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New South Wales

Mar 28, 2011

No precedents for depths plumbed by Labor vote

There is little about NSW Labor at present that offers cause for optimism about its regenerative capacities.

So much has been said of what was unprecedented in the New South Wales election result that it’s worth recalling how, despite of everything, it can still be viewed within the continuity of recent electoral history.

The Coalition’s success in recording 51.2% of the primary vote is an enormous achievement by any standard, and one that would not have been possible without the disciplined and united front presented to the public over the past four years. However, in historical terms the figure is eclipsed by the “Wranslides” of 1978 and 1981, when Labor respectively polled 57.8% and 55.7%.

Two more recent elections from other states stand testament to the havoc that can be wrought in a perfect electoral storm: the 2001 election in Queensland, when Labor under Peter Beattie recorded 48.9%, and the 1993 election in South Australia, when the Liberal and National parties managed a combined vote of 53.9% in ousting a decade-old Labor government.

It must be granted that there are no such precedents for the depths plumbed by Labor’s primary vote. Despite being higher than most polls were predicting, its 25.5% has been matched only in circumstances where party splits sent rival factions into electoral contest with each other. However, the factors that drove them to this nadir are familiar enough to students of history.

What gave them record-breaking force was a long-term and continuing decline in partisan attachment, which has made electoral behaviour more volatile, enabling swings of a size that would have been impossible when voting behaviour was more deeply rooted in class identification.

Many are reluctant to credit explanations that fail to sheet home blame to the government’s specific policy failings, the party’s large cast of factional villain figures and the broader cultural malaise that is said to underscore both. Not for a moment should the role of these factors in reducing Labor to its present state be discounted. However, they should also not mislead us into underestimating the significance of such well-understood phenomena as the role of governmental longevity.

It has been more than three decades since a government stood before the people asking for an advance on 16 years, something that — despite Bob Carr’s audacious claim to the contrary yesterday — seems objectively impossible to achieve in modern politics. The glacial epoch of class-based electoral behaviour, when governments could survive off apparently permanent majorities for decades on end, is gone forever. For this reason, the worst landslides are usually meted out to governments that were clearly granted that one term too many, usually as a result of the failings of the opposing party. This becomes especially forceful when four-year terms are in place, as they are in most states but not federally.

One telling comparison here is with John Major’s Conservative government in the United Kingdom, which was annihilated in 1997 after being unexpectedly returned in 1992. That government recalled NSW Labor’s final term in another way: the all-pervasive air of sleaze that descended upon it after a dizzying procession of sometimes hair-raising personal scandals. Combined with a general readiness to think the worst of politicians under even the happiest of circumstances, a steady drumbeat of such stories can activate a “last days of Rome” image in the public mind which colours every aspect of how the government is perceived.

Another point of continuity between this and past elections was that the swing, while unprecedented in size, was familiar enough in shape. The headline-grabbing exception of Bathurst notwithstanding, the biggest swings were recorded in the new suburbs on the fringes of the city, just as the textbook tells us to expect when an electoral realignment is under way. Outstanding examples were Riverstone (a 29.9% swing), Menai (27.5%), Mulgoa (23.5%) and Penrith (25.2% when compared with the 2007 election rather than the byelection).

As such, prognostications about a fundamental redrawing of the electoral map are almost certainly premature — particularly given that no supporting evidence was offered by the federal election just seven months ago. It is true that electoral convulsions have on occasion been harbingers of long-term change — votes swathes of rural Queensland moved from Labor to the Country Party amid the wreckage of the split, and remain conservative to this day — but the lesson of history is that familiar patterns of electoral behaviour usually reassert themselves.

For all that the electorate has become more volatile over the past three decades, 80% of respondents surveyed by the Australian Election Study after the 2007 federal election were ready to express an identification with one major party or the other. In 37% of cases the identification was with Labor — a far greater share than voted for them in one of their traditionally strongest states on Saturday. No doubt that figure has come off a little since the happier times of 2007, but clearly many of those who defected on Saturday stayed with Labor at the federal election, and maintain an attachment of a kind that can survive the occasional dalliance with the other side.

When the horrors of the Carr-Iemma-Rees-Keneally years fade from memory — one might even say, when they come to be seen in clearer perspective — old habits will reassert themselves. However, there is no guarantee for Labor that this will happen for sooner rather than later. For every encouragement offered by Labor rebounds in New South Wales in 1991 and South Australia in 1997, there are several other examples of landslide results that were all but repeated the election after: New South Wales in 1981, Queensland in 2004, Victoria in 2006, federally in 1977.

