The SBS series Liberal Rule, which concluded last night, has made a positive contribution to Australia’s historical record. But the picture it presented of the Howard government contains significant flaws.
Some of them were ably set out recently by Peter Brent at Inside Story. What most struck me, however, was the absence of basic psephological information or understanding. Almost no-one talked about swing, or two-party-preferred vote, or the size of majorities; there was no attempt to analyse the votes Howard won or where he won them.
This is not just a matter of wounded professional pride on my part. It meant that the program could make some seriously misleading assertions — for example, last night’s claim that Howard’s re-election after 11 September 2001 was “a foregone conclusion” (he won the subsequent election with only 51%), or that 2004 was his biggest victory (1996 was clearly bigger — the AEC has all the figures).
More importantly, it allowed a more general misleading impression to be created: that the rise and fall of the Howard government represented big shifts in national sentiment.
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That just isn’t true. Australian elections are close affairs; in the last 30 years, only one of the 11 federal elections could be called a landslide. And even then, in 1996, 46.4% of us voted to keep Paul Keating as prime minister, just as 47.3% voted to make Mark Latham prime minister in 2004. Most obviously, a majority (51%) voted for Kim Beazley in 1998.
In psephological terms it would make more sense to think of the Howard government as a one-term government that, by a series of accidents, managed to prolong its term for eleven years. But that would be quite different from the epoch-making picture that the producers evidently wanted. As Brent pointed out, Liberal Rule shares this feature with most commentary on Howard, from whichever direction: “it makes exaggerated claims about its subject’s importance”.
Leaving out the statistical background must have been partly the design of the producers, but the fact that none of the talking heads really went into the topic was also an artifact of the way the whole series was set up. Unlike the ABC’s The Howard Years, Liberal Rule aired both pro- and anti-Howard views, but there was very little in between; Howard ministers and their advisers stayed (in Brent’s words) “uniformly on message”, while the academics and commentators, although often perceptive, generally shared a left-wing orientation.
That meant that many facts unfavorable to Howard – not just psephology, but also such things as the illegality of the Iraq war or the incompetence of Beazley as opposition leader — didn’t get a run: the pro-Howard side didn’t want to mention them, and the anti-Howard side took them for granted.
So polarisation becomes self-fulfilling; more nuanced voices aren’t heard, and the viewing public misses out on the data that would support more nuanced interpretations.