27 November, 2009

In Opposition, Everything New is Old Again

There are a few cycles in politics that apply regardless of party, ideology or sometimes even border. One, is that Australian voters at both a state and federal level, always tend to give governments one last chance. There are many examples of elections where the government seemingly should have been thrown out, but managed to scrape back in.

Another is that elections are generally lost, not won. Most election results are a rejection of the loser rather than an endorsement of the winner. One of the most obvious examples of this was when the Coalition, under the leadership of John Hewson, lost what was considered the unlosable election in 1993. The Melbourne Herald-Sun already had the front page printed: “Hewson In Cliffhanger.” The coalition’s “Fightback” package was one of the most detailed set of alternative policies ever put forward by an opposition. The incumbent Labor government was only too happy to make the Coalition’s policy the focus of the campaign rather than their own stewardship. Most people agree now that it all fell apart for Hewson’s campaign on A Current Affair when he couldn’t explain how much GST would be applied to a birthday cake. Three years later, with a reheated John Howard as leader, the Libs went to the election promising little more than that they weren’t Paul Keating and won comfortably. In fact, the most memorable thing John Howard promised in that campaign was that a GST would “never ever,” be a part of his policy. That turned out to be one of those “non-core” promises. Labor clearly knew that Keating was that year’s election issue when they ran ads saying, “You don't have to like him, but you've got to respect him.” They were probably hoping for a similar result to the 1990 election (the one-last-chance result for the Hawke government) when Bob Hawke went begging for second preferences from Green voters.

Of all the elections I’ve ever paid attention to, the only result I can think of that was actually an endorsement of the winner rather than a rejection of his opponent was Barack Obama’s win last year, and even then he had the advantage of widespread disgust with the incumbent and an opponent who seemed determined to abandon a lifetime in the sensible centre and appeal exclusively to bizarro-world.

Another of these political cycles is one I’ve only just begun to notice but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s true. All political parties spend their first term in opposition trying to be the same party they were during their last term in government and hoping that voter remorse will bring them back at the next election. It never works, but they all seem to do it. Whether it’s denial or a misguided loyalty for former leaders, I don’t know, but following each election, we hear members of the defeated party explaining that, “we didn’t get our message across well enough,” or, “people didn’t understand our plan.” It’s not until the second consecutive defeat that they realise that they did get their message across, the people did understand it and said No!

It happens everywhere. Following the US Congressional mid-term elections in 2006 where both the House and Senate went to the Democrats, some Republicans (well, Ann Coulter anyway) suggested that it was actually a good result for the Republicans because people would be reminded of how crap the Democrats were and the Republicans would stage a great comeback in 2008. We all know how that turned out.

However, something interesting is happening in the Liberal party this time around. An all-out war has broken out between those who seem to think the party was on the right track all along, and others who want the party to progress. Malcolm Turnbull is already the party’s second leader this term and despite having survived a spill motion on Wednesday, he may well not lead the party to the next election. At the heart of the matter is Turnbull’s broad support for the government’s emissions trading scheme, which has angered many of his coalition colleagues. They want him abandon that support but Turnbull has refused to adopt the ‘I am their leader, I must follow them,’ approach.

Despite being the most obvious choice of party leader, Turnbull was narrowly defeated in the 2007 leadership ballot by Brendan Nelson. That was probably fortunate for Turnbull. The first leader after the defeat was always going to be somewhat sacrificial. Turnbull was better off biding his time, but when Brendan Nelson called a leadership ballot in September 2008, Turnbull ran and won by a slim margin. It was perhaps typical of Malcolm Turnbull’s impatience that he ran as early as he did and upon winning, set about leading the party from the front and making the changes in the party that don’t usually come until the second term of opposition. As a result, his leadership is now being viciously attacked from within his own party.

Turnbull’s leadership has appeared shaky for a few months now, and during that time the heir apparent has been Joe Hockey. However, aside from time-filling media gossip, Hockey hasn’t been considered an immediate contender – more of a natural replacement for the current leader. But now it has been confirmed that there will be a leadership spill on Tuesday morning. That puts Hockey in a bind because although he is seen as a popular choice for the leadership, who would want it now? The answer is Tony Abbott who has announced he will be challenging. I really don’t see Abbott as a leader. He has always been the one diligently toeing the party line on Lateline or Q and A but not an actual policy maker. Then again, to those who want their leader to follow the party, I guess that makes him the natural choice.

I still think that Malcolm Turnbull is the most likely person to become the next Liberal prime minister but after this year, it might take a John Howard-like exile and resurrection before it happens. One thing is certain: the Libs have no hope of defeating Kevin Rudd while they put all their energies into defeating Malcolm Turnbull.

Chris Uhlmann has excellent analysis HERE.


  1. Parliamentary politics are like a football match. In the rain. With an empty stadium.

    Obama didn't win that election. McCain went out of the way to lose.

  2. The Westminster system is far more interesting than football, although as far as I'm concerned, that's a low bar.

    I agree that McCain did himself no favours at all. He was my second preference at the beginning of the campaign. But I disagree that Obama didn't win. To quote Bill Hayden, the drover's dog could have beaten the Republicans but even so, there was a substantial number of voters who actually supported Obama rather than just voting the party line or to keep the other lot out. They may not have been enough to swing the election on their own, but I don't think they should be discounted.

  3. Oh, and I'll draw the line between football teams and political parties a little later.