State Liberals are in a lousy state, as Hillary Bray explains.

The latest Roy Morgan poll on state voting intentions came and went last week with scarcely an acknowledgement from the press. Maybe this is not surprising as the hacks focus on the main game – the federal election this year – and the fact that state politics have become so predictable and ho-hum.

The polls showed that in all states except Tasmania the Liberal and National Parties are worse off than they were at the last elections. In nearly all cases, strong Labor positions are becoming stronger. The details are all at: http://www.roymorgan.com/news/polls/polls.cfm.

Polls are always interesting and these show something that all political pundits need to take note of: Labor has shored up state politics so effectively that there may be just no way back for the Liberals. In short, without major surgery and a rebirth, the Liberal Party is dead in Australia.

Why? Two reasons: firstly, Labor has been better at framing and then owning the big issues that matter to voters; and secondly, Labor has understood the importance of leadership and the impact that the leader has on the voters’ minds.

Big Issues

In many ways the success of John Howard federally is an apparition; something that occurred against the trend to cloud reality. Crikey columnist Owen Outsider some months ago observed that there is a long-term trend towards the ALP in Australia. Have another look at http://www.crikey.com.au/politics/2003/11/24-0007.html.

Owen pointed to the fact – and it is a fact – that all the state and territory governments look like staying Labor for quite a while. He also quite reasonably explains John Howard’s success, against the trend, in terms of voters just being sick of Labor in 1996 and 1998, and then Howard gleefully (and skilfully) grabbing national security as the key issue in 2001.

But my friend errs to think that there is some sort of ideological shift to the left in Australia.

Electors are not ideologically pre-disposed towards Labor. There may historically be a slight tendency to vote Labor, but there is plenty of evidence that Labor cannot count on some sort of shift to the left in national psyche. For example, Dennis Shanahan, writing for the Weekend Australian just before the 1998 election, penned an article titled “Howard’s Young Fogeys”. Shanahan pointed out that at the 1996 election, 18-24 year olds voted 38 per cent for the Coalition and 47 per cent for Labor, while a Newspoll at the time of his article gave 40 per cent to the Coalition and only 38 per cent to Labor. Shanahan had this to say:

“Call it patriotism, a community ethos or just plain pragmatism, but Australia’s first-time voters, after a generation of Labor governments, are becoming more conservative.” (Weekend Australian, 11-12 July 1998, p. 21.)

But that was six years ago. Now these same voters have swung back to Labor federally, where they have been at state level for the past decade.

The key word in Shanahan’s quote is “pragmatism” not “conservative”. Voters, and particularly the new generations following the boomers, are becoming more pragmatic and it is self-interest, not ideology, that increasingly determines political outcomes. Put simply, Labor at state level has been better at framing the issues and providing the answers for the broad band of median (or swinging) voters who tend to identify not with the party policy themes, but rather see elections in terms of problems that need to be solved by the candidates.

This, also, has been John Howard’s success. It is not politics of the party, it is politics of the realist.

The scenario is one of the individual voter acting pragmatically and selfishly, not inclined to think ideologically, but rather choosing amongst the parties for the one they believe can fix current problems. This growing group of swinging voters is prepared to believe that almost any problem is important and are susceptible to priming and framing by the parties who compete amongst each other to be the best “fixer”.

Twenty years ago it dawned on Labor that they had to reverse their reputation as poor economic managers and they have worked diligently to neutralise that traditionally conservative issue. It is doubtful if there is a voter in the land who now thinks Labor is going to bankrupt their state.

So where has it left the Liberals? Nowhere. What issues at state level do the Liberals now own? All the biggies reside with Labor – health, education, social services – and now they have annexed economic management. Even law and order is no longer the sole domain of the conservatives – witness recent tough stands from Carr, Gallop and Rann.

Labor has actually worked at shoring up these issues in the voters’ minds, priming the electorate, framing the debate in their terms, and elevating the issues that matter ahead of Liberal ideology. The Liberals have been left floundering, waiting for divine right to deliver them government.

Labor are now the fixers. Labor is the party that listens and understands. Labor has jettisoned ideology and, along with the voters, embraced pragmatism. The Liberals, on the other hand, have relied on their born-to-rule mentality. They have hoped – expected – that voters by some celestial blessing would eventually see the light.

They’re going to be waiting a long time. Until the Liberals wake up to reality and decide to learn what makes the voters tick we won’t begin to see some real contests in state elections.

