By Farrah Tomazin and Royce Millar
Matthew Guy will face off with Daniel Andrews for the second time at the 2022 election.Credit:Fairfax Media
Matthew Guy was fired up. It was a warm September day, three months into Victoria’s deadly second wave, and the Liberal backbencher was on his feet in State Parliament, opposing a bill that would give the government’s chief health officer extended powers to keep the state under coronavirus lockdown.
Victorians had endured some of the world’s toughest restrictions for weeks by that stage, sending the economy into freefall. And the death toll was rising rapidly, with a soaring number of cases linked to an outbreak in aged care facilities.
As he stood in a mostly-empty lower house debating the merits of the government’s State of Emergency laws, Guy – the former opposition leader who led his team to a crushing defeat against Daniel Andrews in 2018 – let rip.
“This state is on its knees, and the morons we get in this government blame everyone else!” he said, glancing at the smattering of Labor MPs sitting across the chamber.
“Take some responsibility for what is happening in this state! For what they’re doing to our children. To our elderly. Take some responsibility, we say to the Premier. But nope. He’s more interested in what he tweets, or what he puts out on Facebook – because for the Premier of this state, it’s all about him!”
Guy’s impassioned speech, which would soon clock up more than 1.3 million views on social media, is viewed by some as a pivotal point in the Liberal MP’s preparation for today’s leadership coup against Michael O’Brien.
Having spent almost two years sitting quietly on the backbench, licking his wounds after his election drubbing, the 47-year-old was suddenly back to his old self: a feisty, bare-knuckled brawler.
Guy’s 10-minute speech also highlights the pros and cons of his return as a Liberal leader.
He is more heartfelt, expressive and charismatic than Michael O’Brien and better positioned therefore to tap into some voter anger over lockdown and the pandemic in general.
But he is also a crash-through-or-crash political daredevil. In his last outing as leader he crashed spectacularly. Even long-standing Liberal supporters rejected his law-and-order mantra and his focus on supposedly rampant violence by so-called African gangs.
Liberal MP Matthew Guy takes the leadership of the Liberal party from Michael O’Brien in a leadership spill.Credit:Justin McManus
The fact that his Liberal MP colleagues have put their faith in Guy is testament to their frustration or desperation.
Some in Labor’s ranks are celebrating today, confident that Guy is the leopard that can’t change its spots – that his trademark aggression, his controversial planning decisions, and his record of lobster dining with alleged mafia bosses will make him an easy beat for Andrews at next year’s poll.
Smarter Labor strategists are more respectful. They acknowledge the recycled leader has cut-through potential that O’Brien could never have.
They’re mindful too, of Liberal leaders such as John Howard and Jeff Kennett – both of whom were defeated at elections, yet returned to be among Australia’s most successful politicians.
If Guy has learnt from his 2018 experience, and he gets his political message right, he could prove a headache for Daniel Andrews. If.
The “disastrous” election
By any measure, the 2018 election was a disaster for the Victorian Liberal party. The Coalition lost 10 of its 37 seats, with massive swings against MPs in some traditional heartland electorates. Incredibly, the Liberals lost the blue-ribbon seat of Hawthorn and, almost, even Brighton.
A post-election review by party elder Tony Nutt found that the little voters knew of Mr Guy was defined by his role in the alleged “Lobster with a Mobster” saga and his controversial decisions as planning minister.
It also found that the focus on “African gangs” was a “political tactic” rather than a plan to make the state safer and that it became a distraction for voters. A Liberal Party flyer that claimed that “only the Liberals will stop gangs hunting in packs” released in July 2018 was condemned by human rights activists as “racist dog-whistling”.
Three years later, Guy faces an uphill battle making amends with the communities he offended.
Maker Mayek is a Sudanese-born lawyer who co-founded the #AfricanGangs hashtag in response to Coalition and media “sensationalising” of crime statistics and the profiling of youth from African communities.
Sudanese community spokesman Maker Mayek. Credit:Joe Armao
He says he is unaware of Mr Guy reaching out to the South Sudanese or wider African community since 2018. “We don’t know whether he has changed his position on these issues,” says Mayek. “We don’t know whether he has been baptised and reborn as a better person … You would hope there is a lesson learned.”
Whether or not Guy has reached out, Victorians are unlikely to hear him talking much about African gangs next year.
“I expect he’ll be a different leader who has had the benefit to reflect on what we can do better leading up to the election in 2022,” says Liberal moderate John Pesutto, a former state attorney-general in the Baillieu government.
“If he succeeds and can present a positive plan to restore jobs and businesses hit by COVID lockdowns, together with scrutiny of the government’s failures to manage infrastructure, hospital waiting lists, ambulance response times and a host of other challenges, then we can certainly win the next election.”
