All you Howard apologists will enjoy this controversial piece from former IPA fellow Michael Warby analysing Howard victory in great detail.
Here was little Johnny, sitting on a mere 0.8% points margin. Had brought in this big new tax. Coalition governments had gone down like ninepins on second terms (WA, Victoria, ACT) and one from many, many terms (Northern Territory). This mad right winger had got 1million votes last time and was preferencing against incumbents. Opposition leader is this nice congenial bloke. So, what happens? John Howard turns out to be exception number two. Back in with a nice swing (1.5% pts) and an increased majority.
Did the media re-elect John Howard?
So what if Morgan was right? What if the electorate had swung behind the ALP? Beazley had campaigned well, it was pretty obvious the Coalition had no real agenda and in a choice between big spenders A and big spenders B, you may as well vote for the people who believe in spending. This was the basis on which I was predicting a narrow ALP win (as did quite a few knowledgeable observers: perhaps being sceptical of polls is a Victorian malaise after Jeff’s little accident). But John Howard won.
OK, how’s this for a theory (advanced to me by an email correspondent). The media (perhaps rising to deliberate Coalition bait with the release of video tape and Navy report) seized on the question of whether people had thrown their children overboard or not as the big media issue in the two days before voting. This put the Muslim boat people issue in people’s faces just as they were voting. So they swung back behind Howard. Thus the media re-elected John Howard. It’s a nice theory.
The problem is that Newspoll and AC Nielsen polls broadly got it right and the postal votes suggest that things were actually moving Labor’s way. It may be that, in an election dominated by a ‘moral vanity’ issue with incessant moralistic public ridicule of one of the leaders, face-to-face polling is less reliable than telephone polling what one email correspondent called the intimidation factor (and Morgan may have to look to its training of its questioners).
So lots of One Nation votes went back to the Libs (but not the Nats) and the ALP lost primary votes to the Greens, confirming the long-term decline in the ALP primary vote. Once again, the ALP failed to deal effectively with the aspirational culture of Sydney, doing particularly poorly in the suburban fringe.
You do have to work for Government federally
Nicky Stuart pointed out in the Canberra Times that, in the Aston by-election, “when it came to the crunch, the people of Aston had not trusted Labor with even their protest votes”. Stuart’s analysis is that the Libs did to Beazley in 2001 what Keating had done to Hewson in 1993: raise fear and insecurity to get people to stick with a Government against an Opposition they had doubts about. In 1993, the doubts were the GST and policies which bothered particular sections of the electorate. In 2001, the doubts were not merely the Muslim boat people and September 11, they were about Beazley himself (since Aston pre-dated both the Tampa and September 11).
A five-week election campaign is too late to define what you stand for. The ALP lost this election just as John Hewson lost the 1993 election. On both occasions, a Government was sitting on a minority of the two-party-preferred vote and the Opposition effectively took victory for granted (at least until Aston, then Tampa, then September 11). Actually, that is a pattern for historical determinists in all elections since 1949, except for Billy McMahon in 1972, when the Government was sitting on a minority of the two-party-preferred vote there was a swing back to it in the next election (1954 to 1955, 1961 to 1963, 1990 to 1993 and now 1998 to 2001). Perhaps it focuses Government minds and makes Oppositions overconfident.
Beazley notoriously attempted to replicate Howard’s strategy in 1996 be a small policy target. The problem that Bob Hogg pointed out Howard failed to make himself hated in the electorate as Keating had and that Gary Johns pointed out — Beazley lacked the defined policy persona that Howard had by 1996 seem particularly cogent in light of the above pattern. As has been much commented, the strategy was open to being derailed by extraneous circumstances. Which duly came along and were duly exploited by John Howard.
The other historical pattern is the Mackerras principle (as he told to me at the last Samuel Griffith conference): if you want to lose an unlosable election get an academic to do it (Evatt in 1954, Hewson in 1993, Beazley in 2001).
Clutching at Green straws
Amazing how a 2.1% point shift to the Greens has been taken as a sign of hope (particularly on the ABC on election night) while the 8% of the vote One Nation got last time was a sign of evil and despair. Despite what some seem to think, competing for the Green vote is not a way back to majority support, especially as their preferences largely flowed to the ALP anyway. Besides, One Nation is still outpolling the Greens but, due to the Party-cartel, won’t get any Senate seats.
(CORRECTION: The AEC lists the WA Greens separately, which means the WA Greens plus The Greens together are outpolling One Nation by about 40,000 votes nationally. An interesting little trap for the unwary.)
The combined primary vote of the polyglots (ALP and Coalition) went up slightly (from 79% to 81%), but in current international circumstances you would expect some increase. This is most likely just a hiccup in the long-term decline in the polyglot vote.
