On Wednesday, shortly after arriving in Townsville, North Queensland, for some downtime, I had lunch and a beer with a couple of guys who work in and around "retail politics" up here.
Things are always interesting in North Queensland politics, and the area includes swing federal electorates that tip governments out — or allow them to stay. With the exception of the Katter fiefdom of Kennedy, the seats around here are all in flux at the moment.
Comeback kid Warren Entsch will probably win back Leichhardt for the Coalition. Dawson should be Labor’s again after they slotted Mackay Mayor Mike Brunker to replace the rather odd James Bidgood — but that’s no certainty. Herbert, based on Townsville, is held by retiring Liberal Peter Lindsay, and will be notionally Labor after redistribution. They should win it to make up for Leichhardt. But there’s a strong feeling that they might not.
Over lunch on Wednesday, we were inhabiting a different political world. I asked my friends how Rudd was going, whether his government might pull it off in the seats they need to win or hold in the tropics. They weren’t confident. He’d lost people, they told me, not because of the ETS, and not necessarily because of the RSPT idea — though they conceded that the mining industry’s shameless campaign on the tax might be biting.
Rudd was bleeding, in their assessment, for reasons that have been brewing and percolating for a long time, longer than he’s been around, perhaps, and which he couldn’t necessarily hope to fix. People were pissed off about things that they expect government to deal with, but which government isn’t necessarily in the business of intervening in any more. The idea of government itself seems to be in bad odour, in a way that a new PM may not be able to change.
The biggest issue is the cost of living. The fact that it has kept spiralling upwards is an indirect result of Rudd’s greatest achievement — saving the country from the GFC. Most people still have their jobs, but they feel like the money they earn is worthless. The mining booms — which almost ran together — have meant that workers in those industries are able to bid up the price of housing they buy for their "fly out" weeks, or as investments.
There’s also a lot of movement to the "sunbelt" on the part of people who are sitting on the proceeds of southern house sales. It’s all to the good in that the economy is growing, but those in low wage jobs, or those on fixed incomes or social security payments are finding it more and more difficult. Their money buys fewer groceries — and more of it is devoted to the mortgage. This area used to be one of the cheapest in the country to buy a house and to feed yourself, or a family but it is catching up slowly but surely with the capitals.
Something’s been lost up here, and in other parts of Queensland: the lifestyle for which people moved here. Hikes in cigarette prices, it seems, are the last straw for many people — and let’s not forget there are still millions of smokers in the country. Two dollars a packet doesn’t sound like too much to a non-smoker, but for a family with two smokers in it who are on a pack a day, it all adds up. That goes double if they’re poor, as smokers disproportionately are. Smokers are also disproportionately Labor voters — take another look at that declining primary vote over the last couple of months.
There are specific issues too which involve the government’s capacity to sell itself. The scare campaign around insulation found its mark — people were frightened of their own ceilings, sometimes even where they hadn’t had insulation installed under the scheme. Constituents, in focus groups, told lurid and ludicrous tales about how BER money had been spent — on luxury teacher staff rooms, on skating rinks. The question of how you "sell" something in media outlets that are actively campaigning against you is a tricky one — in any case, the federal ALP hasn’t managed to answer it very well. This must be the only time in history where parish pump spending has lost votes.
Another factor working against Labor is unyielding, unremitting change in the order of government, business and citizens. People feel like they’re not able to get a fix on things.
On that score, problems in Queensland have possibly been overshadowed by the spectacular screw-ups in New South Wales, but here the State government isn’t doing too much to help the Labor "brand". The privatisation of the railways only directly affects rail workers — although there are enough of them in regional centres. What it adds to, though, is a gnawing sense of uncertainty.
Back in the day, one of the key appeals made by Pauline Hanson was to a sense that national assets — which were seen as being collectively owned — were being flogged for next to nothing against the wishes of the population as a whole. Rudd’s been criticised as a poor communicator and salesman, especially compared with earlier Labor heroes like Keating. This is a rosy view. Hansonism arose as a result of bottled up resentments around the mostly necessary reforms that Keating had manifestly not managed to "sell" to a significant minority. The Bligh Government’s moves to privatise Queensland Rail have alienated people across the political spectrum, and people do associate Rudd and Bligh with one another up here.
Also in the background here in North Queensland is that people feel no quotidian connection to their representatives, let alone to the political organisations that sponsor them. As is the case practically everywhere else in Australia, the parties have lost their social base. Fewer people are members of any major party and that’s worse news for Labor because of its historical claims to represent a broader range of the population.
People up here haven’t been helped in the recent past by lacklustre candidates and they simply can’t identify with distant events involving a professional cast of political operatives. They feel impotent in relation to policy decisions with which they don’t agree.
Union membership is also declining. And within unions, many from the leadership down feel sold out by all levels of government — but especially by the feds for whom they feel they won an election. Rudd, it was grumbled over lunch, came to believe his own press.
Rudd’s problem — apart from the many he made for himself — was that people expected him to fix problems that were essentially the result of systemic malaise. He was a prick, my friends agreed from personal experience, and people were always bound to move on him if things got rough. There was the usual gossip about who was rat-f*cking whom in bringing about the factional cooperation that brought him down.
But none of that was going to matter without bad polling. And Rudd started testing badly because just as he had some hope invested in him that wasn’t warranted, he took the blame for anything, for everything, and then people stopped listening. People stopped listening because he became identified with a broader failure of government itself. This was something which he didn’t cause — but nor did he address it.
In precisely the places that a barefoot boy from Nambour should have had an intuitive rapport with voters and a sure sense of the electoral mood, Rudd was a liability — to the extent that the consensus was that Herbert was lost, and Leichhardt, and who knows, maybe Dawson. And that would have been a third of his cushion. He couldn’t carry what should have been his heartland. In the end he couldn’t carry anyone.
And now, as I write this, we have a new PM. Can she turn it around in North Queensland? She’ll have to restore people’s faith that the governments they appoint can get things done on their behalf. She’ll have to fight powerful interests who think they can hire and fire PMs. And time is short. Plenty of people up here feel that the horse has bolted.