Sure, things aren’t all rosy for state Labor. Mistakes are made and services not delivered: Carr has problems with public transport, Gallop and Rann with the power industry, Beattie with ministerial honesty and Bracks with health. But the really worrying thing for the state Liberal Parties is that the public are not embracing them as an alternative. It seems that voters have given up on the Liberals as a creditable alternative government, no matter what Labor does wrong.

Questions of leadership

Everyone from Phillip Adams to Pauline Hanson knows that politics in Australia is becoming more and more presidential. Perhaps it always has been. It is impossible to think of a great era in government from either side without it being linked to a great leader.

So why do the Liberals keep dishing up this insipid bunch of losers that pass for state leaders? Let’s look at the states, one by one.

NSW: John Brogden is considered, even by Crikey (see sealed section 20 April) as the only half decent leader the Libs have in any of the states. But the polls don’t give him a look-in and Bob Carr, no matter what strife befalls him, seems bullet proof in government. The Morgan Poll shows that the Brogden Liberals have made no inroads into the Labor election result from March 2003. The best Liberal leader in the country can only mark time.

WA: Poor old Colin Barnett can’t take a trick. Not only does Premier Geoff Gallop hold a handy lead in the polls, but he has the Liberal deputy leader, Dan Sullivan, white-anting him from behind. Gallop should be on the political ropes with royal commission findings on police corruption and a power crisis, but the Morgan poll reveals Labor has stretched it’s lead over the Liberals by seven percentage points over their already impressive result in the 2001 election.

SA: Rob Kerin used to be premier. Those days must seem a long, long time ago. Since the February 2002 election Premier Mike Rann has moved his party’s primary support from a knife edge 36.3 per cent to a comfortable 49.5 per cent, while Kerin has watched his slip from 40 per cent to 32.5 per cent. When will the SA Libs realise the voters just won’t buy Kerin any more? Maybe the recently elevated Duncan McFetridge is the man? Who knows or cares down south. It seems the voters don’t.

Tasmania: Liberal leader Rene Hidding was given the biggest free kick a struggling opposition could hope for: a popular premier resigns for health reasons. What would Brogden or Barnett give for that! But has it made a difference for Hidding? Scarcely. Sure, Labor’s primary support has dropped a fraction from the heady days of Jim Bacon’s supremacy at the 2002 poll, down from 52.3 per cent to 49.0 per cent, but Hidding’s Liberals have not improved either, dropping from 26.9 per cent to 26.0 per cent. The only shining light for the Tassie Libs seems to be Peter Gutwein, a rebel who at least understands that change is the only thing that will save his party.

Queensland: Can Peter Beattie really do no wrong? According to the polls, that’s what it looks like. Labor scored a thumping 47.0 to 35.5 per cent win on the primaries at the February election, and that has now blown out to a 53-33 margin. The National’s Lawrence Springborg cut the pathetic Liberals adrift after the election in a cut-the-nose-off-to-spite-the-face hissy fit, but unless and until the conservatives come together in the deep north, Labor is in for life.

Victoria: Steve Bracks may have come to power by accident, but once there he has worked hard to stay in the big office. Liberal leader Robert Doyle is making absolutely no impact. A Newspoll earlier this year had him on 21 per cent against Bracks’s 57 per cent as preferred premier, the second lowest ranking in the country (just above the hopeless Rene Hidding). The Morgan poll shows that Labor has gone from 47.9 per cent of the primary vote at the November 2002 election to whopping 52 per cent now, while Doyle is pretty much going nowhere at 33.9 per cent.

Positions vacant

All the state Liberal parties must find decent leaders, not this present crop of yesterday’s men. That won’t be enough on it’s own, but it would be start. Then they need to take a leaf out of Labor’s book and actually work at winning back the voters. This can’t be an overnight thing: there is no messiah fix for the Liberals.

The Liberals need to grasp, as Labor has done, that the median voters don’t care about broad policy themes and positions, they care about themselves and they want their problems fixed.

When was the last time Labor listened to the union movement? Labor has successfully pinched the value of individualism from under the Liberals’ nose, but have kept it very quiet. (Shhh; we don’t want them to notice.) Labor knows that the real scenario is one of the individual voter acting pragmatically and selfishly, not inclined to think ideologically, but rather choosing amongst the parties for the one they believe can fix the problems that matter to them. Labor keeps up the “comrade” image for the benefit of the true believers, but acts quite differently in delivering government.

And it works. At the moment, it is Labor with the answers. The voters are comfortable; they have peaked over the fence to the Liberal side but they don’t like what they see.

Born to rule won’t work anymore. It is dead, dead and gone. The state Liberals are playing catch-up, and not very well at that. They must redefine their message – and get someone who can sell it.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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