Tim Battin: Waiting for the result of the small-target tactic with baseball bats

Apr 19, 2022
A hand inserts a vote card into a polling box with Australia flag blended in background
The election of 2022 is the textbook test case of an incompetent government — itself surprised at its re-election in 2019. Image: istock

If the ALP cannot secure victory in the coming election, the result will expose the fallacies on which the small-target approach is based, and we should be ready for it with baseball bats.

Ever since the aftermath of the 2019 election — in which major party policy difference was clearly and unusually more substantial — the ALP chose to deal with its shock loss by reverting to form: shrink from anything resembling largeness, minimise policy differentiation from the Coalition, and adopt a ‘small-target’ approach in achieving office in 2022. The ink on the results of 2019 was not yet dry — in fact, the writs for all the contests in the election were not yet returned — before newly installed leader Anthony Albanese was touting that Labor’s prior policy differentiation was too reliant on a sense of fairness. In touring Queensland, he told us, he sided with a voter who “felt disrespected” by Labor’s franking credits policy, a proposal to end a rort from which beneficiaries obtain a credit for a tax they do not pay.

Electoral statistics would soon be cited to underpin the general approach of minimising policy difference. Since the Second World War, we would be told, federal Labor has won government from opposition only three times, ignoring the fact that the same is true for the Coalition. Such a stance would fit neatly with the acquiescent adage “oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them”.  Taken together — Labor’s unexpected loss, attributed to an all-too-rare exposure of detailed and differentiated policy, and the Party’s more fundamental cynicism about political possibilities — the outcome was reinforcement of the anti-intellectual, anti-idealist deposit of the parliamentary ALP.

More meaningful than invoking an arbitrary WWII electoral baseline when examining change-of-government elections would be to start from the two-party consolidation of 1909-1910 (a phenomenon that owes itself, ironically, to an imposing ALP). Over that 112-year period, the ALP won from opposition in 1910, 1914, 1929, 1972, 1983, and 2007: six times. Non-Labor party coalitions managed it five times: 1913, 1931, 1949, 1996, and 2013. (The Coalition did not win from opposition in 1975. It won from the position of illegitimately installed government.)

The fundamental problem with the claim that oppositions do not win elections is that the statement is (almost) unfalsifiable. We generally have to endure the assertion, since almost any election outcome can be explained away. The opposition didn’t win, for example, because the people were not yet convinced that the government should be booted out. In this reckoning, enunciated most clearly by Peter Brent at Inside Story, but generally shared by several political commentators in the media, oppositions have to wait for the people to form a view that the government has upset too many groups, become tired, incompetent or corrupt (or some mixture thereof). If they’re smart, oppositions confine their role to depicting themselves as ‘electable’ by choosing a credible leader and by outlining some broad values that are in contrast — real or perceived — with the government of the day. In policy terms, proposals will be kept to a minimum in number, and of detail, and any differences will be based on what the electorate has already sanctioned.

Actually, the component making most sense — the need to choose a credible leader — is the part the ALP underplayed after 2019. At each election, the authoritative Australian Election Study examines, among several dynamics, the factors of leader popularity and the extent to which it is a vote changer, and its analysis indicates that Bill Shorten’s leadership alone was enough to account for the 2019 result. Rather than absorbing the significance of that, the ALP, rarely missing an opportunity over the past four decades to move to the right, impugned entirely its policy differentiation and shrank from overt political contest.

The 2022 election is the definitive model of a government well past the end of the line. If the ALP cannot secure victory in the coming election, the result will expose the fallacies on which the small-target approach is based, and we should be ready for it with baseball bats. If ever there was an election in which the incumbent government was criminally lazy, incompetent, and corrupt, this is surely it. If Albanese’s ALP cannot secure the electorate’s agreement that the government should be obliterated, it will be a shocking indictment of its pitiful posture over three long years. “We are not the government”, Albanese and his front benchers would never tire of exclaiming, seemingly with purpose, but in fact without strategy.

The election of 2022 is the textbook test case of an incompetent government — itself surprised at its re-election in 2019 — one riven by scandal, utterly corrupt, and facing a constricted contest from an ‘opposition’ — an opposition so afraid to enunciate difference it shivered and waved through the Coalition’s near-flat income tax structure — a construction once seen as the delusion of the demented right. Inside or outside a pandemic, voters do actually want to know what an opposition would do differently.

Of course, the statement that oppositions don’t win elections and its corresponding small-target tactic serve an ideological function. Some of its defenders even deny that the aim is to shrink the target. So, the narrative becomes one of we aren’t being small target; we are just being smart target. That inanity to one side, the more important point is that the ideological role of the narrow electoral dynamic is to pull the ALP (further) to the right. One policy — or, heaven portend, we may see two or three by campaign’s end — is chosen for some contrast (see aged-care), but the program nonetheless is reinforcement and normalisation of neoliberalism. So, self-comparison with Hawke and borrowing of Howard’s line about the never-completed task of neoliberal change — delivered, you guessed it, to a business audience.

In other words, it is no coincidence that of the few noticeable policy differences chosen by the party apparatchiks, none is of a systemic nature. Such policies don’t exist, simply because any such policy is seen as a threat — not to winning, but to the interests of those whom they think determine elections. What we see, rather, is a limited differentiation of brand. Even if the ALP achieves a majority, it will have no authoritative basis on which to pursue a legislative agenda that even partly undoes the inequality, ransacking and vandalism of the neoliberal era.

 

Tim Battin is an honorary associate at the Australia Institute. For more than 30 years he taught politics at the University of New England.

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