Former MP John Pesutto, who lost the seat of Hawthorn in 2018.Credit:Joe Armao
John Roskam, an influential Liberal powerbroker and head of the free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, agrees that a very different approach is needed if Guy 2.0 is to succeed against Andrews. He says that rather than obsessing about winning back traditional Liberal voters and seats lost to Labor in 2018, Mr Guy should focus on winning new supporters in the north and western suburbs where lockdown has hit hardest.
Notably, he also cautions Guy about rushing to open up the state, conceding wide support in Victoria for strong restrictions and even lockdown during the pandemic, including among older Liberal party members.
“Maybe we don’t go full Donald Trump, but we need a plan that says that after a certain point there will be no more lockdowns,” he says.
Nazis and Communists
Matthew Jason Guy has always seemed at home in politics and parliament; less so in a traditionally Anglo-dominated party of private schools and privilege.
The son of postwar migrants and the product of a public education, Guy spent his childhood playing street cricket and riding his bike up and down the hills of outer-suburban Montmorency. His mother worked at the ANZ bank; his father in the Commonwealth public service.
Politics was always Guy’s passion, and he joined the Liberal Party at 16 in the dying days of the Cain-Kirner government. Australia was in recession, with Victoria especially hard hit. The experience confirmed his concerns about Labor, and what he regarded as the deadening impact of interventionist government.
“Thousands of Victorian families were ruined,” Guy recalled in his inaugural speech after being elected in 2006, “and I for one remember wondering in year 12 how I would ever get a job.”
He needn’t have worried. Young Matthew was on a mission and his CV tells the tale: marketing manager at the Victorian Farmers’ Federation; director of research in Kennett’s private office; chief of staff to then opposition leader Denis Napthine; parliamentarian at 32, leader by 40.
It was in Napthine’s office that he met his wife, Renae, then also a political staffer. They have three sons: Joseph, Samuel and Alex.
Matthew Guy and his family in 2014.Credit:Greg Briggs
In 2017 childhood friend Nick McGowan recalled meeting Guy as a teenager at a local Liberal branch meeting. McGowan, a member of the Diamond Valley Young Liberals, had sought Guy’s support to roll the incumbent president.
The pair would later make a formidable team, trading blows with Labor students as members of the La Trobe University’s Liberal Club. As club leader, Guy was both a strategist and warrior, campaigning for voluntary student unionism, building and culling alliances as needed.
“The side I’ve always seen is very compassionate and empathetic,” says McGowan. “But there is a decisiveness about him, too – when he has a goal in mind, he sets about doing it.”
Not surprisingly, Kennett, and Kennett’s idol Henry Bolte, are political influences. But eyebrows were raised across the political spectrum when, in 2011, The Age reported that Guy had pictures of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and former US president Richard Nixon on his office walls.
“Too many people get into government and become a footnote in history … I tried to do what I think is fundamentally good for Victoria.”
Guy’s world view has been shaped by two factors in particular: his “proud” Christianity, and the experience of his Ukrainian grandparents, who fled Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1949.
The former is sometimes evident in the way he votes. He opposed the assisted dying bill, and refused to endorse gay adoption in Victoria unless it allowed for religious exemptions.
The latter is the key to Guy’s political philosophy. For much of their lives under Stalin his grandparents did not know where their next meal was coming from. Nor did they know if they could trust their neighbours, let alone their government.
“Socialism might read well in a text book, but after all that my family went through I learnt that in reality it saps the humanity from its people,” Guy told The Age in 2017.
Less well known is the impact of his family’s suffering under Nazism. His great-grandfather was killed by Hitler’s invading forces, and his auntie died as a child when the Nazis wouldn’t allow her medicine.
Guy’s family had suffered at the hands of the hard Left and Right. It should not surprise that his political foes have included the arch-conservatives in his own party as well as Daniel Andrews-led Labor.
“Totalitarianism”, said Guy in 2017, is the enemy.
“I grew up thankful. In my political life, I’ve just wanted to keep Australia as that peaceful, democratic proud nation that my mum and her family sought refuge in.”
Building a reputation
As a politician, Guy is a study in contrasts.
He’s a former planning minister who a few years ago revelled in the controversy of pro-development approvals that earned him the title: Mr Skyscraper. Yet it is little known that he has a passion for the bush and for renewable energy: many weekends have been spent seeking respite in South Gippsland Tarra Bulga national park, and he often boasts of the solar panels fitted on the roof of his Bulleen home in Melbourne’s north-east.
He’s also a former multicultural minister, and the proud son of migrants. Yet he led a contentious fear campaign against African gangs that many found offensive at best, racist at worst.
Matthew Guy’s “lobster with a mobster” scandal tarnished his political reputationCredit:Golding
And he spearheaded a tough on crime election pitch, yet dined with an alleged mafia boss in 2017 in the so-called “lobster with a mobster” scandal that would taint his political reputation all the way to election day.
Guy insists donations were not discussed at the dinner – and were not received afterwards – but the extraordinary fallout undermined the Coalition’s own law-and-order message, gave Labor ample ammunition to attack his credibility, and raised familiar questions about his propensity for devil-may-care politics.
