No revival, just decay

Monday, 8 September 2008 

Those who think the election results across the country on Saturday showed the inevitable swinging back of the pendulum following the election of the Rudd government, must have been squinting at them with one eye.

They couldn’t have been looking very hard at the federal by-elections. The unsettling take-away for the Nationals in the wipe-out they suffered in a heartland seat like Lyne, is that the winning candidate, Oakeshott, was a National in everything except name. It suggests the old truism that being in a party is a greater advantage than operating on your own as an Independent is being turned on its head.

The problem for the Nationals is that with rural politics being about nothing more than subsidies these days, being an independent gives you more chance of negotiating them than forming a coalition with a bunch of losers like the Liberals. It is no wonder that Warren Truss is reconsidering the arrangement, reflecting a rethink that has already happened in SA and now could be underway in WA.

Results from Mayo are hardly more encouraging for the Liberals. A swing against them of over 10% may be due to the large field of candidates as Nelson claimed, but it is hard to see how, given that it didn’t include the Liberals’ main challenger for votes, the ALP.

However, the by-elections weren’t that great for Labor either. Their refusal to run in both seats shows that after Gippsland, it has quickly reverted to the previous government’s fear of any elections that might test the shallowness of its support. The result has a curious impact on Labor supporters and voters in both electorates. Labor supporters reportedly handing out HTVs in Lyne for a National-in-all-but-name must wonder what they are in politics for. In Mayo, given that the Greens ended up almost toppling the Liberals, Labor’s absence raises more awkward questions.

Nelson said on Insiders that the Mayo disaster was a result of local factors. But neither he nor the Insiders panel got around to mentioning what that local issue was. There is an almost unfathomable anger at the major parties over what is happening to the Murray basin, which borders onto the electorate. This was behind the strong showing not only of the Greens but also the independent Di Bell running on a ticket to save the Murray (assisted by Xenophon). Nelson’s insistence a week ago that the problems of the Murray were not a result of global warming may have satisfied the old leadership on his back, but hardly helped their cause in Mayo.

But Labor isn’t in the clear either. Wong’s concession that nothing can be done to save the Murray at the beginning of August led to an outcry that quickly had her and Rudd running back down to the mouth a couple of weeks later to throw a few extra million dollars into water buybacks. The problem for Labor exists within the chasm between their openness over the limited abilities of government and a claim to have a plan to change the globe’s weather. The gap between rhetoric and reality on the government’s climate change strategy is exposed at the lower end of the Murray and it is this gap right now that is a far greater problem for Labor than the media’s obsession over the economic impact in 2030. Labor’s inability to manage that gap and take the campaign directly to the Liberals in what should have been an ideal seat to do so, shows that climate change is an issue that has the capacity to be highly corrosive for parties.

However, if there is anywhere to see not only the corroding authority of the parties, but also the changing landscape because of it, it is in WA this weekend. The depoliticising of state politics in Australia has taken away the issues that both major parties have used to build authority in the electorate. In WA it was made even worse by the corruption scandals. Not so much because of undue lobbying influence (like that doesn’t happen anywhere) but because it could not be dealt with politically but relied on an independent body lording it over the major parties.

However, since state politics has turned into little more than public services, Labor has had two advantages. The first one is being perceived as better able to manage public services. This comes less from practice than from their ability to manage public service unions and, more importantly, the Liberals’ inability to avoid talking about cutting taxes everytime they open their mouths. Everyone knows what that means for hospitals and schools.

The second advantage they have is the state of the Liberals. With hindsight the timing of the election was probably a problem. No doubt Labor thought that calling it straight after Barnett took back the leadership would deny him time to settle back in. But with WA Liberal leaders it is more likely that given time, rather than being enhanced, his authority would have been eroded as it was for others over the last few years. Beazley was right, they could have had it earlier to take advantage of the Buswell fiasco. Or perhaps they could have chanced it later to see if the continual back-biting would put Barnett under pressure again. As it was, Labor chose to go to the polls during the one of the few windows of cohesion the Liberals have given WA voters over the last seven years.

With the Liberals looking coherent for a while, it left Labor little to campaign on, as shown by their re-hashing of naff anti-Buswell attacks after he had just been dumped. By the end Carpenter was having to scratch around for Green preferences by going on about uranium mining and GM crops (the relatively low preference flow suggests it didn’t work that well).

Yet if the Liberals held together up to election night, the coalition did not. The ABC election coverage started to become bizarre late on Saturday night after the Nationals leader Grylls in an interview began giving very clear signals that his support for the Liberals was not to be assumed. He called Katherine Maynard, the SA Nationals MP sitting in Rann’s Labor cabinet an ‘inspiration’, and said he would be talking to her following the election.

Yet following this rather important development, the camera switched back to Kerry O’Brien sitting above his now redundant graphics of the L/NP seat count and carrying on as though nothing had happened. To his right, however, Julie Bishop’s eyes had widened just a little bit more as she assured that of course the Nationals voters wanted a change in government while Stephen Smith maintained the humble face that he and Carpenter were putting on that night as what he warned Bishop of just a few moments before, started coming to pass. Beazley reinforced the Labor leadership’s absolute comfort with a deal with the Nats shortly after by advising state Labor to hurry up and make it.

Bishop may be right that National voters want a change in government – it just might be with Labor rather than the Liberals. Some Nat supporters may not be happy with that, but the fact that their leader can openly talk about the possibility of supporting Labor suggests party resistance might not be too much of a problem. Labor has already shown in SA, Victoria and Queensland that it is ready to adapt its style to suit regional interests. Certainly they seem more flexible than the Liberals who appear at the moment to have ruled out the Nats deal-breaker demand for regional royalties. It highlights again why Labor has done so well in the last decade, it is more adaptable to the erosion of the traditional two-party system.

Rudd’s election has speeded up that erosion, not caused a swing in the two-party system back to the past. Labor might be struggling to keep pace with it at the state level but it still looks more able than the Liberals to do so. The collapse of Labor’s most entrenched faction shows the extent to which Labor is transforming. The Liberals’ difficulties with dealing with this post-political environment come out in the pointless ideological tussles that destabilise the leadership. For the Nationals it is a case of adapting to survive. Their negotiations in WA pre-empt the re-think that is happening federally that they might start considering becoming an independent party before they become, as in Lyne, a party of Independants.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 8 September 2008.

Filed under State of the parties

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