Labor as the natural party of (state) government

I was going to write a post saying that the resounding victory of the Andrews government in Victoria reflected the fact that Labor is the natural party of government at the state level in Australia. A quick check revealed that I’d already written pretty much the same thing in 2002 (over the fold). I’ll add some updates and qualifications in comments.

Australian Financial Review, 5 December 2002

The latest Labor landslide at the weekend reinforces the great paradox of Australian politics. Labor is in office, and looking comfortable in all the States and Territories, but seems doomed to endless Opposition at the Federal level.

It could be argued that this is just a random fluctuation. After all, something very close to the opposite configuration occurred during the last year of the Keating government.

Then there is the general tendency of Australians to distrust overly powerful governments, reflected in the strength of minor parties in the Senate. A Liberal government at the federal level is therefore good for Labor at the state level, and vice versa.

There is something in this, but not enough. Labor now appears to be the natural party of government in all the states, with the exception of the Northern Territory and perhaps WA, and even there, the old mould of non-Labor dominance has been broken.

In the past fifteen to twenty years, Labor has rarely lost a state election, except when it has displayed high levels of incompetence, arrogance or both. Even in the wake of fiascos like the Victorian and South Australian bank failures, the Liberals have struggled to gain a second term, and have never managed a third. By contrast, all the Labor governments on the eastern seaboard have won re-election by landslide margins, and all look set for extended periods in office.

At the Federal level, John Howard’s current dominance of the political stage has led many observers to overlook the fragility of his hold on power. The government scraped back in 1998 with a minority of the two-party preferred vote, and appeared doomed to defeat early in 2001. Only the combination of international crisis, astute demagoguery and a hopelessly lame opposition strategy saved them, and even then the win was far from crushing. As recently as August, the government trailed Labor (on a two-party basis) in opinion polls.

In an election fought solely on domestic issues, the government would probably lose, despite relatively good economic performance and the absence of an inspiring alternative. Since state elections are always fought on domestic issues, Labor has a huge headstart at the state level. Its only potential weak point is law and order, but the current crop of Labor leaders have proved entirely capable of neutralising this natural conservative winner, with aggressive policies of their own.

Underlying all of this is a divide between elite and popular opinion that emerged during the Hawke-Keating years. John Howard exploited one aspect of this divide, over cultural issues, during the Tampa crisis.

In doing so, Howard temporarily obscured the fact that, on economic issues, he has been the most important single figure in forming and articulating elite opinion in favor of freer markets, lower taxes and cuts in public expenditure. The business, political and opinion elites are far more unified on these issues than on immigration and multiculturalism.

While the elite has pushed economic and social policy steadily to the right, public opinion has, if anything, moved to the left. The public clearly wants better schools and hospitals rather than reductions in taxes or the elimination of debt. And where they were once sceptical of policies like privatisation, they are now actively hostile.

As the Victorian campaign showed, even hardy perennials like the trade union bogy have lost their pull. With a new corporate scandal every other day, and employers acting more and more like 19th century mill-owners, no-one is much impressed by the exposure of a few old-fashioned rorts on wharves or building sites.

The big question is whether Labor can switch the focus the attention of the national electorate on domestic issues. The only way to do this is to present a clear contrast with the government. The decision to review the health insurance rebate is a good first step, but much more is needed to finance a substantial domestic program, however.

While there is a good case for income tax relief for lower-income earners, whose meagre gains from the ‘new tax system’ have already been eroded into insignificance by bracket creep, this must be offset by a renewed assault on tax minimisation, and by the reversal of mistaken concessions like the halving of capital gains tax. Unlike state Labor, which can assume that the electorate will focus on domestic issues, and be grateful for even modest benefits, federal Labor needs to convince voters that it will make a real difference to their daily lives.

