Monday, 26 March 2012
Just as after last year’s NSW result, there was an astounding gap between the unprecedented result on Saturday and the banal reasons given for it. The best that some came up with was that maybe some policies like the sale of state assets was not that popular but otherwise it was part of the political cycle given Labor has been in so long.
Given that we haven’t been here before, exactly which cycle are they talking about? Just to give some historical perspective, which some clearly lack, the last time Labor had a result anything like this was 1957 when Labor expelled its Premier, the Cabinet walked out and the party split in half.
But even then, Labor still polled better than it did on Saturday. At least in 1957 there was also another equal-sized ‘Labor’ party – this time it was Labor on its own.
But it was not just what happened to Labor that made Saturday’s result so extraordinary. One thing that has been little mentioned is what happened on the other side. Parachuting Newman was extraordinarily risky, but there’s been little discussion as to why the LNP had to take that risk.
It’s been forgotten that the reason for the LNP’s merger all of four years ago, was to manage the collapse of the Liberal’s Queensland branch. At a time when Labor was ascendant both in state and federal politics in Queensland, the Liberals were failing to sustain itself as a party. The “merger” amounted to a virtual LNP take-over that was opposed by the Federal Liberal Party and saw the then state Liberal President Mal Brough walk off in a huff claiming that the merger was “all over the shop” and showed why voters were so disenchanted with the non-Labor side of politics.
The problem for the Nationals was that while it finally dealt with any competition from the junior party, it still left them no way of making inroads into Labor seats in Brisbane. Taking the risk of bringing someone from outside the party, both what it said about the existing party and its status in Brisbane, where they couldn’t even find him a safe seat, was testament to the collapsed state of the Liberals in Queensland.
But once they did, what they met was a Labor party facing collapse itself.
Politically, Queensland is distinguished in the Federation by being the state where the two-party system has historically been at its weakest. This was mainly due to Queensland’s unusually low level of urbanisation/industrialisation combining with the weakness of the two–party system in Australia itself. On the left we had a highly organised but deeply conservative labour movement, and on the right, a lack of the type of institutions with the authority on which to base a conservative political entity that could encompass the disparate interests of rural and metropolitan business.
On the left, the combination of a high level of organisation in the labour movement, but its conservative politics, meant the polarisation of the Cold War hit Labor hard, especially in states where Labor had a strong rural conservative base like Victoria and Queensland and where the DLP split of the 1950s was most severe (NSW had already expelled much of the left during the Lang years, so in effect, the ‘Groupers’ won there). On the right, while rural and city business interests were united in their opposition to the unions, they differed on tariffs and state intervention, and so the non-Labor side had split as well in the 1920s, with the split especially entrenched in Queensland.
Labor’s split and defeat in 1957 brought all of this out and ushered in the National Party era to continue to the late 1980s. While Labor likes to portray itself as the main victim of the gerrymander that Bjelke-Peterson inherited from Labor, as Mumble points out, it was the Liberals who were the bigger losers. Labor got back into power as soon as the vote justified it, which was not until 1989.
The Labor that emerged into government was a very different beast than the one that sunk in 1957. Queensland Labor was one of the last state parties to “modernise” in the 1970s and shrug off its union links; the trigger being the 1974 “cricket team” election disaster. In fact, Queensland Labor under Goss and Beattie had more similarities with the technocrat Labor governments that came to power in Victoria and South Australia in the 1990s than the business-union model that was prevalent the decade before.
One of the signs of the weakness of the two party system in Queensland are the periodic bouts of phoney populism, that has been more driven by antagonism to the political order, especially in Canberra, than attraction for whichever party was channelling it at the time. As a result, at various times a disparate range of political leaders including a peanut farmer, a small-town accountant from south of the border, a fish-shop owner, a Mandarin-speaking diplomat and the latest, a north Queensland business man, have all made the mistake of thinking the support they were getting was all about them rather than the political order they were targeting.
There was an element of this being against the “old politics” in the popularity of technocrat Labor as well. Labor was more able to pose itself against the old order at least in appearance because the problem of its union links forced it to. In reality there was a compromise within technocrat Labor, while it presented itself against the old order, it maintained its union links especially through the public sector and closely identified with the state.
This was why Labor found itself far more accountable, and criticised, for the level of public services than the actual state of services justified. It was especially ironic in Queensland where Bjelke-Peterson’s anti-left, union-bashing agenda meant that he could keep the schools, hospitals and transport services of even the Nationals heartland in a dilapidated state with little political pressure.
While Labor’s end-of-politics technocrat model had some appeal, in reality it was built on sand. It never restored Labor’s social base that it lost with the declining influence of the unions, except maybe from public service employees, and even those it lost with the sale of state assets and an attempt to offload the costs of running the services. What was often under-estimated was the conflict between those who demand better services, without paying too much for them, and the interests of employees who had to provide them.
To replace ‘technocrat Labor’ we now have “muddle through” Liberals that are popping up around the country and now, for the first time, the dominant party governing in Queensland. They don’t strongly identify with the state, but neither are they especially against it, they’re certainly not pro-union, but neither, after a few attempts, are they especially union-bashing, besides there is little need. Drift is more likely the problem for the Liberals now, and the possibility of fragmentation, but they don’t have the internal inflexibilities that Labor has.
Labor is in shock and understandably so. The technocrat model enabled Labor to get away with a case for governing without needing to upset its now redundant internal organisation. The trouble is what it should transform to now is not clear. Probably the most graphic sign of how confused Labor is was Beattie’s rambling performance on Sunday when it was clear that for someone who has been tweeting the demise of the government for months, he still hasn’t thought of what it should do now. His main suggestion was that Gillard should come up to Queensland more and even buy a house up there. Right …
Are there implications federally? In one way not, it was state based, just as NSW was state based and the coming losses in South Australia and Tasmania, both likely to be also record losses, will be state based. There are no issues implications because the Queensland election didn’t really have any, it was more about the entire model of government than a single issue, as it will be in the other states. Labor in Canberra won’t fall on issues either, just on its lack of political authority. There will be more talk no doubt on internal party reform and greater say from members, but Labor in Canberra has already shown where it stands on that. In a way Albanese is probably right, this does represent an end of a cycle in Queensland, but one that stretches back way past 1989.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 26 March 2012.Filed under State and federal politics, State of the parties