The soul-searching about the election result continues


Denis Lenihan Why the Government won

Peter Lewis Historical revisions

Tony Smith Can Labor win again?

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis The armchair voter

In ‘The Great Trainwreck deconstructed’ (New Matilda 13 October 2004) Rod Cameron argues that the election result means that for Labor ‘major soul searching is required at all levels’. He goes on to identify the two main reasons why he thinks Labor lost: ‘the widespread perception that Latham was not ready for the prime ministership’, and Labor’s ‘politically suicidal Tasmanian forestry policy’ which was the price of getting into bed with the Greens.

These arguments could be disputed by pointing to Latham’s popularity in the polls, and by noting that the object of getting into bed with the Greens was to get their preferences nationally – how many more seats might Labor have lost without Greens preferences?

The great majority of the early analyses of the election result have unfortunately been of this kind: picking out specific things which happened or didn’t happen during the campaign. Most are presented without any evidence one way or the other. They miss the point. The government won because, as even a brief look at post-war Commonwealth elections shows, oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. The two most common reasons for losses are the economy, or the governing party falling apart. Luck also plays its part.

Chifley lost in 1949 mainly because voters were sick of wartime restrictions, especially petrol rationing; wanting to nationalise the banks didn’t help. As Chifley predicted, Australia then entered a long period of prosperity and Menzies rode the wave. He nearly tumbled off his surfboard in 1961 when the economy turned sour. Luck also came his way, mainly in the form of Herbert Vere Evatt, who sundered the Labor Party for a generation. The Liberal Party began to unravel under Gorton and finally did so under Billy McMahon, who lost in 1972 – but not by much. The 1975 election was clearly anti-Labor rather than pro-Coalition, as was the 1983 election in reverse. 1993 was an aberration – the exception that proved the rule – in that Keating’s victory was made possible by Liberal leader John Hewson shooting himself in both feet. All Hewson needed to do – as the wilier Howard showed in 1996 – was to say as little as possible, and let the anti-government feeling do the rest.

As with Hawke’s four victories on the trot, Howard’s quadrella happened because the electorate was not sufficiently upset to throw him out. The economy has been strong; the Government has been united; and it has had its requisite share of luck. No Australian has been killed in Iraq; the Tampa affair was brilliantly if cynically exploited in 2001; the Jakarta bomb helped in 2004; and Howard has a disciplined and patient deputy.

Opposition leaders who win elections mostly have as little influence on the outcome as their parties. The drover’s dog could have won in 1983, as Bill Hayden famously observed; by the same token the drover’s dog did win in 1996. The same process of governments losing elections, and opposition leaders having little influence in victory, also operates at the state level, the best recent example being Premier Jeff Kennett’s defeat in Victoria by an opposition led by Steve – who? – Bracks, as he was known (or not known) at the time.

If this approach is right, then there was little that Labor and Latham could have done which would have had much effect across the board so to speak during the campaign. The electorate wasn’t listening because by and large it was happy with the government. A law of inertia was at work: the government didn’t disturb the electorate, so the electorate didn’t disturb the government. For Labor, only second order issues remained: individual seats to be won or defended, state issues to be sorted out (why were seats won and lost in South Australia?), policies to be unveiled, candidates and indeed the leader to be tried out, and so on. With no realistic prospect of Labor winning, one wonders what poll or gut instinct caused the Prime Minister to lose his nerve and start to bucket out the money.

What of the future? If the economic and political situation remains the same in 2007 as it is now, then the same result can be expected for the same reasons. There are however some ominous signs on the economic horizon, some of them noted by the Treasurer as insurance. The Government’s spending commitments may well prove inflationary, as may the increased petrol prices; interest rates may thus rise. The US economy is said by some to have the sniffles. The Treasury projections of immediate and long term surpluses are already being derided as rubbery.

If the economy does turn sour over the next three years, the voters will be waiting at the polling booths next time with baseball bats, to use the analogy of Premier Goss. If this happens a future Labor Government may well look back and judge 2004 to have been a good election to have lost.

Denis Lenihan joined the Commonwealth Public Service when Menzies was Prime Minister and left (involuntarily) when Keating was Prime Minister. He later worked for the NSW Government and is now retired.

