I’m no great believer in “two-term defeats”. I first heard the phrase after the 1993 election. Paul Keating, commentators said, had survived a recession election and would ride the recovery to another victory because economics was the only important issue for voters. And while the Opposition was led by an escapee from Brideshead Revisited, that looked to be the case, but the moment the Opposition had a credible figure out front, Keating looked dead meat.
As is the way of things, his successor suffered the same fate. 2004 was surely a two-term defeat for Labor, so the commentary went. There was no way the ALP could pick up 16 seats, especially not when the economy was doing so well. But Labor was ahead in the polls under Kim Beazley and once Kevin Rudd was installed, the same stench of political death pervaded the corridors of the Howard Government that had wafted through 11 years previous.
The first Coalition priority in 2010 was always to avoid going backwards. Victory would be hard, but the key was to avoid losing more seats, putting it further from power than it was before. That now looks like a dream. The idea of the Coalition losing 20 seats next year has now become part of the political furniture, and, should that result eventuate, even a sceptic like me finds it hard to think of circumstances in which they could pick up the 30-odd seats which would enable them to govern with the support of the three independents in 2013.
There’s an element of expectations management in all this – I’m sure a Glenn Milne could confidently declare the day after Labor picked up ten seats in 2010 that Labor powerbrokers were disappointed in the outcome and the knives were out for Rudd. Cast your mind back to 1984, when the Coalition’s unexpectedly strong showing shocked Bob Hawke, leading to rapturous scenes in the Coalition party room despite the loss. Not that it saved Andrew Peacock from John Howard.
The worrying thing for the Coalition is that next year is, historically, their best chance. Second terms were when the Hawke and Howard Government set themselves up for a decade-plus in power, despite, in both cases, pursuing substantial economic reform. In both cases the incumbent grew in authority and political skill, and successfully exploited divisions within their opponents – Hawke with the Joh-for-PM debacle, Howard with asylum seekers.
The dynamic of an ordinary first term hasn’t quite played out in the same way for Rudd as it did for Hawke and Howard. Rudd has been far more disciplined, and exercised far greater control, than either of his predecessors. He’s also had what in retrospect was the boon of a global economic crisis. But a second Rudd term promises a strongly-growing economy, growing revenues and a chance to return to the sort of national productivity reforms he has been sidetracked from by the crisis. The only real threat will come from rising interest rates. The public also shows no sign of getting bored with Rudd – if anything, he is more popular now than at any time in his public life to date, and after the last twelve months, the popularity is based on results, not impressions and rhetoric.
The point of all this? Perhaps that, on historical precedents, the Opposition is in dire trouble. Not just “two-term defeat” trouble, but something even more damaging. They desperately need to do something to change the current political dynamic, otherwise they’re on a conveyor belt heading for destruction.