Quite often it takes several applications of the lash to weaken a party’s vested interests to the point where it finds the strength to re-orient itself, and there is little about NSW Labor at present that offers cause for optimism about its regenerative capacities.

A further sense in which this election could not be said to have marked a paradigm shift was in the failure of minor parties and independents to reap a harvest from the collapse in support for Labor. While the Greens increased their vote, and perhaps picked up seats in the upper house and Balmain, the outstanding fact of the election for them is surely that they were only able to poach 1.4% from the 13.5% that went missing from Labor.

One difficulty was familiar from the Victorian campaign: the lack of a substantial state leadership figure, in marked contrast with the party at federal level. However, an issue peculiar to the NSW party has been its “hard left” image and policy orientation and how this played with the kind of moderate swinging voters whose support was there for the taking. Much has been said in particular about Marrickville candidate Fiona Byrne’s role as mayor of a council that imposed a boycott on Israel, in light of her failure to win a seat where most would have backed her a few months ago. This seems to have been significant not only for the policy itself, but also for what its existence says about the party’s sense of proportion.

Greens activists are quick to deny that their party contains competing tendencies, but tension between purity and pragmatism is an unavoidable fact of life for any party of a progressive bent. The NSW Greens’ recent performance suggests the former has carried more weight than the latter, which they will need to address should they decide that electoral under-achievement is really what bothers them.

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47 thoughts on “No precedents for depths plumbed by Labor vote

  1. Frank Campbell

    The Greens”…were only able to poach 1.4% from the 13.5% that went missing from Labor.

    Crikey’s other story:
    “NSW Greens: not easy being green, as high hopes fizzle
    by Matthew Knott

    It’s not only NSW Labor with some serious soul searching to do. Like at the Victorian election last November, expectations of a Greenslide in NSW did not eventuate and the party faces the real prospect of not claiming a lower house seat despite widespread disillusionment with Labor.

    The polls and the bookies both had local mayor Fiona Byrne as a heavy favourite to win….”

    High hopes? Of winning two classic low-postcode Green seats? Tribalism may be dying slowly in Oz (well done Richo) but the constant expectation (not least on Crikey) of the apotheois of the Greens is just wishful thinking. Crikey (and progressives generally) learned little from the Higgins and Bradfield byelections, which were touted as retribution from Civilised (urbane) Liberals for Abbott’s coup.

    The Greens failure in NSW to capitalise on the flight from the blight on the hill isn’t due to one candidate wanting a boycott on Israel. Zionism isn’t high on the menu in Balmain. And nowhere in most of NSW. But what is known to all is “proycing caaahbun”.

    Until the Green Left faces the fact that climate millenarianism and the idiotic policies it engenders is self-defeating, political power will continue to be squandered.

    I’m sick and tired of being the only voice on the Green Left saying this. We’re heading for a decade of political oblivion. If there others Out There who’ve woken up- speak up now. Sure, you’ll get abuse and ridicule. Just wear it, you gutless wonders.

  2. Bob the builder

    Personally I think the Greens should leave off on their obsession with electoral politics. Sure, being in the tent is fine, but not if that’s the only thing you do.
    If all the active Greens members were politically active (as opposed to putting their energy into getting someone else to speak on their behalf in parliament), the green agenda would be greatly advanced. And if even 10% of present Greens voters did something more than smugly marking a ballot paper every now then we’d have huge positive change.

  3. Had Enough

    The Greens are so extreme and radical and nasty, they deserve the results they did.

    I love Labor Minister’s Fergusons comment

    Unemployed under trees weaving baskets.

    That quote will go down in history like Keatings Banana Republic.

  4. Bob the builder

    Had Enough thinking have you? And you’re calling the Greens nasty?

  5. Mike

    I detest the Greens and everything they stand for and I find them utterly dangerous & evil but let me put that aside for one sec and state the obvious.

    The Greens Exist At The Mercy Of The Conservatives.

    Their viability can be extinguished with a simple stroke of the pen by Coalition voters.

    Libs preference Labor in inner city seats and “poof” Greens are gone… forever…. that is now patently clear …. and that’s gotta hurt.

  6. Scott

    I think William has called it with the lack of a point person for the Greens in NSW. Bob Brown, being so high profile, is a talisman….he can be a lightning rod (attracting votes) or an odour (repelling them) depending on the mood of the electorate at the time. The major party’s state branches have the ability to either associate or disassociate themselves with the Feds when they feel the need; the greens have no such luxury. Delegating some authority to the individual states might allow Bob to step back from the frey if the mood is against him and hence allow the state party to win votes on their own merit.

