Election 2002: The leader still on a learning curve

Robert Doyle’s lunch with the press didn’t go quite to plan. By Karen Kissane.

There’s nothing like a Freudian slip to liven up a political speech. Robert Doyle, Victoria’s would-be Premier, made only one yesterday, but it was a beauty. Trying to land a shot at Labor over allegedly shoddy accounting, he instead turned the gun on himself.

“I’m concerned about some of the shonky advertising . . . ,” he began. And caught himself. “Sorry. I will come back to that later.”
He didn’t come back to it, actually, or at least not until journalists in his audience at a Melbourne Press Club luncheon raised the question at the end of his speech.

The lunch was one of the few chances journalists have had for serious application of the blowtorch to the political belly. Steve Bracks had declined his invitation to come. Mr Doyle, who needs the airplay, accepted. It was bad luck for him that it coincided with a row over Liberal advertisements and publication of polls that suggest the Liberals are heading for a train wreck.

“If you believe (the polls), I will be the only Liberal member left after Saturday,” he joked at the start of his speech. Only one person laughed.

Mr Doyle has eased into the campaign harness. He was more relaxed and confident at the podium than he was just a month ago and now banters with members of the media ratpack. He teased reporters about being familiar with his 52 policies. “I know you have read them assiduously, every one,” he said, ever the jocular schoolmaster.

He got testy only once, when questioned a second time about the party’s repeated misadventures with political advertising. “I’ve just answered that,” he said, waving his finger reprovingly. Prime Minister John Howard, was equally dismissive when asked an awkward question while at Mr Doyle’s side later in the day. Mr Howard was there to lend the sheen of economic righteousness to Mr Doyle; Victoria would lose jobs if a less-than-thrifty Labor Government was re-elected, he warned.

But Mr Howard would not engage in debate over whether state Liberals around Australia were in disarray, and whether they needed to rebuild. “What’s the next question?” he said dismissively.

Did he think Mr Doyle could win? There was a small brave smile from Mr Doyle. The Prime Minister said he had told Mr Doyle that a lot could happen in the last four days. But that, if the polls were to be believed, Labor would win in a landslide. Mr Doyle’s smile disappeared.

The rest of Mr Howard’s appearance was taken up with questions about federal matters: X-raying baggage, the ABC board. It seems the price a state Liberal leader pays for the Prime Minister’s presence is his hijacking of your press conference.

At the luncheon, Mr Doyle had been asked whether he had enjoyed the ride. “What have I enjoyed most? The responsibility. You have a lot of people relying on you. You either thrive on that or it can be burdensome. I promise you I thrive on it.”
Even “matters of adversity” had been useful: “Even that teaches you something about yourself. It’s easy to be leader when everything’s going on smoothly. Anyone can do that. I guess the real test comes when you do have a setback . . . Then it’s a matter of how you deal with it. You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot about leadership. I hope that I was able in both those instances to do both myself and my party proud.”

They are the kind of sentiments he might have to call upon on Saturday night.

First published in The Age.