Tag Archive for 'Coalition'

The Australian Election: Explaining the result

Less than a year ago, the Labor government in Australia, then led by Kevin Rudd, seemed unassailable.  Now we are stuck with a hung parliament.  What happened?

Chronologically, here’s my (fairly long, if not actually detailed) take on what when wrong for the Labor Party:

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and Australia’s response

Australia was perfectly placed to weather the storm of the GFC.  Thanks partly to the now-shown-to-be-enlightened banking policies of Paul Keating and partly to the swift and innovative actions of the RBA in the crux of the crisis, Australia’s big four banks were not overly exposed and the fall of some minor banks did not seriously threaten the Australian financial system.  The economic downturn that was triggered by the crisis took some time in coming for every country and Australia was granted an extra delay in its attachment to China.  As a result, the Australian authorities knew well in advance what was coming and even, roughly, how bad it was going to be.  Furthermore, both fiscal and monetary policy were perfectly positioned to act, and act dramatically, to lessen the pain:  Interest rates were already quite high (to avoid inflation in the pre-crisis boom) so there was plenty of room to lower them and, thanks to Australia’s booming mining exports, the government was in surplus with little-to-no debt so there was plenty of capacity to temporarily increase debt-funded government spending.  The RBA performed their role admirably, cutting interest rates early, hard and deep.  The Federal government also deployed a near-perfect fiscal stimulus, with large cash hand-outs to almost every household (with a focus on the low-income households with a higher marginal propensity to consume and a lower propensity to buy imports) and the acceleration of longer-term spending.

The result was only a single quarter of economic contraction in Australia and therefore the avoidance of a “technical” recession (typically, but not formally, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth).  Ironically, this spectacular feat made the authorities in general, and the government in particular, into victims of their own success.  Since they never saw a real downturn in the economy, the Australian people questioned the need for all the stimulus in the first place.  The Coalition opposition, cynically in my opinion, jumped on this and told tall tales of looming mountains of government debt, all since shown to be wildly overblown scare mongering.

Home insulation and libraries

Some of spending of the stimulus money was poorly managed.  For example, new money for schools to construct new buildings was not permitted to go towards any building on a school’s long-term plan.  If a building isn’t already on the school’s long-term plan, why do they need it?  But the big kick in the teeth for Labor, and more particularly, Rudd, came in the handling of problems that came from the subsidies for home insulation.  The surge in demand for insulation lead to new installation companies emerging, not all of them run by people with years of experience.  Some of the roof insulation, which included a thin metal layer, was occasionally accidentally stapled to electrical wires.  Some electrocutions occurred.  That was a tragedy and should have been treated as such.  Rudd ought to have deplored the dodgy operators and come out with a crack-down on safety standards in the construction industry.  Instead, it appears very much as though there was an attempt to sweep it under the carpet.

Climate Change, the ETS and Copenhagen

One of the major 2007-election policies of the Labor party was legislation to fight climate change.  The Rudd government signed the Kyoto protocol very quickly once it came to power.  An Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) was devised and passed in the House of Representatives, but rejected in the Coalition-controlled Senate.  In an attempt to get it through, Rudd watered down the ETS, much to the frustration of the Greens and green-leaning supporters of the Labor Party.  It was still not successful.

The Coalition, by this point, was in complete disarray.  It’s then-overall leader, Malcom Turnbull, fully supported the ETS and believed the matter of climate change to be above party politics, but the leader of the Coalition in the Senate, Nick Minchin, is a climate change skeptic (to say the least).  This turned into a leadership contest and although he won an initial spill, Turnbull was defeated on the 1st of December, 2009 and replaced with Tony Abbott, nicknamed “the mad monk” for his socially conservative views and his earlier start in training to the Catholic priesthood.

The anti-ETS side of the Coalition thus won a debate on whether Australia should pass the ETS before the Copenhagen conference on climate change — we would wait and, it was felt, only pass a law to the extent that we were obliged to under any agreement reached.

As it happens, Copenhagen was a debacle, with China and, to a lesser extent, India sabotaging the negotiations.  With the momentum lost, the Rudd government put climate change into the too-hard basket.

