Matthew Guy 2.0: Can a leopard change his spots?

By Sumeyya Ilanbey and Paul Sakkal

Can Matthew Guy, the bare-knuckle brawler, change his spots? Credit:Wayne Taylor

Matthew Jason Guy is exuberant. He has spent the better part of two years licking his wounds, away from the frenzied – and thankless – task of being opposition leader during a pandemic that favours incumbents.

He’s brimming with energy and humour as he takes to the lectern for his first press conference since he toppled Michael O’Brien to lay out his vision for the state. The media conference is devoid of any substantive policy pronouncements, but that’s not what this is about. This is about personality and brand. The resurrected leader pledges hope, positivity and unity – a shift from his bare-knuckle brawler style of the past.

Guy and his deputy, David Southwick, used the word “hope” 17 times, and “positive” 12 times, which raises the question: has Matthew Guy, a feuding political animal, really changed?

The Labor Party hopes perceptions of Guy – the aggressive TV news grabs, “lobster with a mobster” saga and his controversial decisions as planning minister – are cemented in the minds of Victorians. But some in Labor are wary of a hungry leader who has matured and may be primed to exploit the anxieties of the electorate.

Tim Smith, Guy’s most important ally, says Victorians didn’t get to see the Matthew (he doesn’t go by “Matt”) he knows during his last stint as opposition leader. “I want them to see the side of Matthew we see all the time,” he says. “He’s a great bloke, he’s a laid-back and optimistic guy, and he’ll be a great leader.”

Guy has been back in the job for less than a week, rendering any judgment premature. However, Ian Hanke, a long-time Liberal campaigner who has known Guy for at least 20 years, believes the 47-year-old has been tempered by political adversity.

“I think he has matured over the past few years in the wilderness. Having ample time to consider his own future, what went wrong, what he did right – I actually didn’t think it was a bad start to the rest of what’s going to unfold,” Hanke says.

The member for Bulleen, restored to leadership of his party, knows how fickle politics can be. A day can seem like months, and 14 months an eternity. The temptation to revert to his brawling style will be high, but his colleagues are hoping Guy’s political nous and pragmatism will hold him, and the party, in good stead ahead of next year’s state election.

Question time was a subdued affair as Matthew Guy tried to convince Victorians he has changed. Credit: Chris Hopkins

Matthew Guy 2.0

Since his appointment as leader many commentators have debated whether Guy will be able to change his spots. But some question whether he needs to dramatically change, and wonder whether the circumstances may have changed to suit him.

Polling showed the Coalition snapping at Labor’s heels for much of 2014 to 2018, and Guy’s ability to prosecute an argument and go toe-to-toe with the Premier was rarely in question. In a period when the economy was growing and infrastructure was being built whichever way you turned, Guy and his inexperienced campaign head office sought to differentiate themselves from Labor on gang crime and social issues such as the LGBTQ anti-bullying program Safe Schools.

The Liberals’ organisational wing was riven by factional feuding that inhibited its ability to muster votes. In the crucial final stages of the 2018 campaign, its advertising efforts were non-existent. The federal party’s infighting, resulting in Malcolm Turnbull’s demise as prime minister months out from the Victorian poll, hurt the party’s state brand – a development accepted by strategists on both sides as key to Labor’s election day landslide.

The Liberals believe their campaign machine has improved. The November 2022 election will be fought after numerous COVID-19 lockdowns, with all their economic and social harm. Some Victorians will be angry and looking for a fresh voice.

Guy will face an uphill challenge finding enough of these voters to offset the strong support for Daniel Andrews, particularly after the crushing 2018 election defeat left the Coalition 28 lower house seats behind Labor.

A respected former Labor operative says Guy’s success will lie in his ability to mirror the man whose job he’s trying to steal.

“He needs to do what Rudd did to Howard; position himself as the Liberal Daniel Andrews,” the Labor figure says. “He needs to continue the infrastructure, invest in schools, education and health. He needs to show people their lives won’t change dramatically and his points of difference are his priorities: small business support, giving a voice to the voiceless, and projecting more positivity than the Premier.

“He should not be underestimated. He’s a brawler and has similar instincts to Daniel and Scott Morrison. They have lived and breathed politics all their lives and they’re good at it.”

One thing COVID-19 has taught Guy, and his colleagues, is that you can never win every argument. So when The Age asks Liberals whether a politician can genuinely shift 180 degrees, they acknowledge their bias but say “yes”.

