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