It was a common refrain on election night as we cried in our beers, hurled vitriol at the TV set and wondered how big the shellacking would be this time around: Howard won on a lie.

And it’s true, although – with the admitted benefit of hindsight – I would argue that the lies are not all of Howard’s making.

In fact the central issue that dictated Saturday’s dire result: economic management and interest rates, was allowed to grow a life of its own because of a lie we have perpetuated over the last eight and a half years.

That lie is based on the failure of both the ALP and the union movement to own the tremendous economic achievements of the Hawke-Keating Accord years.

This was an era when the Australian economy opened up to the world – driven by a partnership between a social democrat party and organised labour, something that did not happen anywhere else in the world.

We avoided the social dislocation and break-down of the Reagan and Thatcher regimes. The change, while radical, included industry plans, massive investments in education and retraining, and a national savings strategy.

And it went further; the union movement took the principled decision to back labour market deregulation – even though they knew it would make their own job tougher – because it recognised that an economy based on productivity could only benefit its members.

At every stage of this process the government worked with the union movement, through seven rounds of Accord negotiations, a series of agreements that fundamentally recast the workforce.

Yes, there was pain in the transition, including high interest rates. But the outcome was a national economy that is today delivering prosperity to more people than ever before.

It was a remarkable achievement for a party of the Left, but one which we have failed to take the credit for.

The tide turned after 1996 when an electorate fatigued by a decade of economic change, still waiting for its benefits to be realised, threw Labor out of office.

In the post mortems that followed, the ALP determined it had got too far ahead of the electorate and reverted to a more economically conservative policy agenda.

Meanwhile unions entered a period of denial where they seemed to give up on the benefits of economic reform and mount a campaign to wind back the changes, even as the benefits began to flow. By recanting the Accord we nullified our achievements.

And so the lie was planted – that Labor and the unions were against reform, against change.

From this lie many others have followed: Labor can not manage the
economy; unions are anti-reform; the only way to achieve improved productivity is to smash collective labour.

This was the fertile soil that, seeded with an energetic but new leader, Howard was able to cultivate as proof of Labor’s incapacity to govern at this election. It worked a treat.

There will be much soul-searching in the weeks ahead; valid arguments about the direction of Labor, the policy settings, the campaign tactics.

But until Labor comes to terms with its recent history and constructs a story that allows them to own the reforms that are delivering the standard of living that Howard now claims as his legacy, it will struggle to make a case to lead.

For the union movement the challenge, even at a time when the Conservatives will be on the attack, is to reclaim our positive agenda based on the acceptance that change is inevitable and the best ideas come from the ground up.

Peter Lewis is the Editor of Workers Online

Having spent $15m. campaigning, Labor needs to know what it did wrong. Although each of the losses in 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004 can be attributed to different causes, the most recent disappointment carries the greatest cause for alarm. Given all that went right in this campaign, it seems appropriate to ask how the party can ever again win enough seats to form government in its own right. Whatever the magnitude of the Coalition victory in the 2004 federal election, Labor must undertake some serious soul searching.

In 1996 the electorate was so keen to get rid of Labor that its endorsement of the Coalition was much more tentative than the near landslide numbers suggested. I wrote in the Western Advocate then that Labor could rebuild itself into the great party it had been under Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam and Hawke. Now, there is greater cause for concern. The electorate still had doubts about Prime Minister Howard’s leadership in 1998, but that was an election influenced by One Nation’s participation and its preferences. The Government got a second term partly because female MPs in marginal outer suburban electorates proved themselves to be hardworking members who deserved a second chance. In 2001 Labor badly disappointed critics of government policy on asylum seekers and security generally.

In 2004, Labor had a leader with a candid image who ran a positive campaign. Although Labor competed with the Government in health and education pork barrelling, its campaign was not as entirely cynical as that run by Howard. Voters must have looked at Mark Latham and at least thought that engagement in the election process could be interesting and meaningful. Regardless of any recommendations made in post mortem analysis of the campaign however, there is only one set of people who are likely to believe that a subtle correction of style could avoid the pitfalls next time. These are the very spin masters who reckoned they knew best this time, and the last, and the time before that. Fine tuning is not the answer. Indeed, Labor’s problem could be that it is attracted to the idea that you can win by calculating how to offend the fewest voters in marginal seats, while optimising the numbers attracted. That approach works only if you firmly hold the centre ground, and Labor has been pushed from that area into unfamiliar territory.

