Sunday, November 25, 2007

The last desperate reelection strategy of the Howard government

Didn't work. In the US they call it jury nullification.

The last desperate reelection strategy of the Howard government was to lose the vote but to somehow win enough seats.

It can work, but rarely. It worked for the Hawke Labor government in 1987 and for John Howard himself in 1998.

But to defy a national swing by overpowering the voters in the right number of specific seats with money, advertising and promises to the point where they can’t say no requires extraordinary attention to detail and no room for bad luck.

The luck ran out repeatedly...

The government set aside $45 million to take over the running of a Tasmanian state government hospital in the marginal seat of Braddon and then couldn’t make the deal work by the deadline it had set because the hospital’s staff wouldn’t work under WorkChoices. It was forced to guarantee that they wouldn’t and lost the seat anyway.

In Lindsay in Western Sydney the husband of the retiring Liberal member and the husband of the replacement Liberal candidate were caught out engaging in dirty tricks and the party lost the seat anyway.

But even without the bad luck the strategy was never likely to work this time.

The veteran political analyst Malcolm Mackerras has a phrase for the phenomenon: “when the swing is on, it’s on”.

The swing to Labor of almost 6 per cent – the third biggest since the second world war – was impossible to fight seat by seat.

With targeting and luck the Coalition was able to take one, possibly two seats from Labor, both of them in Western Australia. It was able to win a swing to Malcolm Turnbull in Wentworth, a seat that it should have lost given the nationwide swing.

But these successes were more than offset by Labor wins in seats Labor had no hope of getting had the swing been uniform – most of them in Queensland.

That’s how it always happens according to Mackerras. The swing is never uniform. There are surprises on either side.

Right at the start of this year in a special article for the Canberra Times Mackerras predicted a Ruddslide and was the first to predict that the Prime Minister would lose his own seat.

In the final week of the campaign he said Labor would get 89 seats. It looks to have got 86. But in the tally room last night he said he could never have been precise about which seats. On the national swing it should have won Boothby in South Australia. But the Labor Party made the mistake of picking a footballer’s wife as its candidate and was punished in a state where it otherwise did well.

The surprises tell us much about Australia’s new political geography. Labor has excelled in Queensland, the home of Kevin Rudd and a big beneficiary of the mining boom. But unlike in Western Australia its mining workers are mainly employed under enterprise agreements. They’ve done well without WorkChoices and don’t associate it with their prosperity.

Labor has also done well in NSW and South Australia, two of the states least enjoying the benefits of Australia’s mining-fuelled wave of prosperity, and most likely to feel that times are tough.

In Western Australia, the epicentre of the boom, the Howard Government’s Australian Workplace Agreements are widespread and associated with prosperity. It’s the state in which Labor has done worst.

It’s easy in hindsight to talk about the common sense of the Australian people, but often we do seem to get it right. While moving against John Howard in his own seat, we ensured the survival of his two potential successors, swinging votes towards Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Costello.