27/11/2007 - 22:00

Betrayal of party principles

27/11/2007 - 22:00


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“It’s the economy, stupid” was the one liner often repeated by those inside the Bill Clinton camp that so convincingly toppled George H Bush’s Republican administration in 1992.

Betrayal of party principles

“It’s the economy, stupid” was the one liner often repeated by those inside the Bill Clinton camp that so convincingly toppled George H Bush’s Republican administration in 1992.

However, something all observers of last Saturday’s Australian federal election agree upon is it wasn’t “…the economy, stupid” that ensured Kevin Rudd would so easily topple John Howard.

The Howard-led coalition had returned Australia to near-full employment alongside relatively low inflation and low interest rates, so the economy was ticking like a Swiss watch.

Yet, like the Bush-led Republicans, the Howard-led Liberals were soundly rejected.

If nothing else, these quite different defeat backgrounds show that politics cannot be analysed by slotting outcomes into simple, pre-packaged theories.

Governments don’t inevitably win when economies are humming.

That said, the question that will continue being asked is how a government with such an enviable economic record could find itself undergoing the same fate as one 15 years earlier that lost because of an economic downturn.

There are several obvious answers, some of which commentators have already highlighted.

Mr Howard was nearing 70 years of age, so failed to resonate with the new and large demographic wave of first-time voters who’d never experienced Labor in power.

Most first timers were about seven years old when Mr Howard toppled Paul Keating-led Labor in 1996.

This was further reinforced by the fact that so many first timers were about to or had just entered the workforce, so understandably accepted the Labor/trade union campaign against Mr Howard’s WorkChoices legislation.

Linked to this was the fact that Labor had found an Eddie McGuire-type TV performer in Mr Rudd to lead it from its 12 years in the wilderness.

Mr Rudd, whenever chattering on TV, seemed to have an answer for virtually everything – from combating rising grocery prices to reversal of the impact of the scorching sun by 2050 – and, along the way, assuring us that every child will be educated by a laptop.

Equally significant was the fact that Mr Rudd stressed he’d be changing nothing with regard to economic management since he, like Mr Howard, was an “economic conservative”, rather than another profligate socialist.

Many found these and so many of his other such claims convincing, and dutifully fell in behind Kevin07’s candidates.

What other non-economic reasons help explain the humiliating Howard tumble?

That’s easy to answer.

First and foremost, Mr Howard and his team no longer looked fresh and enthusiastic.

In addition, Peter Costello’s ongoing claims that he should be PM grated on many people’s nerves.

And there’s also little doubt that a 1972-style “It’s Time” factor existed.

Then there was the slow-drip effect of Labor’s decade-long objections to the Howard government’s social agenda, so that by election 2007 many were convinced that it was mean, tricky, or both.

Labor candidates and spokespeople repeated over and over words and phrases like Tampa, Weapons of Mass Destruction, AWB, mandatory detention, and others.

The drip-drip effect of such repetition certainly helped convey that all was not kosher when it came to the government’s handling of the truth.

The genius of Mr Rudd was that: despite three meetings in Perth with former WA premier Brian Burke; the phony Anzac Day Long Tan commemorative service; and revelations of a drunken night out at a Manhattan strip joint, he was able to emerge without damaging his standing on election day.

In fact, after each of these was publicised nationally, his standing rose, amazingly, to new and greater heights.

Why this occurred has never been explained by any of the country’s many insightful political commentators.

According to one of State Scene’s best informants, this happened because most voters had already decided to back Mr Rudd come what may.

The informant, who employs a sizeable workforce, said he’s regularly contacted by other employers seeking references for employees who had applied for positions outside his company.

In one case he alerted a future prospective employer that the person being sought had actually stolen money.

The prospective employer’s response when told this wasn’t to drop plans to hire that person. Instead the prospective employer asked: “How much did he steal?”

When told the figure – it was in the low thousands – the prospective employer replied: “Oh, is that all. I thought it was a million or so.”

My stunned contact thought about this for some time and concluded that, once someone had made up their mind about an individual, virtually nothing could change it.

Ongoing meetings with Mr Burke, phony commemorations, and Manhattan strip joints sojourns were simply not enough to alter people’s decisions that it would be Kevin in 2007, and no further correspondence would be entered into.

One could go on.

To State Scene, far and away the most significant reason for the long-predicted Howard defeat has been the little commented upon collapse of the Liberal Party.

This more than anything is likely to go into the history books as Mr Howard’s major failing.

It’s important to remember that the Liberals only command solid ongoing support from about a third of the electorate.

Add to this up to nearly 10 per cent backing for the Nationals and we’re only at around the 40 per cent mark.

What that party has done since its greatest ever victory, the Robert Menzies-led 1949 defeat of the Ben Chifley-led Labor government, was to have always relied upon a floating extra 10-or-so per cent support from an array of others.

In the early 1950s, it was those who could no longer stomach rationing and Labor manpower planning under the guise of post-war reconstruction.

After 1956 came the sudden and unexpected great Labor split over communist influence in its ranks and the unions.

This helped carry the Liberals through several elections – almost into the mid-1970s – since primarily long-time Catholic Labor supporters voted either for the resultant Democratic Labor Party or the Liberals.

In the mid-1970s until 1983, widespread disgust with Sydney lawyer, Gough Whitlam’s incompetence meant Labor continued to be rejected.

Throughout the decades from 1950 to 1980, the Liberal Party, while steadily losing membership, remained a force with relatively strong links across society.

Since the fall of the Keating government in 1996 to Mr Howard’s ‘small target’ campaign, party membership has dramatically slumped.

Rank-and-file members have had ever less direct influence on policies and programs than in the halcyon 1950s and 1960s, which is saying something.

Policy for well over a decade has increasingly emanated from the prime minister’s department.

Party membership now means little beyond handing out how-to-vote cards on election days.

On top of that, the two last great tenets of the party that Sir Robert Menzies founded in 1944 – federalism and small government – were shoved aside by Mr Howard.

What’s amazing, therefore, is that he added three more victories to his 1996 ‘small target’ one, since soon after that year he’d opted for a me-too approach by embracing Labor’s traditional practice of centralism and big spending.

By the late 1990s it was impossible to distinguish between what Mr Whitlam sought by tightly centralising Australia and what Mr Howard was pressing for.

Little wonder it was impossible to find enthusiasm for the Howard government across Liberal ranks.

Mr Howard had simply de-authorised the party that’s been so good to him.

Little wonder that his twice betrayed deputy, Mr Costello, doesn’t want to be leader.

As the Howard legacy becomes ever clearer, what’s set to be noted is that he gained more from the party than he put into it.

With Liberalism destroyed between 1996 to 2007, there was no incentive for long-time party loyalists to defend an entity that no longer championed its founding tenets.


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