The pretend campaign, and the real one

Tuesday, 16 October 2007 

Australian politics is heading for a realignment and neither party is fully prepared for it.

The basis of that realignment stems from when Labor ended its historical role of representing union interests during the Hawke/Keating years and so at the same time ending the Liberal’s role of opposing it. The problems this has caused both parties was evident in the first half of Howard’s government when both parties struggled to bring a programme to the electorate and the government itself floundered almost from day one. It was suspended from 2001 by the War on Terror which gave the government a sense of purpose but now with it fading, that realignment is coming back with a vengeance.

Howard’s problem in this election is not to get people to agree to his policies but to get them to believe he has any policies at all. That is the message behind his ‘Love me or loathe me’ which must surely make him one of the few leaders ever to marshal those who dislike him as part of his case for re-election. Unfortunately, most voters neither love or loathe him but are indifferent, a natural response to a government that stands for nothing. Howard’s call is a reminder of what a favour those ‘Howard-haters’ actually do him.

It is this profound policy vacuum that the Liberals are grappling with in this election. It means that the government has no policy basis to connect with what used to be its core supporters. The significance of Workchoices is not that it is turning the electorate away from Howard to the extent commentators have claimed but that it was an IR reform that business didn’t even need. The balance in the workplace shifted decisively away from the unions years ago. Workchoices highlights that the Liberals no longer have anything to offer that section of society that helped create them.

As a result, the Liberals’ problem in this election is not so much even the size of the swing, but the nature of it. The Liberals’ support base is eroding and they no longer know who their core supporters are. It was an attempt to bolster its old core base that made them bang on about wall-to-wall Labor governments and union power. However, the first does not really work if the traditional Liberal voter nowadays has no particular problem with Labor on a state or federal level, the second scare has little basis in reality. The government’s more recent U-turns on climate change and reconciliation is tacit admission that not only are these traditional scares not working, but that Labor’s agenda is eating into its base.

The Liberals are less campaigning for government than their political survival. This is intensely demoralising and Howard has had to grapple with the impact this has had on the party, and his leadership, all year. When he talked of annihilation in May, at a time when Newspoll was recording the government behind even in its safe seats, it panicked, rather than galvanised, the party. This in turn undermined his authority and it is why Howard has been careful to give the impression that the government is still conducting a normal campaign over the marginals. When Howard made a big show of going to Eden-Monaro shortly after the last party-room meeting it was for the same reason he talked of some spurious internal polling showing the Liberals had a chance in this symbolic seat. It was also largely for symbolism that Howard went to Tasmania, to give the party the message that he could repeat the trick of 2004.

These symbolic gestures for party morale are in sharp contrast to the real battle that keeps being leaked to save their core seats in Sydney, Melbourne and South Australia. It is also why the pleading of backbench MPs to talk about marginal seat issues like housing affordability were ignored while the government focusses on those issues of more concern to its traditional voters.

Symbols can only do so much. Howard is struggling against a political reality his party and ministers must be well aware of, despite Howard reportedly no longer even letting his closest circle see internal polling (perhaps not surprising given that it includes that astute political operator Costello, who not only gave away the last day of sitting and the election date but also told ABC Radio “I don’t think there’s anything such as a safe seat any more.”) Without a party agenda on which to base a case for re-election, individual government members that aren’t retiring are left to fend for themselves under their own personal appeal rather than the party.

There is no better example of all of this than Howard himself. His failure to move to a safer seat (like Beazley did before ’96) shows his lack of preparedness for what has happened this year. But more importantly the increasing time he is spending campaigning for survival in his own seat rather than the survival of the government (an act of extraordinary political selfishness by a party leader that has received surprisingly little comment) shows the fragmenting of the party that goes to the very top. While most of the attention of the long campaign has gone on the pressure it will mean for Rudd, what has been forgotten is the impact a long campaign will have on the cohesion of a party, with nothing to bind it, fighting for its existence.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 16 October 2007.

Filed under Tactics

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