Dead centre

Monday, 23 March 2009 

So the polls were wrong. Big deal. They often are for state elections. They were just as out in WA but no-one minded because the WA result confirmed prevailing prejudices. There is more fretting about why the Queensland polls were wrong because the Queensland result did not confirm prevailing prejudices. If it wasn’t for the current fashion for ‘iron laws’ of Australian politics that said of course 11 year governments struggle to survive and of course state governments go the opposite way of federal ones, people would have simply treated the polls with the normal amount of caution. As it is, Brandis on election night had another, completely opposite, iron law of Australian politics to explain the result, the incumbency factor. So take your pick. What all these pre-election assumptions have done is left the post-election discussion centred on the question of why the LNP did not do better.

The more interesting question is the exact opposite. The fact is that, leaving aside metaphysical claptrap, any objective assessment would have concluded that this was an election that Labor should never have looked like losing. Brandis was right on one thing, Labor went into this election with a lot of advantages, a popular Labor government in Canberra (anyone who thinks that might be somehow a disadvantage should recall what an unpopular Labor government in Canberra can do to Queensland state elections) and a massive stimulus package that had a direct feed through to the state level.

Curiously, however, Brandis left out the most important advantage Labor had in Queensland, an opposition that is in the worst position of any in mainland Australia. We have had the collapse of a state Liberal party that until now has been disguised as a merger and a conservative ‘revival’. Never mind that, as every other coalition organisation now knows, whether state or federal, this is not exactly the time to move to the right. This was an organisational manoeuvre posing as an ideological one, even though as an ideological shift it made no sense. If a conservative shift was inappropriate at the time of the merger, it is even more so when we have seen the right struggle to maintain some ideological credibility. It was often said that a merger was an improvement because it stopped the parties fighting with each other, as though running under a single name would stop that happening. The reality may become a little more evident after Springborg departs the scene.

Yet despite all these advantages, Labor never looked comfortable for the entire campaign. Labor’s publicised nerves may have been for tactical reasons to be the underdog (Bligh’s last minute swing through the state seemed just for that reason) but leaks of in-fighting in the Labor camp would have hardly been desired. The widely reported mood of voter disenchantment with both sides suggests neither side succeeded in solidifying their base. Brandis’s incumbency observation seemed to be justified going by some of those seats where existing MPs who weren’t re-standing swung sharply to the LNP. But this was less an iron law at work than the specifics of this election. The government had no firm base for re-election but neither did the LNP pose a serious challenge to government MPs. The Queensland election was one where a moveable object met the resistible force.

It is not as though the Labor campaign was especially worse than the LNP’s but all the conditions theoretically existed for it to be much better. Yet despite all the vulnerabilities of the coalition, Labor rarely went for the kill. The ad campaigns tried to hit the main weakness of the coalition, i.e. that the only way they can deal with the economic crisis is to pretend it isn’t happening. But the Labor campaign failed to bring the point home enough to prevent Springborg still credibly going around promising more services and cutting spending at the same time.

The problem is that while Labor can at least acknowledge the downturn it has no strategy to resolve it either. It is not just that spending now will have to end when the money runs out or create problems later when it does, there has been no real political or theoretical shift to justify over-turning the orthodoxies of the last thirty years. This is more of a case of making it up as we go along. It was why Labor never really had the basis to prosecute the case against the LNP’s vulnerabilities in Queensland or the coalition’s in Canberra.

Rudd is now going off to the US and the UK for the G20 summit but there will be no answers there. Not only are both countries now embarked on what was seen as economic suicide as recently as a year ago, printing money as an economic strategy, but the US is no closer to getting the global order to pay for its wall of debt that will soon be hitting the financial system. From the ground work laid by the Finance Ministers in England, it is becoming more clear one reason why the US favours the G20, it is easier to disguise the fact that the US under Obama is no nearer getting the G7 to follow its lead than before under Bush, although at least Obama is less prepared than the neo-cons to make a virtue of the fact.

Looking at the Queensland election without having to worry about defending why iron laws didn’t work reveals the sand that is already under Labor’s feet. This is likely to start shifting soon. It in no way means a conservative revival because as in Queensland, they have no political basis on which to make one. But we are about to find out why Bligh went six months early.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 23 March 2009.

