‘Not here to have a fight’: Victorian political leaders ditch aggression for debate amid cut-throat campaign

<span>Photograph: Ian Currie/AAP</span>
Photograph: Ian Currie/AAP

There was a point, about halfway into the only debate ahead of the Victorian state election between Daniel Andrews and Matthew Guy, that summed up the entire affair.

“I’m not here to have a fight, I’m here to answer questions,” the opposition leader said in a monotone.

“It’s not an argument, it’s a debate,” replied the premier.

Most of the one-hour debate, moderated by Sky News’ Kieran Gilbert, was anything but.

The two leaders largely stuck to their carefully rehearsed talking points, with the only interjections coming from the premier, who appeared comfortable on stage while Guy was clearly instructed to keep a lid on his trademark aggression.

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Andrews spruiked his “positive and optimistic plan” – removing more level crossings, free kinder and Tafe, reviving the SEC and building schools, hospitals, and the Suburban Rail Loop.

Guy mentioned his “real solutions plan” and the challenges ahead for Victoria: the struggling state’s health system, cost of living pressures and questions around the government’s integrity.

“There is so much to do in our state. My opponents have been in government though for 19 of 23 years – they can’t evade that responsibility,” he said.

None of it was new, though instead of the mudslinging and name-calling that has become a trademark of this campaign, there were smiles plastered on both leaders’ faces.

Two interjections by Andrews were undoubtably the only moments of tension between the pair.

The first came after Gilbert asked whether Labor would remove ads suggesting the Coalition will allow fracking as part of their plan gas plan, describing them as “misinformation”.

As Guy was telling the audience the Coalition’s plans would not involve fracking, Andrews said the state’s chief scientist had found there were no known reserves where gas could be explored.

“It’s a pretty important point, if you’ve got a gas plan then you need to get it out of the ground and this is the method. The only way to get it out of the ground is to frack it out of the ground,” Andrews said.

Guy remained composed and stuck to his point: “There won’t be any fracking.”

In another exchange, as Guy accused the state government of being involved in an unprecedented number of corruption probes and said the anti-corruption watchdog didn’t have the same powers as other jurisdictions, Andrews accused the opposition leader of double standards.

“Weren’t you just bragging about the fact that you set it up and were around the cabinet table? Isn’t this your model? The one that you’re now saying that we’re defending, you can’t have it both ways,” Andrews said.

“The fight is yours Daniel,” Guy replied.

The intention of Guy’s behaviour was clear. Later in the debate, when Gilbert requested each leader to ask each other a question, Guy asked Andrews why he had “adopted such a combative and divisive style”.

Guy then went straight into his closing address, pitching a new government and “change in attitude”.

“A premier who respects you who listens to you, who values your opinion, who doesn’t hector, lecture, or berate you. And I commit to all of you tonight and to every Victorian to be that premier,” he said.

The debate was fluid and there were wide-ranging questions on topics such as the Melbourne’s post-Covid recovery, regional Victoria and support for veterans.

However the state’s debt dominated, with three seperate questions asked by audience members about it.

Andrews said he had demonstrated his ability to make hard decisions and would do so again in regards to the budget.

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“We’ve committed about $12bn worth of additional spending [during the election], I think Matthew’s commitments are quite a lot more than that, closer to $30bn,” he said.

It was a comment Andrews repeated several times during the debate, which was curious given Labor has labelled Guy “the Liberal cuts guy” in much of its advertising, going as far as creating a website – thecutsguy.com – and an associated Facebook page.

It also appeared a tit-for-tat over right-wing fringe candidates – some of whom Andrews has said are “Nazis” – getting Liberal preferences has cut through to voters.

Audience member Alison – a constituent of Guy’s in his electorate of Bulleen – asked why the Liberal party preferenced the Freedom party above Labor and the Greens.

“Would you rather those people in parliament than Labor?” she asked.

Guy said the Coalition’s preferences were to ensure Victoria gets a change of government and that he did not believe this group would be elected to the lower house.

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“Why then preference these micro parties who have on any reasonable measure extreme views, not just carrying guns, but you know, using them?” Andrews responded.

“This just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not us. Matthew and I will disagree on lots of stuff but we do so peacefully and we respect the umpire’s decision.”

Of the 100 undecided voters in attendance at Box Hill town hall, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, 38% said they would now be backing Andrews and Labor, while 34% supported Guy and the Coalition and 28% remained unsure.

The seat of Box Hill, currently held by Labor’s Paul Hamer on a 3.1% margin, is one of several in the area that Labor unexpectedly won during the 2018 “Danslide” and is considered a must-win for the Coalition if it is to have any chance of forming government.

The leaders were keen to show a civilised debate about issues, rather than descend into aggressive down-in-the-mud attacks.

Let’s see if their parties follow suit in the final days of this election campaign.