The Saturday night electoral massacre that wasn’t
A week or so ago conservative commentators across Australia were predicting all sorts of implications for Kevin Rudd from last Saturday’s elections in Tasmania and South Australia.
On Saturday morning as the last Newspoll results landed with a thud on front doors across Adelaide, they began to polish up their “the tide is turning against Labor everywhere” columns.
Some of them are still out there beating this drum but the more astute have gone silent. It is possible they are embarrassed, because it’s clear from the results that neither the South Australian or Tasmanian elections hold any portents for Federal Labor.
There are lessons for all political operatives from any election, but Kevin Rudd will not be troubled in the slightest by the fact that once again state elections have been decided solely on state issues. Rather it is the Liberal Party that beneath its victory celebrations should be displaying furrowed brows.
In Tasmania it is clear a tired, scandal plagued Labor Party was no longer really wanted by the people of that state. However, the lesson lies not in the fact that Governments that have been in power for twelve years will eventually lose, but rather that a mighty swing against Labor resulted not in a Liberal victory but in a hung parliament. This result should provide a long term concern for the Tasmanian Liberal party.
Between them on Saturday night, Labor and the Greens got almost 60% of the primary vote and two thirds of the parliamentary seats. Only once since 1986 has the combined “left of centre” vote been less than 50% on first preferences. You can blame the quirky Hare-Clark voting system all you like, but it seems more than likely that on changing demographics and long term voting trends, the Liberals will never rule Tasmania in their own right again. And it is worth remembering that Labor does hold all five federal seats.
And, if ever proof were needed that Tasmania had a limited gene pool it is right there in the results from Saturday night. On my count, eight of the twenty five members elected to the House of Assembly are sons, daughters, brothers or sisters of serving or former politicians. Is it any wonder the Apple Isle has a rotten core? Is it any wonder the one state where the third force of the Greens poll so significantly is the one where the major parties are committed to perpetuating inbred family dynasties?
The above structural impediments notwithstanding, Will Hodgman deserves mighty credit both for the result and for the extraordinarily clever way he framed the result on Saturday night. As a senior Liberal operative said to me, “It’s the Bush strategy from 2000 - when the result is in doubt, get in first, claim victory on the night, tell people you are going to get on with the job of governing and anything your opponent says to the contrary later will seem like whingeing”.
In politics, framing yourself and your opponents early is everything. Voters generally take only one serious look at a politician elevated to leadership in the months and years before an election and that look can make or break a political leader. Kim Beazley never recovered from John Howard’s sneer about his lack of ticker. Likewise, the first real thought voters had about Mark Latham was that he broke a taxi driver’s arm. For Malcolm Turnbull it was the recklessness of the Utegate affair. In NSW where Kristina Keneally has proven personally popular she has been fighting since day one against the puppet tag labelled on her by her own side. Is it any wonder then that the Federal Government has been busily filing daily character assessments of Tony Abbott since he became Liberal Leader? How Abbott is perceived now will be how he is remembered later in the year when voters enter polling booths right across our brown land.
In an election where the only notable policy arguments were over the sites for a new hospital and a new footy oval (not the funding for them, just the sites!), the South Australian election fairly or unfairly, has been portrayed as a referendum on Mike Rann personally.
The lesson for all political parties from the Festival State is that voter fatigue is not just a function of time, but also a result of the old saw about familiarity breeding contempt. After all, eight years and two terms is less than the average age of most recent state governments, yet, for almost fifteen years SA Labor has been perceived as a one-man band. Mike Rann was known as Media Mike even before he became Premier and in recent years has been required to do more and more of the heavy lifting. The lesson then, is that leaders have to give their supporting cast a turn in the spotlight – voters will soon get sick and tired of a leader personally if he or she is all that one sees on their television news night after night.
It’s a political cliché that elections are won and lost in marginal seats. However, just because it’s a cliché doesn’t make it any less true on occasion, and Saturday in Adelaide was one of those occasions.
The result in South Australia proves once again that (at state level at least) Labor is much better at marginal seat campaigning than its opponents. Whilst the SA Liberals dusted off clapped out former members who were uninspiring in their first incarnation such as Trish Draper and Joe Scalzi, Labor ran younger, fresher candidates with a strong local message and lots of activity on the ground. In an election where voters are tired of the main protagonist and cynical about local media coverage, voters’ experience with their local MP becomes critical. The statistics on this point are stark, in very safe Labor seats the Labor vote fell 10.8 % in its’ marginals the fall was limited to 1.6% and in at least one case there was a swing to the Government.
This is a lesson the Liberal party has failed to learn time and again to its detriment and if I were Ted Ballieu and the Victorian Liberals I would be very worried indeed - no matter what the state wide polls indicate between now and election day.
For conservatives across Australia it’s time to put down those champagne bottles because what looks like a great boost to Liberal morale, what looks like the tide is on the turn, may very well turn out to be nothing more than ripples on the national pond.
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