Many (many!) people in the green-leaning side of the Labor party had thought that Rudd should use the ETS as a double dissolution trigger prior to the Copenhagen summit, with the idea being that a) public support at the time was in favour of action against climate change; and b) with the Coalition in such disarray, a Labor victory would be (almost) assured.  For my own part, I believe that Rudd was genuinely scared of running a campaign entirely on this one issue and had hoped to use Copenhagen as the definitive, externally-supplied, moral argument.

Tony Abbot’s budgie smugglers and Kevin Rudd’s desperate attempts to appear true blue

Not many people I know agree with me on this one, but I believe that this event is when many Australian people stopped just being queasy with Rudd and started actually liking Abbott.  Tony Abbott, you see, at the age of 53, is a sports nut.  He is incredibly fit.  He does Ironman triathlons.  He’s a surf lifesaver, which in Australia is only two steps to the side of sainthood.  We love our lifesavers in Australia; they’re all volunteers, perform an essential role and are very, very, very much part of our collective self-image.

Nevertheless, Australia also has a strong spirit of being wary of politicians that try to grandstand on a national icon for their own purposes. The former leader of the NSW Liberal party, Peter Debnam, was ridiculed for donning a pair of budgie smugglers (hey, we used to call them DTs —  d**k togs — but that wasn’t allowed by the PC brigade) and swanning around for a “completely casual, not at all staged” photograph or 20 as he ran up and down on the beach.  Here’s Tony Wright describing the affair:

It was disastrous; his appearance was roundly declared “disturbing” and poor Debnam found himself hobbled with the moniker Deadman. His obsession with budgie smugglers prompted Deputy Premier John Watkins to accuse the unfortunate fellow of offending common decency.

So when Tony Abbott was photographed emerging from the water in his own DTs, Kevin Rudd couldn’t help making a few snide little comments:

“You know something. If there was a referendum tomorrow between budgie smugglers and boardies, I think I’d be voting for boardies,” Mr Rudd said on Thursday.  “I think there are certain things the Australian people should be protected from and one of those things is national political leaders so attired.  “What is it about the Libs and swimming gear, it seem to be a bit of a pattern,” he said, referring to former NSW Liberal leader Peter Debnam before his defeat in the 2007 state election.

This backfired massively against Rudd, for reasons that seem obvious to me looking back, but apparently weren’t to him at the time.  He was the Prime Minister.  To stoop to this sort of criticism is below the dignity of the station.  Australian’s will accept it if it’s done well (i.e. it’s funny), but when it’s just a cheap shot, we see it for what it is.  And since the subject of the cheap shot was actually (and not cynically) doing something that we, as a people, truly admire, then we were always going to side with the dude with his wang on display.  It’s just the way we are.  This whole thing made Rudd look petty and out of touch.

Actually, I think this episode was just emblematic for Rudd’s rather pathetic attempts to present a persona that the “average Australian” could relate to.  He never seemed more out of touch, more awkward, than when he was exaggerating his accent, and trying to shoe-horn a string of Australianisms into his speeches.  I’m hardly the most Australian of Australians, but if I could tell he was faking it so badly, you may assured that everyone else did too.  In a way, I think this was his greatest failing.

The mining tax

This was the final nail in Rudd’s political coffin.  In May this year, Kevin Rudd announced the Resource Super Profits Tax, based on one of the recommendations from the Henry Review.  The particular details of the proposal aren’t important here (although, for the record, I support the mechanism in general, but I’m not tied to any particular headline tax rate and I think the money should not go into general government revenue but instead into a sovereign wealth fund).  Instead, what I want to focus on is the spectacularly ham-fisted way that the proposal was introduced.

It was atrociously sold to the Australian public.  The scheme, as originally envisaged, would amount to a subsidy relative to the current framework for small mining companies.  Why didn’t Rudd have 50 CEOs standing beside him when he made the announcement?  The mining companies claimed, falsely (although that is counterintuitive), that it would lead to job losses in the mining industry and were never successfully rebutted in the public sphere.

Instead of recognising the errors made in introducing the proposal and attempting to correct them, Rudd doubled-down.  In response to the (perfectly predictable) advertising campaign by the mining companies against the proposal, he broke one of his own campaign pledges and started spending government money to run advertisements in favour of it.  Instead of speaking about the essential role that mining plays in the Australian economy and how the proposal would actually increase the mining output of the country, he derided mining CEOs as rich fat cats that need to be taxed down to the same level as everybody else.  That is old, old, old school Labor and Australia has moved beyond that sort of thinking now, although apparently not all politicians seem to have realised it.

