As Saturday’s election looms in Queensland, the state Liberal parties are regarded as fair game, not just there but around the country. Yesterday on The Australian‘s letters blog, Matt Price posed a quiz to his readers to name the six state opposition leaders.

Confession: I write about this stuff, and still could only get five off the top of my head (I couldn’t remember Iain Evans’s name). But it’s not easy. Peter Debnam in NSW has just celebrated his first anniversary in the job, and he’s now the longest serving of the state Liberal leaders. High turnover at the top is never a good look, although at least a crop of new faces is better than recycling the old ones.

Although a lot could be said about the problems of the state Liberal parties, it would be misleading. Fundamentally they’re the same party that’s in power in Canberra. They may think the problem is all about them, but it’s not. The real story of our six apparently immovable state governments is about the ALP.

The last time Labor achieved dominance at state level, in the mid-1980s, it was because it had learned an important lesson. It finally put aside the sterile leftist ideology of the post-split period that had hamstrung the party in the 1960s and ’70s, and positioned itself in the centre.

This meant its opponents were no longer able to frighten people with the socialist bogey, but it also allowed Labor to embrace the cowboy capitalism of the 1980s, which eventually brought its governments undone in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

In the light of that experience, state Labor has now learned a second lesson: that of being clean. Today’s governments are less adventurous than their 80s predecessors. They focus on keeping things ticking over and staying in power; they won’t achieve much for their states in the way of visionary goals, but they also don’t take money in brown paper bags.

At a time when incumbents have so many resources at their disposal, governments like that are very hard to shift. Their opponents may be dysfunctional, but that’s more symptom than cause. When the cycle finally turns their way, the Liberals will find themselves back in power whether they’ve sorted out their own problems or not.

Peter Fray

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