Alexander Drake is a former adviser to a minister in the Howard
government and a former member of the UK’s Conservative Research
Throughout his 11 years in office, the gods smiled on John Howard – but not on Saturday 24th November, 2007. Not only did his Liberal-National Coalition lose, but he also lost his Sydney seat of Bennelong. Australia’s journalists have a new toy to play with in the form of the Rudd government, and so they are understandably excited – but as “one of the two great participants in the Australian democracy”, as Liberal campaign chief Brian Loughnane described it, the Liberal Party can only gain from taking stock of what it needs to do in order to rebuild, in order to win again. Here are three observations and suggestions for Brendan Nelson, the new Opposition Leader.
1. Think carefully about how to reconcile the tension between building an electorally successful coalition, and the urge to “do something” with it.
Most of the seats gained by Labor were in either Kevin Rudd’s home state of Queensland, or in Greater Sydney and environs, beyond Sydney’s main orbital road. By and large these were seats were gained when the Coalition won government in 1996. These are the famous “Howard battlers”, repelled by Paul Keating and his Left cultural agenda in the mid-nineties. For example, of the 25 seats that Labor looks like gaining from the Coalition, 19 of them voted “No” in the 1999 republican referendum, and at least 16 of them voted No in greater numbers than the national average of 55%. A similar pattern could probably be seen across these seats on other issues. Howard used cultural values to great political effect for the Coalition.
So why did the battlers leave Howard? Two words: “Work Choices”. John Howard spent years assiduously assembling a blue-collar bloc for the Coalition, but lost it through pushing his package of labour market reforms (Work Choices) that made that same bloc of voters less certain about their economic futures. Australia still has a much more regulated labour market than the UK, and Howard had been pushing for greater labour market deregulation for over 30 years – it was his raison d’etre in public life and a big part of his personal political brand through the dark years of Opposition. The electoral cost of actually implementing these changes, though, was that it destroyed his majority. Ultimately, Howard forced a “class” versus “values” choice among the battlers – and most chose “class”.
Perhaps a more positive take-home message is that in Australia there’s value in retaining the Howard conservative cultural agenda as the backdrop of an effort to regain electoral ground.
2. Find ways to encourage good candidates to consider standing for public office, as opposed to party hacks
Unlike in Britain, there is no culture of acceptance surrounding MPs to
take paying jobs outside the Parliament and there is no way that this
will change. The Australian expectation is that Members and Senators
work full-time in pursuit of their responsibilities to their
constituents, and their official duties if they are office-holders.
Even though Australian MPs are paid more than British MPs, it just
isn’t enough to make it sufficiently attractive for some successes in
business or the professions – much of the traditional base Liberal vote
– to forego big salaries and face the scrutiny and workload of public
life. This is the challenge facing the Liberals in safe seats where
these sorts of potential candidates are more likely to live. Moreover,
once they get into the Parliament, what’s the appeal of sitting around
in Opposition, on lower pay, rather than running the show?
In marginal seats, the Liberal challenge is to continue to identify
potential community leaders with local credibility to stand and so
hopefully leverage personal followings into a higher Liberal vote. In
my view this is the number one challenge for the Liberal Party in
marginal seats going forward. This will be harder for the Liberals to
do without a local MP and their resources sustaining the Party’s local
infrastructure in those seats, so in some cases the Party central
organisation will have to do it from afar – but it will remain
important all the same.
The alternative is simply reducing candidate selection to an internal
factional war within the Liberal Party, which will be guaranteed to
generate duds and doom the party to electoral failure. British readers
unfamiliar with Australian politics might be interested to know that
the internal workings of the lay party organisations are by comparison
to their British counterparts, often petty, deeply factional, and
brutal (keep this in mind when I discuss the Queensland Liberals
below). It is an environment that, if unchecked and unreformed, has
the potential to deliver some “lowest common denominator” candidates
where the Libs can least afford it.
By contrast, the trade union movement provides Labor candidates with a
career path and a place to learn about Labor politics. Moreover, some
Labor candidates don’t necessarily have the same high-earning potential
from the private sector prior to entering Parliament – so the financial
disincentives of a Parliamentary salary don’t usually apply in the same
way they do to potential Liberal candidates.
3. Do something about Queensland
Psephologists love talking about the US Republicans’ “Southern
agenda”. Well, this time Labor had a “Rudd Queensland agenda”.
Speaking as a Queenslander by birth, I know we are deeply parochial,
and love supporting our own. In our minds, the Sydney-Melbourne axis
has long looked down “The Sunshine State” and so Queenslanders love to
take any opportunity to “stick it up ‘em”, including at elections.
During the 1980s, some Queensland conservatives preferred the
home-grown Nationals over the Sydney-based John Howard, to the
considerable net electoral benefit of federal Labor. In 1996, the
“Queenslander” instinct meant “sticking it up” the loathed Paul Keating
by voting for John Howard – and in the process only electing 2 Labor
MPs out of a total of 26 Queensland MPs. And in 2007, Kevin Rudd, with
his Sunshine Coast high school education, Queensland bureaucrat work
history, and his Brisbane seat, unashamedly pitched his message to his
fellow Queenslanders in a folksy, home-state style, and saw at least 9
seats – more than half of the 16 needed for Labor to win office –
switch to Labor.
The pressure is therefore on for the Queensland Liberals to perform –
but when you see stories about their state parliamentary party like
you know it’s not going to be good. The whole Queensland Liberal Party
needs an overhaul, but that’s too complex and obscure a topic to cover
for a British website.
I’ve not intended this to be a comprehensive review of the election’s
results – I suggest looking at the Australian Electoral Commission’s
website at www.aec.gov.au, and armchair psephologists William Bowe and
Peter Brent at www.pollbludger.com and www.mumble.com.au for that – but
these are a start on the sorts of things that the Liberals should
consider as they face Opposition, and the rebuilding process.