Filed under State of the parties

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9 responses to “Dead centre”

  1. Scott on 23rd March 2009 9:45 am

    A four per cent swing for a dysfunctional, newly merged party that provided non-sensical economic costings is a good result. Ultimately Labor won because the LNP could not convince voters that it could manage the economy better. In fact, it was obvious to Blind Freddy that the LNP would probably manage things a lot worse and that is probably what swayed all those so-called undecided voters in the last couple of days of the campaign.

  2. James on 23rd March 2009 10:49 am

    It’s telling of its agenda that the mainstream media had the audacity to present Springborg’s LNP as a credibile alternative to the Bligh Government. The mainstream media went to great lengths to portray the Bligh Government as incompetent, while it glossed over the LNP’s deficiencies. The mainstream media is allowed to push its political agendas with no real accountability.

  3. Bilko on 23rd March 2009 12:40 pm

    The polls were not wrong, as possum’s blog indicates; the Murdock anti ALP media wanted the LNP to win. They were in the same denial mode all year prior to the Federal election as you have maintained in your blogs.
    The voters are always right sometimes for the wrong reasons. Whilst pleased that the “Borg” failed to assimilate Qld or even the Liberal party voters for that matter. My only regret is that I did not put a bet on the ALP to win. 50/50,49/51 was never enough to win 20+ seats. Even a 0.1 swing required in Chatswood failed to occur. Hopefully Bligh will clean up her party and drop the deadwood and make a go of it.

  4. David Jackmanson on 23rd March 2009 2:00 pm

    Link to Possum’s blog as mentioned by Bilko:

    Polls were right, MSM was wrong”

  5. Just Me on 23rd March 2009 7:55 pm

    “The Queensland election was one where a moveable object met the resistible force”

    He he he.

    “But we are about to find out why Bligh went six months early.”

    Another scandal in the health sector in North Queensland?

  6. Graeme on 24th March 2009 11:53 am

    I too am amazed at the media championing the polls, then turning round a day later and blaming them.

    However whilst it’s true the polls weren’t wrong (just 2% out, within any MoE):

    (a) it’s significant that a ‘poll of the polls’ was so consistent. Where were the polls bouncing around the mean prediction?
    Maybe Galaxy and to lesser extent Newspoll have a small conservative bias, at least in Qld/state polls. Yet party internal polling is said to have been similar.
    (b) we need another explanation. ‘A late swing’ is a poor fudge.

    I’d argue compulsory voting ensures very lukewarm government supporters turnout, and this mimics a late shift, in a way that polling doesn’t measure. Unless or until we hit a deep recession, incumbents especially governments will continue to have such an inbuilt advantage any half competent administration, with decent media management, will plod on for a guaranteed decade at least.

  7. Graeme on 24th March 2009 12:00 pm

    ps – PS, no-one is ‘printing money’. Do you mean ‘ultra-whopping budget deficits’?

    Debtonation is a great site explaining the difference. Quantitative easing is a way of reducing bond yields and thereby allowing business to borrow; as much as a way of chunnelling money into deficits. It’s also a good site for counter economic ideas to the Paulson-Geithner approach of keeping insolvent banks on public life support.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 24th March 2009 5:59 pm

    ‘Printing money’ is a daft term, I sound like a crusty monetarist, I meant the UK and the US buying back their debt.

    The point is that we are seeing the orthodoxies of the last thirty years turned upside down but there has been no real groundwork laid to do so (unlike say when Keynsianism was attacked by the monetarists in the 70s).

    On the QU polls I think some contradictory messages are coming out, on one hand the polls are said to be not wrong because they were in MOE (or can they be aggregated such as was done to prove there was a Turnbull bounce from a tiny movement?) on the other hand there seems an awful lot of stories about ‘last minute’ turn around due to the brilliance of Bligh’s campaigning to explain why they were out. I guess we will never know but it was interesting to see Bligh use this latter story against the party on The 7.30 Report to choose her Ministry.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 24th March 2009 7:34 pm

    Bearing in mind that blog wars titillate but ultimately bore, I have just read Mumble’s piece on Possum’s claim that the polls were right. I think Mumble has a point. Saying something is ‘right’ because it falls within a 95% range of probability might mean something to a statistician but not really to anyone else. The polls suggested it would be close and it was not. So that sounds wrong to me, but hey that’s life.

    My take is that the polls’ interpretation got caught up in the general expectation that the cycle will inevitably start turning back against Labor in the states, something I think Mumble has also been guilty of.

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