A bad government that lost its way and lost an election

WELL done, Australia. You elected a Coalition government with a strong majority and you disposed of an incompetent Labor government. But judging from the spin over the weekend, Labor was defeated because it was a good government that “lost its way”.

Former Rudd cabinet minister Tanya Plibersek blithely scored her party “nine out of 10 for governing the country, (but) none out of 10 for governing ourselves”. Others remarked that no cabinet minister had lost their seat. True, but many resigned months ago. As former Howard government minister Peter Reith remarked, “it was as if the policies never counted”.

But policies do count and their competent implementation counts even more. The mandate from the electorate on boats, carbon pricing, the mining tax and reducing debt is crystal clear.

Tony Abbott will be judged on the competent implementation of those policies, and more besides.

The Coalition win was emphatic, although in the opinion of Australian political scientist Simon Jackman of Stanford University the victory was not a major realignment or “wholesale remaking” of the political landscape. There may be no Abbott “battlers” but, then again, pigeonholes carry the risk of running a government along too narrow a path. The Abbott government is less beholden to demographics as to delivery of promises. Stick to the program and all will be well.

To ensure that it does, Australians laid off their bets in the Senate. They turfed out a Labor-Green alliance, but neither did they want any “Howard majority” surprises. There are likely to be some long days and nights courtesy of Clive Palmer’s senators. But, between them and the likes of former Liberal Bob Day of Family First, Nick Xenophon of South Australia and some others, there should be sound foundations for a working relationship on a legislation-by-legislation basis.

But for party funding, compulsory voting and preferential voting, Labor would be dead and buried. But take comfort, Labor; at some future turn of the cycle the same may be true for the Coalition. Big parties are struggling. But if rich man Palmer succeeds, and if his campaign antics are a guide to his parliamentary performance, he may single-handedly drive voters back to the majors.

But all that lies ahead. Right now, Labor will be the first to face its demons. The Labor first-preference vote of 33.85 per cent is the lowest in history, except for its first outing in 1901, 19.4 per cent, and its second in 1903, 31.0 per cent. (Scullin in 1931, including Lang Labor, was 37.7 per cent.) The following examples provide more recent and more relevant results for the modern Labor Party and place this result in better perspective. The list provides the election date, the first-preference vote and some proximate events:

• 1958: 42.9 per cent (aftermath of the Split; DLP at 9.4 per cent).

• 1966: 40 per cent (Vietnam war election).

• 1977: 39.6 per cent (worse than the 1975 Whitlam rout; rise of the Australian Democrats).

• 1990: 39.4 per cent (Democrats revival).

• 1996: 38.8 per cent (Paul Keating defeat).

• 2001: 37.8 per cent (Australian Greens 5 per cent; Pauline Hanson’s One Nation 4.3 per cent)

• 2010: 37.9 per cent (Greens 11.7 per cent)

Jackman has suggested that, as was the case in the 2010 election, the Labor vote this year may decline a further 0.5 per cent with the pre-poll vote and postal count. This would leave Labor with 33.3 per cent (Greens 8.4 per cent, Palmer United Party 5.6 per cent).

In Queensland, the Labor primary vote is 30 per cent, having been steady at (close to or above) 34 per cent since 2001. These numbers are unprecedented. Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan hold two of its probably five out of 30 Queensland seats. Neither will be part of the return to government, and either seat is vulnerable if the member resigns.

And in Melbourne, Labor has lost its heart. Geographically and historically centred on Trades Hall in Carlton, Melbourne is now a university seat. Full of students and their teachers at the University of Melbourne and RMIT University, it continues to be supplied with young, ideal and publicly funded fodder for postmodern bulldust. All in all, things look dire for Labor. On the plus side, some of the significant players of the future who were at risk have survived. Gary Gray in Brand, Chris Bowen in McMahon and Tony Burke in Watson and significant others provide a good base to rebuild. Further on the plus side is the ephemeral nature of new parties. The PUP will survive about as long as One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party.

Palmer’s boast that he kept Labor at bay and secured Abbott’s win is nonsense, as was the observation that the Greens votes went to Palmer. Can you imagine a Greens supporter voting for big coalmining Clive? Clive’s people are workers and self-employed, not public servants, and they will move to the majors soon after the first punch-up. Labor was not a good government: it lost.