  7. dgh1

    The nerve of people to set up a political party, the Greens, that disturbs the comfortable oligopoly of the major parties and keeps standing candidates and putting out alternative policies. What do they think this is, a democracy?

    “Basketweaving” is a nice cliche to avoid actually having to debate the issues but it couldn’t be more wrong. What evidence we have sociologically suggests that Greens supporter are more likely to be in IT and high tech industries and be younger than the population average rather than the ageing hippies of legend.

    After all the venting from the above contributors my advice is – get over it. Liberals not giving preferences to the Greens is not going to make the Green vote go away.

    I find it fascinating that the reaction of people to the Greens as evidenced by the primal screams above is one of visceral emotion and personal abuse not rational analysis.

    To move on to analysis of voting patterns across the state there is an interesting pattern emerging that suggests that the Greens phenomonen is being driven by sociological change as much as overt response to short term political trends:

    I refer to the fact that outside the inner city where the ALP is being challenged by the Greens in Balmain and Marrickville, in Vaucluse and 8 seats in the northern suburbs of Sydney ALP voters are at risk of becoming an endangered species and the two party preferred count will be between the Liberals and the Greens. In none of these cases are the Greens likely to mount a serious threat now or in any forseeable future to Coalition control of these seats .

    however, the Greens vote is reaching the point where they should be able to start to elect significant numbers of councillors across this region and build a local profile.

    The trends are clear enough to represent a challenge to the ALP’s ability to man enough booths to harvest a reasonable number of upper house votes from this region.

  8. Frank Campbell

    Mike: “Libs preference Labor in inner city seats and “poof” Greens are gone”

    care to rephrase that?

  9. freecountry

    [The glacial epoch of class-based electoral behaviour, when governments could survive off apparently permanent majorities for decades on end, is gone forever.]
    I don’t know about that. It seems to me a lot of fanatical progressives out there have simply decided they need a trial separation with NSW Labor, like a beaten wife calling the police to take her husband to the drunk tank, but counting the days until she can have him back sober. They remain afraid of the Coalition, believing the Labor propaganda that it stands for trampling the helpless and deifying the rich. Those people may be in for a surprise.
    [For this reason, the worst landslides are usually meted out to governments that were clearly granted that one term too many, usually as a result of the failings of the opposing party.]
    I think people often reserve their fiercest anger for those who have made fools of them. And Labor certainly did make fools of the NSW voter who kept them in 2007. And yes, that was a lost opportunity for a disorganized opposition.

    Significantly, I think federal election 2010 parallels NSW 2007 in this way. First term government or not (and remember Whitlam only lasted three years) federal Labor was almost finished, and would have been finished were it not for the ineptitude of Tony Abbott. For the time being, Abbott’s colleagues see him as a hero for the supposedly historic achievement of failing to do in 2010 pretty much what Fraser did in 1975. But that won’t last.

    Meanwhile many people now feel that Gillard has made a fool of them, and as with NSW Labor, they will be especially bitter about that in 2013.

  10. Fool

    Dear Australian voters,
    again you have shown your complete lack of ignorance. You are nothing but a bunch or easily led sheeple who believe the only choices you have are to vote for a party. It seems that once you have decided to vote for a party, then every other party and political figure is bad. If you get upset with one side of the coin you flip to the opposite side. The Liberal and Labor parties are nothing more than the two different faces of the same coin. The differences between them are minuscule! In reality how often do they actually represent you, the people of Australia, or represent their electorate? Then again how often do our politicians actually keep to their electoral promises? They may hold to one watered down pathetic token promise, if you are lucky. It would be nice if Australian were not so easily led, and actually paid attention to what was going on in the world and Australian politic’s. Personally I am sick of Australian politican’s pandering to big business and only talking about the economic rationale of every situation. The economy is a man-made construct; there is no economy without society or the environment! The continuance of “Pigs head” rationalities, collusion and corruption in politic’s does not benefit the majority of Australians. Australia now has the largest inequality of wealth in the first world – the rich are getting richer, while the poor are getting poorer! The political machinations that Australians are offered is nothing more than a great sham! How are politician’s actually going to represent the people, or at a minimum be seriously conflicted, when they are beholdent to to the powers that support their career’s and political parties through massive donations? Wake up Australia!!! Then again the NSW election is pretty much a good reflection of the fearful, self-centred, individualistic, and ignorant ideologies Australians seen to hold!

    I have to laugh at poor misguided Mikes comments – pray tell how the Greens are utterly dangerous and evil? I am pretty sure it is because of Liberal ideas (not the Liberal party) [Liberal – as in forward, free thinking, open-mindedness, independence of thoughts and ideas] that the Greens exist, rather than at the bequest of the conservatives!

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