People really don’t like taxes
What the 1993 and 1998 results show is, despite what pollsters sometimes seem to find, voters do not like taxes. It is reasonable to wonder if 1998 was a bit of an ‘overrun’ the GST spooked people and some of them are now unspooked. I had wondered for much of the last Parliamentary term if something like that might happen, but was sufficiently unimpressed by the Coalition campaign, the trend of recent State/Territory results, GST admin angst, rural angst and their prolonged poor poll numbers until mid-year to discount it.
The Nats — No future for Party without a role
Talking about long-term decline, Bob Katter’s predictable win in Kennedy (where Katter-the-independent got a higher primary and two-party-preferred vote than Katter-the-Nat) and Tony Windsor’s unsurprising win in New England (where the Nationals two-party-preferred vote plunged from 63% to 41%), along with Andren being re-elected in Calare (where his primary vote went up more than the Libs got in 1998), are signs of danger for the Nationals, as people keep noting. However, Sussan Ley’s much higher primary vote for the Libs over the Nats in Tim Fischer’s old seat of Farrer is at least as large a straw in the wind as any of the Independents, since it continues the long-term trend of the Nats losing open seats to the Libs (a trend confirmed by the Nats poor showing in Indi against the Libs’ Sophie Panopolous). It appears that the country is happy to vote for Liberal women over National blokes.
Indeed, the Indi result shows the country is happy to vote for a newly-local resident Liberal woman of non-Anglo background over long-time local residents. Though we noted that the Daily Republican (aka The Australian) couldn’t help referring to Sophie P as ‘monarchist’ and saying the Liberal primary vote in Indi fell 11 percentage points (without telling readers than no Nat had run the previous election: the Nat candidate received 12 per cent). Actually, unlike the last three-cornered contest, the Nats did not win a single booth (bit embarrassing when your candidate has been the Shire Mayor) while the uptown girl won a long-time Labor booth.
But both trends (losing seats to the Liberals, the rise of Independents) are the result of the same thing, the electorate increasingly seeing no point to the Nats. The Nats used to have a clear role: from 1923 to 1972 they were the pivotal policy party. They operated the Deakin system, as it had been revised by Page and Bruce, so as to be seen to be delivering the bush. The exercise was significantly fraudulent (protection and arbitration cost the bush at least as much as any gain it got from subsidies, marketing boards and feather-bedded government enterprises), but not totally so, and it did give the Country-cum-National Party a distinctive role in politics.
When the Whitlam Government added a conventional social democratic welfare state (though with some continuing distinctive Australian elements) to the Deakin system, it sank that system. Its economic inefficiencies could not cope with the extra burdens recurrent spending by government at all levels on health, education and welfare went from 11% of GDP in 1970 to 18% by 1975 and is 21% now.
Since 1983, Australian policy has been trying to cope with burying the old Deakin system while creating an economy able to cope with a welfare state which is still growing faster than the economy and the population. Many of the costs of this for the bush are obvious (removal of subsidies, corporatisation and privatisation of featherbedded enterprises wiping out jobs in provincial centres), while many of the benefits (removal of highly regressive exporter-punishing tariffs, higher productivity) are taken for granted. And some of the most bush-hostile elements of the old system (TCF and car tariffs, the arbitration system) still operate, even though tariffs have been significantly, and arbitration somewhat, wound back.
The trouble with all this for the Nats is that that there is no distinctive role for them in the evolving new system. So people may as well vote for a Lib or protest by voting for an Independent. The Nats need to rediscover their tribal voice. Going for the free lunch option a la Bob Katter is not a goer, since they will not wear the necessary conjunct for that (severe winding back of the welfare state). The obvious option is cultural politics, where exploitation of rural and regional Australia by urban interests is alive and well with rural property rights, civil peace and jobs being degraded or abolished by dumb policies designed to soothe the moral vanity of urban elites on environmental and indigenous grounds. Going for the cultural politics option will cause angst amongst Liberal wets (and the Coalition can continue to wave Landcare around), but that is what product differentiation in a Coalition is all about. No product differentiation, no role.
A Post-Feminist Australia?