Rhetorically, the mining companies and the Coalition (that naturally sided with them) won easily, and the Labor Party knew it.  There were negotiations between the government and the mining companies on a compromise, but they were happening very, very quietly behind closed doors while the shouting went on outside.

The removal of Rudd and the rise of Gillard

The Australian Labor Party has long had some brutal factional politics happening behind (and sometimes not-so-behind) the scenes.  Throughout the knock-down fight with the mining companies, Australia’s then-Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, repeatedly stated that she was not interested in challenging Kevin Rudd for leadership of the Labor Party (and hence the Prime Ministership of Australia).  However, in late June 2010, the internal factions swung massively against Rudd and he was replaced by Gillard in a move that was whiplash-inducingly fast.

Gillard immediately ceased the government’s advertising campaign and promptly announced a compromise agreement with the mining companies, which granted her something of a honeymoon period in an electorate that was highly skeptical of the way that Rudd was deposed.  Rudd’s supporters in the Labor party felt particularly gypped by the action, and view Gillard as something of a careerist rather than an idealist.

For my own part, I am led to believe that the compromise with the mining companies was settled in the week prior to the leadership challenge and the Labor party power brokers made a decision along the lines of “Rudd is toxic.  If he announces the compromise, it’ll look like a back down.  He will absolutely have to go before the next election and Gillard will absolutely be his replacement.  Far better to have Gillard announce the compromise so as to look like she’s magnanimous, give her a honeymoon period and then have the fastest possible election to ride through on that wave.”

The election in general

Speaking purely tactically, I think that Labor made the right decision.  Whether he was any good as a technocrat or not, Rudd was politically toxic as the face of the party.  There was a genuine bump to Labor from the compromise and a rapid-fire election was the morally correct thing to do following such a sudden leadership change.  Had that been all there was to it, I believe that Labor would have narrowly won.

Many people were angry that it was such a dull election, with no new policies being advocated.  I think that is silly.  The policies were clear:  Labor was for the compromise mining tax, the NBN and (albeit with the stupid citizen’s committee thing) eventually the ETS.  The Coalition was against all three.  The Greens were supported stronger, more forceful versions of all three.  That was the election.  All three are major policy decisions.

The leaks

In the second week of the campaign, somebody from within the Labor cabinet (i.e. not just a Labor MP, but a cabinet member) leaked some very damaging information about Gillard, showing her to have taken positions contrary to the ideals of most Labor party supporters.  To my mind they just reinforced my belief that Gillard believes far more in real politik than do most people, but I very much appreciate the harm they did to her image.  But there’s an obvious question here:  Why?  Why would a Labor Party insider do such a thing?  To my mind, there are only two options:

  1. They were so offended by the removal of Rudd and his replacement by Gillard that they didn’t care what effect the leaks would have on the election so long as Gillard was hurt.  Even to a cynic like me, this sounds implausible.
  2. They were confident that Labor would win the election and wanted to rough Gillard up a bit so that in the post-election aftermath she’d be forced to rely on the pro-Rudd factions instead of sidelining them (as would be traditional).

If it was the latter, as I believe, the person made a terrible error and dramatically underestimated the harm the leaks would do, not just to Gillard, but to the Labor party as a whole.  Still, the effect of the leaks on the polls was rather short-lived, and it appeared in the last week of the campaign that Labor were back in the lead, albeit barely.  I suspect that had the campaign gone on for another week or two, the effect of the leaks would have faded further and Labor would have (just barely) fallen over the line.

The state Labor Parties

Finally, we come to the topic du jour in the Labor Party soul-searching:  it looks very much as though, unlike in previous federal elections, people’s opinions of state labor parties had a strong influence in how they voted for the national labor party.  Simon Jackman, an Australian professor of Political Science at Stanford University, has produced this breakdown of seat-specific swings, grouped by state.  See how the swings really do seem to group together by state?  Labor suffered large swings against them in NSW and QLD, a moderate swing against them in WA, and moderate swings towards them in VIC, SA and TAS.

