Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From Williams Creek To Ted's Swamp

BENEATH Elizabeth Street in Melbourne there is a paved-over, almost forgotten creek that caused problems for builders and property owners almost from the day John Batman decided the undulating plain on the north side of the Yarra was a fine spot for his village. Within a very few years, the stream -- known then as Williams Creek -- was irreparably fouled by those who set up house along its banks, and the population explosion that followed the discovery of gold made the situation a good deal worse. By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, as cathedrals and flash hotels sprouted on the high ground, the stream had backed up to form a vast and reeking lagoon of poo that covered much of what is now the Bourke Street Mall. If you take the kiddies to see the Myer Christmas windows this year, do tell them about the pissed diggers who fell off the duckboards and perished en route from Young & Jackson’s to the tent city that began behind St Francis church on Lonsdale Street. Children being children, they will find a greater delight in mental images of grownups drowning in doo-doo than anything on display behind the glass.

Times have certainly changed. Elizabeth Street floods these days only during the worst storms, and neither typhoid nor cholera figure prominently in public health statistics. But hidden currents? Well, they still work mischief in Melbourne, and the best place to observe their toxic influence is Spring Street – a very hazardous locale, as the Phage’s front-page scoop this morning makes  clear. “Lib MP in Sir Ken Leak”, the headline says, announcing a story that goes on to report how parliamentary secretary for police, Member for Benambra Bill Tilley, slipped an email from Sir Ken Jones, once widely tipped to become the state’s next police commissioner, to a friendly reporter at the Sunday Herald Sun. This was a big deal at the time, not least because ex-Commissioner Simon “Call Me Christine II” Overland believed Sir Ken did the leaking and sooled the Office of Police Integrity’s buggers onto his rival’s private phone. And just for good measure, the OPI also bugged various other coalition politicians, including cabinet members, as well as their wives, children and sundry political bit players. It will be remembered as the Baillieu government’s first scandal, and as this morning’s headline makes clear, for the Opposition it is the gift that will keep on giving.

What the headline does not mention is the anguish gnawing at those who wish Big Ted well. After more than a decade of spin, sordid deals and profligate spending under the former Bracks/Brumby regime, Victoria could use a bit of good government. Trouble is, members of this one appear bent on putting their energies into various internal feuds and petty jealousies, the Tilley leak being the latest and most public symptom.

The Police Association, for example, was a muted but muscular supporter of a change in government, and given its sympathies there should have been few obstacles to the successful and rapid conclusion of a new labor contract. Instead, Victorians are now hearing radio ads describing the policeman’s unhappy lot and lambasting the government for not honouring members’ selfless service with an adequate raise.

One also hears whispers of restiveness on the government benches, where the perception is that Baillieu favourites – which is to say those not linked to Michael Kroger -- are rewarded with staff and budgets while others struggle to cope with their portfolio’s workloads. Again and again, the name of Baillieu’s chief of staff, Michael Kapel, comes up, the common charge being that he has assumed the role of grand vizier, limiting government members’ access to the premier and approving or scuttling staff appointments on the basis of who is, and who is not, a pal of Big Ted and his mentor, former federal member for Kooyong Petro Georgio.

This is, of course, the meat and potatoes of all politics, be it in State Parliament or your local footy club.  But it is also an indulgence a government with a tiny, one-seat majority can ill afford. Suppose, for example, a local member is obliged to resign. The byelection goes the wrong way and -- whack! -- Labor’s incompetents are back in power. The polls demonstrating the Baillieu team’s popularity are actually compounding this danger, providing a sense of false security.

Getting the police on side should be a piece of cake for a law-and-order government, yet it has not happened. Winkling out Labor's holdover allies from the upper reaches of the public service, where the evidence suggests they are working strenuously to white ant Baillieu, needs to be another priority. Yet what do we see? Palace politics borne on leaks, internecine agendas, quiet gripes and, just beneath the surface, treacherous fissures that could swallow the coalition whole.

In the 19th century, Melbourne’s city fathers instituted a series of sweeping public-health reforms – the introduction of nightmen being the most useful -- to regulate the growing city’s growing volume of effluent. And they made it a priority to cover Elizabeth Street's creek and clean out that noisome Bourke Street swamp. If this government is not to throw itself out of office like so much night soil, perhaps it should look to history and clean up its act. Then it can begin to restore the fortunes of all Victorians, not just those members of the government who do not like Michael Kroger.   

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