01/04/2010 - 00:00

Uphill battle as Libs’ base goes left

01/04/2010 - 00:00


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The Liberals have lost a traditional ally in the suburbs of Australia.

THE Aristotelian adage about one swallow not making a summer is yet again proving accurate.

As the March quarter of 2010 unfolded, a turnaround for the non-Labor side of politics, at long last, seemed to be on the political horizon.

But it’s failed to materialise.

Last December, Malcolm Turnbull was finally dislodged as Liberal leader and his decidedly more energetic and somewhat more clear-minded replacement, Tony Abbott, quickly gained traction in the polls.

Five months earlier, in July 2009, the long-time moribund South Australian Liberals had done likewise by elevating Isobel Redmond to the leadership.

A straight talker like Mr Abbott, Mrs Redmond was increasingly seen as being in with a chance to dislodge long-time Labor premier, Mike Rann.

And events in Tasmania also unmistakably favoured Liberal opposition leader Will Hodgman, who’d become leader in 2006.

Opposition wins in South Australia and Tasmania were thus seen as probable as their shared March 2010 election day approached.

And Liberal pundits nationally were gaining confidence that Mr Abbott was also moving towards dislodging Labor.

Now, the single swallow, of course, was Western Australia’s September 2008 election, called early, which broke Labor’s coast-to-coast grip on government.

Labor had been in government everywhere for nearly a year, from December 2007 until September 2008.

And during those months, right up until Mr Abbott emerged, Mr Rudd registered approval ratings nobody imagined possible.

He’d even comfortably outperformed Bob Hawke’s polling bonanza of the 1980s.

What was crucial for the Liberals last month, therefore, was that the WA electoral ‘swallow’ be joined by opposition victories in SA and Tasmania.

Unfortunately for the Liberals, both fell short of that hoped-for outcome despite sizeable swings towards them.

Although there was a 12 per cent swing away from Labor in Tasmania, Mr Hodgman could only attract a little more than half that outflow. The remaining 5 per cent went to Tasmania’s Greens.

And although backing for Mr Rann slumped by a huge 7 per cent in SA, with nearly all of this flowing to the Liberals, a crucial core of Labor MPs held the marginal seats they’d won at the previous election, ensuring Labor retained power.

At the time of writing, Mr Hodgman is still not assured Tasmania’s premiership.

But even if he becomes premier it will be as head of a minority administration.

Mrs Redmond, on the other hand, is set to be opposition leader until the 2014 election, when someone other than Mr Rann will probably be leading SA Labor.

Federally, Mr Abbott’s traction has shown signs of plateauing despite the Rudd government’s many dismal failures stemming from flights of fantasy – from the $2.5 billion ceiling insulation fiasco to its inability to stem the ongoing flow of so-called boat people entering Australian waters.

To make matters worse for the Liberals, things seem to have begun swinging Labor’s way in economically derelict New South Wales, where Labor has belatedly set about revamping its image by installing a Las Vegas-born Catholic, Kristina Keneally, as premier, who is halting Labor’s polling slide.

Mrs Keneally still has a full year as premier ahead of her, so may well disprove predictions that NSW will inevitably turn to the Liberals.

All this is a long way from the days when the political boot was firmly on the other foot, when Liberals and Nationals ruled coast-to-coast.

One needs a very long memory to recall those days since they existed 40 or so years back, during 1969 and 1970.

Those two years were the first time Australians had bequeathed coast-to-coast governance to one side.

But just two years later, Labor’s still-talked-about 1972 It’s Time Gough Whitlam-led campaign removed the Liberals nationally for the first time since 1949.

Although there have been both Labor and Coalition governments during the past four decades, the going certainly appears to have gotten tougher for non-Labor.

While the Howard years were second in longevity to the Menzies and immediate post-Menzies 23-year Liberal/National dominance era, at one contest – the 1998 election – Mr Howard actually attracted fewer votes in aggregate than Kim Beazley-led Labor.

In other words, that 1998 outcome resembled Mr Rann’s performance of not matching Mrs Redmond in aggregate but retaining crucially needed seats and thereby holding power.

And on closer inspection, the WA ‘swallow’ wasn’t anything to write home about.

Although the Colin Barnett-led Liberals in September 2008 registered a deplorable 38.4 per cent of the aggregate vote they managed, via preferences from several minor parties and the Nationals Royalties for Regions deal, to gain government.

The reason Mr Barnett was able to bring Labor’s coast-to-coast grip to an end was because Alan Carpenter-led Labor had performed even more deplorably, with just 35.8 per cent of the aggregate vote.

In one contest Mr Barnett won a crucial Labor seat by just 64 votes.

In magnitude the Tasmanian outcome was therefore similar to that in WA, with Mr Hodgeman’s Liberals scoring just over 39 per cent compared to Labor’s 37 per cent.

Whichever way one views the Canberra, Tasmanian, SA and the WA political scenes, it’s difficult to see even one more swallow flying into a non-Labor coop in the near future.

The days of the Liberal-Nationals bloc convincingly scoring at the 50 per cent plus level are steadily fading.

There are several reasons for this, not least the continued suburbanisation of Australia with proportionately fewer voters living beyond state capitals.

And there’s the emergence of the Greens who, although seen as Labor’s rivals – often quite bitter ones – are nevertheless a net plus for Labor since it can rely on at least 70-30 Green preference splits to flow its way.

Labor, despite its differences with the Greens, has managed to nurture a beneficial, even if informal electoral and ideological partnership akin to what for so long existed nationally and in the states between Liberals and Nationals, formerly known as the Country Party.

But there’s been another generally overlooked element, something Liberal strategists have dubbed the ‘doctors’ wives factor’.

To be included within this voting category one doesn’t necessarily have to be a spouse of a medical practitioner. Being the assertive spouse of a lawyer, stockbroker, or other such remunerative profession qualifies you.

The term is drawn from Main Street, the best-selling 1920 novel by Nobel Prize winning American author, Sinclair Lewis.

Main Street’s central character was a doctor’s wife, Carol Milford; a wealthy and strident feminist-leaning type, with ardent views on most issues.

Liberal MPs have been increasingly encountering such personality types, especially in wealthier suburbs – in other words, areas once regarded as traditional Liberal seats that now have voters who look favourably upon the Greens and Labor.

Significantly, Mr Abbott’s first initiative, after burying that outrageous Rudd-Turnbull carbon tax on energy usage, was to announce a $2.7 billion paid parental leave plan that’s to be bankrolled by taxing the corporate sector, which has traditionally been Liberal-oriented.

Interestingly, less strident stay-at-home mothers were ignored.

Failure to appreciate the emergence, over the past few decades, of the doctors’ wives factor means one cannot fully appreciate this latest bid to reverse the national electorate’s flirtation with Green-oriented Ruddism and Tasmanian Senator Bob Brown-promoted Greenism by so many upper income earners and their wives.



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