Guy is the son of postwar migrants and the product of a public school education. He grew up in outer-suburban Montmorency and settled with his family of five in a Templestowe cul-de-sac. He can speak across classes in a way Michael O’Brien, the lawyer from Malvern, was never able to.

There is widespread acknowledgement in the party that the Liberals need to look beyond the eastern suburbs and woo Labor voters in Melbourne’s outer west and south-east, who have been the worst hit by the pandemic and lockdowns.

As the Liberal Party’s voter base got older, it began to lose touch with the Victorian community. The worst losses for the Liberals in 2018 were in once-safe middle-ring eastern electorates such as Box Hill, Mount Waverley and Ringwood.

The party has no lower house MPs in Melbourne’s western suburbs, it has little presence in regional cities and it is losing a grasp on suburbs in Melbourne’s outer east. Where does this leave it?

Matthew Guy (second from right) walks to the Liberal party room on Tuesday, flanked by his supporters, to topple Michael O’Brien. Credit:Justin McManus

John Roskam, Liberal powerbroker and head of free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, calls for the “Boris [Johnson] ‘red wall’ strategy, the Howard battler strategy, Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’ strategy”.

“Australia is more unequal than ever. During the lockdown, public servants got a pay rise whereas the private sector, those who are connected to the workforce, were suffering. Is Matthew going to change all of this by November? Nah. But he can start to. And he needs to do what John Brumby did for Steve Bracks in 1999: go to regional seats, tell them Labor is ignoring them, and at least open your ears to our message. That is the bigger challenge for Matthew and the Liberal Party.

“Michael [O’Brien] is better in Portsea and Malvern, but Matthew speaks to the working class, he speaks to the traditional Labor voters, where an election can be won.”

Labor research points to the same thing. One Labor strategist tells The Age Guy was more likely to win over disaffected voters in the south-east and regional centres.

“No one should underestimate a political leader who knows they only have one more shot in the locker,” the strategist says. “He’ll be more aggressive and hungrier. You can accuse Guy of many things but not of lacking energy.”

The Opposition Leader’s positive message in September 2021 stands in contrast to his acid-tongued parliamentary speech at the height of last year’s coronavirus second wave, in which he described Victoria as being “on its knees”. The video racked up more than a million views and is cited by his supporters as proof of his ability to captivate voters.

Guy ultimately benefits from one simple factor: he isn’t Michael O’Brien.

The ousted leader, while respected across the party as a decent and intelligent man, suffered because the agitators in his party, those who spearheaded Guy’s return, would criticise him for just about every move he made. They criticised him for not attacking Andrews strongly enough, but they also complained about him sounding too negative on the nightly news.

In the end, it wasn’t what he said or how he said it that cost him his job. The party decided a shrewder operator was needed, and Guy is the best in the party’s slender arsenal. His return means the MPs who fomented disunity under O’Brien are back in the tent, and party unity should no longer be an issue.

Unless, that is, O’Brien follows through with the threat to “blow the place up” that one of his allies communicated to The Age the night before Tuesday’s leadership spill. It’s unclear what O’Brien could do and there are no signs he might choose this path. The MPs loyal to him tend to the older, quieter and more moderate end of the party room.

Tim Smith was one of those MPs who occasionally caused O’Brien headaches due to tweets that brought unwanted media attention. He says younger, single people like himself found lockdowns particularly difficult.

“They’ve sent a lot of us a bit troppo, me included on occasion,” he says. “I’m 100 per cent part of the team and Matthew is the captain.”

Liberal MPs believe the electorate will move on from Guy’s controversies and the party’s woes over the past three decades. But Labor isn’t prepared to let Victorians either forget or forgive.

A woman problem, and a PM problem

The new Opposition Leader’s fortunes could be influenced by two key factors: whether women trust him, and whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison retains power.

Labor pollster Kos Samaras said that during Guy’s first stint as leader, the group he appealed to least was women, particularly younger and middle-aged mothers. This group, on average, also happen to be Andrews’ strongest supporters. A Liberal Party campaigner said the party’s 2018 election research made similar findings.

Labor research showed Guy was perceived as aggressive and threatening. His tough-on-crime approach was an attempt to put himself forward as a protector of Victorians, but women in particular favoured Andrews’ form of protection: investing in schools and making kinder free, bolstering hospitals and giving people more free time at home by cutting travel times on roads through level-crossing removals.

