ALP AIMS TO DEFY HISTORY WITH HELP FROM FRACTIOUS LIBERALS
Bill Shorten must win big to halt the revolving door to the PM’s office
The Liberal Party, and indeed the Coalition, is little more than a collection of individuals. Tribalism isn’t in its DNA. This is a strength and a weakness, depending on the political climate.
The parties on the right of politics are more loosely affiliated than the Labor Party, which helps explain why, when the going gets tough, the fractures open up more quickly and with sometimes debilitating consequences.
We are witnessing such a malaise now: moderates moving against reactionary MPs in preselection battles; former prime ministers prepared to wreck rather than reward; angst within the Nationals as Barnaby Joyce plots a leadership comeback while his detractors plot his preselection downfall. And that’s before any battle of ideas moves into full swing: reactionaries claiming “the base” doesn’t include Liberal moderates, for example.
Then we have the gender problem in Coalition ranks, lowering the vote among women even though female voters historically favour Liberals over the once blokey culture of the Labor Party.
Traditionally, problems on the conservative side have had only a minimal electoral impact on the Coalition at the federal level. Even when losing elections to Labor, the size of the defeats traditionally is much smaller than when Labor gets bundled out of power.
Some of the most heady days in Liberal Party history played out when Andrew Peacock and John Howard battled it out in the 1980s. Yet the Liberals only narrowly lost the 1984, 1987 and 1990 elections despite internal divisions. The Joh for PM campaign cruelled Howard’s 1987 campaign, yet he nearly secured 50 per cent of the twoparty vote. In 1990, Peacock won more than 50 per cent of the vote, just not in the seats that mattered to form a parliamentary majority.
Even when Coalition governments get turfed out of office, Labor victories are closer than you may think. In 1972, when Gough Whitlam’s “It’s Time” campaign overwhelmed the hapless Billy McMahon government, the size of the victory was surprisingly small. Labor won with only a five-seat majority.
In Bob Hawke’s 1983 “landslide”, as it was dubbed, Labor won with only a 13-seat majority: the largest in Labor history but modest compared with the size of some Coalition landslides. For example, Malcolm Fraser twice defeated Whitlam in 1975 and 1977 with majorities of 27 and 24 respectively.
While Howard may have lost his marginal seat of Bennelong at the 2007 election, Kevin Rudd’s majority was only eight seats. For context, Howard’s 1996 win over Paul Keating came with a 20-seat majority. And even an unpopular Tony Abbott managed to secure a 15-seat majority against Rudd in 2013: small compared with Fraser’s and Howard’s victories but still a larger win than the popular Hawke managed at the top of Labor’s tree.
The point is that at the federal level Labor rarely wins big, which is why the next election is full of pitfalls and opportunities for Bill Shorten’s opposition. Labor is the clear favourite, but history tell us the party doesn’t win big federally because federal issues traditionally have been dominated by Coalition policy strengths: the economy, national security, immigration and border protection.
It has been a different story at state level, where bread-and-butter policy issues often favour Labor, and voters seem more prepared to shift against the Coalition, delivering thumping majorities to the Left. The most recent example was Mark McGowan’s win over Colin Barnett in Western Australia.
But can Labor win big federally now that the commonwealth continues to usurp state responsibilities? Issues that once dominated only state campaigns are far more central federally than they used to be. The unknown is whether this shift has the potential to remove a dysfunctional Coalition government from power in a record defeat, particularly in the context of leadership instability during its five years in power.
The Opposition Leader will want to match Hawke’s win in 1983 because, without such a buffer, wholesale tax and federation reform won’t be as easy to pull off — not in an era of politics suited to opposition. Abbott and Shorten have honed this debilitating art, and Abbott presumably is prepared to do so again if given the chance out the other side of an unsuccessful campaign.
The NSW Labor Right is especially focused on the way Labor wins, knowing that to emulate Hawke and Keating reforms and stave off a left-wing populist push from within, a buffer is essential. Which is why it was smarting when the Liberals self-immolated, removing their one electoral asset (Malcolm Turnbull) and inserting an ex-marketing man as Prime Minister. Labor wanted Peter Dutton, feared Julie Bishop, but is happy to take on Scott Morrison.
So the question is, with the Liberals having repeated the history of the late 60s and early 70s, and cycled through multiple prime ministers in a short time (not that we can blame leadership instability for Harold Holt’s disappearance), can Morrison achieve what McMahon managed to do in 1972 and lose only narrowly, avoiding a long stint on the wrong side of the Treasury benches? The polls and Morrison’s dwindling personal approval numbers suggest not.
Shorten isn’t looking to win for the sake of becoming prime minister. He wants to break the cycle and become a long-term prime minister, which in the present climate means serving at least a full term (which no one has done since Howard’s final term), and most if not all of a second.
The times may suit Shorten. If victorious, he will assume control of an economy doing well with lowering unemployment. And the cycle of debt appears to be coming to an end, meaning Labor may be able to hand down the first surplus budget in more than a decade in its first term.
If Shorten doesn’t let his left flank overwhelm him when it comes to industrial relations reforms that run contrary to the economy’s needs, he’ll have an impressive set of numbers (and possibly achievements) to point to after a first term. Labor is campaigning on major reforms.
And remember Liberals will be going through a period of soul searching and infighting, picking over the entrails of defeat. The Coalition may even be in peril and the concept of the merged Liberal National Party in Queensland could be undone.
The first step for Shorten is winning, but he’ll want to win more convincingly than Labor has done historically.
Peter van Onselen is a professor of politics at the University of Western Australia and Griffith University.