So if policy on the run is inadvisable, how can Labor again become a force with broad enough appeal to gain a majority of seats? According to one school of thought, such considerations are merely academic. The conventional wisdom is that the electorate does not so much choose to elevate an Opposition to the Treasury benches as to evict a Government. This is the ‘Drover’s Dog’ syndrome made famous by Bill Hayden when replaced by Bob Hawke as Labor Leader. Asked whether he still believed he could have led Labor to victory, he made it plain that the Fraser Coaltion Government was about to fall, and that Labor simply had to be ready to replace it. Today, the conservatives in Labor will argue that the party only has to hang on and look like a credible alternative and eventually, the Coalition’s excesses will lead to its self-destruction.

Whether this old verity still applies is unclear. Labor obviously miscalculated its appeal in 2004 and could easily do so again. It no longer has available to it a specific ‘demographic’ like the old constituency based on trades unions. Labor began the dismantling of unionism and the Coalition has accelerated the process. If it seeks to cultivate a new cross-section of voters, then it might even have to consider a name change. But whether Labor Party members could contemplate that is another matter. It would seem so much like admitting defeat that it would seem very unpalatable.

When Labor recruited Cheryl Kernot in 1997, this signalled that it had lost control of the policy agenda and that it cared more about style. It still endorses celebrity candidates. Meanwhile, the Coalition has succeeded so well in capturing the middle ground, giving with one hand and taking with the other, that it seems like the natural party of government. It has firm ideologies, but it presents these as simply good economic management. Howard has transformed Australia from a ‘working man’s paradise’ to a ‘share-holding democracy’.

The Coalition is now like a post-colonial party of government. Its entrenchment at the centre of Australian political life resembles the dominance of India’s Congress Party for much of the second half of the twentieth century. Unlike the Congress however, the chances of splinters detaching themselves from the Coalition are remote. They might break away if the Centre becomes too unwieldy, but they would be unlikely to attach themselves to Labor in its present form. The only way that might happen is if Labor split first, so that disaffected Liberals could ally themselves with the Labor Right. Then a temporary anti-Liberal coalition could become possible.

If such massive organisational change seems unlikely, there is an alternative. If Labor cannot find a new constituency to target, perhaps it needs to let a new group of voters find it. That leaves the admittedly risky approach of adopting firm policy positions even if they are at first sight unpopular. The people who feel the policy vacuum most keenly are those who hunger for an alternative party that adopts policies believing them to be in some sense ‘correct’. Then, Labor has to set about educating the electorate. People will need to be taught the language of community all over again. It has been replaced by the selfish dialogue between government and individuals. Labor needs to be bold to convince people that public morality can be discussed and that it has advantages over cynicism and selfishness. This might be a task that will take more than one term, but it might be better to have a strategy for re-election, rather than to be tactically defeated time after time.

Dr Tony Smith is a writer living in country New South Wales. His opinion pieces and reviews have appeared in Australian Financial Review, Australian Quarterly, Australian Book Review, Online Opinion, Online Catholics, the Journal of Australian Studies, New Matilda and Drawing Board: the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

I am a nobody in politics. Not a politician, academic or journalist. Just a businessman. Nevertheless, like most Australians, I thought that my vote could make a difference, but I no longer believe that there is any real material difference.

With the recent election result, the conventional wisdom is that the Coalition won on a landslide. If any of my boards had a five percent margin carrying a resolution, I’d be worried – virtually half of the directors against the motion. I’d hardly regard this state of affairs as consensus building. But in the nature of representational politics, we acknowledge and accept unreservedly that the winning party has the mandate to govern. This is fair enough, given the current framework – my question is simply whether this framework is the best we can do.

As a director of a private company, we lobby government and opposition for access. In return, the same government and opposition seek our financial assistance for their party political campaigns. There is nothing new or surprising in any of this. What I have gleaned though is that, over the last ten or twenty years, since probably Hawke and Keating, the policy divide has closed.

