Daily Media Quotation
No Iemma Factor In Federal Election
March 29, 2007
by John Warhurst - Canberra Times
It is always dangerous to compare state and federal voting behaviour because it is like comparing apples and oranges. My inclination, therefore, is not to read too much into Premier Morris Iemma's re-election in NSW.
This result will reinforce rather than change the way the federal election campaigning is already being conducted on both sides, and it has not made it any easier to confidently predict the federal result.
Both federal leaders were happy enough to be associated with their party's campaign in NSW, and even with the result. Federal Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd joined the victorious Iemma on the campaign trail in the last week, when he was finally sure that the result would be positive. Iemma welcomed Rudd on stage as the next prime minister. The congratulations and back scratching were mutual. They always are with state leaders and their federal counterparts. But Iemma was trying too hard for my liking to connect state and federal politics.
He has also gone out of his way, at some cost to himself, to emphasise the role that public opposition to the federal industrial-relations reforms played in returning him to office. That is taking humility too far. At the same time, both the polls and anecdotal evidence from candidates and party workers do suggest that industrial relations was second only to NSW Opposition Leader Peter Debnam in influencing the final result.
John Howard joined the defeated Debnam on election night in a careful expression of limited solidarity. It is Howard's home state after all. But at least he was there. His message to the NSW Liberals was to work hard from the Monday after the election. This is self-serving advice from a PM who was elected after just 15 months as opposition leader, so did not really have to suffer this process himself. When he did, in 1984-87, he lost to Bob Hawke. Liberal candidates, such as Pru Goward in Goulburn, have typically stressed that it was Howard's economic performance that was keeping state Labor governments afloat.
All of this rhetoric has been repeated after each Labor state election victory in recent years by Howard and whoever was the federal Labor leader at the time. It doesn't really get us any closer to resolving the question of when and where the stand-off between federal Coalition and state Labor will end. The stand-off must end, sooner or later. Yet no one can confidently predict when.
The federal campaigns to come are looking increasingly very predictable. The NSW result has not changed that.
Howard will tell his back bench that if the 12-year-old NSW Government can be re-elected so can the Federal Government of similar age, with, he will say, a better record. Howard will argue publicly that his experience is irreplaceable.
He will say, with some truth, that a common factor to the NSW and federal elections is widespread economic security. This will work to the governments' advantage.
Howard will make the most of the state Labor factor, that is, the eight state and territory Labor governments. He must hope that the attraction to voters of one of each party in government will outweigh voters' desire to elect Rudd.
He will stress, through a negative campaigning blitz, Rudd's inexperience (almost exactly the same way as he did against L-plate leader Mark Latham in 2004) just as NSW Labor targeted Debnam's business and professional record. He will try to encourage a public mood that Rudd is too inexperienced to trust. He will campaign against the union factor within Labor. Labor must promote its new non-union candidates to match those already pre-selected from the union movement, such as Bill Shorten. The wider labour movement interest would be better served for this reason by ACTU secretary Greg Combet staying put.
Overall Howard still has a plausible package to sell if the electorate is in a mood to listen.
Rudd, on the other hand, will press on with policy initiatives such as the extension of broadband services and attention to climate change, though ultimately they might not be what win government for him.
He will try to personally embody, as Latham could not, an acceptable, safe alternative as prime minister. He will stress the freshness he represents while denying the charge of inexperience.
He will move Labor even further to the centre. He has systematically eliminated known or supposed weaknesses from their last campaign, such as Latham's schools and forestry policies.
He will try to be like Gough Whitlam rather than Jim Cairns (in regard to the Iraq War, for instance). Consequently he will inevitably disappoint many Labor activists. But that has always been the case as Labor seeks the safety of the middle ground where swinging voters are to be found.
Rudd, via the Labor national conference next month, will try to present the Labor Party as a whole as a unified and credible alternative party of government. He will not encourage internal public debate. He must hope that negative images, such as factional struggles, can be damped down.
The NSW election hasn't really changed much at all. Rudd and Howard know that. Neither will change their established approach to their campaigning.
Howard is still the favourite to win. Rudd still needs swings in the right places and the end result could be decided by the distribution of good and bad fortune. Howard has had both in the past. When he's had bad luck he has lost. With good luck he has won. Rudd can only hope and pray that the good fortune will be his on this occasion.
John Warhurst is professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University.