There is no cycle

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

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22 responses to “There is no cycle”

  1. Thoughts from afar on the Queensland election | Alex White on 26th March 2012 8:00 pm

    […] Piping Shrike argues that the sudden collapse of Labor is structural: 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. […]

  2. Avalon Dave on 26th March 2012 9:00 pm

    Interesting election result, bearing in mind that Qld has always seemed to revert to conservatism much more violently, than other states, when they have the shits with the Left.

    Given the recent results in other states, and the fact that neither side has any social base, this tells me that the electorate has discovered the “game” and has decided not to play any more.

    If you provide good government, we will tolerate you. If you provide mediocre government, we won’t give you a majority. If you provide bad government, we have a cricket bat in the shed.

    So the old politcal battlelines are dead. But what replaces it?

  3. Alex White on 27th March 2012 7:20 am

    Apart from the “broken promise” over asset sales, I can’t determine why the QLD electorate was so resolute in getting rid of Bligh — does it boil down to broken promises (setting aside what you’ve said about systemic problems with both political parties)?

    Also, care to venture a more detailed opinion about the collapse of the Green vote? Were they just squeezed by the Labor/Liberal clash?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 27th March 2012 9:58 am

    I think a difficulty of reading what is happening at the moment is that many of the causes stem from what happened in society a while ago, especially the erosion of the social bases of the parties. What we are seeing now is a delayed reaction propped up in Labor’s case by a technocrat solution that worked for a while but never really recovered Labor’s base.

    So when things move, it happens dramatically, but not necessarily due so much to recent events but because of a hollowing out that has long happened. For that reason I don’t know there was such ‘resolution’ to get rid of Labor. If there was, there wouldn’t have been such a reversal during the floods. Rather that there is little there these days to inspire loyalty and to hold long time loyal Labor supporters from changing their votes.

    As a result you get relatively minor issues seeming to cause dramatic shifts that seem out of line with the importance of the issue itself. This is why there is such a blank response to these historic losses. To acknowledge the reason would require not only re-writing the last two decades of the political narrative, but acknowledging that the basis of Australian politics for the last century has already gone.

    I think like NSW this is more about governability and mode of government than issues and as in NSW the Greens don’t really have much to say on that.

  5. Riccardo on 27th March 2012 3:57 pm

    Welcome to the fin de siecle. All we need is a World War I to relieve the ennui.

    I did feel some sympathy for Bligh. She seems nice enough. Its hard to feel an electorate’s antipathy from the other side of a state border.

    Ballyhoo is copping a bit of flak from right wing interests for being pretty well un right wing, though not especially left either. Just drifting. OFarrell is being seen making policy in areas like transport which have traditionally been ALP turf.

  6. Dr_Tad on 27th March 2012 4:57 pm

    “So when things move, it happens dramatically, but not necessarily due so much to recent events but because of a hollowing out that has long happened.”


    “The transformation of quantity into quality.”

  7. The Piping Shrike on 27th March 2012 5:02 pm

    Yes, I’m preceded by eloquence.

  8. Avalon Dave on 28th March 2012 12:27 pm

    Nature abhors a vacuum. So how would a party seek to govern for a long time, if the old loyalties are dead or dying fast?

    The conservatives still seem to be very connected with their big business constituency, but big business doesn’t get a vote on election days.

    So it may be that the party system is in the last throes, but is the Technocrat model dead – e.g. good efficient management of finances and public services that seem well run?

  9. Paul on 29th March 2012 12:47 pm

    Isn’t the political cycle they are talking about being the timing of Federal and State Governments coming from opposite sides of the fence.

    I’m of the understanding that when Howard came to power it was “wall-to-wall” Coalition. Then, gradually over the years, all of the state governments became ALP in colour. The apex of this swing was the 2007 ALP Federal victory. Thus, wall-to-wall ALP.

    And now it seems as though the pendulum is swinging the other way. That is, state governments are turning Coalition.

    Thus, the story goes, when the pendulum has finally swung to its maximum the other way it will be wall-to-wall Coalition. At that point the ALP will start winning state government.

