The real lessons from SA

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

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13 responses to “The real lessons from SA”

  1. Ricc on 22nd March 2010 10:16 am

    Your Adelaide perspective helps – I would have had Wran down as the first of the business/union alliance but wasn’t aware of that in SA. Would have characterised Dunstan as the local Whitlam.

    In one sense it was a shame for Australia that Whitlam stayed on to lead the government after he imposed central rule – if Hawke had been ready we might have avoided the whole 70s nonsense and skipped ahead a decade.

    I notice the media are starting to talk about Abbott’s weakness for the first time since he was made leader.

    I’m looking forward to an ALP advertisement – We made a mistake with Mark – don’t you make a mistake with Tony.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 22nd March 2010 12:10 pm

    Without being too schematic about these things, it’s probabaly more accurate to see Whitlam/Dunstan Labor as transitional; using state spending to partly replace the unions, before settling down to the more explicitly pro-business union-partnership of Wran/Bannon/Hawke.

  3. James on 22nd March 2010 12:48 pm

    The SA election result provides a good political science lesson – a swing needs to occur in the right places to deliver a change of government. The SA election campaign took election campaigns in this country to a new low with Michelle Chantelois regularly and systematically stalking the Premier at events. As Rann’s dip in the polls coincided with the airing of Chantelois’s personal grievances against him, it’s likely that a Liberal victory would have largely been accredited to her campaign. Both sides of politics stand to lose if the Chantelois approach is adopted elsewhere during election campaigns in this country and it’s pleasing her approach has not claimed a government’s scalp.

  4. Ricc on 22nd March 2010 8:58 pm

    To be clear though, this was no Monica Lewinsky. We have no religious nutty-right, nor even really any tabloid press to speak of.

    It just made Rann look reactive, where he had managed the media, the government and politics generally well to date. His main mistake was not choosing the time of his departure, unlike Bracks, Beattie and Carr.

    Of course, now the Libs will chop down leader number #37 or whatever she is, and lose whatever traction she had gained.

    TPS, do you see Tasmania as a fracturing of the 2 party state around this hollowness you’ve identified – or just a Hare-Clark oddity?

  5. The Piping Shrike on 22nd March 2010 9:52 pm

    More the first than the second. The votes in Tasmania were what they were, irrespective of what the Hare Clark system did with them, and they show a strong drift to the third party.

    The trouble in Tasmania is that the old model of Labor was so successful, that there was no pressure to adapt (as happened in SA and Victoria in the 1990s) and by the time it ran into trouble, the Liberals are in such a state that they are unable to take over. So we have an erosion of the two party system. I think a similar thing is happening in NSW.

  6. ben on 22nd March 2010 10:57 pm

    One of your major theses seems to be the de-ideologising (did you like that I just made it up?) of government to become a technocratic exercise. This past SA election has been about implementation of projects etc rather than rationale for the projects themselves, i.e. RAH, Sthn Expressway, etc.

    How then do you see the emergence of the Greens? The are really the only strongly ideologically driven political force, and as we’ve seen in Tas, both Liberal and Labour oppose them equally. Are we going to see a Union/Business vs Environment/Social divide?

  7. James on 23rd March 2010 9:48 am

    Have to disagree with Ric about tabloids and religion – if the Herald-Sun and the Telly aren’t tabloids, then what are they? Furthermore, there seems an over-representation of conservative religious types in Federal Parliament, particularly among the Libs from NSW.

  8. Ricc on 23rd March 2010 11:34 am

    Maybe Australia is ready for politics along those lines – the ‘consumer/citizen’ versus the ‘business/labour controller’ interest rather than labour versus capital as in the last 100 years.

    Students of early ALP history can see some parallels with the Greens – triggering the early merger of protectionists and free trade blocs in parliament to stop the evil, insidious and heretical involvement in workers in the business of government.

    If you see the ALP/Lib reaction to the Greens, it is something similar – how could the Greens challenge the fundamentals of big business/big labour is good for growth?

    I suspect the Libs are paradoxically more vulnerable to the Greens, despite the supposed difference on the political spectrum – because they are more dependent on people directly, not big voting blocs such as business or unions as is the ALP.

  9. paul walter on 23rd March 2010 11:40 pm

    That’s the article I would have written, had I the brains.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 24th March 2010 9:50 am

    ben, to my mind environmental issues can counterpose and undermine the old union-business politics, climate change is a good example. But the Greens seem sometimes to be more wanting to be part of the two party system than oppose it. The Tasmanian Greens seem to be talking about working together with the majors than anything else.

    If this is the case it might be interesting to see how much the right co-op the Greens agenda, much as the UK Conservatives do and Turnbull is experimenting with here.

  11. Ricc on 29th March 2010 5:14 pm

    But for the rightwing hijacking of the Libs here I suspect it would be similar.

    As I keep saying, we don’t have a Bible Belt of the power of the USA. The arguments from the Right are fake – I don’t think they believe most of them. We could well get a green tinged Liberal party if the miners and loggers go all out for a rightwing, catholic ALP.

  12. Graeme on 2nd April 2010 12:24 pm

    PR must have something significant to do with Green vote levels: presumably my vote’s saliency inflates if I think my 1 choice has a chance of winning (hence Greens doing better in Senate than House) then soars again if I think my 1 choice may decide government (hence Greens in Tassie doing better in Assembly than Senate).

  13. Exposed :The Piping Shrike on 3rd August 2011 6:48 am

    […] temporary solution to the exhaustion of its programme, a technocrat non-ideological one, has also run its course. It’s no surprise that it was in the home of the old Centre Left that this technocrat solution […]

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