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After Four Years, Labor Is Still Buying Time

The Labor Government celebrated four years in office on Thursday with a manoeuvre that all but guaranteed it will serve a full term.

AnniversaryAs it embarks on its fifth year in office, Peter Slipper’s defection has enabled Julia Gillard to fulfil one of the most important goals of a prime minister: to insulate her government against sudden threats and extend its longevity.

The means may make some pall but the ends are delightful for a government living on the edge.

But not much else has changed. Only the madly optimistic believe Labor will make it to a sixth birthday.

Of all Australia’s federal governments since World War I, only those led by Scullin (1929-32) and Whitlam (1972-75) failed to make it to four years, although death and party-room coups meant the prime ministerial baton was often snatched from one leader and deposited with another. Only Scullin, Whitlam, Fraser and Howard led their parties to victory and then back into opposition.

And only Menzies chose his retirement date. Political careers most often end in defeat.

Every political era is different. Comparisons are invidious and often misleading. But some lessons can be gleaned.

Most obviously: it isn’t easy for anyone. Government is hard to acquire and harder to maintain. Eventually, time and your enemies will beat you. The lesson is run hard while you’ve got the chance.

The pre-eminent success stories of living memory are Menzies (1939-41 & 1949-66), Hawke (1983-91) and Howard (1996-2007). Menzies won eight elections, Hawke and Howard four each. No other prime minister has ever won more than three.

After attaining office, all three men had near-death experiences or electoral setbacks. Menzies and Howard tasted bitter rejection before the sweetness of repeated victory. All three lost seats at their first bid for re-election, but only Howard was taken to the brink of defeat.

The stories of Menzies, Hawke and Howard at the four-year mark are sharply different.

As 1954 loomed, Robert Menzies faced an unsettled economy. Inflation eroded his electoral base. His treasurer had handed down a famous ‘horror budget’ and joked that he could hold a meeting of all his supporters in a telephone booth. Mid-way through his fifth year, Menzies clung to office in an election in which the ALP outpolled the Liberals, despite the burst of red baiting provided by the Petrov defection. Had Menzies lost, we might well ask now what he achieved in four years in power.

Communism dominated those four years. Australian troops fought in Korea. At home, Menzies sought to ban the Communist Party. The legislation was invalidated by the High Court and Menzies lost a referendum to gain the power by changing the constitution.

In his fifth year, it all began to change. As the nation greeted its new young Queen, the ALP edged towards a catastrophic split that helped keep it out of office for another 18 years. Menzies ultimately served 16 unbroken years as prime minister.

Three decades later, as Bob Hawke’s Labor government moved into 1987, it had notched up an impressive record of economic and social reform, although the economic climate was now more unsettled and treasurer Paul Keating had warned of an Australian banana republic.

Hawke faced a divided opposition. The Queensland National Party premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, announced his ‘Joh for PM’ crusade, splitting the coalition. Under John Howard’s leadership, the official opposition struggled to appear relevant. Against a government presiding over significant economic change, Howard was depicted as a throwback to the white picket fences of the 1950s.

Hawke called an early election. Labor’s primary vote fell, a product of economic restructuring in traditionally labour-intensive industries, but Hawke increased his majority on the back of Bjelke-Petersen’s absurd campaign and Howard’s error-prone budget calculations.

In early 2000, 13 years after his defeat at the hands of Hawke, John Howard was a two-time election winner but his fourth anniversary was bittersweet. He had thrown away his massive majority in the 1998 GST election. The popular vote went to Kim Beazley but Howard won enough seats to hang on. His GST deal with the Democrats started that party on the road to destruction. Now his GST was about to be implemented.

The government looked unsteady. It was polling badly. Whispers about Howard’s leadership began around this time. Disparate cost of living pressures bore down. Howard’s fight back was a year away, as were Tampa and September 11.

Menzies, Hawke and Howard: three very different prime ministers from different times. Menzies lasted 12 more years beyond his fourth anniversary, Hawke nearly five, and Howard nearly eight.

The Gillard Government is different again and unique in a number of ways. Ejecting Rudd before his first term was completed set a precedent few will aim to match. Electing the first woman prime minister will forever be a badge of honour for the ALP. The descent into minority government after one term sets it apart completely.

Menzies would have understood what minority government meant. He took the United Australia Party to near defeat in 1940, surviving by the grace and favour of two conservative-leaning independents. When his party forced Menzies out of the leadership in 1941, the independents shifted their support to the ALP and made John Curtin prime minister.

Curtin won a massive election victory in 1943 at the height of the war effort. By the time his government turned four years old, the war was over, Curtin was dead, and Ben Chifley was in charge of the post-war reconstruction effort. A wartime referendum to extend Commonwealth power was defeated, but in the government’s fifth year Chifley won a rare referendum victory that enabled the government to provide pensions, pharmaceutical benefits, student, family and other allowances. It was a singular moment of constitutional reform that enabled the Labor vision to be implemented.

On the other hand, some governments embarking on their fifth year in office are already middle-aged and beginning to decay. In November 1979, for instance, Malcolm Fraser only had one more election left in him before stagflation struck and Andrew Peacock started stalking his leadership.