  10. James on 29th March 2012 7:54 pm

    Amazing the mainstream media hasn’t picked up on the collapse of Liberal branches in Queensland three years ago in their election analysis. Surely the Nats must be pissed off that the Libs seem to have taken control of their coalition in Queensland, despite that collapse. The likes of Borbridge have had to plead for ministries with their caps outstretched. Quite a coup, Campbell. Howard must be salivating.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 29th March 2012 8:03 pm

    Paul, actually if you look at the 25 years of Newspoll you see that, unsurprisingly, the major party’s vote follows pretty closely between federal and state.

    The exception was after 9/11 when the War on Terror propped up Howard’s vote (which is where the idea came from), until it faded – and the first years of Rudd as PM.

    But Labor’s federal vote has well and truly caught up with the states now.

  12. Mr Denmore on 29th March 2012 8:53 pm

    I get that Labor’s technocratic facade can no longer obscure its empty core. What I don’t get is the embrace of the Liberals/Nationals, who are every bit as vapid and opportunistic and whose token platform of support for small business capitalism, Anglo/Anzac settler individualism and the ‘free’ market hides a range of sins. Abbott is clearly an opportunistic cretin and his front bench is a ragtag bunch of La Rouchers, homophobes, rednecks, race baiters and pseudo economic rationalists. I just do not understand how the electorate could be so stupid as to vote for them. It seems to me that the Coalition under Abbott is a reincarnation of the 1950s DLP. Either the electorate is nostalgic or self-deluding.

  13. Dr_Tad on 30th March 2012 9:42 pm

    I don’t think the Coalition is getting “embraced” by anyone. It’s just that the long-term rusted-on aspect to the ALP vote has collapsed. We could see results turn the other way quite quickly, especially if the economy tanks.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 31st March 2012 9:36 pm

    I would agee that the Coalition is certainly not being embraced.

    Whatever personal views the Coalition members have, it is not coming out in party policy. As Howard found with Workchoices, they have very little basis on which to carry out a classic right-wing agenda. The Coalition’s “small target” strategy is a necessity not a tactical ploy. Abbott still seems to have those views personally, which is why people don’t like him much, I guess.

  15. Snorky on 1st April 2012 2:45 pm

    I’m sure Mr Denmore can speak for himself, but I took his reference to embrace to mean the extraordinary support for the LNP shown in Queensland last week, together with the very high primary support at Federal level, if the polls are to be believed. For what it’s worth, my only explanation is that it’s a case of extreme, and almost unprecedented dislike of the Government (and the Prime Minister in particular), being manifested in support for the only party that has the prospect of defeating the Government. The fact that Abbott is disliked personally does not seem to override this sentiment.

    I think the widespead antipathy towards the Government has now reached the point where there is nothing the Government and the PM can do to reverse it. The only prospect of things turning around is an at-present-unforeseen crisis within the Opposition that will cause the electorate to sit up and have a hard think about the party they say they are supporting.

  16. Riccardo on 2nd April 2012 10:16 am

    Its all over bar the shouting. Rod Cavalier said it last week. The Labor project is over.

    I’ve been saying this for years.

    With no need any longer for industrial disputation, no need for a ‘worker’ perspective on labour/capital share of income, no capacity to quarantine Australia from global trends, with most social-democratic aims achieved, AND, with the class of people the ALP originally sought to advantage now comfortably off and no longer in need of political help, there is no longer a need for a Labor Movement.

    Sure there are distributional issues and these are being handled technocratically. Superannuation, future funds, blah blah blah.

    And given no need for a Labor movement, there is no need for a reactionary party to stop them. Abbott rallies the troops by his agressive demeanour, it sustains them in the longer winter of opposition, but it isn’t government, and I’m sure he could be replaced, Hayden style, and the party would still romp in.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 2nd April 2012 10:18 am

    I think Queensland indicates the extent of Labor’s collapse, than a decisive turn to the right is all I am saying.

    I don’t think it’s a Gillard thing, anything more than it’s a Bligh/Keneally thing (and that Labor tends to give women a go when the main game is almost over).

    The LNP succeeded by not being too much about anything, just capable of governing.

