Monday, 22 March 2010
It’s no surprise that given the media’s confusion of Labor’s problems with a Liberal revival at the federal level, it would look at the weekend’s state elections in the same way. Yet in overstating the Liberal ‘challenge’ in both states, they are also understating Labor’s problems.
In Tasmania, what we are seeing is the slow decomposition of the long-standing and successful business-union model of Labor, similar to what is happening in NSW. Like NSW, this had been happening in government rather than opposition because of the chronic inability of the Liberals to take over. Even now, the chronic state of the Liberals can be seen in that it not only cannot capture enough of the disaffected Labor vote to govern in its own right, but will probably have to form an alliance with the Greens, who are supposed to be on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, to govern at all. How much of a ‘Liberal’ government will this possibly be?
Yet if the swing against Labor in South Australia was less severe and the end result better than in Tasmania, the implications for Labor from the SA election are more troubling. Because while the Tasmanian result represents the decomposition of the old, the SA result reflects the weakness of the new.
The combination of a highly urbanised, and historically unionised electorate, plus decades of being kept out of power from a rural gerrymander, has all meant that the transformation of the ALP in South Australia over the last four decades has occurred sharper and faster in that state than elsewhere across the country. It was in SA where Whitlam’s ‘modernisation’ of the ALP and the weakening of union links first bore fruit under Dunstan, producing two decades of almost uninterrupted Labor rule from 1970 until the State Bank collapse in the early 1990s. This ‘modern’ ALP was a business-union partnership model that was followed by Wran in NSW in 1976 and finally reaching its full flowering around the other state capitals and with Hawke in the 1980s.
The SA Labor party that emerged after the State Bank collapse was a different beast. Rann’s model was to create a more ideologically neutral government, standing for nothing in particular than technocratic governance. This was represented by the inclusion of a National and former Liberal in the cabinet, initially as a response to being a minority government, but retained even when Labor could govern in its own right. This technocrat model was highly successful and saw the Labor vote balloon in the 2006 election. To a degree it was replicated elsewhere and, of course, in Canberra with Rudd.
One difference with Rudd in Canberra has been that the traditional faction system is still more obvious in SA Labor, even if it has been an empty ritualistic dance without much real meaning. Nor has there been the Rudd willingness to ‘stoop low’ when the occasion requires to accommodate to anti-political sentiment. Combined, it has caused trouble with those who may be big shots internally, but not to the electorate at large. One example of this in SA has been the departing Attorney General, Mick Atkinson. A right-wing power broker, he has run into trouble throwing a weight around that no longer really exists out in the electorate, most especially with his proposal to censor anonymous political blogs (ahem). Atkinson has been a focus of electorate annoyance at his ‘arrogance’ rather like that other not-so-loveable right-wing power broker couple on the east coast.
As has Rann himself. The reason why a pre-marital affair was such a problem for Rann was not the affair itself but that Rann wasn’t quick enough with a mea culpa, only leaving it until the leaders debate, months after the story broke. As some have picked up, even at the non-victory speech, Rann’s calling it ‘the sweetest victory’ was an indulgence that the leader of a government that stands for nothing cannot afford.
That such trivial issues can cause problems for the government is a sign that the technocratic model might accommodate to the exhaustion of both parties’ programmes, but does not represent a new firm base in the electorate. Some, including Rudd, have said that such a swing is inevitable against a long-standing government, but it wasn’t that much less ‘long-standing’ six months ago when Labor was on track for another landslide. The way that such a lead can so rapidly melt away for a government that otherwise ticked all the right boxes on what is supposed to be necessary for re-election; strong economy, reasonably good reputation on services, including health, shows how the rules have changed.
Fortunately, Labor does have the Liberals. Labor’s ability to dump its programme over the last forty years has meant the Liberals, with little to oppose, have generally been a basket case over that time. Even following the 1993 landslide and Labor’s discrediting after State Bank, they still couldn’t keep their leader a full term and almost lost all of the majority the next election.
One astute political observer was impressed by the Liberals’ campaign. He’s getting easily impressed in his old age. By any normal criteria, the Liberals’ campaign was pathetic. It wasn’t just the constant stuff ups in costings and timing of policy announcements, they couldn’t even keep their leadership tensions under check during the few weeks of a campaign. It was summed up near the end with the one central charge they were making against Rann of spin, being derailed by the shadow Treasurer admitting to doing the same.
In fact, it was the very amateurism of the Liberals’ campaign, and the leader’s sometimes incoherent gabbling that made the campaign appear ‘fresh’ and ‘real’ – much like the bumblings of Abbott in Canberra are given the same virtues. It was this combination of a hollowing out of government but the weakness of the Liberals’ campaign that was the real reason for the differentiated swing in Labor electorates. Some are arguing that the Liberals didn’t target the marginals. Of course they did, just not very effectively. The real swing was the hollowing out of Labor’s vote in their heartland than a dramatic recovery of the Liberal’s fortunes with the voters they needed to convince.
There are some signs that Labor is starting to accommodate to the realities of political life today. The resignation of Atkinson and the challenge of Jay Weatherill from the left for deputy are indications that the factional system could be starting to break down. While Rann may not be intending to stoop low, he may simply have to go instead. But whatever the accommodations, the central problem remains. On election night Rann called for the party to go out and reconnect with the electorate, but on what basis?
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 22 March 2010.Filed under State and federal politics, State of the parties