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The Opposition Leader As A Factor Influencing Voting Behaviour

Last updated on December 31, 2023

Australia’s parliamentary elections are increasingly focused around perceptions and packaging of the leaders of the various parties.

The election of Senator Natasha Stott Despoja as the leader of the Australian Democrats in 2001 was an indication of the importance political parties place on leadership as a determinant of the voting patterns of electors.

Prime Minister John Howard’s attacks on Kim Beazley’s supposed lack of “ticker” in the 1998 election was another indication that Opposition leadership can be a factor in elections.

Recent history provides some interesting examples of Opposition leaders:

Gough Whitlam 1967-72

Whitlam’s election as Labor leader in February 1967 occurred after the party had been savagely mauled in the 1966 election. The ALP’s primary vote had dropped 5.5% to 40.0% and the Opposition won only 41 seats out of 124 in the House of Representatives.

Over the ensuing years, Whitlam set about reforming and modernising his party. A tireless campaigner, he scored a number of impressive victories in by-elections. He revamped the ALP’s policies, producing a platform of social and economic changes unmatched in Australian political history.

Whitlam led the ALP back into government on the back of a 7% swing and winning 18 seats from the coalition in the 1969 election. The ALP won a further 2.6% and 8 seats to take it to victory in the 1972 “It’s Time” election.

Whitlam spoke of a 3-year plan of action for the Opposition after the 1969 election. He talked of “the party” first, “the program” second, and “the people” third.

Against the inept leadership of William McMahon in 1972, Whitlam compared favourably. His visit to China ahead of a similar move by President Richard Nixon was just one example of how he was perceived to be more in keeping with the mood of the times than the coalition government.

Rebuilding ALP credibility as a serious political force was probably Whitlam’s greatest achievement in this period. He did it against significant political opposition within the party, including attempts to replace him as leader and even to expel him from the party.

Whilst the performance of the coalition government after 23 years was a major factor in its defeat, including contentious issues such as the Vietnam war, there is little doubt that Whitlam’s performance as Opposition Leader was also crucial.

Bill Snedden – 1972-75

Snedden has the dubious distinction of being the first Liberal Party leader to never become Prime Minister. Elected after the coalition’s defeat in 1972, he fought the 1974 election against Whitlam’s ALP government and was then deposed as leader on the second attempt by Malcolm Fraser.

Snedden was regarded as a likeable man from the more liberal section of the Liberal Party, but few people saw him as a deep thinker or charismatic orator. His public appearances were often mannered and his syntax was tortured. His claim that “we didn’t win, but we didn’t lose” after the 1974 election was ridiculed, despite his protestations that he had said “we didn’t lose all.” An episode in Parliament when Snedden shouted “woof, woof” at Prime Minister Whitlam was the last straw for many of his colleagues.

Snedden’s performance during the 1974 election campaign was mediocre at best, although the coalition picked up 3 seats. The party failed to produce coherent policies until after the election was announced and there were doubts expressed about Snedden’s command of detail.

Gough Whitlam – 1975-77

Following its landslide defeat at the hands of the coalition following Whitlam’s Dismissal by the Governor-General, the ALP retained Whitlam as leader, although Whitlam had himself approached Bill Hayden and Bob Hawke about the possibility of handing over the reins to them.

Whitlam was mired in a messy scandal in early 1976 that involved attempts to raise funds for the ALP from Iraq. He was challenged for the leadership in 1977 by Bill Hayden, but survived.

Throughout these two years, protests against the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, were frequent. To many, the nation seemed preoccupied with the aftermath of Whitlam’s removal from office.

It is now apparent that the virtual repeat of the 1975 landslide in the 1977 election was in part due to Whitlam’s retention as Opposition Leader. The coalition ran a devastating “memories” advertisement during the campaign which highlighted problems of the Whitlam years.

Bill Hayden – 1977-83

Hayden took the ALP to the 1980 election, securing a primary vote increase for the ALP of 7% and winning 13 extra seats, but not enough to win.

By this time, with Whitlam’s departure and the coalition coming under attack for its performance, particularly over unemployment, the ALP was once again looking like a viable alternative government.

But doubts persisted both inside and outside the ALP over Hayden’s leadership. There was constant speculation that Bob Hawke would move to replace him, particularly after Hawke’s election as the member for Wills in 1980.

During the 1980 campaign, the ALP featured Hayden in the company of Bob Hawke, then President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Neville Wran, Premier of NSW. Whilst highlighting leadership strengths and experience within the ALP, this also undermined Hayden’s personal standing. He was unable to withstand a misleading last-minute campaign by the government that the ALP proposed to increase capital gains taxes.

Ultimately, following an unsuccessful leadership challenge in 1982, Hayden was replaced as ALP leader on the day that Fraser announced the 1983 election. It is generally believed that Fraser preferred to fight an early election against Hayden, but was wrong-footed by the decision to replace him with Hawke.

Andrew Peacock – 1983-85

Peacock fought two losing elections as Liberal leader, the first in 1984 and the second in 1990.

Succeeding Fraser as leader following the coalition’s defeat in 1983, Peacock campaigned well in the very long 10-week campaign in 1984. In an enlarged House of Representatives, he reduced Bob Hawke’s majority and secured a small swing to the coalition.

During the campaign, Peacock was regarded as performing strongly. Many felt that he bested Hawke in a television debate.

Whilst the new government was generally still held in high regard by voters, and benefited from being new in office, Peacock went some way to allaying concern about the depth of his political character.

