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The March of Political Time

“For the times ahead” was the Victorian ALP’s slogan for last Saturday’s election. This week, if John Brumby is to be believed, the march of time defeated the 11-year-old government he led for the last three.

The March Of Political TimeIt’s odd to hear politicians and commentators talk now of the natural inevitability of a 10-year cycle for governments. True, there is a pattern of sorts since the 1980s where governments struggle to survive into a second decade. But the vast bulk of Australia’s political life since Federation is characterised by governments of remarkable longevity.

For example, on this day, December 2, in 1972, Gough Whitlam brought to an end twenty-three years of coalition rule in Canberra. Seventeen years later, in 1989, and also on December 2, Wayne Goss defeated the National Party government which had ruled Queensland with brutal certainty for thirty-two years.

The coalition’s long dominance federally between 1949 and 1972 is the most remembered example of political staying power. But the Liberals in Victoria ruled for an even longer 27 years until 1982, bookended by Labor governments led by John Cain snr and John Cain jnr. Labor has governed Victoria for 21 of the past 28 years.

The long stint of the Queensland Nationals from 1957 was preceded by 25 years of Labor government. Two governments in 57 years is an impressive record by any measure, even if a weighted electoral system skewed the results.

In South Australia, the Liberals ran the state for 32 years from 1933, 26 of them with Sir Thomas Playford as Premier. In New South Wales, the Labor Party began 24 years of continuous rule in 1941. The current NSW government is in its fifteenth year.

The Tasmanians hold the record with a Labor government in office for 34 years from 1934 until 1968. The current Tasmanian government is in its thirteenth year, albeit now in coalition with the Greens.

Perhaps times have changed. Maybe the survival of governments is made harder by the pace of life, the magnitude of contemporary issues and the frenzied media cycles.

But the argument is altogether too convenient for electoral losers looking to justify their time in office, as is its opposing version, the one being peddled with such enthusiasm by Labor’s enemies. This argument holds that the so-called “Labor brand” is now “toxic” right across the nation. In this version, Labor is on the nose from Western Australia up to Queensland and down the east coast to Tasmania. State election results are held up as evidence of the toxicity.

Certainly, it has been a bad couple of years for the ALP electorally. It has been bleeding votes all over the place. Its reliance on Greens preferences is unprecedented. The Liberals are entitled to believe that the tide is running their way.

And yet, despite a primary vote swing in excess of 7% against the ALP in South Australia last March, the Liberals were unable to unseat the Rann government. What is now known as “sandbagging” marginal seats was so successful that Rann survived the election with a comfortable majority of seats whilst slipping to 48% of the two-party-preferred vote.

In Tasmania on the same day, the ALP suffered a 12% swing on primary votes. The 12-year-old government survived through a historic coalition with the Greens. Admittedly, the proportional voting system had a lot to do with the result but the Liberal Party only picked up just over half of the anti-Labor swing. One in five Tasmanians voted for the Greens. Liberal claims to a moral right to govern were undermined by the obvious shortfall in their 39% primary vote.

In the Federal election, despite a rampantly effective campaign by Tony Abbott against a government riven by leadership upheaval and policy confusion, the Opposition managed a nationwide swing of only 2.58%. Most of the anti-Labor swing went to the Greens and a clear, but narrow, majority of the electorate opted for the ALP over the coalition. Some toxicity.

Go back to 2008 and consider what happened in Western Australia. An ill-timed early election saw Alan Carpenter’s Labor government bundled out of office but it wasn’t at all clear-cut. Days of negotiations were needed for Colin Barnett to stitch together a deal with the resurgent Nationals. A large anti-Labor swing reduced its primary vote to 35.9% but the 4.4% swing to the Greens was larger than the combined 4% swing to the conservative parties.

Something similar happened in the territory elections in 2008. In the Northern Territory, an 8% primary swing against the ALP nearly tipped it out of office but it survives with a bare majority. In the Australian Capital Territory, a massive 9.5% swing against the ALP saw it pushed into an alliance with the Greens to stay in power. The Liberals also went backwards, polling a paltry 31.6% of the primary vote.