  18. Riccardo on 2nd April 2012 10:31 am

    You can break Australia’s political history into the following periods:

    -pre 1890s, arguments between well off settlers and not so well off settlers, emerging mercantile interests in cities, leading to conflicts between free trade outlook and protection outlook, mirroring UK

    -large rural unskilled and illiterate population doing menial work, some of same in cities working in nascent manufacturing. Strikes about pay and political rights, led to Labor League being formed.

    -Labor League wins some political representation, but minor party against existing free trade-protectionist dichotomy

    -Some limited economic growth after beginning of C20th but nothing like before 1890. Failure of Australian economy to grow like USA. Labor League sets out political objectives around income distribution while industrial system beginning to set in place wage setting

    -collapse of Australian economy and drift to war embolden Labor, and send free-trade,protectionist alliance into confusion

    -Labor argues for continuation in political sphere even though industrial objectives largely achieved, on grounds that right wingers could roll them back any time

    -post WWII political objectives of Labor largely being achieved, and with middle class support these continue under new Liberal party dominance

    -industrial system causing problems as lacking flexibility for new post war economy, overpricing Australian production internationally, wages growing faster than productivity

    -Whitlam has go at continuing Labor political project.

    -Fraser continues Labor political project while paying down some deficit-then runs deficit up again for own benefit. Industrial system in real trouble, outcomes skewed towards uncompetitive industries, middle class paying the price

    -Hawke Keating remove worst features of industrial system, complete Labor political objectives. Keating then pursues other interests, doesn’t bring population with him (doesn’t care)

    And that, folks is the end of the story.

  19. KEVIN-ONE-SEVEN on 3rd April 2012 10:46 am

    Nobody has mentioned he “it’s time” factor. Australian voters like to turn over governments every decade or so. However, we saw in NSW and now in Qld what happens when a govt wins an election against the odds – the price it pays at the next election tends to be very severe.
    True, Labor today is a hollow shell. But that doesn’t mean it’s just going to disappear from the political landscape. There will have to be a progressive (or at least slightly left-of-centre) party in this country. Only question is whether the ALP uses the brand it has built up over a hundred years to make sure it is that party. I can’t see any other party vying for that slot.
    In any event, a few years of an Abbott govt will do wonders for Labor’s standing in the community.

  20. Riccardo on 4th April 2012 11:09 pm

    Actually ost of the ALP are hoping Abbott will be bad. Your rights at work II . if on the other hand you get Barry Turnballlieu as PM and nothing much happens on his watch, the ALP cant rally its telephone box full of members and its over.

  21. Graeme on 6th April 2012 10:39 pm

    Who is fooling whom? Labor 35 years ago (Whitlam – Hawke) ceased being ‘labour’. It moved quickly through social democracy to something like Deakinite liberalism. Bloggers here profess that as an obvious truth, yet proclaim it as a revelation. Electoral perturbations come and go, magnified by our majority rules voting system. As long as we have anti-competitive electoral rules we’ ll have a Woolies v Coles electoral offering. A party as branch less as the Brisbane Libs three years back has just filled half the Qld Parlt on its own, and the flotsam and jetsam won’t matter much in policy terms as long as brand discipline is maintained, MPs being glorified ombudsmen.

    None of us here may like it, but the party system is protected and strangely suits Australian aploiticality (binary keeps it simple, stupid); only a big, exogenous shock is going to upend it.

  22. Matt Campbell on 18th April 2012 11:50 am

    Interesting points raised here. The hollowing out argument depends on the fact that there was formerly substance inside the shell. If this was the case, the surely it was because society itself was “structured” around a simpler set of possibilities. Now what we have is not necessarily a more diverse society (though that is possibly the case), but one in which our options to align ourselves have changed. Necessarily this means that any grand edifice (such as the Labor or Liberal parties) can no longer present itself as if it actually represents the diversity of people on whom it depends for election (although its ongoing relevance depends on trying as hard as it can to look like it is). In this I think Graeme has an interesting point: the diversity is not going away, indeed more options for people to align themselves (form communities?) emerge every day, but yet we have a system that supports a two party system. Unless something radical changes in the electoral system we will continue to have the same (as long as they keep on presenting themselves as if they are relevant)- and we all know this is not going to happen, hollowing or not.

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