John Howard – 1985-89

Peacock was ousted from the leadership in 1985, after he resigned the leadership after unsuccessfully trying to remove John Howard as deputy leader. The Liberals were bedevilled by these internal disputes for years to come.

Howard described himself during this period as “the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had”, but he fell foul of the ambitions of the National Party Premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

Bjelke-Petersen launched a quixotic campaign called “Joh for PM”, splitting the coalition and leading Howard to later say that “in politics disunity is death”.

In the midst of the coalition turmoil, Bob Hawke called an early election in July 1987. Despite losing votes overall, the ALP was returned for a third term with an increased majority.

Whilst the coalition disunity was probably the major factor at work in this election, the damage done to Howard by internal ructions undoubtedly contributed to the defeat.

Andrew Peacock – 1989-90

Following the defeat of the coalition in 1987 and his removal from the shadow ministry after the famous taped car-phone conversation with Jeff Kennett, Peacock launched a surprise challenge to John Howard in May, 1989, and was returned to the Liberal leadership.

His position going into the 1990 election was undermined by ongoing division in the Liberal Party. During the 1990 campaign, Peacock’s image as a “show pony” was often referred to. His performance in a series of TV debates with Hawke contributed to perceptions that he was a lightweight on policy matters.

After Peacock suggested that a vote for Hawke was really a vote for Paul Keating, a comment that drew upon suspicions about Keating’s restless ambition, Keating devastatingly responded that unfortunately a vote for Peacock was a vote for Peacock!

In a tight contest in which the ALP’s primary vote dropped to an historic low of 39.4%, forcing it to rely on Democrat and Green preferences, Peacock failed to win a majority in the House, but his party did win a majority of two-party-preferred vote.

Despite this, Peacock’s time had now passed, and he was replaced by Dr. John Hewson.

Dr. John Hewson – 1990-94

The Liberal Party under Hewson was the most united it had been for a decade. The Howard-Peacock rivalry was thought to be over, a new policy direction was developed and the nation was mired in an economic recession.

There is little doubt that Paul Keating’s superior campaigning skills contributed to his somewhat unexpected victory over Hewson in 1993. Equally, there is little doubt that Hewson’s Fightback! package, including a 15% Goods and Services Tax, cuts to Medicare and radical changes to industrial relations, cost the coalition dearly.

But Hewson’s cold manner, his disparaging remarks about people such as renters, and his image as a ferrari-driving millionaire, coupled with revelations about the state of his marriage, probably damaged him in the election.

During the campaign, Hewson held noisy open-door rallies at which he confronted hecklers. At one he even caught an egg thrown at him by someone in the crowd. Later, it was argued by some commentators that he appeared as a divisive figure and alienated swinging voters.

Hewson, Downer & Howard – 1993-96

There was despair in Opposition ranks in 1993 as the Labor government embarked upon its fifth successive term and headed for a record-breaking 13 years in government. Remarkably, in retrospect, Bronwyn Bishop embarked upon a campaign to become Liberal leader. Hewson remained leader for another year, but was replaced in 1994 by Alexander Downer.

Downer teamed with Peter Costello in what many saw as a “dream team” of youthful new directions. It lasted 8 months as Downer steadily self-destructed.

The return of John Howard – “Lazarus with a triple by-pass”, as he once described the possibility – in January 1995 was an attempt by the Liberal Party to project an image of solidity, experience and unspectacular competence.

This seemed appropriate for the times as the voters tired of the “touch of excitement” Keating had promised them. Howard made few specific election promises and secured a landslide victory in the 1996 election.

Whilst it seems clear in retrospect that the Keating government was heading for defeat from as early as late 1993, Howard’s position as leader was crucial for the Opposition to be able to project itself as a party ready to take office.

Kim Beazley – 1996-2001

Beazley’s election as ALP and Opposition leader in March 1996 was delayed pending the final count in his Perth electorate of Brand, the seat he eventually won by a few hundred votes.

It now appears that Beazley’s main achievement during the 1996-98 period was to keep the ALP from degenerating into internal squabbling. By the time of the early election in October 1998, Beazley had positioned his party to the point where it was able to pick up 18 seats and a two-party swing of 4.61%.

The performance of the government was a factor in the election, particularly because of its cuts to government services and its promotion of privatisation and other deregulatory policies. Howard’s tax reform package, including the introduction of the GST, was also the major campaign issue.

Howard attempted to portray Beazley as weak, bereft of policies and generally lacking “ticker”. It was a strategy which may have worked to some extent, although it is just as likely that, despite the overall swing, some voters were reluctant to turn the government out after only one term.

As the 2001 election approached, attention periodically turned to Beazley’s performance as Opposition Leader. This gathered strength following the controversy over the arrival of the merchant vessel, the Tampa, and a parliamentary dispute over the Border Protection Bill. During the 2001 election campaign, especially in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the coalition government campaigned heavily on leadership, accusing Beazley of “flip flops” on issues and of not having the strength to stand up for Australia’s security and border protection.

There were clearly other issues at work during the 2001 election. The ALP argues that its focus on domestic issues reduced a catastrophic loss at the outset of the campaign to a much smaller defeat by the end. Nevertheless, following the election, Beazley attracted much criticism over his handling of the “small target” approach to campaigning and his inability to articulate a clear alternative to the government. The loss of votes on the left to the Greens, and on the right to the coalition, was cited as part of this failure.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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