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The Natural Party of Government

Mainstream political commentators are an excitable bunch. Sensationalism sells, and the Canberra circuit is such a dry and tedious cloister that those inside it need to pretend that something’s actually happening. The endless cut-and-thrusts of minor technical point-scoring that mean nothing to the vast majority of voters are relayed as dramatic election-swinging triumphs in breathless opinion columns that are written today and contradicted then forgotten tomorrow. Developments that few outside Canberra are even following at all are presented as "stopping the momentum of the attack", "ending the week on a high", "placing the opponent under pressure" and so on, as if it was the commentator’s attempt to play Rostrum adjudicator that determines what works and what doesn’t, rather than the parties’ success in selling their act to the people. This year alone we have seen several batches of reports declaring that Kevin Rudd’s honeymoon is just about to end, each of them promptly contradicted by yet another poll showing Labor fourteen points ahead.

Much the same exaggeration problem applies to the interpretation of election results. It’s often thought that victory under particular circumstances destroys the opposition’s ability to recover, guaranteeing a walkover win in the next election and probably the one after that. Sometimes this is true, but usually it is not, and all the losing party needs to do to be competitive is to work out what it did wrong last time, and make sure it doesn’t do anything like it again.

Yet, for the ephemeral nature of much of what is written about federal politics, it’s surprising how some of these comments can still stick in the mind. While trying to work out why Labor’s ratings under Rudd have (as of late May) been so high ever since he was installed, I remember one of these fine specimens of hype that I read in the Australian in the wake of the Keating victory fourteen years ago. The piece declared that Keating was a "hero PM" who was set to rule over the nineties. We all know what happened to that, but it also said that his win had cemented Labor as the "natural party of government".

It may seem strange to argue that Labor is indeed the natural party of government now, when they have lost the last four federal elections in a row, two of them horribly, but I think there is still something in it. The party wins routinely around the nation at state level – victories against the odds from Opposition in the late nineties followed by often easy wins this decade, sometimes in cases where it would be rightly expected to struggle. The pattern of incumbents winning every state and federal election for the last several years is usually seen as a sign of the power of incumbency – but it can also be seen as reflecting a general voter preference for Labor over the Coalition that has only failed to resonate at federal level through a series of errors and accidents and because of the incredible knack John Howard personally has displayed for not merely reading public opinion, but also manipulating it.

Otherwise, it is difficult to work out exactly why Labor is so far ahead in the polls – policy reasons why the Liberals should be not merely trailing, but trailing so badly, are elusive. David Hicks is home at last, will soon be free, and cannot talk to the media. The war in Iraq is unpopular, but until Australia itself suffers significant casualties, voters are more likely to moan about it than make it determine their vote. The economy appears more or less bulletproof. Climate change is another fashionable concern, but one on which the waters are easily muddied with scare campaigns either way because the issue is beyond easy public comprehension.

Only two issues appear as major natural threats to the Howard government. The first, curiously enough, is industrial relations, on which it appears to have finally gone a little too far for its own good now that it has control of both Houses, and is having trouble selling itself as really a friend to the battlers rather than the bosses. The second is leadership. Doubts about whether John Howard could really serve another full term are more real now than ever before, but all attempts to build up Peter Costello as a natural successor have only emphasised how Costello lacks the respect that Howard has enjoyed, is not seen as a strong or charismatic politician, and does not really connect with "average" outer-suburban voters. The Coalition has had more than a decade to sell the transition to Costello to the voters, and has more or less totally failed – Costello as PM does not really frighten people anymore, but he doesn’t inspire them either. Alternatives are not too easy to come by – Malcolm Turnbull is well spoken but easily portrayed as an out-of-touch silvertail, Brendan Nelson is often seen as too shifty, and Tony Abbott’s private-school-lad type contradictions amuse some, but make it easy for others to portray him as just an empty and ridiculous bully.

