‘Vehicle or destination?’ Parties down, policy up

May 27, 2022
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
The Two Party Preferred (2PP) vote for Labor in 2022 was 52.18 per cent and for the Coalition 47.8 per cent. Image: AAP/Lukas Coch

The major parties, with the possible exception of The Greens, are in serious, probably terminal, decline, with habitual supporters largely disengaged, with a third of voters moving in a new direction.

Almost all elections turn on three factors: leadership (a highly personal judgment (‘I don’t trust X’), ideological or ‘It’s Time’ (‘give the others a go.’)

The 2022 Australian Federal election had a disconcerting resemblance to the US Presidential contest in 2020, with Scott Morrison playing the role of Trump-lite, but smirking, not snarling, with Albanese paralleling the immensely experienced but uneasy Biden, then aged 78. But Biden won.

Ultimately a fourth factor, loathing of Morrison, was decisive. In 2019 he was not well known, a daggy dad, uninspiring but not threatening. By 2022 he was too well known, a sanctimonious hypocrite, rewarding sycophants, punishing dissenters, secretive, flexible with the truth, with a tin ear on gender equality, and heavy reliance on ‘narrowcasting’, essentially ‘dog whistling’ to attract the votes of religious minorities. He won the lowest percentage of female votes in the history of the Liberal Party.

The advertising in Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party $100,000,000 campaign was overwhelmingly directed against Morrison, but preferences were directed his way in critical seats. Palmer failed to make Craig Kelly Prime Minister and he won only 7.7 per cent of the votes in his seat of Hughes.

Nevertheless, there was a small increase in the UAP and One Nation primary vote, largely at the expense of the Coalition. Morrison’s vote fell by 7 per cent in his electorate of Cook.

The UAP, for all the millions spent, had a national aggregate vote in the Senate of 3.54 per cent, while Legalise Cannabis, which spent almost nothing, was only a fraction behind on 3.47 per cent.

Nevertheless, the combined UAP and One Nation primary vote reflected anger and frustration – for example, in the Victorian divisions of Mallee 16 per cent, Holt 14 per cent, Hawke 12 per cent, Calwell 12 per cent, Monash 11.6 per cent, Lalor 11.5 per cent. In recent politics, alienation has turned angry voters hard Right, not hard Left.

Three factors conspicuously failed to help Morrison: constant attacks on Labor and Albanese by News Corp. papers (with a 100 percent monopoly in Queensland) and shock jocks; massive pork barrelling in marginal seats, which served to reinforce concerns about corruption; relentless emphasis on ‘photos ops’ and ‘action man’ stunts throughout the six week campaign.

In the May 2019 Election, the ALP had proposed an ambitious program on climate change and taxation, maintaining progressivity, and reforming negative gearing and franking credits. It was relentlessly attacked by the Coalition and the UAP. Labor secured a primary vote, nationally, of 33.3 per cent, but failed to win the election.

Labor then adopted a ‘small target’ strategy, never a dazzling success in the past, abandoned proposals for taxation reform and scaled back on its climate change ambitions.

The ALP won the May 2022 election, which must be considered as a plus, but its primary vote fell, to 32.78 per cent, the lowest figure since 1934, when the New South Wales ALP was still split by the forces of J. T. Lang.

In 1975, after Whitlam’s dismissal, the ALP’s primary vote was 42. 8 per cent, with a loss of 30 seats and in 1996, when Howard defeated Keating, and 31 seats were lost, it was 38.8 per cent.

The Two Party Preferred (2PP) vote for Labor in 2022 was 52.18 per cent and for the Coalition 47.8 per cent, well within the margin of error for the 53/47 predictions of most public opinion polls, a 3.5 per cent swing from 2019.

The Coalition’s primary vote in 2022 fell even more, to 35.85 per cent but was still ahead of Labor. However, the National Party, with about 6.2 per cent, retained all its 16 seats despite suffering swings in most, while the Liberal Party lost 17 seats and fell to 29.65 per cent, making it a much diminished dog with a very large tail.

The Greens, with 11.78 per cent of the national aggregate vote, won 3, possibly 4, seats in the Representatives, and played a central role in Albanese’s victory.

The National Party, led by Barnaby Joyce, encouraged by his Senate deputy leader Matt Canavan, exercises a powerful, and often brutal, veto on Coalition attempts to find middle ground on contentious policies, notably climate change. Even when 65 per cent of Australian voters wanted stronger emission targets, if the National Party with its 6.2 per cent says ‘No’, it paralyses the Liberals, thwarting any attempt to get back to consensus, or even where Tony Abbott was in 2013.

It will be almost impossible for Peter Dutton, even in his warm, smiling, consultative reincarnation, to pull the Liberal Party back to the centre, even if he broke with the Nationals.

