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Own goals

June 9th, 2011

One great thing about soccer, at least for me, is that it is possible, and (by contrast with other sports where this can theoretically occur) relatively common, to score for the other side[1], thereby giving the language the phrase “own goal”. While not an own goal, I certainly had a missed shot with my prediction back in 2007 that the Liberals would never win another federal election. Technically, I’m still in the clear – the prediction that they would merge with the Nats before regaining office was right for the Queensland parties and may turn out correct at the national level – but the underlying analysis posited that Labor would remain politically dominant at both the Federal and State (except NSW) level for years to come. That prediction was derailed by a spectacular series of own goals on the part of the Labor Party, including

* WA Premier Carpenter’s decision to allow ministers to resume contact with Brian Burke
* The NSW government’s suicidal pursuit of electricity privatisation, thereby turning a defeat that was already inevitable (given past own goals) into a rout
* The Bligh government’s similarly suicidal program of asset sales
* Federal Labor’s dumping of the ETS, followed by the dumping of Kevin Rudd

While there is no particular disaster to explain the narrow defeat of the Victorian Labor government, spillovers from the Federal level probably did enough damage to make the difference.

But after only a short period in office, it seems that both the NSW and Victorian Coalition governments are scoring own goals on a regular basis. In Victoria (as at the Federal level) there have been huge blowups over senior ministers missing Parliamentary votes. And NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, having campaigned as cuddly and unthreatening, made a huge mistake when he tried to retrospectively reduce the feed-in tariff paid to people who had, in good faith, invested in the previous government’s solar PV scheme. He followed that up by ramming through Parliament anti-union legislation that had not been mentioned in the campaign. Given how far Labor’s stocks have sunk, mistakes like this probably won’t be crucial. But a government that manages to mess up what should be its honeymoon period is unlikely to last for long.

For political analysis, the “own goals” phenomenon presents a serious problem. If you want to estimate things like election outcomes you have to work on the basis of things that are more or less predictable, like economic conditions, ideological positions and so forth. Implicitly, this assumes that politicians do the best they can to win, given the objective circumstances. But if political outcomes are driven primarily by unforced errors like those I’ve mentioned, then predictability goes out the window.

fn1. In Australian football, it is, for course, very common to rush the ball through your own goal for a behind, scoring 1 point for the other side, but preventing a goal worth 6 points.

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  1. Nick
    June 9th, 2011 at 12:58 | #1

    Surely the Victoria is at least partly due to voter fatigue of the sort that sort a fairly successful Labour government turfed out in NZ?

    But isn’t it also just common sense that you would be extremely unlikely to be correct in a prediction that the Libs would never win another Federal election?

  2. Donald Oats
    June 9th, 2011 at 15:02 | #2

    At the federal level it has felt like there is some kind of “key people” effect, namely that some of the more savvy media strategists left for greener pastures, and Labor has failed to fill that gap in their staff. Rudd had a couple of people that seemed to make a difference, initially; the first campaign was well run, considering that federally Labor had been out of power for 12 years. Contrast that with the second campaign. Similarly, a number of key initiatives have sunk Labor stocks not necessarily because people feel passionately one way or another, but because of the media presentation; Federal Labor have spectacularly failed to anticipate many of the fairly obvious potential criticisms of various policies, and then seem a bit bemused when these criticisms arise. I suspect that a remedial effort on the media engagement front would help federally.

    The individual state governments have there own unique problems. NSW Labor had gone about shooting itself in both feet with a cannon; however, now that O’Farrell is ensconced, I suspect the NSW Liberals could be in power for several election cycles – at least a second term should be possible just on the seats they have to lose.

    The other governments I won’t say anything about, beyond that the SA Rann Labor government cops a shellacking whatever they do, so who knows whether they have another election success in them or not.

  3. June 9th, 2011 at 15:05 | #3

    “He followed that up by ramming through Parliament anti-union legislation that had not been mentioned in the campaign” – yes, I haven’t seen much made of this in the media. It follows a pattern of right wing governments (including John Howard of course, as well as American governments) getting into power with all kinds of vague motherhood statements and getting down to business of smashing unions and reducing working conditions and pay as the first item on agenda. Followed rapidly by privatising anything not yet sold off, and deregulating anything not already being “self-regulated”, and getting rid of any environmental “red tape” still protecting any part of the environment. Not an agenda, if set out prior to an election, the public would vote for, even with the massive support of Murdoch Press and shock jocks, and the acquiescence of the ALP.

  4. haiku
    June 9th, 2011 at 16:21 | #4

    In Victoria (as at the Federal level) there have been huge blowups over senior ministers missing Parliamentary blowups.

    It’s an amusing image, but I think you have a rogue word there!

  5. June 9th, 2011 at 17:16 | #5

    And the problem with any of that, David Horton, is what exactly?

  6. June 9th, 2011 at 17:19 | #6

    Sorry, I should have said “Not an agenda, if set out prior to an election, the public (except Steve at the pub) would vote for”.

  7. June 9th, 2011 at 17:26 | #7

    I was being tongue in cheek David, though some of the stuff you mention is actually a step forward.

  8. Peter T
    June 9th, 2011 at 17:31 | #8

    There’s a tendency – probably in part due to leaders resigning from politics after a single defeat, and in part due to a more adversarial style – for first term governments to suffer from a combination of hubristic enthusiasm and inexperienced incompetence. Whitlam’s first term was the first in my memory, Howard’s another. If they get a second term they seem more likely to get a third – thus making it more likely that an inexperienced opposition will succeed, and so perpetuate the cycle. I expect an Abbott government to provide a spectacular example of this.