Possum has taken this further, pointing out that the state-specific swing correlates very nicely with people’s views of the Labor party in that state.  Here’s his diagram:

He’s put the axes around the wrong way for my liking, but it doesn’t matter.  The horizontal axis shows the swing toward or away from the Labor Party in the federal election, while the vertical axis shows the two-party-preferred margin enjoyed by the state Labor parties in their respective states.  As you might expect, Anna Bligh and Kristina Keneally (the premiers of Queensland and New South Wales respectively) are not particularly popular in the broader Labor Party right now, and are mounting a vigorous internal defence of their political performances.

The Result

So, that’s where we are.  There was still quite a significant aversion to the Coalition in the electorate (the memories of John Howard are still fresh), so it’s entirely fair to say that Labor have lost their position rather than the Coalition having won the improvement in theirs.  Have a look at the total vote counts by party from the Australian Electoral Commission.  Here’s how the swings in first-preferences look:

  • Labor : -4.9%
  • Coalition : +0.6% (a rough average of the Liberals, Nationals and LibNabs in Qld)
  • Greens : +3.6%
  • Informal (i.e. deliberately invalid) : +1.6%

That tells it all, really.  The Coalition was no more appealing to the electorate this time than they were in 2007 (that they picked up seats came via lower preferences).  Labor lost a bunch of supporters.  Most of them went to the Greens, no doubt upset by the perceived failures on the ETS and the mining tax, but a fair whack of people were just sick of politics altogether and deliberately spoiled their vote.

    The Australian Election (3 days past and the ball is still in the air)

    [For any non-Australians, in the absence of Bryan Palmer and his once-magnificent-but-now-absent ozpolitics.info, John Hempton’s “guide to the Australian election for non-Australians” gives a fair overview]

    [Update 25 Aug 2010: If you’re looking for reasons why the Labor Party did so poorly, I’ve had a go a listing them in my next post.]

    A week and a half before the election, I noted (with no originality) that things weren’t looking good for Labor.  In the days immediately before, with the polls having started to improve again for Labor, I was predicting a narrow Labor win, possibly with the Greens taking the balance of power in the Senate (although I was skeptical on that front — I actually put the higher probability on the Coalition still having control in the upper house).  Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the polls!

    As I type (AEC website updated at 24/08/2010 7:40:18 PM), the Australian Electoral Commission (the fully independent body that decides on electoral boundaries and conducts Australian elections) is estimating the results as:

    • 70 : Australian Labor Party
    • 72 : The Coalition (Liberal Party, Liberal National Party of Queensland, The Nationals, Country Liberals)
    • 1 : The Greens
    • 4 : Independent
    • 3 : Too close to call : Brisbane (QLD), Hasluck (WA) and Corangamite (VIC)

    The ABC’s ever-superb Antony Green (a nerd’s nerd of the highest calibre) is currently making the following prediction for the final result:

    • 72 : Labor
    • 73 : Coalition
    • 1 : Greens
    • 4 : Independent

    The four independents are Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott (all ex-National Party) and Andrew Wilikie, an ex-Military and Intelligence official.

    Tony Abbot has made a claim that since the Coalition got the most primary votes, they should be allowed to form government.  The counter argument is that in Australia’s system of preferential voting, to the extent that national vote tallies matter at all, it should be the two-party preferred total that counts, and on that basis Labor is in front (numbers here).

    At first glance it would seem like the three ex-National Party independents will allow the Coalition to form a minority government, but it is not that simple.  For one thing, infrastructure in general, and telecommunications in particular, have long been issues of key concern to to National MPs.  Labor’s NBN plans would provide greatly improved services to those constituencies, while the Liberal’s policy would largely ignore them.  Farmers are not exactly enamoured of the mining industry, either, and so I suspect wouldn’t have the same opposition to the natural resource tax as the Liberal party.  Rob Oakeshott is also making noises along the lines of reforming parliamentary democracy as we know it in Australia:

    Continuing his call to reinvent the parliamentary system, Mr Oakeshott said his preference was for a cross-party cabinet and indicated he may not support either side of politics if a cross-party cabinet could not be formed.

    When asked if his fellow independents shared his view on “consensus politics” and his example of Kevin Rudd serving as foreign minister in an Abbott government or Malcolm Turnbull serving in a Gillard government – he said he would find out “in detail” today and how hard he would be pushing for the idea.
    Looking ahead to today’s talks, Mr Oakeshott said “if we are just fluffing around, if we are just building a minority government with a bit of plus plus plus from the cross benches I’m not interested”.

