Shaun CarneyNovember 28, 2010
Labor has been coasting along for more than a decade, but its good luck has just run out.
JOHN Brumby and John Howard share a given name, but that’s not all they have in common. Both have found themselves on the receiving end of strong drops in support as they took 11-year-old governments to the polling booths.
In Howard’s case, it meant the end of his political career and the defeat of his government. For Brumby, it meant, last night, anxious times and a view into the existential abyss.
For Ted Baillieu, it opened up the very strong possibility of a grand political beginning as the leader of a new Liberal-National government.
Labor’s support during this election campaign followed a similar downward course to the ALP governments in Western Australia in 2008 and South Australia in March this year. At the beginning of the Victorian campaign, only a few short weeks ago, Labor appeared to be ahead with a small margin of comfort and Brumby looked to be in command, just as his interstate counterparts had.
But gradually the campaign turned sour for Labor and Brumby, especially in the final week, replicating the pattern of the other Labor governments. In the case of WA, it led to a narrow defeat for ALP premier Alan Carpenter.
In South Australia, the result was better for the ALP: the government of Mike Rann was able to hang on to office with a clear minority of the vote – 48.4 per cent.
A repeat of the Rann experience appeared to be the best that the Brumby government could hope for as the early returns came in last night. The swing against Labor was enormous, basically of landslide proportions, in middle and outer Melbourne.
The clear public confidence in the government that has enabled it to go about its business with more assuredness than every other state administration, except for probably the Liberal government in Western Australia, has evaporated.
Ten years seems to be the limit for happy governance. Once the lifespan of a government hits double figures, the relationship with voters becomes seriously troubled. The Cain/Kirner government lasted three terms over 10½ years. The Kennett government ran for seven years and lasted just two terms.
The Kennett era seems longer than that because feelings ran so high throughout the community during its highly charged tenure. By contrast, the Bracks/Brumby government toted up 11 years as if by default, or perhaps while the state was having a bit of a rest after the drama of the Kennett years.
The truth is that Labor in Victoria has been very lucky for a long time and its luck has started to run out. Kennett took office near the depths of the worst economic conditions in 60 years, with Victoria bearing the brunt of a harsh national economic adjustment.
The Kennett government lasted long enough to govern during the recovery too, of course. But the best years were Labor’s to enjoy: the state Labor government was in office for the best part of the most sustained period of economic prosperity in almost 50 years. Labor actually took office in Victoria last century!
Clearly, Labor’s salad days are well and truly behind it.
How did the Liberals and Nationals bring about this electoral eruption? The Liberals did not build their advertising or their campaign around Baillieu. What they sold was a message of unhappiness and grievance about the government’s shortcomings. Significantly, their late-campaign advertising was not badged as Liberal, apart from the legally required fine print.
The Coalition campaign was essentially negative, with an emphasis on locking up more criminals and throwing away the key, and extending public transport. There were also plenty of spending pledges and promises not to tamper with the public service and schools.
Labor chose a more conventional mix of positive and negative messages.
The Liberal Party’s decision to direct preferences to Labor ahead of the Greens changed the campaign and boosted the Coalition’s prospects. It consolidated the Liberal base, sharpened up the party’s attempts to appear resolute, and made the contest a much starker choice between Labor and the Coalition.
As senior Liberals noted last night, the controversy provided clarity for the Coalition in the public mind. At the time, there was some concern that the preference declaration had overshadowed the Liberals’ formal campaign launch. Perhaps it did, but that wasn’t all bad for the Coalition because a lot of middle and outer suburban voters were keen for the media discussion about the election to move away from a focus on the Greens and the inner city.
The effect of the preference decision on the Greens’ chances of taking seats was perhaps not as dramatic as some commentators assumed. At some polling places in the inner-city
seats where Labor was fighting to hold against the Green surge, the Liberal presence was muted to say the least.
The party organisation appeared to be passive in these parts, with very little bunting and not a lot of effort being made to thrust how-to-vote cards in the hands of voters. However, Labor appears to have held those seats.
For the Liberal Party, irrespective of whether it gets over the line when all the votes are counted and the seats are allocated, this is a magnificent result. Labor has governed the state for 21 of the past 28 years.
Only three months ago at the federal election, 55.3 per cent of Victorians voted for the ALP. Labor’s first preferences at the federal poll were 42.8 per cent and the Coalition attracted 39.6 per cent.
It’s a long time since former Liberal champion of Victorian politics Sir Henry Bolte described Victoria as the jewel in the Liberal crown.
So long, in fact, that the state has spent the past 30 years, with a few exceptions, skewing left and backing the ALP.
But the big swing to the Coalition in a state that went so strongly for Labor only a few months ago suggests that the Liberal and National parties have hit fertile ground with their political positioning.
The essence of the Coalition’s approach in this campaign was to keep it simple and it appears to have worked very well.