It was Guy’s time as the Baillieu-Napthine government planning minister from 2010 to 2014 that both made his political name but also tarnished it.
In 2011, Guy rezoned farm land at Ventnor on Phillip Island against expert advice including his department’s lawyers, the local shire, and two independent planning panels.
The Age would later reveal that the beneficiaries of the windfall included a sometime Liberal party member and family friend of former Kennett government planning minister and nearby resident, Rob Maclellan, who had lobbied on their behalf.
Within days of his decision, Guy was forced to overturn it amid protests from his own premier and cabinet colleagues, federal frontbencher Greg Hunt, and celebrity tweeter, Miley Cyrus.
American pop singer Miley Cyrus
The backflip triggered court action and a confidential out-of-court compensation payment by the government totalling about $3.5 million including legal costs. Then ahead of the 2018 election documents released as part of a controversial 80,000 page dossier assembled by the Andrews government revealed that Guy had wanted the settlement because he feared for his job if the matter went to court..
If Ventnor raised a question about his judgement and susceptibility to influence, Guy’s reputation for cavalier decision-making was taken to a whole new level soon after.
By early 2012 he had become impatient with the apparent paralysis in the office of his famously cautious premier, Ted Baillieu. In a surprise move in July 2012 , planning minister Guy rezoned 250 hectares of industrial inner Melbourne to create a development precinct, “Fishermans Bend”, which effectively doubled the size of the Melbourne CBD.
There was no master plan or height limits, nor mechanism to capture, for infrastructure and services, any of the hundreds of millions of dollars the decision triggered in increased land values.
The unilateral rezoning – later slammed by an expert committee including former Liberal leader Robert Doyle as “unprecedented in the developed world in the 21st century” – delivered huge overnight paper profits to property owners and developers, including senior Liberal party figures, donors and supporters.
While acutely sensitive to criticism, Guy also seemed to relish the controversy. It defined him as a doer who took risks, and it contrasted him perfectly with what was increasingly known as do-nothing Coalition government under Baillieu.
Asked in 2017 if he had any regrets about the way he handled the planning portfolio, Guy said: “Too many people get to government and become a footnote in history. I took an opportunity and I tried to do what I think is fundamentally good for Victoria. I gave that portfolio a red-hot go.”
“I’d rather have done that than done nothing, and be a bland, boring politician.”
The 2018 election result was shattering for Matthew Guy. For months he was all but silent in both the parliament and media. Once a prominent social media warrior, Guy was suddenly barely visible on Twitter.
But when COVID-19 broke out and spread in Victoria and the state intervened in the economy in a way not seen since WW2, Guy’s blood started boiling again.
As Michael O’Brien struggled amid a national and state emergency to balance scrutiny of government with not being overly critical, Guy and his good mate, Kew MP Tim Smith, turned up the heat over lockdown.
Liberal frontbencher Tim Smith, a key ally of Matthew Guy.Credit:Paul Jeffers
Where a Guy comeback looked unlikely through 2019, by early 2021 it was all but inevitable – despite Guy insisting otherwise.
“Michael will be there at the election, we’ll fight this thing out with him. I can’t be any clearer than that,” he said in March, amid growing discontent over O’Brien’s leadership and inability to cut through.
It was hardly the truth, but Guy had been caught off guard that month by another leadership coup against O’Brien, launched by fellow Liberal frontbencher, Brad Battin, who lost with only nine votes to 22. Six months later, after backers such as Tim Smith, Bill Tilley, and James Newbury laid the groundwork for today’s spill, Guy is back.
He now has 14 months before his second election as Opposition Leader.
In a state where Daniel Andrews takes centre stage, the good news for Liberals is that Guy is more identifiable than most politicians and a good match for Andrews – and Labor strategists know it. Both are still young, both are politically ruthless when they need to be, and both are polished media performers who love the attention.
But Guy will also need to show that he has grown up as a politician; not everyone on his team, including some of the people who voted for him, are entirely convinced. As one MP told The Age: “He can be very negative, so it will solely come down to whether he listens to people.”
Guy knows his challenge is to frame a positive message that gives Victorians some hope after a gruelling 18 months in and out of lockdown. He also has to hold Andrews to account in a time of crisis, a job made extra difficult at a time when most oppositions are viewed as irrelevant and parliament is barely sitting.
But Liberal strategists and those who support Guy believe the public’s tolerance for Andrews is wearing thin. They argue, as polling for The Age has also highlighted, that Victoria is broadly divided into several camps: “I Stand With Dan” fans; those who think Andrews is doing a decent enough job but could be open for change; and those who can’t stand the Premier.
As for Guy? He emerged from the party room meeting on Tuesday, calling for an end to “the language of division” and vowing to present ” a clear alternative for Victorians.”
“Victoria’s best days are in front of it,” he declared.
His party will be hoping the same can be said of the Liberal Party under Guy.
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