainly looked the part, and he had a good, solid name that sounded like he'd deliver a budget surplus. But the party's choice of Treasurer meant the Coalition went to an election with a money man who wasn't a natural media performer either. A Liberal afraid to talk numbers? Something strange was happening.
Within six months, senior business leaders with a history of working closely with government told me they'd "never seen anything like this mob".
Bureaucrats complained that projects were moving too slowly. In fact slow seemed too fast a word. And then there was the populist but self-defeating decision to cut the number of government advisors.
Within six months the honeymoon was over and it happened at record speed. The Premier's office promised it wasn't going to "feed the chooks" - a term that means "organising news stories". Despite Baillieu looking great at the People's Forum at the Burvale pub, the truth is, his Chief of Staff at the time threatened to pull him out of the event.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary press gallery was shrinking as state politics became less vibrant.
On Monday, March 4, the "Secret Tapes" dropped on Spring Street and sent a mushroom cloud above 1 Treasury. Just before Christmas, some supporters of Baillieu had said that he just needed a crisis so he could show us what he could do as leader. Sadly, one is rarely presented with the crisis they think they deserve.
The secret tapes were described as "not the last straw, but the last 100 tonnes to fall on the Premier's office". There were three main players in the downfall of Ted Baillieu: Tristan Weston, Bill Tilley and Geoff Shaw.
The plotters handed Ted a very public hot potato - one that would show the rest of the party just why they wanted him gone. The party watched on in horror as Baillieu referred his Chief of Staff to IBAC - perhaps one of the most awkward moments in Victoria's political history. MPs couldn't believe that the Premier hadn't read the secret tapes transcripts.
Geoff Shaw gave Baillieu two days to explain himself. Meanwhile, another highly damaging opinion poll sealed Baillieu's fate. On Wednesday morning, Shaw sent a three-sentence letter to the Liberals Deputy Leader Louise Asher at 10.30am. One wonders when that letter was written. An hour later, news broke that Victoria slumped into technical recession.
When reports emerged that the reason Shaw resigned was because he'd lost faith in the Premier, I thought someone had got the wording wrong. He'd lost faith in Baillieu? Geoff Shaw is a shopping list of bad decisions.
If Geoff Shaw was the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, it was the Premier's office, and a handful of those within it, who had for too long believed they were sailing on an unsinkable ship. When the iceberg finally hit, they returned to their cabins rather than their lifeboats.
At the end of Question Time on Wednesday afternoon, a Sky News cameraman and myself had set up on level one of parliament house, waiting for an interview with Daniel Andrews. But every few minutes, we were being ordered to move on. This had never happened before.
Unbeknown to us at the time, a leadership challenge was on. Within the bowels of parliament, known as the dungeon, Liberal MPs were running between offices. It was chaos.
There was lots of movement and plenty of stern faces. Not even the ALP knew what was about to happen. At 4.20, Geoff Shaw was spotted in the building. Sure enough Shaw was inside the private members dining room sitting with Liberal MP Murray Thompson.
Louise Asher was seen talking with him as well. Curious. But Shaw's presence was a blessing for the Liberals. It distracted the media, because underneath our feet, the parliamentary rabbit warren was buzzing with activity. Doors were being closed, meetings were being held. A mutiny was afoot.
Eventually several people went to Ted Baillieu, and told him and his closest advisors that the party had lost faith - Ted, it's time to go.
By 6pm, Ted Baillieu knew he was gone. It took three hours of discussions after two short years as Premier. When the Liberal party meeting was called for 7pm, the spin machine spun into action. The loud applause inside the party room was a celebration that Baillieu had finally listened to them.
There's no doubt that Denis Napthine was Ted's preferred replacement if this moment ever came. Last year there were rumblings that Ted had sounded out Mary Wooldridge or Denis Napthine as replacements in case circumstance got the better of him. But no one thought either of them could pull the Coalition out of its death spiral.
The best leaders aren't always naturally born. Ted Baillieu had the exact look of a "Hollywood" Premier. Strong, chiselled, and presents an imposing figure.
The media spent years trying to understand Ted, but we only got to know him after he quit. Ted is the sort of person who would rather jump in front of the bus than push people under it. I haven't found anyone who thought Ted should be the first man to fall.
Tony Nutt was seen as the magic bullet when he took Michael Kapel's job (a man whose early decisions plotted Baillieu on the wrong course). But every man occasionally trusts the wrong person. The OPI has been accused of being the thought police. But while corrupt police officers have to face the law, politicians face a far lower barrier - public opinion. On radio and TV, the "I don't recall" defence sounds like you're trying to deceive the people who elected you.
And once that happens, you're toast.
Ted Baillieu ignored the advice of many within his office and cabinet. Eventually after years of quiet grumblings, the disaffected rolled into a critical mass.
It was done on a Wednesday night, just like Rudd. At 7pm, just like Rudd. The men had faces, they just don't want you to know who they are. But Napthine was Ted's preferred successor, Rudd was Rudd's.
Matthew Guy could have become Premier, and he almost did. But Denis Napthine presented a simpler transition, without the complications of an Upper House Premier.
This is a tale of ignorance and crisis mismanagement that wasted a wonderful chance for the Victorian Liberals.
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