It might
seem unfair to beat up on a 90-year-old for poor psephology. But as
long as people invite him to launch serious books and report his
comments in serious newspapers, I think his views are a legitimate
target.

In any case, Gough Whitlam’s view of electoral history, as delivered yesterday and reported in this morning’s Australian,
is worth considering in its own right. Whitlam outlines the decline in
Labor’s primary vote at federal elections: over 50% in 1954, 49.6% at
his own triumph in 1972, 49.3% when he was re-elected in 1974. Then:

Only
once has the party subsequently achieved more votes than were achieved
in 1974. That was 49.5% in 1983 under Hawke. My nadir was 39.6% in
December 1977. Even that was better than 39.4% under Hawke in 1990,
38.8% under Keating in 1996, 37.8% under Beazley in 2001 and 37.6%
under Latham in 2004. The
lesson is obvious.

Well, is it? Hawke won the 1990
election, and even 2001 was close, whereas Whitlam’s 1977 result was a
landslide loss. Clearly something else was going on. We know that 1990
was the election where the various groups that later formed the Greens
first made their mark, so even without studying the figures we could
guess that since Whitlam’s time preferences have enabled Labor to do
much better than its primary vote would suggest.

But that isn’t
the moral Whitlam draws: he says “The 1980s policy of seeking second
preferences from minor parties by adopting some of their policies was a
mistake.” If you think losing an election with 45% is preferable to
winning it with 40%, then that’s certainly true. But not many
politicians would agree.

It’s impossible to be sure, but most
observers would say that the rise of the Greens was driven by factors
quite independent of any Labor strategy of “selling [its] candidates as
second best”. If so, then Labor’s primary vote was going to drop
anyway; the question was how much of it would come back in preferences.
The whole point of the preferential system is that it doesn’t matter
where votes start out, the important thing is where they end up.

Whitlam’s
views were formed at a time when that system uniformly worked against
the ALP, and he and other Labor leaders schemed to abolish it. Since
then, the tide has turned. Labor now benefits from preferences; it is
no longer a proletarian cuckoo in the bourgeois nest, but a part of the
mainstream. Indeed, Whitlam’s own reforming efforts in the 1960s were
instrumental in effecting that change.

Peter Fray

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