The glue that binds

Wednesday, 13 June 2007 

The Galaxy Queensland poll has already been fully covered by other commentators such as Mumbles.

There was little in it that was new, a modest softening of Labor support, in line with that shown by the national Galaxy poll and a recent Morgan poll (although subsequently reversed), but still showing a thumping 9% anti-government swing since the last election. There would seem little grounds for the more up-beat assessment Howard gave to the party-room this week.

But of course Howard was not thinking about the mood of the electorate but of the party-room he was addressing. There is a sleeper of this election year that has been largely missed by the media but is guiding the actions of the leaders, which is the demoralisation and internal weakness of their respective parties. The weak cohesion of the Liberals has already come to the surface twice this year, the exposure of Santoro by his Queensland colleagues and the panic and leadership speculation that broke out after Howard’s ‘annihilation’ comments.

The internal weakness of the Liberal party is not always obvious as there is no particular issue for them to divide over. Nor is there anyone capable of mounting a challenge, which is why Howard can dare his colleagues to get rid of him, implicit in his line “I’ll stay as long as the party wants me”. Rather the main danger is that the party will simply fragment into a group of squabbling individuals. This is why the industrial relations issue is so important to Howard as a means of reminding the party of one of the few things, nowadays, they have in common. This surely must colour his assessment that “the union issue resonates strongly” with the electorate.

However, there is an important danger for Howard in raising the union threat from Labor – it doesn’t exist. As Keating already blew the gaffe last week, Labor has no intention of restoring the power of the unions. If it has appeared so, it is because the Labor leadership had also used industrial relations as a means of cohering its own supporter base, a tactic which fell apart when Therese Rein’s business affairs came to light. The need for such cohesion in Federal Labor is suggested by an intriguing report in The Australian that complaints about Ingeus’s employment conditions were brought to the attention of the government a few weeks earlier in a letter from a senior Labor MP, who didn’t bother to inform Rudd, and who apparently didn’t think the government would exploit it politically (hmmm).

It is feasible that the Therese Rein affair had some impact on Labor’s support, a conclusion that others seem surprisingly unwilling to draw. However, the mute reaction of the unions has now given the leadership confidence that they can drop the pretence and begin to tackle any perception that they will let unions back in. While this might weaken the cohesion of the party and its primary vote, it should allow Rudd to recover grounds in parts of the electorate where the threat of union power is seen as an issue, as appears to be the case in WA. For Howard, this in turn will make it harder to use industrial relations as the glue that binds his party. The results should be interesting to watch.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 13 June 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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