Labor’s technocrat moment has passed

Monday, 29 November 2010 

What happened in Victoria on Saturday was historic. It looks like for only the fourth time in over 50 years, the government has changed hands.

Or maybe not that historic. The media are claiming that the government fell because it had been in a long time. But if this is the case, why did it only come to the attention of the electorate in the final weeks of the campaign when Labor started to poll down, and for most of regional Victoria, where the swing was relatively mild, barely at all?

Saying that this is the normal swing of the pendulum after 11 years may be comforting for Liberals like Helen Kroger who can use it to explain why Howard lost in 2007, and comforting to others who like to think the normal pendulum is still in place. But even ideologues like Bolt were struggling to make a big deal over this last minute swing in the middle of a dull campaign. Although Bob Carr, the thinking person’s redneck, did have a go saying it was because of the population boom from too many immigrants under a “Big Australia” (rather than say too many inter-staters). Good one Bob! Did they all arrive off the boat in the last two weeks?

Back to reality, it is the very casualness of what would historically be regarded as a vicious swing (comparable to what Labor copped in the “Guilty Party” election in 1992) that is the point of the result, i.e. that there is no real point. Some have argued that the failure of the Greens and the loss of the independent reaffirms the two party system. But that would imply that the challenge to the two party system came from the Greens and the independents in the first place, rather than, say, merely riding on the back of a hollowing out of the two parties that this election just reaffirms.

Changes in government used to be more significant. Labor’s only second majority government in 1982 came as Labor reformed itself, after the long years of opposition after the DLP split and Whitlam’s 1970 intervention, into a business union partnership model. This was replicated across the country but fell into a heap when the economy turned down in the early 1990s and both Cain and Kirner ended up not only annoying their business supporters but destroying the support in their own base through cuts in government spending.

When Kennett took over in 1992, the mistake he made, as happened elsewhere by the right in the 1990s, was to confuse public acceptance of service cuts in the face of the 1990s recession with an ideological shift to the right towards smaller government per se. The media, being suckers for ideology, went along and were surprised as the government when it lost in 1999.

In fact trends were going the other way. The failure of the 1980s Labor Cain model and Labor’s destruction of its own base saw a hollowing out of the political process of which the new generation of Labor leaders took advantage. State politics was become depoliticised and about little more than providing services. Bracks was especially adept at taking advantage of it in the rural regions, locked for decades under the sclerosis of Cold War-DLP politics but paying for it through lousy services, but now at the weakest part of the two party system. Forced into a minority government, Bracks made a virtue of a necessity and brought in a non-ideological technocrat style of government that suited what the electorate saw as a hollowing out of the political process.

This Labor technocrat model was replicated elsewhere across the country and arguably reached its apogee on 13 February 2008 when the head of the newly installed Labor government in Canberra turned an apology for the biggest policy failure of the Australian political system against the political class like none of his Labor predecessors were ever prepared to do. The only notable exception was NSW, where except for a brief experiment under Rees, the old business-union Labor model remained intact but now so decomposing that it stinks to high heaven.

But while Labor’s technocrat model suited the exhaustion of the major parties, it has had nothing to replace it and establish a basis for a new authority. In fact it was contradictory in that it was against the two party system but also came from within it. This was most clearly seen in Canberra where the Labor leader had the ultimate technocrat agenda of climate change fade away internationally leaving him exposed against the party he had been at war with. At the state level, it was why Labor governments, which had on paper enormous majorities, and on polling could look very comfortable, could suffer massive swings on the flimsiest of pretexts. So in WA, Labor loses power because it called an election too early, fooled into thinking its large polling lead was real; in SA, Labor suffers a landslide swing because a Premier wasn’t upfront about an affair nobody cared about, and in Victoria … well, fill in the gaps as ideological needs require.

The political momentum behind the unravelling of the technocrat solution was why Gillard’s use of the Victorian example to justify her minority government was always a furphy. It was used to give the impression that the minority government in Canberra was the start of something new, as in Victoria in 1999, when in reality it is the decline of that model in Canberra, not the start of it, something subsequent polling has largely confirmed. Labor will never get the type of polling it got in 2007-08 again in its current form.

Yet if the Victorian election held similarities to the SA and WA result from the Labor point of view, there was a difference for the Liberals. ‘Revival’ is too strong a word, but the Victorian Liberals did achieve at least a partial solution to a very important problem: namely, how to marry its base’s need for a reaffirmation of a redundant political agenda to electoral viability. It is the dilemma that has been behind the leadership merry-go-round in Canberra as the federal Liberals swing from one side of the dilemma to the other, ending up now with someone who can talk about Liberal values but, despite the best efforts of Labor, still be relatively unpopular.

