May 10, 2004

Politically arrogant and extremely foolish

THE Australian electorate has a well deserved, and practised, reputation for dealing swiftly with governments, politicians and political parties who treat it with arrogance and contempt.

Judging by the comments over the weekend from Senators Brandis and Mason, among others, there remain some politicians who have yet to get the electorate’s message.

The presumption contained in their comments about a transition in the Liberal leadership, and the Prime Ministership, after the elections is that the result of those elections is a forgone conclusion, so much so that the taxpayers might wish to save themselves the bother of going to the polls (not to mention the cost).

Nothing could be further from the truth, and I don’t need opinion polls to tell me that.

Federal elections in Australia are generally close, with 1996 being an obvious exception.

When one looks on a seat-by-seat basis at the forthcoming poll, it is possible to see how Labor could win with a marginal nationwide swing because of “local factors” – especially in regional Australia.

It is equally possible to see how Labor could lose ground, notwithstanding the apparent improvement in its base vote under Mark Latham.

Even in 1972, with the Liberals led by the hapless (and electorally hopeless) Billy McMahon, the election of the Whitlam Government was somewhat diminished by losses by Labor in Western Australia.

Since then, the Australian electorate has become even more volatile, and certainly less trusting of politicians, and governments.

But back to the weekend comments. The one question that needs to be asked is this – why?

I suspect the answer lies in the pomposity of the Senators concerned, and their remoteness (like that of most of their Senate colleagues) from the electorate. It may also lie in their impatience for promotion and recognition.

If the Coalition allows itself to go into an election campaign debating “when” not “if” Peter Costello will replace John Howard as prime Minister, then it will be courting the kind of electoral retribution inflicted on Leaders such as Nicholas Frank Hugo Greiner, Wayne Keith Goss and Jeffrey Gibb Kennett.

I well recall being in Sydney in the final days of the 1991 NSW State Election, a poll in which the Greiner Government was widely presumed to be heading for a landslide re-election victory. Having read the Sydney papers on a daily basis in the run up to the election, I had my doubts.

The daily media was giving Greiner a tough run for moving into the VIP suite at the Regent Hotel during the campaign, and for restricting public appearances, and press scrutiny, during it.

I tried the “taxi driver test” and my doubts were quickly confirmed. I recall word for word what one cabbie told me “Greiner has done a good job but the c… is too far up himself”.

The result changed the course of NSW politics – Greiner lost most of the seats he had won in the 1988 landslide, paving the way for his inglorious exit a year or so later.

The two Queensland Liberal Senators, and their merry little band of followers, should take note. The electorate is not impressed by politicians who take it for granted; and politicians musing about a change in the Prime Ministership next year (even before a general election is held) are surely taking it for granted in spades!

Senators Brandis and Mason have put the Liberal leadership and “transition” on the public agenda on the eve of the last Budget before the election. Their sense of timing could hardly have been worse.

Posted by Jeff Wall at May 10, 2004 10:54 AM
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