Samaras, who helped run Labor’s 2014 and 2018 election campaigns, says these women have moved into Andrews’ camp in even greater numbers since the pandemic.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Guy in Melbourne a fortnight before the 2018 election. Credit:Eddie Jim

“They are Daniel’s core. They are nurturers worried about their family getting COVID,” he said, adding that the Liberal Party’s brand, fed by perceptions of Gladys Berejiklian and Scott Morrison, had worsened among Victorians, who overwhelmingly support the health-first pandemic response.

The federal election is due between September this year and March next year. Crucially, it will be held before the Victorian election in November 2022. This means any anti-Liberal sentiment in the community created by the mishandled vaccine rollout will be soaked up by the federal Coalition rather than its Victorian counterpart.

Victorian Liberals privately admit that a Morrison loss would be best for their chances at the state poll. The theory is that if Victorians get their baseball bats out for Morrison, they’re more likely to give the Liberals a go in Victoria the next time they cast their vote.

The Coalition’s staffing and campaign ranks over the years have been depleted because talented party operatives have moved to work in Canberra. A federal Liberal loss could free many of those staff to work on the state election.

Psyching out Dan

It’s just before 2.30pm on the first sitting day of Parliament since Victoria entered its sixth lockdown, as senior politicians trickle into the near-empty chamber of the Legislative Assembly. Matthew Guy walks in as newly elected leader of the Liberal Party and prepares to take his seat opposite the Premier.

The scene is both eerily familiar and completely foreign. Guy is taking on Andrews, as he did for four years until 2018, but the green chamber is pared back for a COVID-safe sitting, Andrews is separated from his opponent by plastic guard shields, and Guy is tempering his combative nature.

Not a single question is directed at Andrews. The Liberals’ strategy is to psych out the Premier by starving him of airtime and wasting an hour of his busy day.

Andrews used question time to cause chaos and drain the confidence of Coalition MPs, and many in the Coalition hope emulating the Premier’s tactics will allow them to get back into the ring, as opposed to merely shouting from the sidelines.

Guy and Andrews did not spar in Parliament; the Opposition Leader did not even raise his voice. He simply ignored the Premier and focused on bringing everything back to his own political turf. He made a “good fist of it” in his first week, Ian Hanke says. But can he keep it up for 14 months?

“I think he can,” Hanke adds. “He realises the discipline that’s involved, and the importance of building your own platform and carving out your own political territory. People mature, and they can mature into their new role extraordinary well. That clichéd saying, ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, in a way for some politicians is actually true. A lot of the best politicians I’ve worked with have been tempered by political fires.”

Premier Daniel Andrews and Mr Guy at a Remembrance Day service in 2018. Credit:Eddie Jim

Some in Labor say Guy 2.0 looked too forced this week; that it was unnatural and is unsustainable.

“The sort of questions in question time, the strategy and the approach didn’t seem very different,” one source says. “I didn’t see anything different. It was the same stuff in a lower volume.”

Andrews has proven he is ready to take on the fight and continue to starve the state opposition of oxygen. On Tuesday, as the Victorian media were focused on #libspill, the Premier lashed out at the Commonwealth. Making a spurious claim of “under the table” deals with NSW on vaccine supply guaranteed wall-to-wall media coverage. Liberal MPs believe it was designed to drown out the inevitable puff pieces on Guy’s first day as leader.

The Liberals now need to determine who they are and what they represent. The perennial problem for the Victorian Liberals since Jeff Kennett lost the 1999 election has been their inability to articulate what they stand for, who their constituents are and what their policies will be. Labor has had a stronghold in Victoria, winning four of the past five elections.

Liberal MPs have spent the better part of this year engaging in conspiracies about the genesis of Andrews’ back injury and speculating about which Labor minister would replace him if he never returned. They wasted time when they should have been presenting themselves as a credible alternative, Roskam says.

“I would say to them, ‘What are you doing now? Where are your policies?’ and they would literally say, ‘We can’t do anything because no one is going to listen until Andrews quits, and if they get [Transport Infrastructure Minister] Jacinta [Allan], we know we can beat her,’ ” Roskam says.

“Michael [O’Brien] would try and fire them up a bit, but there were MPs talking about saving their ammunition for when and if the Premier quits. So why haven’t they been able to move the dial on Andrews? Because they were too busy thinking would he quit, would he come back. They’re intellectually and emotionally intimidated by Andrews, and they’ve been intimidated for too long.”

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