September 10, 2006

Evolution is the name of the game

Government in Queensland for the last hundred years or so has been a case of what an evolutionary biologist might call “punctuated equilibrium”. A dominant party rules securely for a long period – twenty or thirty years – only to lose power because of a crisis of its own making. It was the way with Labor from 1932 until 1957, and then the Nationals from ’57 until ’89.

This election result repeats the pattern. Beattie has survived the crises he’s created in health and infrastructure. It seems nothing can destroy him. Certainly the Opposition needs to evolve into an effective competitor.

Beattie was vulnerable earlier this year. He not only survived, but thrived, for four reasons.

First, he projects fearless, boyish, yet practiced, charm. Even though voters increasingly don’t like him, they can’t help but feel drawn in and captivated. They know the routines – I’m sorry, I take responsibility, now you’ve gotta let me fix it, it’ll be another of my number one priorities - but there is a waggishness about the whole declaration that intrigues and is Machiavellian enough to suggest he might perform this time.

Second, the Labor Party adapted and learned after its 1974 near extinction when it lost all but 11 seats in Parliament, including that of its then leader, Perc Tucker. Beattie was one of the agents of that reform, at one stage being expelled from Labor for his tough stands. That reform has given Labor more depth on its front-bench than the Coalition, and a head-office machine which is far more professional.

Beattie has anointed Bligh as his successor, but John Mickel or Paul Lucas could just as easily fill the role. Contrast that to the Opposition where, even given this result, Flegg and Springborg are virtually unassailable because there is no-one else.

Third, he had superior resources – financial and government – and he deployed them to great effect. Queensland Labor is the richest political party in the country, and it outspent the Opposition by as much as six times. As well, government media resources were applied ruthlessly including TV advertising, to bolster, amongst other things, the disingenuous claim that as this is the worst drought in 100 years nothing could have been done to plan for it.

Fourth, his opponents were so weak that they offered no alternative in voters’ minds. A vote for the opposition might have sent a message, but it would have been the wrong one, and they could have been even worse than Beattie if they had won government.

Yet, we know that Beattie’s government will fall, no matter how dominant it is now, that’s the way of nature. What can the Opposition learn from this election?

They have to learn to be honest – with themselves and the electorate. While their early polling did show electors had a desire to change government - that just demonstrates the limitations of polling. Winning was never a possibility. They had 22 seats and needed another 23, more than doubling in size, just for a bare majority. The logistics of running effective campaigns in this many seats, while not losing any you already hold, is mind-boggling. Added to this these seats needed to be wrested in many cases from popular local members, another difficulty.

Fooling themselves that they could achieve government led to huge over-reach. At one stage the projected campaign budget was $4 million. Ultimately they probably raised less than a quarter of that, but they started the campaign as though it was all in the bank, starving themselves of funds later in the campaign.

If they had been more honest with themselves, they would have put a better proposition to the electorate. Last year our focus groups were telling us that they wanted a decent opposition, not a change of government. That proposition still tests well. If the Coalition had told voters that winning was a two-election process, and this election they were running to come a good second, then they would have done much better.

Honesty would also have led them down the reform path. Not the false reform offered by the various amalgamation proposals they tried to force on each other, or federal intervention into the Liberals, but genuine internal reform that refreshed the parties’ gene pools and build a strong policy base.

It would also have dictated that they use all their resources effectively. At least on the Liberal side, the winner-takes-all attitude to party management means that only members of the dominant faction get to run campaigns, often shutting the best operators out.

So, for the moment, Team Beattie is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Queensland politics, while the rats and mice of the Coalition scurry away. They both have some evolving to do. Beattie needs to learn that performance must follow promises; the Coalition - that the electorate will not reward mere wishful thinking. Long periods of dominant party rule aren’t good, neither are weak oppositions. Queensland’s seen too much of both.

Posted by Graham at September 10, 2006 07:32 AM

With reference to my message of 11th September, I dare suggest majority of voters see everyday economical gains dispersed by local governments more attractive than general theories provided at a federal level, practically enriching the already well-hilled ostly.

Moreover, a simple notion is popular that different political forces at different levels “keep each other honest”.

Posted by: Michael Kerjman at September 13, 2006 07:06 PM

"Fooling themselves that they could achieve government led to huge over-reach" –

Fooling everyone around at least in politics is not only Australian-Queenslandian feature.