The success of Liberal women over National blokes in Farrer and Indi may not be the only sign we are in a post-feminist Australia. A friend who works at Rehame, the media monitors, commented to me a while ago on the post-Tampa talkback responses she compiled that a distinct theme in the comments was ‘the Indochinese are OK, they fit in, but the [Middle Eastern] Muslims are different’. Now, while there might be an element of ‘known previous arrivals versus unfamiliar newcomers’, it is actually hard to argue that Middle Eastern Muslims are all that unknown. I suspect that many Middle Eastern Muslims genuinely strain the limits of acceptance in particular, for their attitude to women (the common experience of women being harassed in Muslim-majority suburbs have become too widely known). People may be seriously underestimating how much we are in a post-feminist society with female equality being incorporated into the Australian notion of ‘a fair go’. The gap between what are perceived to be Middle Eastern Muslim and more general Australian attitudes on this central social norm may just be too great for acceptance, even without adding in competing for jobs and houses. Of course, that sits in badly with the desire to write the general public off as intolerant racists (as distinct from their morally superior betters), but very likely characterises general attitudes rather better (yes, yes, some people are genuinely racists and many people are not good at replicating the latest nuances in intelligentsia language-mores, but let’s move on). The same ‘fair go’ mentality of one-set-of-rules-for-all led to both the 1967 Aboriginal referendum being the most consensual political act in our history AND special entitlements for indigenous Australians being widely disliked, even detested. The intelligentsia’s hysterics over the Muslim boat people issue has been quite startling. But, then I don’t define myself against the general Australian public, so I don’t have the same emotional angst. Or, to put it another way, it is a matter of identity politics for most of the intelligentsia (“thus I prove I am a compassionate person to my peers’) but not for me or other dissidents of similar ilk.
Overspruiking yet another woman
This election yet again saw another example of a common media pattern building up excessive expectations about a female politician only to have the unreasonable pedestal collapse under her. Natasha did OK, particularly in light of poor Democrat performances in State elections when Meg Lees was Leader, with the Democrats holding their vote. The only reason Natasha’s performance looks poor is because of the excessive expectations previously built up in the media about it. We have seen the same thing with Bronwyn Bishop, Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner. Isn’t it about time the media gave over such stupid pedestal-building, joined the rest of post-feminist Australia, and just treated female politicians like, well, politicians? Or is Jenny Macklin going to get the same treatment?
Cheryl Kernot gets it, but doesn’t
Another previously over-spruiked woman, but one who has really came a cropper, is Cheryl Kernot. In an election which was generally good to sitting members, even in very marginal seats, Cheryl Kernot’s spectacular ejection was truly notable. This was personal, and it is doubtful who will be dancing on the grave more vigorously Libs or Labs. Dear Cheryl just doesn’t get it. She is a Club Virtue reductio case believing her worn-on-the-sleeve care-and-compassion permitted her to get away with anything in her personal behaviour (including some attempted smearing of her Liberal opponent). Now she is going to sob out how dreadfully she was treated. This is self-serving moral vanity raised to unparalleled levels of narcissism (at least locally: it is hard to beat Senator Hilary in the US saying that her experiences as First Lady and Senate-candidate meant she knew how people subject to the murderous hate of September 11 felt.)
The international mirror trick
One of the more sad contemporary games is for pieces for foreign publications to be written by members of the Australian commentariat, or resident stringers operating in the same milieu, and have the commentariat then tell us that ‘international opinion’ is on the commentariat’s side when it is mostly just local commentariat opinion reflected back. The Financial Times editorial on the Australian election, for example, read as if it had been written by Robert Manne while The Economist has long just retailed the standard Canberra Press Gallery line.
The Commentariat loses yet again
In the end, the media probably did re-elect John Howard by encouraging the ALP to think that their and the media’s contempt for Howard would translate into Howard being hated by voters as Keating had been. The little problem here, of course, was that Keating was a media darling but lost really badly in 1996. Then the commentariat told everyone how awful Hanson was from 1996 to 1998: yet one million people voted for her nationwide, higher than any other Party except the ALP and the Libs. Howard won the 1999 Republic referendum, even though the commentariat told everyone that they had to vote Yes. Now the commentariat told everyone how awful Howard’s Middle Eastern boat people policy was, and he won.
Bit of a pattern here. The commentariat and its concerns are not popular (remember those poll ratings for ethics and honesty for newspaper journalists). Indeed, it is possible voting for Howard in 2001 had a similar appeal for some to voting for Hanson in 1998 it was a way to stick it up the commentariat. Howard can continue to ignore the commentariat. Powerlessness hurts as can be seen from the amazing outburst of bile after the election.
The Republic of Bile indeed
Paul Sheehan of the SMH had predicted that there would be outbreak of bile if Howard was re-elected and it has duly happened. Now, criticising the lack of an agenda is perfectly reasonable. Hell, let me join you. Beazley’s program of ‘just spend money’ was pathetic and the Howard lack of a serious agenda except vague promises about reform and promises to also spend money was little better. (It was a bit better because Howard is more trustworthy fiscally, the Labor IR re-regulation agenda is exactly what we don’t need particularly in the bush and the Libs at least made some gestures towards education standards.)
