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.

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