There were probably better things to do in Atlantic City in the early hours of Friday night/Saturday morning than watch the ABC feed on bad wi-fi, but truth be told I couldn’t think of any. I could have set the laptop up on the tables at the Trump Tower, or stage side at Scores by the Boardwalk, but nothing could match the sheer deliciousness of watching the Napthine government bubble down the drain of history. From the early and unmistakable trends away from the government to the strong showing by the Greens in Melbourne to the rapidly forming certainty — that was exactly what you want from a vote count. None of that heart-stopping coming-from-behind sudden-reversal stuff. This was steady and remorseless erasure, exactly in line with the polls.
True, there was a bit of a wobble with The Age’s Napthine endorsement, but that just turned out to be another instalment in the world’s longest suicide note. Other than that, it was steady all the way. The first one-term government in Victoria since 1955, the pundits said, omitting to remark that that had occurred during a wrenching split down the middle of the ALP, with Labor (anti-communist) preferences going to the Libs. To try to find a common-or-garden first-term defeat you’d have to go back I dunno how far into our electoral history.
The significance of the victory can’t be understated for Victorian politics. Given a fixed four-year term, by 2018 Labor will have ruled Victoria for 24 of the last 36 years — 28 of the last 40, if, as seems likely, the party wins a second term. That is domination of politics over an era, with the consequent shaping of the political culture. Whatever lasting depredations Jeff Kennett left us — a Mordor-style casino “awarded” (with monopoly privileges!) to a Liberal Party treasurer like the place was Louisiana, a needlessly vandalised school and hospital system — or the attempt by Matthew Guy to kill the livability of the city in a single term, they haven’t had lasting purchase.
Thus, the history of the Victorian Liberal Party in the post-Hamer period is a history of failure. Liberal parties, based on a philosophy of individualism, do not weather opposition well — people depart quickly for fresh opportunities rather than face the bitter task of opposition. The Victorian Libs are engaged in a continuing struggle between a Christian Right and the old business establishment party. If the suburban god-botherers take control of the party, they could keep the Libs out of power indefinitely.
Post-election analysis has pointed to the various national and state-based factors responsible for the Napthine government’s defeat, with the emphasis on the Abbott factor foremost. Yet the Baillieu/Napthine government was in trouble from early on, long before the shenanigans with Geoff Shaw started. And trying to attribute blame to particular policies ignores a key fact: across the English-speaking world, the Right is in trouble. When you put Victoria together with the federal government and add in the Cameron government in the UK, three of its major governments are facing a one-term proposition. The Newman government in Queensland would be in the same boat, were it not for the vast majority it gained on election. And in the US, the Right can only win seats via gerrymandered Congressional votes — the Democrats win the presidency and an overall majority in the raw vote for the House.
Everywhere, the Right is losing its legitimacy, and the Victorian election can be seen as a small example of that. That lost legitimacy is the key factor — without that loss, the Napthine government might have received the benefit of the doubt traditionally extended to a first-term government. The problem for the Right is not the superficial screw-ups or the federal contamination effect — it’s that the social-cultural ground is shifting beneath their feet in ways that benefit the progressive centre.
That is especially so in a place like Victoria, dominated by Melbourne, which is in turn coming to be dominated by knowledge, science and culture industries. The growth of such industries creates a growth in the numbers of a particular type of professional — knowledge-oriented, reflexive, universalist and global. They are, in some ways, a distinct social class in themselves, but they can also be seen as a recomposition of the bourgeoisie. The old ranks that made Victoria the jewel-in-the-crown of liberalism are thinned and transformed by these new groups. They do not, of course, have the numbers to change the political culture by themselves, but neither did the old professional bourgeoisie. Rather, there is a sort of “leadership” effect whereby the rising social power of a small class will change the wider political culture more generally.
In Victoria, decades of this process have accumulated, expressing itself in neighbourhood change, cultural change and social activism, which makes the state inherently progressive. The Cain (Jr) government of the ’80s nurtured much of this by creating a whole quasi-state apparatus network of arts festivals, small group grants funding, multicultural networks and the like, reaching far into every aspect of social life. Kennett wisely decided not to attack this structure en toto, merely to prune it back and redirect some of the cultural activity away from the community and towards the commercial. A decade later, that distinction has somewhat collapsed, and the Cain-Kirner-Kennett model of Victoria continues to infuse society with a progressivist, statist ideal of how society should work.
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But to varying degrees that is happening everywhere. Every four years, a cohort of voters from the old class division check out for good, and a new cohort of voters turn 18, or equally importantly, pass from youth into their 30s retaining much of the progressive political thinking they had as teenagers or students. This is not because they have become more idealistic. It is because the progressivist message — that society should be steered by rational, socially just, best practice, systems-oriented thinking, with universal equality of gender, race, sexuality etc — is simply the base idea of their social class and of the world they have started to build around them. The sad fantasy of Bolt, Roskam, James Paterson et al — that if only the party had stuck to a more hard-Right austere classical liberal message — does not even begin to fit the current situation. It’s the endless nostalgic reprise of Thatcherism — and of Kennett. It takes those victories — which arose from the collapse of post-war social democracy under the weight of its own contradictions — and mistakes their one-off, system-rebooting moment for a general principle.
There’s never going to be a time from now on when it’s a smart move to combine social conservatism with free-market liberalism. Social conservatism doesn’t even fit the form of social life we now have, the hybridity and fluidity that was edgy in the ’80s and ’90s and is now central to the culture and the economy. As for the free-market austerity, the swingeing cuts, the low-church moralising about earning and saving, well, we are all not merely Keynesians, but also Rawlsians now. It’s precisely because people want the dynamics of freer markets that they also want the recuperative effects of the current progressivist formulation of how economy, state and society works. The Right can come up with whatever fantasy it wants — Chris Berg’s (the Build-A-Bear classical liberal) assertion that fixed terms are to blame is my favourite — but unless it begins to reflect on the composition of its polticial philosophy, it’ll be one, two, many Victorias from here on in.