No going back – an update

Friday, 29 January 2010 

A curious article by Antony Green on the ABC’s The Drum is making the argument that the polls, which keep putting Labor at around 54-56%, are likely to be over-stating its vote. This assertion is supported, he argues, by the fact that when Rudd did actually face the electorate in the 2007 election, Labor polled a much lower vote at 52.7%.

Actually the 2007 election showed the exact opposite. Labor’s vote was the result of a narrowing of the gap over the course of the election campaign that was dutifully picked up by the polls throughout, with the last Newspoll before the election slightly understating Labor’s final vote at 52% (as shown by Green’s own graph). Rather than showing that the polls overstate Labor’s vote, the 2007 election showed the polls were generally spot on. The difference between Labor’s final vote and the higher levels it got during most of 2007 was the real result of the election campaign, not some illusion of the polls.

Anyway, as Green argues, parties in Australian politics don’t win by such large majorities – except, of course, when they do. But that was in 1966 when the Liberal government faced a demoralised divided opposition under an unpopular leader, which is completely different to now when the government faces, er, well … anyway.

We shall have to see what happens as to whether Labor can translate its current polling lead into an election result this time. But perhaps it is worthwhile recalling why it didn’t last time, because it might help understand Labor’s evolving tactics against the new opposition leader that we have seen in the last few days.

Green is hardly alone in wanting to ignore what happened to Labor’s vote during the last election campaign. To read most of the media at the time you would have had the impression that Howard’s campaign was a disaster, rather than actually eroding Labor’s lead. This is because media perceptions were more about finally coming to terms with what had been staring then in the face all year, Howard’s defeat, than following the actual campaign itself.

But even on the left and in the ALP there was denial on how poor Labor’s 2007 campaign was. This was because Labor’s campaign became less about Rudd and the anti-politics agenda he used to make Howard look irrelevant and out of touch, and more like a traditional Labor campaign centred around nasty right-wing action man Costello and WorkChoices, an irrelevant piece of industrial relations that business had little interest in, let alone anyone else. In doing so, it helped the Liberals rally its core around traditional themes such as Labor’s union links and wall-to-wall Labor governments and prevent the rout the polls had been suggesting.

The Liberals would clearly love to do the same again, which is why we have Abbott. But conditions are making it harder to do so coherently, which is why we have Abbott. Far from reviving Howard and getting back to basic Liberal values, Abbott seems to have trouble making a case for anything. It is hard to imagine Howard making his first policy speech on the environment and his second on the virtues of immigration and multi-culturalism. Is being a greenie multi-culturalist what the Liberals are supposed to be about? Why did they dump Turnbull then?

Abbott’s Australia Day speech was seen in some quarters as Abbott dog-whistling to racists in the electorate. If so, even the dogs wouldn’t have picked it up, given that about the only contentious thing they pointed to was Abbott’s highly controversial opinion that migrants should obey the law, presumably, like everyone else (a point taken somewhat off track by an Abbottesque historical reference to Archbishop Mannix, so those rumours of guns in the cellar weren’t true!).

That Abbott’s anodyne speech was seen by some as controversial, shows that not only would some in the Liberals like to go back to the old argy-bargy of the past, some in the left and the ALP might as well. Yet such attempts to highlight Abbott’s ‘right-wing’ agenda are obscuring the fact that he doesn’t really have one at all.

Similarly, there is some sign that in responding to Abbott’s threat to turn the clock back and resume the old left-right ding-dong, there is part of the government’s strategy that is conceding to it much as Labor did in the last election. Gillard’s leaping on Abbott’s comments about virginity were presumably meant not to highlight Abbott’s personal views, probably rather similar to her own leader’s, but to suggest that the Coalition could impose a traditional family values program, whereas Sharman Stone’s distancing from Abbott’s remarks shows how that is not possible.

No doubt Rudd approved of Gillard’s attack but interestingly, he did not really follow, saying little more than it was a subject Prime Ministers did not talk about. Instead Rudd, as we saw on The 7.30 Report last night, seems prefer to focus on future-big-picture-vision things like infrastructure, population and the climate change threat. There is a danger that this might expose the government’s own programme weaknesses, but at least it will more expose an opposition led by someone who is trying to set out what the Liberals stand for today, but has nowhere but the past to find it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 29 January 2010.

