If politics taught us anything in 2010, both here and abroad, it is the power of cheap shots in politics. Australia’s conservative Liberal and National parties are not quite in the same league as the populist sloganeers in the right-wing of the US Republican party, but there were times this year when they came close.
Despite a policy platform that was barely more than a series of slogans and election costings that literally didn’t add up, under the tactically adept leadership of Tony Abbott, the Coalition nearly consigned Labor to an ignominious first-term defeat. Ever since, Abbott has consistently troubled the Government on favoured issues like stimulus spending, government debt — and especially asylum seekers.
The Liberal Party (in its various state incarnations, including the Queensland Liberal-National Party) has the strongest electoral base of the three main parties. The conservative voting base in Australia is a solid 40 per cent, plus whatever swinging and disaffected Labor voters can be convinced to join the bandwagon. The problem for Tony Abbott and the Liberals in August was that those extra swinging voters and preferences didn’t quite add up to 50.1 per cent. Hence, while many seats in suburban and regional Australia remain rock-solid conservative, the Liberals and their allies face a significant challenge in building a winning electoral coalition.
The rise of the Greens doesn’t help the Liberals either: Green voters are generally to the left of the ALP, and so very few Green preferences flow to the Liberal or National parties. Demographically, the conservatives do have the advantage of an ageing population, which tends to slowly skew the vote over time.
Despite a landslide to the LNP in Queensland and a lock on Westen Australia, the Liberals won few extra seats in New South Wales and actually went backward in Victoria. If you add up all the votes across the country, Labor and the Greens won more of the vote. So, despite everything that went right for the Coalition in the election campaign — the "real Julia", devastating leaks, even a rampant Mark Latham — they couldn’t get over line. A close defeat is still a defeat. Even Liberal strategists must realise things could well be tougher next time.
One of the Liberal’s greatest problems this term may well be the closeness of their defeat in 2010. There is still a view amongst many Liberals, rank and file and top officials alike, that they are the natural party of government. History backs this up: since 1949, Labor has enjoyed only 19 years in government. The problem with this perspective for the Liberals is that it breeds overconfidence. The Liberals have done relatively little policy development since losing office, and have instead relied on relentless attacks on Labor’s legitimacy.
And on the whole, "ferocious opposition" has been a remarkably successful tactic.
Particularly since Tony Abbott assumed the leadership, the Opposition has been able to consolidate its base and convince most right-of-centre voters that Labor is not competent to hold office. Labor played into the Opposition’s hands in this respect by governing timidly. Perhaps they never really believed their own polling figures — even when they were stratospheric early in Kevin Rudd’s term.
The assault on Labor’s legitimacy was built on slogans and rhetoric, not policy or evidence. Unlike Kevin Rudd and his ponderous jargon, the Coalition under Tony Abbott goes straight for the jugular with simple, effective slogans like "stop the boats" and "pay back the debt." It often works. It doesn’t matter that any substantive analysis of the Coalition’s economic policies finds them riddled with basic arithmetic errors. It certainly doesn’t matter that the Australian government has almost no debt. And it especially doesn’t matter that the Coalition’s arguments about Labor’s slightly less punitive asylum seeker processing policies were xenophobia and racism masquerading as border security.
What matter is that Tony Abbott’s soundbites cut through. The former journalist and press secretary has shown himself to be a master political messenger, hurting Labor whenever he chooses to turn on the blowtorch. His skill in attack took the Coalition within a whisker of victory. But the Coalition didn’t win, and therein lies the paradox.
When you think about why the Coalition didn’t win this year, two main reasons stick out. First, the Liberals couldn’t win enough marginal seats, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. The reasons for this are multiple, but they may well have something to do with appealing to a different set of voting concerns to those of the conservative base to whom Abbott appeals so well. The Liberals did not win very much of the anti-Labor swing — most of this went to the Greens. Second, the Nationals failed again. If the Nationals still polled as well in regional Australia as they did in the 1970s, Tony Abbott would now be Prime Minister. Instead, two former Nationals, now successful independents, gave their support to Julia Gillard for a Labor minority government. The Nationals are dying as a party, and this is a problem for their Coalition partners.
In summary, consolidating the conservative base will not get the Liberals into office. Things could easily slip backward in 2013.
On policy, one of the interesting thing about the Liberals is how their recent record in government differs from their election slogans.
There is no doubt that the Liberal Party’s rhetorical commitment to low taxes and small government resonates with many Australians. However, the rhetoric here is more important than the substance: John Howard actually presided over a generally expanding federal government, even if the Coalition has always been careful to stay on message when it comes to lower taxes and leaner government spending. Many voters actually believe nonsensical statements such as "interest rates will always be lower under the Coalition", no matter what the facts tell us.
And when it comes to border protection, we know that the Coalition really can deliver on its punitive and inhumane promises. Inner-city progressives find the appeal of anti-refugee rhetoric hard to understand, but at base level it should be no more difficult to understand than any other form of prejudice or envy. It is sad that many Australians fear and loathe those who seek asylum on our shores. But given Australia’s dismal history of xenophobia and racism, it is hardly incomprehensible.
But for those of who take the time to examine the Coalition’s policies dispassionately, there is much to unpick and to criticise.
On the economy, the Coalition continues a reflexive embrace of free markets and balanced budgets that is neither ideologically nor empirically consistent. The Coalition believes in the free flow of goods and services across borders — but not the free movement of people. It believes in lower taxes — except for its tax on business to pay for maternity leave. It believes that market mechanisms should set prices in the economy — except for the price of carbon and other pollutants. It believes in balancing the budget — but committed to more spending than Labor in the election campaign. It believes the National Broadband Network is an expensive, untested technology the country can’t afford — but has no scruples when it comes to equally expensive and untested military hardware like the Joint Strike Fighter. It wants every detail of the NBN costings and business plan released — but refused to submit its own election costings to Treasury in time for the election.
None of this matters in opposition. As the Republicans have just shown in the United States, being the "Party of No" can be an excellent strategy if voters get frustrated with the "Yes We Can" party.
So the negative tactics and empty slogans will continue.
The Coalition can frame a message and stick to it. Labor can’t. This has obscured the utter incoherence of many Liberal policies. But that doesn’t matter electorally, because policy substance doesn’t necessarily matter to voters. It’s up to the media and the government to hold Coalition policy to scrutiny, and neither have done a good job of that.
But should that start to happen, the Coalition is vulnerable. Negativity has its own risks: not least those of exaggeration in a country where the economy is strong and standards of living are rising. So the question of whether "ferocious" attack will be enough to get the Coalition back into government is an open question.
And the coming term holds many pitfalls for Tony Abbott. In modern politics, no leader can survive a sustained run of bad polls. The man to lead the Opposition to the 2013 election could easily be Malcolm Turnbull — or Scott Morrison.
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