This was the importance of the Victorian Liberals’ decision to not preference the Greens. It’s not as though the rest of the electorate particularly cared, but it did satisfy the party’s need for a ‘brand’ enough to give Baillieu the flexibility to be suitably bland for the rest of the electorate. Indeed, Baillieu didn’t need to especially attack the Green’s specific agenda and so push himself out of the mainstream. This is contrast to Abbott who could attack the Green’s program publicly in the Federal election but still preference the Greens to give them their first ever Lower House seat.

Bolt is probably right on Insiders that the Liberals will be closely looking elsewhere at this finessed (if temporary) solution to their problem. They would certainly be looking at it in Canberra where Abbott’s bogus ideological agenda is hampering their ability to deal with a weakened Labor party. This is especially the case after Abbott’s cack-handling of Afghanistan and Hockey having already shown, with his attacks on banks, how it is possible to be populist and not upset the base, in contrast to the phoney populism of Abbott’s climate change scepticism. In short, the Victorian result gives relief to the Liberals, but not to Abbott.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 29 November 2010.

Filed under State and federal politics

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21 responses to “Labor’s technocrat moment has passed”

  1. kymbos on 29th November 2010 7:54 am

    So the 11 year itch had nothing to do with it? Seems unlikely to me. I got the sense there was a bit of “we don’t think much of the opposition, but they’re unlikely to be much worse than the current mob. Plus they’ll put cops on trains”.

  2. Tweets that mention Labor’s technocrat moment has passed :The Piping Shrike -- on 29th November 2010 9:04 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Littleaud, The Piping Shrike. The Piping Shrike said: Victoria – good for the Libs, not for Abbott […]

  3. The Piping Shrike on 29th November 2010 9:06 am

    Maybe there was a bit of it, but mainly in Melbourne and only in the last few weeks. So whatever it was, it was not really that significant in my view.

  4. Craig Lawton on 29th November 2010 11:50 am

    Curious result. A common comment is that “there is much difference between ’em”, so what does it matter.

  5. James on 1st December 2010 9:03 am

    Not to split hairs, but it’s actually the 4th time in over 50 years that the government has changed in Victoria and those changes all occurred from 1982 onwards.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 1st December 2010 11:28 am

    Crikey! I can’t count. Quite right. Corrected.

  7. Doug on 1st December 2010 12:41 pm

    So what does this analysis imply? Is it simply a question of the difficulty of any political party achieving any authority that is substantial because it has no real connection to a social base?

    I have been reading your column for some time with interest and am trying to understand your underlying assumptions.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 1st December 2010 5:39 pm

    Basically yes. It seemed for a while that Labor had solved it with this technocrat agenda but it was contradictory and the conditions for it are no longer there. Not saying the Liberals have cracked it but they have at least found a temporary fix. Things are likely to remain volatile for the reasons Howard pretty well stated on Lateline the other night.

  9. John on 1st December 2010 6:40 pm

    The Labor party has the largest number of seats of any single party and has almost the same % of first prefs. (If people are going to constanty add the Nats vote to their then I feel justified in addig the Greens’ vote to Labor’s.)

    It will be interesting to see what happens in the rural seats if by-elections occur when people realise the Nats won’t be able to deliver on their separate list of (uncosted) promises. There is only one seat in it after all.

    A Laborite from the Ripon/Corangamite area rang Neil Mitchell on 3aw on Monday to say that a Nats promise to match Labor’s extra funding commitment to the CFA no longer seemed operable as it was Lib policy to lump all such funding into a single bucket for emergency services and that this total amount was dwarfed by the Nats promise alone!

  10. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 1st December 2010 7:03 pm

    John, that’s exactly the problem. You can add the Liberal and National votes because they’re in a Coalition. You can’t add the Labor and Greens because they’re not.

  11. Oldskool on 1st December 2010 7:03 pm

    I have been reading your bog for a number of years now, and appreciate your analysis. But the question really is, what is the solution; or conceivable result?
    Labor cannot re-connect with it’s base, as it no longer exists, the technocratic model was never going to yield long term results, which leaves?

    The liberals have similar issues as they can no longer appeal to their old base as in many ways, their old base is ‘liberal’ whereas, as party, they are conservative (neo brand).

    Both parties have moved so far away from their respective bases that the Greens are taking the intellectual left, and One Nation voters would be comfortable voting Liberal (federally).

