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March 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

State Labor Continues To Call The Shots

March 20, 2006

by Bruce Hawker - The Australian

The re-election of Labor governments in South Australia and Tasmania again demonstrates the Australian public's ongoing determination to maintain the political status quo. Labor has not lost a state or territory election since 1998. Conversely, it hasn't won federally since 1993.

Why is there such a stark contrast in the fortunes of Labor at the state and federal levels? While there are no easy answers, a number of factors do contribute to this remarkable imbalance. Mike Rann and Paul Lennon, like John Howard, are political veterans. They have enjoyed the exhilarating highs of victory and the depressing lows of defeat. Like Howard, they have learned from those early defeats and adapted to the times.

Rann was a member of the Arnold government that was swept from office in 1993 in the wake of the disastrous State Bank collapse. That episode left an indelible mark on his political character; if Labor in South Australia was going to govern again then it would have to demonstrate prudent fiscal credentials. So Rann set about showing that Labor could balance the budget without wholesale recourse to privatisations and asset sales.

As opposition leader he hounded the Brown, Olsen and Kerin governments for their privatising ways. And in government he constantly reminded the electorate that he could deliver growth without selling off the farm.

In doing so he won back the Triple A credit rating for his state. As with his friend Bob Carr in NSW, Rann was not afraid to take a tough stance on law and order issues, thereby denying his conservative opponents an otherwise exposed political flank.

At the same time he was able to press forward with the more traditional Labor agenda of health, education and the environment. In effect, he seized the middle ground and refused to surrender it to anyone inside or outside his party. In short, he is a professional politician who learns and adapts.

The Lennon story is similar. He was a member of the minority Field government when it collapsed in 1992 under the weight of an unworkable arrangement to govern with the support of the Greens.

With unemployment running at nearly 12 per cent, the Field government had tried to generate jobs through development. The inevitable withdrawal of Green support saw the election of Ray Groom's Liberals.

Since then, Lennon and the Greens have been like oil and water. His mantras throughout the election were jobs, growth and the need for a stable majority government uncompromised by deals which would stifle the economy. Lennon knew from bitter experience that reverting to minority government dependent on Green support would have been political suicide in slow motion.

Better to go for broke and open up on the Greens than court them and pay the price. The electorate accepted his argument and gave him four more years of majority government. Once again, we see a politician with a deep understanding of the electorate learning from his lengthy periods in Opposition and government.

Howard has run a similar, but even longer, political course.

Elected in 1974 when his party was reeling from its first defeat in 23 years, he has seen it all -- two stretches in Opposition and two terms in government. Quite simply, you cannot survive 32 years in federal politics without learning and adapting. It is political Darwinism.

Successful politicians make mistakes too, but they learn from them and adapt to the changing political environment. Howard promised the electorate that he would make them relaxed and comfortable. They are certainly more comfortable than ever before. But Australians are far from relaxed.

And that is Howard's other great political advantage. Families are under too much personal financial pressure to risk change unless it comes with a virtual guarantee that the alternative government will not exacerbate their problems.

The state premiers know this, so they constantly make virtues of their longevity, experience and fiscal rectitude. Their hands are scarred, callused and safe and the electorate finds this comforting.

The obvious problem for the federal Opposition is that they can't point to these qualities. It has been 10 years since Labor was in power in Canberra and only Kim Beazley and Simon Crean can point to ministerial experience. The Labor veterans are state-based and showing no signs of wanting federal careers.

So how can federal Labor upset the status quo? There are no simple answers. However, having a mature public persona is vitally important.

Kevin Rudd, for example, has shown that he is more than a match for any of the ministers past and present who have been named in the AWB scandal. In the past week he has taken the debate directly and forcefully up to Howard in a way that should have impressed the commentators.

The other big issue is the new industrial relations legislation. It is a "reform" which has the potential to create an Australia that is neither relaxed nor comfortable. Labor must forcefully return to this issue soon. It cannot expect the ACTU to be the main prosecutor. The electorate will make its judgment on Labor's handling of the issue, not Greg Combet's.

It was not surprising to see Rann use the States' High Court challenge to the federal workplace laws as a strong reason to vote Labor in the South Australian elections.

He knows, like the other state and territory leaders, just how worrying these changes are to Australian families when they pause in their busy lives to reflect on their implications.

Federal Labor would do well to keep close tabs on what their state colleagues are doing and saying. As Rann and Lennon showed yet again, the old hands are still in touch with the electorate.


Bruce Hawker is managing director of Hawker Britton in Sydney and a senior Labor strategist.


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