Falling into their lap

Friday, 23 November 2007 

A curious trend has crept into political commentary in the last days of the election.

A growing number of journalists, convinced Rudd will win, have been putting their reasons forward for the Labor victory. The interest rate rises, especially the one during the campaign was the final straw, the government’s ads were much worse than Labor’s and, an increasingly common one, the Liberals ran a terrible campaign whereas Labor’s has been smooth and professional.

Anyone who has just arrived to this election from overseas and was reading all of this would think that Labor’s support has been rising during the campaign. But in fact it hasn’t. If anything, it has drifted down over the campaign (even ignoring the latest Galaxy that says Howard could scrape back in). While The Narrowing has been widely mocked, the poll trends do look a bit narrower over the campaign.

There is no reason why it should. Given how sharp Rudd has been on several instances over the year, this blog thought, after the initial ritual had settled down, that the real reasons for the government’s imminent defeat would become even more apparent. If anything they have become more confused. The giveaway on why commentators have been criticising the Liberals’ campaign is the reasons they give for it, it has kept banging on about unions and the tax giveaway that was made too early. It shows that they have under-estimated just what this campaign was about.

The Liberals entered this campaign in a terrible state. Confidence in the party was collapsing as internal polling was showing that not only was it losing in the marginals, but more demoralising, its core support base was melting away. As a result, the leadership had imploded to the point where the government’s biggest asset, Howard, was forced to promise his retirement. The chronic state of the government was under-estimated by commentators so they could not work out the Liberals’ tactics.

The main purpose of the government campaign, before any thought of winning, was to cohere the party and its core support base (‘saving the furniture’ as one put it). That was why the tax hand-out was done at the start, and the focus had to be on issues that would really only appeal to core Liberal supporters, union power and wall-to-wall Labor governments.

Given the state of the party, it worked reasonably well. The disintegration of the Liberal party continues (and will speed up whether they win or not) but it has been a case of gently falling apart rather than disintegrating. The only real signs were Turnbull and Debnam on Kyoto and the latest, most damaging example, the shenanigans of the out-of-control NSW Liberal party.

The other thing that has helped the Liberals has been Labor’s campaign. Labor’s campaign always gets approval for its slickness which is natural enough for a party run by apparatchiks rather than disparate business interests like the Liberals. Unfortunately they don’t often get the result, and if it wasn’t for the mess the government was in, this one probably wouldn’t either.

Never in the campaign did Labor properly address the Liberals’ attack on union power or the competency of state governments, when they could have respectively honed in on the government playing the politics of the past, or just playing politics. However, there is no more obvious indictment of Labor’s campaign than that it took two months for the campaign to finally realise, after talking to a focus group apparently, that Howard’s retirement announcement was electorally damaging and to be exploited, something they could have worked out much sooner had they used their political common sense.

Keating said in June that Labor’s campaign managers wouldn’t know which side to get out of bed in the morning without asking a focus group. It was probably a focus group they were listening to that made them step up the attack on Workchoices in the last days of the campaign. Once again, instead of just listening, they should have been using their political common sense to interpret it.

A continual feature of qualitative polling through the year (other than Workchoices not coming up that much) was that the reasons people were giving for switching to Labor were not very distinct. Comments like its time for a change, the government’s stale, still like Howard but getting old, were common. It was the vagueness of these comments that made commentators, on the left and right, dismiss Labor’s lead as ‘soft’ and constantly underestimate how resilient it was. Interestingly, in August, when Sky News brought Republican pollster Frank Luntz over from the US, a country where the electorate is not held in as much contempt as it is here, he thought the persistency of these comments, despite their vagueness, significant and signalled that a shift was underway.

What voters were reacting to was a party in government suddenly exposed with a policy vacuum. Not the sort of program exhaustion that gets governments thrown out every now and then, but one of a party that had lost the very reasons for its existence. Given that this is probably unprecedented in Australian politics, it is not surprising that it would have been vaguely expressed, but also not surprising it was so definite.

What has interacted with that is the way the parties have reacted to that vacuum. The end of industrial relations as a real issue in Australian society is a major problem for the two parties that were formed on the back of it. For Labor, there has been a transformation over the last decade at the state level to a more technocratic party administering public services. At the federal level that transformation is also underway guided by the Mandarin, but by fits and starts and a tendency to still indulge themselves in the old battles with the Liberals. A defining event this year was an election in the state where this new technocratic Labor is slowest to emerge, NSW, one of the first ‘modern’ pro-business/union Labor states, but yet to have the crisis to turn them into the bureaucratised Labor parties elsewhere on the continent.

The NSW election in March was intensely demoralising for both parties. The Iemma government was unpopular, but the Liberals were so chronic that they couldn’t even work out a transport policy. It is not surprising Labor wanted to exaggerate the role of Workchoices in such a hollow victory. This IR debate, that is essentially just brand identification for both parties, has been a comfort as the parties struggle for an alignment they are not yet ready for. Given the Liberals’ inability to defend Workchoices, it would seem a pretty uncontroversial reason for the voters to justify a decision they had already made once Rudd’s ascendancy signalled that the old left/right debate was over. Labor’s campaign has just taken the end effect of what has happened this year as the cause.

While it is understandable that journalists wanting to catch up with reality will read things backwards, it is surprising Labor is too given that it is led by someone who has from the start distanced himself from the union-led campaign of his predecessor. But the surprise of the campaign is how much Rudd appears to have been constrained by his own party throughout it. If there was an abiding image of the campaign, it was Rudd awkwardly standing on the stage at the launch doing little waves to the people in the audience, clearly instructed not to raise his arms in victory. If he had been let loose he probably wouldn’t have even bothered acknowledging the party other than a wave to his only real friends in the audience, Therese and the kids.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 23 November 2007.

Filed under Key posts, Tactics

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