Labor embraced the ‘econocrats’ at about the same time as the Liberals recognised the ‘bleeding hearts’. Now the two major political parties, whose essential raison d’être lay in opposite corners, fight with less grand rhetoric, because they have none. Our brightest politicians now scratch the vastness of policy terrain to, in Bob Carr’s words, find the ‘opportunity to present a sharp contrast’. Our leaders are so keen to stand out that they now resort to moralising. Apolitical issues such as family values and good parenting have extended the borders of the conventional territory for our visionary nation builders.

One might presume that political parties might evaporate, along with their ideologies. But the universal franchise is dependent on parties, as parties are inexorably linked to popular elections as they are currently constituted. Thus our politicians have no option but to carry on the pretence of their obsolete mantras, to an audience complicit in the pantomime: much like the king with no clothes.

So what are we voting for? It’s no longer so ideologically simple. Most issues of state are complex, morally ambiguous and invariably are a cost to the taxpayer, and the environment; and, moreover, jostle for budgetary priority. Take unemployment, schools/universities, health/aged care, public transport, defence or immigration.

It would appear that socio-political divisions have run their bloody historical course.

I think that our grand model of democracy “ popular elections “ has also run its course, in parallel with political parties. In the pre-democratic, pre- Enlightenment era, most people probably thought that the status quo “ fiefdoms and monarchies “ were unchallengeable. Our ancestors, the ‘great unwashed’, had no other benchmark, until the revolutions and reformations. I think that, in much the same way today, we believe that popular elections are inviolate “ the apex of a modern democratic society.

We cling to our right to vote “ in a system that cannot affect that right without political parties. The popular election model made sense in the era of Whigs and Tories. But not when walls and dogmas have crumbled; and when the media is omnipresent and every Australian is literate, and informed if they choose to be.

We pit government and opposition in a debate, which is the fabulously successful legacy of the Westminster system – the bastion of democracy. However this very debate has degenerated into a puerile farce that, in my view, threatens the democracy we hold so dear. Party memberships border on all time lows; the ever-larger swinging electorate wallows in a cynical malaise, privately hoping that some white knight will lead them into a just and democratic state (à la Schwarzenegger).

Worst of all however is the erosion of the public service, increasingly undermined by campaign agendas and a burgeoning class of party appointed apparatchiks. I sense that our sacred Houses are now driven more by political survival than good policy.

Harry Evans, the Clerk of the Australian Senate, has for some time maintained that, ‘the modern party is a device for ensuring that a government formed by that party is not responsible to parliament.’

The real question in my mind, is not whether the current system continues to serve us well, it is whether alternatives exist. In the meantime the medium is the massage: the blood sport, (our daily diet of political jousting), is great prime time viewing. And with state, federal and local government elections a regular two to three year occurrence, the electorate (and business) is subjected to continual rounds of campaigning.

What are the alternatives? There could be citizen referenda or candidates randomly sorted in each electorate and then selected for parliament. Or a combination of both.

My proposal is to have a forum that can seriously explore the alternatives.

We’ve had alcohol summits, energy summits, public transport summits. Why can’t we have a political representation summit to investigate a framework that obviates the need for (or at least virtual dependency on), archaic political parties?

As you may have gathered by now, I have lost faith in political parties. At the same time, I believe that the average Australian taxpayers are responsible citizens who can be better represented in parliament. I cannot accept that alternatives do not exist: I feel sure that we could have at the very least better representation for women to start with. I have more faith in the average Australian untied to either anachronistic ideologies or campaign agendas or both.

As far as I can see, our cherished universal franchise guarantees a continuing circus of media grabs, meted out by charismatic politicians, stridently proclaiming distinction, on party platforms bereft of policy differences.

The result will be, in my view, a broadening gulf between the citizenry and its government: the very antithesis of the democratic ideal.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis was appointed Associate Managing Director of Transfield Holdings P/L in 1999. Other board roles include ADI Ltd., Transfield Services Ltd. and Charter Hall P/L. Luca also chairs the Biennale of Sydney.

HealthConnect – A Major Rethink Required, New Matilda, 29 June 2005

Health IT chief on the move. The Australian, 11 January 2006.

Health e-records ‘changed vision’, The Australian, 17 January 2006

PM backs off e-health, The Australian, 24 January 2006

Hospital software upgrade on sick list, Australian Financial Review, 30 January 2006.

PM sidesteps into e-health minefield, The Australian, 31 January 2006

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.