"If they had been more honest with themselves, they would have put a better proposition to the electorate" – what for?
Examples collated at a federal level are convincing enough to the broadening of a number of “niggers” (this word in this message is a contextual expression for seemingly “free”, paid-as-much-as-to-be-registered-with-Job Network, “not-unemployed” for statistics purposes “team members”), a growing number of whom is being increased not as usual with the most lucky- “privileged” “dole-for-a-job” English-as-second-language inhabitants allowed for some paid "mainstream manual" jobs in Australia but with native England-right-on-abode one’s mates-of-yesterday.

Posted by: Michael Kerjman at September 11, 2006 10:55 AM

I am curious about the WA story. Firstly Dr Gallop beat a not unpopular Premier only two terms in first time. While in some senses it was the close win it was, in other senses this was the great landslide that other leaders did not get until the second win.

Also I'm not sure about the whole one nation thing. It was before the last state election I checked the figures but I'm not sure any case can be made for one nation moving conservative votes to labor as opposed to labor inclined votes coming through one nation (but perhaps that is a pointless debate).

Perhaps my question is has anyone done booth by booth 2pp comparisons between Federal and State elections. I watched the count at the same booth only months apart last Fed election / last WA state election; in a classic mortgage belt - aspirational booth.

Posted by: WA History at September 10, 2006 11:59 PM

To come back to William Bowe’s comments, I cannot see why he says that the Libs need to be the main coalition partner, where is it working elsewhere for the Libs on a state level? I agree there are specifics to Queensland but they are not comprehensible until it is placed in a broader context. On this level then we see a decline in the role of ideology in political life and increasing focus on service delivery (and not just in Australia). It would be logical that the most to benefit would be the ALP with its strong public service sector links. The least to benefit are the Nationals.
This, and the demographic shift, is why Queensland shows it so well Why, for example, that it is so wrong to compare Beattie to Joh. Beattie is just a service provider (and not a very good one at that), Joh was an ideologue. The Nationals campaign shows that while it can criticise Beatttie’s delivery it is not ready to take on the role of just service deliverers themselves (no detailed plans, typified by the off-the-cuff Bundaberg Hospital fiasco) and so all Beattie has to do is promise to try harder. The Nationals are left then to hark back to the old days but every time the Bjelke-Peterson name comes up it turns off voters especially the new demographics. The Libs are stuck in the middle of this dilemma but they have no solution either.
This is why the WA example was interesting as it highlighted that it was the collapse of the conservatives rather than anything positive from Labor that is the driving force in this trend.
I think this will inevitably get to the Federal level. Remember that the Liberal party was historically a state based organisation. These elections are hollowing it out. It could very quickly become irrelevant.

Posted by: cred at September 10, 2006 07:58 PM

Cred, there are certainly some elements of the Queensland situation that are consistent with the malaise affecting state-level conservatives generally. But there are exceptional circumstances in Queensland as well. You cite WA, where Labor won a small majority on One Nation preferences in 2001 and failed to build upon it in 2005. Compare that with three massive landslides in a row in Queensland.

The fundamental problem for the Queensland Coalition is the Nationals' seniority, which presents a catch-22: the Liberals will not become the senior partner until they win more seats, and they will not win more seats until they become the senior partner. We now know that a merger is not on, and it would not be the best result in any case.

The best scenario would be the one that has worked for them elsewhere: a Liberal-led coalition with the Nationals performing their familiar role as junior partner keeping the country on board. But until Labor suffers some self-inflicted disaster comparable with the other epochal upheavals of Queensland politics (the 1957 Labor split and the Fitzgerald inquiry), it's impossible to see how it can happen.

Posted by: William Bowe at September 10, 2006 06:50 PM

I don't buy this theory. It is too specific to Queensland. The fact is that this is being repeated across the country, the conservative vote is collapsing at the state level in all the states, even where the ALP campaign is lousy as in WA. There is something more significant going on here than just a Beattie/Joh cycle. State politics has been drained of any meaning except administration and even where the govt. has obviously fallen down on the job such as in Qld, the ALP are seen as better administrators of services. I am doubtful how much the polls meant before the campaign. When voters actually had to choose, there was no choice.

Posted by: cred at September 10, 2006 10:34 AM
Graham Young
John Black
Mark Bahnisch
Michael Lee