And despite what is said about the Queensland government now, in March 2009 it secured a comfortable re-election, withstanding a 4.7% primary swing which saw its vote fall to 42.3%. The ALP would kill for a figure like that now.

Last Saturday, a big anti-Labor swing in Victoria saw its primary vote fall to 36.42%. The big difference between Victoria and some of the other elections that have taken place since the fall of the Howard government is that most of the swing went to the coalition instead of to the Greens.

But consider this: in eight federal, state and territory elections since 2007, the electorate has only found itself able to give decisive majorities in two cases. Hung parliaments and one-seat majorities abound now.

Only in South Australia could it be said that quirky electoral distributions played a part in this quite remarkable display of diffidence.

Only in Victoria and Western Australia did the result tip in favour of the Liberal Party.

This isn’t Labor toxicity. This is an electorate that is judging governments harshly but remains unconvinced by the alternative. This year’s winners hold the lucky ticket to winning a proper majority next time.

There is little doubt that an electoral era is coming to an end. The dominance of the ALP at the state level over the past decade or so is over. New South Wales voters will ravage the ALP next March. The Western Australian government will almost certainly win a comfortable re-election later in the year. Queensland is expected to tip out Anna Bligh in 2012.

By 2012, Julia Gillard will face conservative governments all the way down the east coast. The Northern Territory will probably switch and only Tasmania, South Australia and the ACT will remain in Labor hands.

By December 2, 2012, it is likely that South Australia will be the only jurisdiction in the country with a majority Labor government.

None of this proves that the the ALP is a toxic presence in the political firmament. As Victoria has just shown, voters understand and distinguish between state and federal governments. In August, 55.31% of Victoria’s 3.1 million voters preferred the Labor Party. Several hundred thousand of these switched their votes last Saturday. Ted Baillieu has polled around 51% of the preferred vote.

Shortly before last weekend’s poll, I was told about a man who lives in the electorate of Cranbourne, a seat narrowly retained by the ALP in the face of a 9.6% swing. A public servant and life-long Labor voter, the man voted Liberal for the first time. He had supported Gillard in August but voted Liberal in the state election because he blamed the government for rampant violence on the railway network. Originally from Sri Lanka, he told of repeated violence and racial abuse on public transport. He’d had enough.

As the old saying has it, “all politics is local”. This man judged the state government on the issue of crime and safety and found it wanting. It was nothing to do with the march of time but everything to do with service delivery.

In the regional areas of Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, the ALP held onto most of the seats that propelled it into office in 1999. Upgraded roads and freeways, fast trains and new railway stations, extended natural gas connections and other infrastructure had done their job. Voters in the eastern and southern suburbs of Melbourne saw it otherwise.

It may be true that the service delivery element of state governments means that over a decade in office the accumulated grievances of voters become an irresistible obstacle to re-election. The fiscal straitjacket state governments find themselves in doesn’t help either.

But it’s equally true that leadership, administration and policy clarity are just as important. And it’s here that the ALP has just had another fearful look into its political future.

In this year’s elections, the ALP’s primary vote has been 37.5% in South Australia, 37.1% in Tasmania, 37.99% federally and 36.42% in Victoria. The party simply cannot win when it slips to these levels.

Tony Abbott celebrated one year as Opposition Leader yesterday. He has reportedly said that the next year must include development of new policies for the next election. For the Labor Party, the next year must be about policy but also about rebuilding its base vote.

It won’t be easy. The NSW ALP’s primary vote is likely to fall into the 20% range in March. Western Australia and Queensland may be no better.

The ALP also needs to work out what it’s going to do about the Greens. In seven months time, the nine Greens senators will assume the balance of power in the upper house. The debate over ALP strategy will intensify at that point.

Some argue the Greens are alienated but natural Labor supporters who should be won back. Others suggest the Greens are natural enemies who should be crushed because they harm Labor’s chances of winning back the suburban vote.

As the Federal election showed, the electoral reality is not quite as simple as that. The issues don’t neatly divide between the suburbs and the inner cities. The Victorian Liberals may have shown the way for their side to deal with the Greens but it’s much more complicated for the ALP.

Incidentally, December 2 is also the date of Mark Latham’s accession to the Labor leadership in 2003. Perhaps it doesn’t pay to make too much of historical anniversaries.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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