Really, the Government has not many more weaknesses than it is normal for an incumbent Government going into an election campaign to be burdened with. It should be 8-12 points behind in the polls at this stage (a position from which Governments quite often win), not 14-20 (from which they will typically struggle). My theory on the magnitude of the gap, then, is that as well as the various and mostly minor issues dragging the Government down, it has another problem: Australian voters actually want to vote Labor, unless they can be scared off doing so. Voters have generally had this leaning ever since Bob Hawke redefined Australian politics in the early 1980s. After belatedly throwing the party out for its economic sins in 1996 (ironically, after the damage had largely been repaired) voters quickly forgave Labor and gave it the majority of the two-party vote in 1998, with the party only missing out on office because Howard’s huge margin in 1996 enabled the Coalition to absorb the swing in places where it didn’t matter. Labor was then well placed to win easily in 2001 before the Coalition was saved by an adeptly-exploited fluke of circumstance when the 9/11 attacks in the USA cemented the message Howard had just been pushing over the MV Tampa and made rational debate an endangered species for the rest of the campaign. In 2004 Labor again had a chance, but could not find a viable leadership option, took a high-risk gamble on Mark Latham, and ended up woefully bereft in the area of policy restraint.

Labor certainly has a viable leadership option now. Kevin Rudd is a more serious threat to John Howard than any of Latham, Beazley and Crean before him (and even Beazley was unlucky not to win) because he has the two qualities that are most desirable for a Labor Party leader in Opposition: firstly he is not a vacuous hack who is easily portrayed as a creature of the unions and the factions, and secondly and even more importantly, he doesn’t frighten the horses the way that Latham did. Voters can also vote for him and know he is there for the long haul, while a vote for John Howard is a vote for who-knows-who, with no guarantee that even the uninspiring Costello will really be his successor.

Followers of my analyses on tasmaniantimes.com may be disappointed at this stage by the lack of number-crunching and predictions of who will win how many seats. The reality is that in federal elections it is impossible to do that sort of thing this far out, because the issues that determine the national swing between the parties and can determine the result of 40 or more "reasonably close" seats, have still to be played out. All any observer can give is a theoretical framework, and mine is that the Coalition will close the gap gradually as the election approaches and undecided voters stick with what they know. But barring another fluke of circumstance like the S11/Tampa cocktail, or serious blunders from the Labor side, they will most likely close most of it but not all. Perhaps they will close it enough to just stay in office on the quirks of seat distribution (otherwise known as "porkbarrelling") that can arise with a 49:51 or even a 48:52 two-party vote against the incumbent party, but overall, Labor is entitled to some favouritism at this stage. At the same time, anyone who assumes Labor is more or less certain to win is jumping the gun, as the party’s ability to self-destruct at federal level was very plain to see in 2004 and, to a lesser extent, 2001. Indeed, the Left’s propensity to push for ill-disciplined ideological policies if it thinks that Labor is a shoe-in will need to be watched very carefully. The signs are that Kevin Rudd might be up to the task in a way Mark Latham was not.

Meanwhile, some Tasmanian seats will be well worth watching in early counting, but don’t expect any of them to indicate the national result very clearly. Denison is so safe I don’t know why the Liberals embarrass themselves by running for it, and if Labor was going to lose Lyons they surely would have done so last time, but the other three are open contests. Some of the timber vote that went to the Liberals in Braddon and Bass will return to sender now that Latham’s disastrous forests policy has been unceremoniously binned, but the Rudd alternative is still unclear enough that there may be some lingering suspicion of it, and some hurt feelings left over from last time. Furthermore, Labor’s preselection for Bass has been a mess, that has eventually resulted in the selection of a candidate who is neither high-profile enough nor centrist enough to be ideal. Unless the national swing is so great that it swamps the Liberals right across the state, I expect the Liberals to hold Bass but give back Braddon. That leaves the rogue seat of Franklin, in which both parties have been in self-destruct mode during preselection and anything could happen, but given the size of Labor’s margin, the likelihood of a national swing, and the Liberals’ lack of unity or a very high-profile candidate, probably won’t.