Centrists Don't Make Landslides

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In the shadow of NSW Premier Morris Iemma’s humiliation on privatisation at the NSW Labor Conference – when the vote went 702 to 107 against his plan to flog off the community’s electricity industry – Kevin Rudd delivered an under-reported speech. He cut through the euphoria of the delegates, who cheered the first address by a Labor Prime Minister in 13 years, to warn that the ALP could easily lose the next election, due in 2010.

"It may come as a surprise to some people, but we did not win the last Federal election by a large margin," he counselled. "Just as it may come as a surprise to some that we would lose the next election with just a small swing against us."

The Rudd victory last November was decisive. With a swing of 5.44 per cent, Labor’s primary vote was up to 43.38 per cent and its two-party preferred vote was 52.70 per cent. But it would take the loss of only seven seats to lose government and, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported, Labor holds nine seats by slender margins of 1.5 per cent or less.

Given that Rudd did all he could last year to minimise the difference between Labor and the Howard Government, declaring himself a pro-business "economic conservative", it’s worth asking just how successful "moderate", "centrist", "Third Way" – call them what you will – parties and candidates really are.

Now, I believe the last election represented a significant philosophical shift in Australian politics, away from neo-liberal and laissez faire economics towards a more communitarian model of social solidarity. But I’m with the eminent historian of the labour movement, the Australian-born Robin Archer, now at the London School of Economics, who concluded that Rudd won "in spite of himself". The rejection of WorkChoices ran deeper than simply concern about losing penalty rates or being dragooned into weekend work, to a fear that the Howard government was trying to Americanise the labour market so that we lived to work, not worked to live.

If you consider the findings of Hugh Mackay and David Chalke, researchers who have long understood the pulse of the nation and who predicted a weariness with – and wariness of – neo liberal economics, Rudd might have won a bigger victory had he sharpened the differences between Labor and the Coalition; had he exploited this discontent more thoroughly by promising to rein in corporate excess and narrow the wealth gap. After last week’s budget, a poll found that most voters wanted the means testing of the baby bonus to kick in on household incomes of between $70,000 and $100,000, well below the Government’s own figure of $150,000.

Compare the size of Rudd’s victory with that of the last "seachange" Labor leader, Gough Whitlam, in 1972, who sought to distinguish himself dramatically from the schlerotic Coalition of William McMahon. Labor achieved that year a primary vote of 49.6 per cent and a two-party preferred vote of 52.7 – precisely the same margin as Rudd. This suggests that Rudd could have sought a mandate for more profound change without it diminishing his chances.

Rudd may have well been elected on a specific promise to abolish the private health insurance rebate rort, rather than having to tiptoe that way by doubling the threshold on Medicare penalty levy in the hope that sufficient numbers abandon their extortionate private insurance so that it ceases to be an issue at the 2010 poll.

Rather than inch toward a reform of the excessive grants to elite private schools with yet another review, Rudd could have saved himself three years – and taxpayers almost $3 billion – by running on a more equitable education policy, probably with negligible electoral impact. There is a distinct dearth of evidence that Mark Latham lost the 2004 election because of his "hit list" of wealthy private schools and much evidence attributing his defeat to the interest rates scare, national security and his obviously volatile personality.

The Hawke-Keating governments, running to the centre, achieved similarly narrow victories. Except for Bob Hawke’s initial landslide in 1983 – coming at the height of the worst recession since the 1930s – when Labor achieved a primary vote of 49.5 per cent and a two-party preferred vote of 53.52 per cent, its re-elections were rather modest: 1984, 51.8 per cent; 1987, 50.8 per cent; 1990, 49.9 per cent; 1993, 51.4 per cent.

It is even more instructive to look at the state of the Labor Party that the Hawke-Keating centrist model bequeathed. When Paul Keating was defeated handsomely in 1996, his party was out of office in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Bob Carr’s Labor government clung to power by just one seat.

Now let’s look abroad at the two great standard-bearers of centrist "Third Way" modernism, remembering PJ O’Rourke’s pungently accurate description of the Third Way as "a clarion call to whatever": Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

Blair’s 1997 landslide is aptly described, taking out a 179 seat majority. (I underestimated Labour’s victory, predicting over lunch in January 1997 with the UK Labour MP Malcolm Wicks, a 140 seat majority.) Still, New Labour won only a plurality of the vote – 43.2 per cent – against a corrupt 18-year-old Tory regime that had induced a currency crisis and collapse of the housing market, and its re-elections in 2001 and 2005 were in the context of the lowest voter turnouts in British history.

In 2005, Blair was returned with 35 per cent of the vote and a turn-out of just 62 per cent. At this month’s local government elections, Blair’s successor and partner in the New Labour modernisation, Gordon Brown, presided over Labour’s worst vote in 40 years, in which the party slumped into third place behind the Liberal Democrats.

So too, the political "magic" of Bill Clinton – the "great communicator" – is seen in new light when you consider that he never won a majority, only a plurality, of the vote in both of his elections: 43 per cent in 1992 and 49 per cent in 1996. Contrast his performance with that of Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Johnson ran as a progressive and won a staggering 61 per cent of the popular vote. On the political resume of this unrepentant New Dealer and apostle of Franklin Roosevelt were the Civil Rights Act, signed in July 1964, which protected the right of African Americans to vote and outlawed racial discrimination in hotels and motels, and the Economic Opportunity Act, signed in August 1964, which declared his "war on poverty". The American people, presented with a stark choice between ideologies, chose the defiantly progressive one.

By the time Clinton left office, his Democratic Party – of which he was ordained the saviour – had lost its majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate, having held them for almost 60 unbroken years, and held a minority of governorships and state legislatures. Clinton’s "triangulation" strategy, which included signing a regressive "welfare reform" bill and promoting such radical initiatives as school uniforms, did nothing to create an enduring Democratic majority. Clinton was bad – and for a while just plain embarrassing – for his Party.

Kevin Rudd is by nature a cautious personality but, according to those close to him, wants to create a more equitable nation. He does not need to follow the razzle dazzle and crash model of Gough Whitlam to succeed, but nor should he squander his time in power in return for a modest electoral reward.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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