And it is perfectly reasonable to think we should let the boat people in. People willing to take such risks (within the bounds of sense) are probably above-average migrants (though ‘we are flouting your laws, let us in’ inevitably lacks a little something in the PR department).
But it is also perfectly reasonable to think we should not let the boat people in, since (1) the obvious consequence of that will be more boat people, (2) those who suffer the crowding costs, particularly in Sydney, are entitled to say no thank you and (3) people with concerns about compatibility and social cohesion are entitled to express them too. (And if you think such fears are overrated, fine, but argue with them, don’t sneer at them: but so much of the commentary on this has not been designed to persuade but to parade.)
A country is like a club: the current members are entitled to say who will be let in and how. But the commentariat was having none of this.
How the commentariat reacted
Glenn Milne in The Australian disparaged the means of Howard’s victory ‘this was a distasteful win with its exploitation of fear and xenophobia’ while being remarkably patronising ‘Howard can almost be excused for his position on boatpeople because he genuinely believes in it’. Tony Walker in the AFR tells us Howard didn’t win hearts and minds (how can he tell?) and ‘a divisive campaign over asylum seekers diminishes the victory’ (remembering that ‘divisive’ in commentariat-speak means ‘giving people a choice we disagree with’). Geoffrey Barker in the AFR told us that Howard’s campaign ‘smashed like a wrecker’s ball’ through our regional interests and ‘seriously damaged Australian reputation in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in Indonesia’ (you know, the place where Muslim militants have been busily massacring Christians and which had such a humanitarian record in East Timor) Tony Parkinson in The Age covered the same ground much more sensibly.
In fact, the journalists in the Spencer St Soviet were notably restrained. Then we got to the Opinion page. Hugh Mackay told how shamelessly Howard had exploited our fears and insecurities, Ken Davidson told us that the Coalition was always seeking to wind back Whitlam’s welfare reforms (even though health, education and welfare spending has gone up under every Coalition Government) while The Age editorialised that Australia ‘cannot be part of an international action that is creating millions of refugees while at the same time closing our borders to refugees’ which was, at the very least, misleading, since our generous (the second-highest in the world in per capita terms) refugee intake policy was not at stake, merely whether we would host boat people. Michelle Grattan in the SMH was already writing Howard off via the presumed Costello succession, while David Marr (he who characterises ‘one set of rules for all’ as ‘egalitarian racism’) told us that ‘even death is not too high a price to pay to keep them out of the country, so long as those deaths are not directly attributable to the Australian Government’, even though the sort of policy he supports would make people more likely to hop onto leaky boats.
The epitome was The Australian article headlined ‘Chattering classes not silenced by fanfare for the common man’ as if there was any danger of said persons shutting up in which people who make a habit of demonising dissenters (callous, racist, unpatriotic, etc , 05) whined that they were being demonised (by which they seemed to mean disagreed with and complained about, poor dears). So what this all comes down to is the Australian people are dreadful because they don’t agree with Club Virtue (who, of course, define themselves as superior by not agreeing with the general public). This is becoming very tired people (as is the endless repetition of ‘the so-called elites’). More to the point, it frustrates the realisation of their own agenda since people keep voting to stick it back up them. But most are much more concerned with proving their virtue than practical outcomes something which has long been obvious from the policies they favour in, for example, indigenous issues.
And watching people who are forever raising fears and insecurities (racism, globalisation, oppression of women, increasing poverty, what will people think of us, economic rationalism, biotechnology, etc., etc. , 05) complain about use of fear and insecurity was pretty rich.
On 11 July 2003, John Howard will become the third-longest-serving Prime Minister, beaten only by Hawke and Menzies. He has already served longer as PM than any Labor PM except Hawke. Not bad for a guy the Canberra Press Gallery started writing off 15 years ago as ‘yesterday’s man’ (such a terrific track record they have, don’t they?).
Back in Labor
As for the ALP, Lindsay Tanner again demonstrated with his article in Tuesday’s Oz why he should be Leader, but Labor’s slow-death-by-factional-mediocrity won’t allow it. Labor has a choice, it can go down the Keating route of playing to the concerns of the commentariat and lose horribly as the socially-conservative working class defects to the Coalition. Or it can attempt to shore up its working class base as Tanner and Botsman both said in the Oz which means paying a lot less attention to the cultural politics of the media (something certain Liberals should also learn).
If Labor seeks to shore up its working class base, that would make the media even more powerless. Does the Australian media have the intestinal fortitude to take a good, long hard look at itself? Time for the room of mirrors, boys and girls: the one of veracity, not vanity. Until you do, media opinion will continue to be sound and fury signifying nothing.
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