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A Most Insignificant Election

I have written the following to pitch to the Dominion Post in Wellington, so it is largely sans chuckles and written for Kiwi eyes.


Given all the high drama from across the Tasman, a Kiwi observer could be forgiven for thinking Saturday’s election was a profound and significant event.  It was neither.  Like the first ever romantic break-up, it feels a lot more important at the time than it will turn out to be.

Not all elections are equal.  Most would agree, for example, that David Lange’s victory in 1984 was of far greater historical significance for New Zealand than, say, Jim Bolger’s second term or John Key’s current one.  This is the because the outcome was emblematic of broader social and political forces. 1984 was more than just the end of Muldoon and his policies; it signalled that the country of Muldoon’s imagination no longer existed.  The country had changed and, with it, the government.  Obama in 2008 is an epic example of such an election; perhaps so too is end of New Labour, and the rise of the Tory-Liberal Democrat axis, in the UK.

In contrast, the Aussie election was a blip, an oddity.  The hung parliament — undeniably exciting and endlessly newsworthy — came about through a confluence of unrelated and idiosyncratic factors.  The wild unpopularity of Labor Governments in Queensland and New South Wales is foremost among these.   At state level, Labor has ruled the populous south-eastern corridor  without interruption for more than a decade.  This is an unprecedented run of good electoral fortune, but luck has a way of running out.  Voters in the suburban heartland of Sydney and Brisbane await the coming state elections with ominous anticipation as Labor governments in both states appear set for a shellacking.  Queensland’s Premier, Anna Bligh, is pleading with supporters not to blame her government for the loss of nine federal seats in her state, but it takes a peculiar form of political myopia not to see her obvious complicity in the outcome.

Another unexpected by-product of long-term Labor rule in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane (as well as Adelaide, Darwin and Hobart, for what it’s worth) is an inevitable receding of the talent pool from where the party draws its MPs, candidates and advisors.  This may explain the strange and unexpected incompetence of federal Labor under Kevin Rudd, who squandered huge reserves of public goodwill as he lurched from one unforced error to the next.  It is also why the Gillard campaign was so unforgivably awful.  If it felt amateurish, it’s because it was:  this was not the junior Wallabies, it was the under-16’s.

There is an emerging narrative that Labor should not have dumped Rudd and that Gillard rushed to the polls too soon.  This is half right.  Whatever the reason to call an early election — jumpiness, pessimism or a genuine desire to seek an electoral mandate — it was an unwise move, for which there were ample warning signs.  Australians hate to be rushed or tricked by politicians.  Bob Hawke lost a swag of seats, despite surging personal popularity, when he called a snap election in 1984 after less than two years in office.  Jeff Kennett in Victoria suffered a shock defeat in 1999 when he tried to bamboozle voters by timing an election to coincide with AFL football finals.

The equally fashionable theory that changing leaders is partly to blame for Labor’s dismal result does not have the benefit of being true; nor does the widely-touted idea that Rudd was ousted by ‘factional heavies’ against the wishes of the mainstream.  With only a handful of exceptions, Rudd managed to unify the federal Labour caucus in passionate opposition to his high-handed and blustery leadership style.  His colleagues long hated him and they moved ruthlessly to strike him down only when they realised the rest of the country had come to share the sentiment.  It was a mercy killing, however you look at it. While Labor may have lost fewer seats in Queensland under Rudd, it would have been walloped everywhere else.  It would be less hung parliament, and more hung, drawn and quartered.

However this current impasse ends,  the next election is where the action is.  There is no overarching policy rationale for an Abbott government — and they will trade away whatever differences they had with Labor over broadband and spending cuts as part of wooing the three country independents.  Labor is wounded and no more coherent than Abbott on substance.  Neither side is well prepared or equipped to form a government that will achieve anything beyond mere survival.

Inevitably, and on both sides, Party tacticians will do whatever it takes to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat.  Too many egos and livelihoods are at stake.  But a strategist might see the merit in letting this one go.  Predictions are dangerous things in politics, but this at least seems a safe bet: whoever governs Australia at the end of this process will not do so for long — and the next election will likely matter a great deal.

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