What distinguishes some of these governments, though, is their political courage and single-mindedness in pursuit of their objectives. Their world view was clearly delineated by the fifth year. A known quantity means a sense of stability. Stability and certainty are priceless political assets.

The Gillard Government’s dilemma is that it is an ageing government pretending that it’s new. It sometimes talks about itself as if it just got there. How credible is it for a second-term government to denote its fourth year in office as one of ‘decision and delivery’? It simply pinpoints the weakness of its position. Slipper’s defection masks the weakness but doesn’t counteract it.

So many initiatives and programs are in the pipeline. Fulfilment lies ahead. The carbon tax and mining taxes will still be new when the Government turns five. The emissions trading scheme is one more election away. The NBN rollout is a long way from critical mass. Superannuation increases are so incremental they will barely register for years. The national disability insurance scheme is several elections away. Even the Government’s own propaganda documents only say they are “starting to put in place the biggest overhaul of the health and hospital system since Medicare”.

And what is the Government’s signature achievement? Successful economic management in the face of the global financial crisis? Yes, but that’s all somewhat nebulous, especially when they’re still fighting the widely held views that money was wasted and that it’s all down to the Chinese anyway.

The achievements are there, undoubtedly. If only people would understand what we’ve done, some ministers suggest. Yes, there have been pension increases. Yes, the tax free threshold is being raised significantly. Yes, billions have been poured into roads, rail and ports. Yes, mental health has received a long overdue injection of funds.

But the comparisons pale and Labor people know it. The range of programs instituted under Hawke and Whitlam in their first terms were broader ranging and longer lasting. There are few contemporary equivalents of the Racial Discrimination Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, Medicare, fault-free divorce, electoral reform, or the reorientation of our foreign policy.

As we are so often told, part of the fault lies in the Government’s inability to sell a message. It’s become a cliché, but true nevertheless. Paul Keating and others have remarked upon the lack of an overarching story that brings the disparate policies together in a framework and a context that resonates with the everyday experiences of the electorate.

In Parliament this week, the Infrastructure and Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, delivered a rousing, rollicking, heartfelt and humorous speech deriding Tony Abbott and the Opposition. It was morale-boosting stuff. Here was a minister who didn’t look diminished by the minority government mentality.

And there’s the rub. Aside from Albanese and a handful of others – the ambitious Shorten, Roxon when she’s gunning for the tobacco companies, or Combet when he’s methodically dismantling an opposition argument – the Government lacks a team of heavy hitters. Who is Gillard’s Jack McEwen? Where is her hit squad of Anthony, Sinclair and Nixon? Where is the unparalleled talent of Keating, Button, Evans or Dawkins? Where is Albanese’s support team, a version of Costello and Reith, or Young and Daly?

An American writer referred this week to the “crushing ordinariness of governing”. But good politicians are performers too. In the fights to come in this fifth and decisive year, from poker machines to the continuing onslaught against the carbon tax, the Government needs better than the bland, bureaucratic and scripted face it so often presents.

Governments seeking a third term are often getting their second wind. Hawke and Howard increased their majorities, whilst Fraser and Menzies lost ground. Gillard, even with Peter Slipper’s dubious support, has no ground to lose. To survive she must increase her numbers.

She battles perceptions of incompetence. She battles distrust. She battles the messy, compromising realities of a minority government propped up by Greens and rural independents. She battles the not-so-ghostly presence of her predecessor. None of this bodes well for a four-year-old government.

Most of all, she battles doubts about what she stands for. Just contemplate how a latter-day Whitlam might seize on gay marriage as an exemplar of the Labor principle of social equality. Consider Gillard’s refusal to bend on asylum seekers, or her contortions on climate change policy. All prime ministers must be pragmatic to some extent but who today believes that the clarity and consistency of a Gillard point of principle stands comparison with Menzies, Hawke or Howard?

Much of the commentary of recent weeks has been absurd. There is no revival yet for this government. Given the glimmers of disquiet on his own side, the counterattack on Abbott may yield some dividend, but not yet. Out in the shires, away from the Canberra media bubble and the silly people who think voters are swayed by seeing the prime minister with the US president, dare I suggest nothing has changed?

The Slipper development may bring security to the Government over the next two years now that it is two heartbeats away from defeat. But Slipper is a political rat. The beneficiaries of his treachery have as much reason to distrust him as those he deserted. At best, he buys the Government time, and that could be crucial. His embrace by Gillard shows she is making the most of what comes her way. No-one doubts her resolve to prevail.

Gillard outsmarted Tony Abbott this week and he didn’t take it well. But it was a sideshow to the main event. The Government’s drive for a third term is as difficult as ever. It was marked down earlier this year and the electorate has shown it will unsentimentally bide its time until an opportunity arises to dispatch an unpopular government. Gillard’s many predecessors are testament to that.

The voters may swing back and make it a contest but there’s no evidence of that yet. This week’s Newspoll has Labor’s primary vote at 30 per cent. Important, instinctive judgments have been made and they won’t easily be unmade.

Gillard was running hard on the Government’s fourth birthday but anniversaries are markers of time and place, nothing more. No immutable rules flow from them. They can hide as much as they reveal. Political anniversaries, above all, must yield to the turn of personalities and events.

This article first appeared on The Drum.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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