  9. Gypsyland
    June 9th, 2011 at 21:38 | #9

    Nick states:
    Surely the Victoria is at least partly due to voter fatigue of the sort that sort a fairly successful Labour government turfed out in NZ?

    Voter fatigue is a MSM term much beloved by the uncommentariat to describe something that they don’t comprehend.

    While there may be a reasonable case that long standing governments do not have it within themselves to renew themselves, with the most talented front bench facing up in the first term, and the rest being all downhill from there on in, this of itself does not preclude a government from both governing well and renewing itself.

    What it does seem to say is that it is not voter fatigue but political reality (that is, the inability of the merely elected to rise above their station) that drives this process.

    The Brumby Victorian government was an odious government on many levels, from unbridled growth fetishism to the most blatant of rent-seeker capitulations, it dragged the Labor name through the dust while pursuing rampant self-interest for its corporate overlords. What, Labor, business friendly? You bet your arse they were.

    As a friend of mine said, ‘I hate the other mob, but what can you do?’. Besides the silliness of running cows in the Alpine National Park it should only be uphill for them. (Except, oops, they’re on a law and order rampage, which, if unchecked, will alienate most of the electorate and go on to prove that they, too, are as stupid as their just defeated opponents.)

  10. Declan Trott
    June 10th, 2011 at 10:06 | #10

    “Implicitly, this assumes that politicians do the best they can to win, given the objective circumstances.”

    Why does this follow? Actions that reduce the chances of a party regaining government may still be in the personal interests or the ideological goals of the politicians making them (or some of their supporters).

  11. Charles
  12. June 12th, 2011 at 21:04 | #12

    Pr Q said:

    I certainly had a missed shot with my prediction back in 2007 that the Liberals would never win another federal election. Technically, I’m still in the clear – the prediction that they would merge with the Nats before regaining office was right for the Queensland parties and may turn out correct at the national level

    “Technically”, the “Last Liberal” theory suffers from failure to launch. A merger of the Liberal and National party would not confirm this thesis, quite the opposite. The thesis is wrong on its own terms since it ignores the change in relative power within the Coalition. It is obvious that, at least at the federal coalition level, the Liberal party is ascendant whilst the National party is in secular decline. The “Last National” would have been closer to the truth, but it is not as sexy a headline.

    Moreover, the Liberal Party continues to be the beneficiary of cultural identity and national security politics. These debates may be spluttering but they are by no means over, as witnessed by recent events in Europe and the Middle East. Not to mention the endless contretemps over border protection.

  13. Andrew
    June 12th, 2011 at 21:06 | #13

    Don’t worry JQ, you weren’t alone in getting caught up in the euphoria of defeating the evil John Winston ‘ratty’ Howard. There were many other silly proclamations made in that period. At it’s heart Australia is a reasonably conservative country – more compassionate than the US, but centre-right in its outlook (on average). The Liberals will always be a powerful political force (or whatever incarnation the party takes) – what’s actually surprising is how well the Libs are polling with the dingbat Abbott in charge. Just imagine how well they’d be doing if they had some decent leadership – the left should pray that Turnbull doesn’t successfully challenge.

  14. June 12th, 2011 at 21:09 | #14

    Pr Q said:

    the underlying analysis posited that Labor would remain politically dominant at both the Federal and State (except NSW) level for years to come. That prediction was derailed by a spectacular series of own goals on the part of the Labor Party,….Implicitly, this assumes that politicians do the best they can to win, given the objective circumstances. if political outcomes are driven primarily by unforced errors like those I’ve mentioned, then predictability goes out the window.

    Politicians do what is best for their partisan factions, donor lobbies and their post-political careers. So “unforced errors” and “own goals” are not freak events, they are endemic to politics-as-usual as practised by corrupt and inept ALP administrations. They are not accidents, they are incidents in a narrative of patronage and payola.

    So the long-awaited ALP political dominance has not gone through the formality of actually occurring. The electoral pendulum has terrific inertial momentum, essentially triggered by the boredom of the swinging median voter with the inevitable stuff-ups and rorts that accompany any long-lived government.

    Moreover the fortunes of the L/NP have benefited from the electorate’s counter-valent federal-state voting tactic, tending to vote against the party in federal office when it comes time to considering their preferences for state governance. The victory of the federal ALP spelt the demise of many state ALP governments.

    To refute part of the “Last Liberal” theory in SEP 08 I predicted that the L/NP would soon return to power at the state level, largely because prolonged ALP governance contains the seeds of its own destruction, particularly the cronyist and careerist administrations that tend to get thrown up by contemporary Labor machines:

    the inexorable statist tendency sets up the danger of ALP cronyism and corruption, most evident in NSW but also in WA (Brian Burke). So the LP can always make a decent living off public dissastisfaction with ALP political dis-eases and mis-management…There are four more state elections to be held before the next NSW election in 2011. THese will be in QLD, SA, TAS and VIC. The ALP is currently dominant in all four jurisdictions. Nevertheless I am willing to put $100 down that the L/NP in some shape or form will win one of these electoral contests before the [noughties] decade is out.

    My prediction was confirmed, which tends to prove the old saws: oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

  15. June 14th, 2011 at 18:28 | #15

    Sadly, the fact that it’s a black analysis doesn’t ameliorate its truth.
    Faulkner erupted against it what it examines just last week, but may as well have talked to the wall.
    In SAm Premier Rann, almost perversely, has announced a nother privatisation, involving the tote and Garrett’s effort on QA had to be seen to believed.
    Watching the young woman sitting next to Garrett, I thought “There goes another generation of activists”.
    Particularly watching Katter slice and dice Garrett and Jones on the Intervention.

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