The major parties, with the possible exception of The Greens, are in serious, probably terminal, decline, with habitual supporters largely disengaged, with a third of voters moving in a new direction.

In their 2002 review of the ALP’s performance Bob Hawke and Neville Wran described the control by factions as ‘cancerous’ and, 20 years, on the situation is even worse. Factions within the Liberal Party are even more toxic. Both parties have in effect been privatised by factions, memberships small and ageing, and community involvement is actively discouraged.

Both the ALP and the Liberal Party should experiment with democratic practice, although the concept would be unfamiliar to most apparatchiks.

Kristina Keneally was, at first, a beneficiary of the factional system, then its victim, being parachuted into the Fowler seat, despite local objections, because she could not be guaranteed a winnable spot on the NSW Senate ticket. The No. 1 position was the property of the Shop Assistants Union and why should it be asked to give anything up? So she was thrown to the wolves.

He won’t thank me for pointing this out, but the very gifted economist Andrew Leigh will not be given a Ministry because he does not belong to a faction. In a climate when millions of voters are choosing non-party independents, it could be timely for Anthony Albanese to promote a non-factional MP.

In Victoria, Frank McGuire, despite an 80 per cent 2PP vote in his state seat of Broadmeadows, and an exceptional record in promoting medical research, was removed, without discussion or debate, because his place was needed for somebody whose name I forget.

Similarly, Morrison’s imposition of Katherine Deves in Warringah proved to be a catastrophic misjudgment.

Nobody would accuse Albanese of being charismatic and I doubt that he would claim to be. But he had been an excellent Minister, outstanding negotiator, completely honest, extremely hard working, not delusional, and deeply trusted. It was striking that Bob Katter, who disagrees with Albanese on many policy issues, has committed to support Labor on votes of confidence and supply.

And, despite the serious internal problems inside the ALP’s fortress, Albanese has a front bench far superior to the Coalition’s – Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Chris Bowen, Tony Burke, Mark Butler, Mark Dreyfus, Katy Gallagher, Bill Shorten, Ed Husic, Jim Chalmers, to name only ten, and comparisons with Stuart Robert, Michaelia Cash, Karen Andrews, Richard Colbeck, Barnaby Joyce, Bridget McKenzie, Alan Tudge, Melissa Price, Angus Taylor, Alex Hawke are invidious.

What decided the election outcome in 2022, and perhaps for all future elections, was the emergence of a large, skilful, overwhelmingly female cross bench, which owed nothing to the hegemonic parties. Their common theme is: ‘We don’t want to be told what do: we want you to listen’.

All were experienced, committed, very superior organisers and emphatic. And they listened.

With his usual sensitivity, Barnaby Joyce attacked the independents as ‘self-indulgent and selfish’, because they failed to recognise that the existing parties had the divine right to determine the rules of the game, and that only their views (and the powerful lobbies that support them) count.

Simon Holmes à Court asked John Hewson and me to be Patrons (with a capital ‘P’) of Climate200. We were on the fringes, but observed its Advisory Council meetings. Between us, we have enough political experience to recognise a political party when we see one. Climate200 was not a political party.

Complaints by Josh Frydenberg and others that the ‘teal’ candidates were ‘fake independents’ being centrally controlled by Climate200 were completely false.

There was no central direction – only an offer to provide financial assistance and a bit of technical advice (podcasts, social media, et al.) to candidates who had emerged from community consultation, were committed to stronger action on climate change, an Integrity Commission and gender equality, and could demonstrate strong local support and capacity to match the large public funding available to the established parties, not to mention Clive Palmer’s bizarre self-promotion with the UAP. Climate200 provided significant ‘topping up’ money, but in total barely 12 per cent of Palmer’s spending. Most support was raised locally and there were more volunteers and contributors than the established parties could match.

Political parties are centrally run, discourage mass community participation, are secretive and faction driven, run candidates for the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, and are essentially traders when recommending preferences. With the ‘teal’ candidates there were no recommendations for the Senate, let alone a ticket. Following the advice of Cathy McGowan and Tony Windsor, they asked voters to mark them as No.1, then make their own choices as to No. 2, No. 3 and so on.

A common complaint was that the ‘teal’ candidates were only contesting strong Liberal seats, so they must be part of an ALP front. Wrong. The seats in question, Wentworth, Warringah, Mackellar, Kooyong, Goldstein, Curtin (and Higgins, which Labor won) all had in common that locals identified climate change as the most important issue in the election, followed by integrity and gender equality. In less economically secure electorates anxieties about cost of living were far more significant.

I went as an observer to Zoe Daniel’s campaign launch for Goldstein on 10 April at Sandringham Oval. About 1500 were there. The atmosphere was electrifying. I lost count of the numbers of people – most unknown to me – wearing teal jumpers who said: ‘For the first time in x years, my vote will count.’

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