    There is reasonably room for a progressive liberal party to make a big impact- Don Chipps Democrats would be cleaning up if they hadn’t sold out. But that would possibly lead to a centre left party to take up the space that Labor has vacated- is that the Greens (I don’t think so, if for no other reason than some still attach a stigma to them, that will be hard to overcome in the electorate.

    I blame compulsory voting, but that cannot be the only issue- why is it no politician is prepared to have a conviction (that isn’t market researched)?

    What has changed?

  12. Oldskool on 1st December 2010 7:05 pm

    Ha ha- read Blog!

    The other you can read! Sorry- writing on itty bitty device.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 1st December 2010 8:43 pm

    I don’t think its a case that Labor’s base doesn’t exist anymore. People still have livelihoods that rely on the vagaries of the market. More I see it that the old institutions of the labour movement and their political agendas have run their course.

    I do think though that this is not a case of rebuilding the left etc. etc. I think there are some fundamental questions about the nature of politics itself that are being posed now. There are some underlying assumptions being challenged that is more the interest of this blog.

  14. James on 3rd December 2010 12:57 pm

    It was very hard for Labor to win in Victoria when much of the mainstream media behaved as if it were the Coalition’s media unit. I think the act that led to the turning point in the polls was when Ballieu decided not to preference the Greens ahead of Labor and the Herald-Sun switched and supported him. That meant Labor had virtually no friends left in the media.

    The most strident opponent of the former Government was the Age newspaper, owned by Liberal supporters. It performed a role similar to that of the Nine Network against Keating in 1996.

    Even more than the federal poll, we have a situation where the media’s significant role in the result is overlooked.

  15. The Piping Shrike on 3rd December 2010 10:00 pm

    I tend not to think papers make that much of a difference, especially broadsheets like The Age (if they did Labor would hardly ever get in).

  16. Andrew Elder on 5th December 2010 1:27 pm

    The last two posts are rubbish. The journosphere was unanimous that Victoria was allowed to swing against the Brumby government, but not tip it out of government. The last 48 hours provided some confused commentary about how there really was a bit of a swing on, but they still all editorialised for Brumby. Maybe there was a day when the papers all plumped for the Tories but they’re long gone.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 5th December 2010 8:36 pm

    I pretty well agree. My last comment was a bit lazy and out of date. Probably we could argue that journalists have been more antagonist to Rudd’s bypassing of them and trying to go out of the two party narrative than one side of the narrative as such.

    But that reconfirms my first point, that the media have become increasingly detached from the political thinking of the electorate and even less influential than before as they get caught up with the same mess as the political class. Ironically the less influential they are, the more they are seen to influence it.

  18. Dr_Tad on 6th December 2010 2:28 pm

    As I tweeted to you yesterday, Megalogenis’ Quarterly Essay is a prime example of how out of touch even the (allegedly) most thoughtful MSM journalists are about the crisis of mainstream politics. The QE seems to boil down to two whinges: (1) that the speed of the media & polling cycles dumbs everything down, and (2) that a “prosperous” (and therefore axiomatically ungrateful) voting public refuse to let pollies get back to the glory days of Hawke-Keating-pre-2001 Howard. Back then, the major parties could let the market rip (in the name of “the national interest”) and those compliant working class voters would happily take it.

    His conclusions are suffused with a tone of despair.

    He is also amazingly soft on the race politics of the majors and the media’s inability to imagine a politics outside the mainstream consensus.

    Just why is this guy so lauded again?

  19. The Piping Shrike on 6th December 2010 7:07 pm

    Cos’ he’s seen as a non-right wing journo holding out in the fascist Murdoch stable, hum-de-dum-de-dum.

  20. James on 7th December 2010 11:25 am

    I disagree with Andrew Elder’s dismissing of the role of the media in the Victorian election result because some wishy-washy editorials backed Labor on election day. I believe those editorials were of minute substance compared to the prolonged negativity that existed in the media toward the former government. Certain interests react with scorn when the media is held account and analysed regarding its roles in campaigning. The result is the media gets away with too much.

  21. Riccardo on 8th December 2010 1:10 pm

    Isn’t a editorial now just a way of placating an incoming party? That way if you are criticised for being anti the party that one, you can say “Well we did editorialise for you”

    That said, I agree with TPS. The media is part of the same mess, and I’m not sure arguing this journo or that makes much difference.

    If the blind men all stand in a big circle and each holds onto the one in front, surely they will find their way?

    Jack Lang might well have been able to rail against newspaper editors because he had some plans they were trying to thwart.

    And I’m sure even Murdochs hardest men know that if people are going to pay to go through his firewall, he’ll need content suitable for Australia ie not all Glenn Beck standard. Hence keeping Mega on the payroll.

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