    “This is about trying to get to at least 76 and yes, if this doesn’t happen, if it doesn’t fly, if consensus can’t be reached we will go back to the position of three [independents] and Adam Bandt as well, making a decision on red team or blue team getting across the line in that context I’m not interested, I’m not going to play,” he said.

    However, Mr Oakeshott would not rule out a cabinet position if consensus could be found.

    Mr Oakeshott said elevating the role of committees, imposing deadlines on response times to recommendations and allowing private members bills to be brought to vote were critical issues for him.
    Private members bills should be voted on and added he also wanted to see private members business “having some authority within the parliamentary time table”.

    “If there is some sentiment for exploring creative options where this is about not political parties, not a red team or a blue team, this is about 150 members of parliament, building a majority with a focus on being able to get through some of the key national issues in this country, I’d be interested in having a conversation,” he said.

    Mr Oakeshott called on the “traditional arch-rivals” to stop “pretending to be fighting to the death over ideology when they are actually more often than not in agreement on most issues”.

    There is no love lost between the Coalition and Andrew Wilkie (who resigned from the Office of National Assessments in 2003 over (alleged) misrepresentations of the case for war in Iraq and Afghanistan), either, so they’re unlikely to be able to count on him.  But with Mr Wilkie’s strong stand against Pokies, he’s not likely to be all that keen on Labor, either.

    Just to make things more interesting, even if Labor does form government, they won’t be able to pass any of their signature pieces of legislation for the better part of 12 months anyway, as even though the Coalition lost the balance of power in the Senate to the Greens, that won’t take effect until 1 July 2011.  If the Coalition forms government, you can therefore expect an absolute flurry of legislation between now and 30 June 2011 as they try to squeeze through everything they want before being forced to negotiate with the Greens in the Senate.

    An apology for what?

    For any non-Australians in the audience, the new Australian government is doing what the previous lot refused to do: apologise on behalf of the parliament and government of Australia to the indigenous people of Australia for the forced removal of children from their families for approximately 100 years until 1969.

    I want (as should be little surprise to anyone who knows me) to abstract away from the specifics of this a little. When is an apology for some past injustice warranted?

    Should we hold the actions of the past against the moral standard of today, especially if those actions were held to be just at the time? If the answer is ‘yes’, how far back in history is it acceptable to apply our outrage? We don’t judge the Romans for having sex with children or the Aztecs for their human sacrifices – we simply view them as having taken place in an environment of ignorance.

    The Aztecs were not only a long time ago, but also from a different cultural heritage to us. The Romans were a long time ago and also our cultural ancestors, so we can’t simply say that we only judge our own.

    So where (and why) do we draw a line in the sand?

    If someone can explain that to me, then I can happily endorse the apology (I already accept it). People who argue that since we didn’t do it (after all – we weren’t around then) we shouldn’t apologise are missing an important point: The government and the parliament of Australia were around then and did play an active role. The difference between the (wo)man and the office is important here. The office of the government of Australia did the Bad Thing. If it is right to judge the past against the moral measures of the present, then it is also right for the office of the government of Australia to apologise. The particulars of who is occupying that office now is of little consequence.

    The only way out, from my point of view, is if there were a significant change of constitution in the intervening period, so that it might be legitimately said that the government of today is not in any way the government that existed at the time. Is that why we let the Romans off the hook? We would judge them, only they don’t exist any more?

    Back to the particulars: I don’t really mind whether we call it tyranny (although I think that choice of words is inflammatory) or whether Labor supporters want to poke fun at the Coalition (although I think that at least some of the Coalition’s concerns are legitimate). I think that the apology is a symbolic gesture that, on its own, will help not at all. I think that the Aboriginals of Australia have complaints (most but not all of them legitimate) far deeper and wider than the stolen generations and that the stolen generation issue simply became an emblematic focal point.

    The apology is no skin off my nose and if it makes people feel better for a while, go nuts. But don’t try telling me that it’ll do a damned thing to improve the lives of Aboriginals in Oz. For that we need real policies of support from the government and real acknowledgement of the realities of the world from the Aboriginal community.

    Update:  I got an excellent response from a good friend of mine.