Whether Anna Bligh manages to hold on to power in Queensland or not on Saturday, there is one lesson that should, if it hasn’t sunk deep into ALP strategists already, be apparent.
Never, ever go early.
There’s an old cricket aphorism, about winning the toss: nine times out 10, bat. The 10th time, think about bowling and bat anyway. The same logic should apply to going full term.
There’s an interesting absence from much political commentary these days. Journalists and commentators, no matter how serious-minded, biased or lunatic, don’t seem to want to prognosticate on how the electorate has changed in recent years. And yet, given the breakdown of the mass media, the shrivelling of party membership, the acceleration of the media cycle, the deep scepticism toward the mainstream media that characterises even the most ill-informed members of the Australian electorate, the idea that they remain the same homogeneous political mass that they were 10 or 15 years ago is nonsensical.
So here it is in black and white. Australians these days hate being sent to the polls early. Hate it. They have never liked it, but they are more savvy now, and quicker to spot when politicians are trying to fool them. They think they are overgoverned — which they are, except in the ACT and NT — and that is not a dissimilar feeling to being overpolled.
They also feel, with less evidence, that the people they elect don’t do a very good job. Politicians whom they suspect of trying to secure some sort of advantage are accordingly distrusted and disliked. Going prematurely to the polls now ranks as one of the cardinal sins of politics. The reason is simple: it suggests politicians are more interested in obtaining an electoral advantage than in doing the job they are elected to do.
The Bligh Government, and the Carpenter Government and the NT Government last year, all called early elections and all got, or will get, hammered, and deservedly so. There is an impatience in the community now, a resentment toward politicians who are focussed on anything but serving the public interest.
It’s not that early elections were ever popular. Fraser called the 1983 election early, but he was never going to win anyway. Bob Hawke and John Howard both called early elections at various stages, but lived to regret it. Hawke failed to learn the lesson of 1984 and went early again in 1987. He found himself in a tight contest with John Howard, despite the latter being little more than a figure of contempt both within his own party and in the community. It took Paul Keating’s Box Hill demolition of Howard’s ridiculous tax plans to seal the deal. Howard called one in 1998 and Kim Beazley almost stole power right from beneath his nose.
It was Paul Keating who first understood the value of “getting full value out of a Parliament”, and he went full terms both times, in 1993 and 1996, even when tempted by the polling travails of the Coalition — first of John Hewson, then of Alexander Downer — to go early.
Since then, the electorate has only become wiser in the ways of politicians and the political cycle has only accelerated, along with the media cycle. That’s why, incidentally, the tension between Malcolm Turnbull and that religious fruitcake from Higgins will play out over months rather than years like the Howard-Peacock tension did.
And that is why Kevin Rudd will not go to an early election. Anyone who suggests otherwise has been in the Press Gallery too long, and thinks Australian politics still works like it did in the 1980s, especially given what an extraordinary control freak Rudd is. He is the ultimate percentage player. The imminent defeat, or humiliation, of Anna Bligh will, along with the defeat of Alan Carpenter and the punishment of Paul Henderson, confirm his impression that his party, at a State level, is run by a bunch of amateurs and he can only rely on his inner circle to have the most basic political judgement. Labor’s ambition for the next election is to convert a thin majority into one big enough to last two terms. That was Hawke’s goal in 1984 too, by the way. Going early will ensure that ambition is stillborn.
But what about the advantages of incumbency? Of catching the opposition flat-footed? Of outsmarting your opponents with your tactical genius?
All rubbish. The next two Federal elections will be held in late 2010 and late 2013, if Kevin Rudd has much to do with it. And if State Labor Premiers have half a brain, those with a choice will go full term too. If they don’t, they deserve what they get.