Remember, if you can, 11 October 1997, almost eleven years ago. That’s the last time the Liberal Party won a state election anywhere – a lapse of time completely without precedent.
The location was South Australia and the victor was John Olsen, having his second turn as Liberal leader. He had previously lost the 1985 and 1989 elections, then switched to the Senate, returned to state politics, lost a leadership ballot, and finally defeated premier Dean Brown in a partyroom coup.
But 1997 was not a good advertisement for recycling leaders: Olsen only just scraped in, suffering a 10% hostile swing and losing most of the huge majority he had inherited.
Since then, 24 state Liberal leaders have been dispatched — mostly by resignation in the face of impending defeat. But the departure this week of Western Australia’s Troy Buswell provided the occasion for the Liberals once again, for the first time in that period, to turn to a recycled leader: Colin Barnett, who led them to a narrow defeat in 2005.
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The strategy does have some favorable precedents. Jeff Kennett and John Howard were both unsuccessful at their first outings, but won landslide victories after their return. Not all such efforts, however, turn out so well: Andrew Peacock failed at his second attempt, and Labor had no joy with Kim Beazley.
Barnett, through no particular fault of his own (2005 was easily the Liberals’ best recent result against a first-term Labor government), faces an almost impossible task to defeat Labor. Much the same can be said about Queensland, where the National Party, having taken over the Liberals, have pinned their hopes on the recycled Lawrence Springborg.
But in both cases, what seems to be driving the strategy is not so much a calculated assessment of its chances as sheer desperation born from lack of talent. After all, 24 leadership changes in 11 years, an average of four per state, chews up a lot of personnel. It was only to be expected that eventually the oppositions would start running out of options and have to start over.
That’s the dynamic also at work in Canberra, where Peter Costello, although not strictly speaking a recycled leader, would create the same sort of impression. It might work, but you wouldn’t bet on it.
People can argue about whether leadership instability is a cause or an effect of poor electoral performance, but in reality it’s both. The Liberals are in a vicious circle where good leaders are needed to produce victory, but only the hope of victory will attract good leaders.
Recycling the old ones may not be the answer, but at present they don’t have a lot of choice.