Filed under Tactics

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5 responses to “No going back – an update”

  1. Graeme on 29th January 2010 2:28 pm

    I’ll put my bet with Anthony Green’s. (Actually I’ve already done so, with Mumble man Peter Brent, who argues Abbott will, electorally, be Lathamesque).

    I have a strong impression the polls for years have been inflating Labor’s likely vote. Not because there is a problem in methodology: they measure what they measure, political sentiment on the days they are taken.

    But first because compulsory voting enhances the status quo. Howard’s supposed political genuis was in no small measure just lukewarm ‘c’ conservatives (in the methodological rather than ideological sense)coming home when push came to shove.

    At present, the overstating of the likely Labor vote is because of Coalition disarray. That base will recoalesce. The Tories will lose, but by a slightly smaller margin than 2007.

    By 2013, Rudd will, like Howard begin to benefit from compulsory voting forcing out lukewarm status quo types. Compulsion is more conservative (in practical rather than ideological terms) than we think.

    Incumbency is such a benefit, both institutionally and given Australia’s generally sleepy political culture.

    Incumbency only becomes a curse: (a) very slowly as governments approach 10 years and can’t even pretend to have an agenda, or (b) in exceptional times like 98’s ONP insurrection gave pent up anti-politics a new and chaotic form.

    But I’d be very interested in The Shrike’s take on the relationship if any between his/her favoured theme of ‘anti-politics’ and incumbency.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 29th January 2010 5:08 pm

    As soon as you push aside the evidence in front of you, as Green has done, and apply an abstract “law” (“Australian governments don’t get big majorities”), to me you are saying one thing – things don’t change.

    Yet I could make a whole list of things now that are unprecedented. It seems the more we enter new territory, the more these “laws” are popping out. Ironically, in applying these laws based on the past, it ignores it. In this case it misses what for me is an interesting question that no one wants to ask – why did Labor’s 2007 campaign suck?

  3. fred on 31st January 2010 10:46 pm

    ” …why did Labor’s 2007 campaign suck?”

    Not rocking the boat?

    I was too busy campaigning in 2 rural seats to judge the Australia wide ALP campaign as presented on TV, via the mainstream media and from speeches, about the only stuff I watched were the debates and they were mainly theatre.

    From my limited vantage point the ALP campaign was a mixture of fear of the media and a desire to not rock the boat which they saw sailing in their direction.
    They were treading the ‘softly softly catchee monkee” route and no news was good news, the less they said the less they saw the media being able to take advantage of anything controversial which could be used by the conservatives to radicalise and change the slow but inexorable path to ALP success.
    In the two rural electorates the COALition certainly out moneyed the ALP in its advertising spending. They spent far more, a ratio of 2:1 would be a reasonable estimate, on TV, local radio and local rural press [you can capitalise those last two words if you wish] and in mailouts thinly disguised as information from the sitting [COALition] members.
    I was surprised to see later that the ALP outspent the COALition, not where I was they didn’t.

  4. Scott on 1st February 2010 11:30 am

    I don’t think Labor’s 07 campaign was poor. I think they ran a steady campaign to appease swinging voters’ concerns to leave it to the Coalition to lose the election. In hindsight, Labor’s biggest mistake was to almost match the Coalition’s tax cuts rather than spend that money on national building projects to stimulate the economy. However, at that time, the Global Financial Crisis was “a storm cloud on the horizon” that seemed like a Liberal Party scare tactic. The ALP’s strategy was to portray a steady pair of hands that didn’t frighten the horses and the result was an election win that accomplished a high degree of difficulty. For example, all they had to do during the final week of the campaign was play it safe while the moral bankrupcy of the Howard Government was exposed over the Lindsay Affair.

  5. Riccardo on 1st February 2010 4:24 pm

    In The Hawke Government, the section by Bob Hogg talks about the 1983 win night, and he says that on the plane down to Canberra Keating kept saying he wasn’t sure they would win, when no one else had their doubts. 1980 had clouded his judgement, when Hayden should have won.

    I wonder if the ALP get the nerves in the week before, clouds their killer instinct and blunts their attack.

    Agree from a policy p.o.v, would have been great if the tax cut money had gone into infrastructure, and if ‘shovel-ready’ stuff had been just ready to go when the GFC hit. A lot of it would have been coming to fruition by now.

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