10 thoughts on “Labor as the natural party of (state) government

  1. Bringing the story up to date from 2002, I think most of Labor’s defeats at state level fit the pattern I’ve described. They include
    * (WA) Alan Carpenter’s crazy decision to bring the architect of WA Inc corruption, Brian Burke, in from the cold
    * (Queensland) Anna Bligh’s sellout on privatisation (richly rewarding for Bligh personally, but a disaster for the Labor Party, including the Caucus sheep who backed her
    * (NSW) Too many examples of corruption, betrayal and incompetence to to list
    * (SA) A gradual accumulation of problems over sixteen years in office
    * (Tasmania) Ditto, plus the problem of Labor-Green cohabitation

    In the entire period since 2002, no conservative state government has made it to a third term, and most have lasted only one.

    As regards the influence of federal issues, the idea that the outcome in Victoria is a direct response to Turnbull’s sacking is, I think, a furphy. But federal and state issues are more closely linked than usual because the conservatives at both state and federal level have been running hard on the same set of culture war issues – race, crime, coal and so on,. More on this soon, I hope.

  2. No doubt voters have come to see Labor as a sort of-conservative- hand break on neoliberalism.

    Also no doubt, when Labor tries to have its cake and eat it re community trust against relationships with developers, the electorate reacts angrily, as it did with Bligh or NSW Labor.

    In a way it is a pity the result wasn’t a little closer, with the Greens holding BOP in Victoria as big wins seem to create complacency in sitting governments.

    Re prof Quiggin’s last para, I’d humbly concur that federal and state issues now tie together via the chains of neoliberalism and in Victoria the voters this time discerned that the sado-economics were IPA Canberra based rather than state based.

    But they are out of touch, the Libs. Not even the usual Laura Norder race and crime based scare campaigns worked this time because the Banking RC has shown where the real criminality exists. The public has finally become resistant to a now-old septic strain.

  3. Barring catastrophes and big mistakes, Labor should win the next Federal election. If they then implement policies for the great majority of people (in all their diversity) and for sustainability, rather than policies for rich people and corporations, then Labor can win 4 terms in a row, I believe. Here’s hoping.

  4. I think the Australian politics is too volatile with those landslides in Queensland and New South Wales. It takes about 12 months for the electorate to hate whoever the current Prime Minister is. Not quite bad as France when they hate their president within about 6 months.

    Cohabitation with the Greens will be poison. When Michael Field first dealt with Bob Brown in 1990 in Tasmania, he campaigned in 1993 of either give me majority rule I will support the liberals from the crossbenchers. He kept that promise for 3 years supporting a liberal minority government because the Greens are so impossible to deal with.

    That Troy Branston fellow is right, the real enemy of labour other greens because they are antidevelopment

  5. I find this post rather dismal. Firstly because in the mental time machine that we build when reading a news or opinion piece from the past, we still have FIVE MORE YEARS of John Howard as Prime Minister. And we know that Labor’s incompetence will only get worse when they contest the 2004 election with Mark Latham as leader. But what gets me down most is how little has happened on the policy front since this column was written. There has been no significant movement on tax, climate, education, health, transport or really much else. Plenty of battles have been fought but they’ve mostly ended in stalemate, which is to say conservative victory.

  6. The labour state governments (note the original spelling ) have the best interest of the majority of residents upmost in their plans. They DO NOT sell everything they can to fund construction projects run by mates of the Liberal Party. Instead they try to improve schools, roads, hospitals and the environment. More power to their arms.

  7. The following is a little tangential

    The rural Libs are heeding their electorates in voting against changes to access laws more in line with open slather for mining companies seeking what appears to be unconditional access to farms and properties to do mining (gas fracking euphemised again?). My gut sympathies are with farmers, who do not want perhaps generations of hard work smashed down to suit some grasping minerals developer.

    Thing is, It is suggested that though the ALP is pleased at the infighting it may yet vote for the governments legislation, some thing I find totally at odds with a true Labor ethos and has me in mind of some Labor premiers in the past who have been strangely intense in their friendships with mining and forestry resources harvesting money

  8. “As regards the influence of federal issues, the idea that the outcome in Victoria is a direct response to Turnbull’s sacking is, I think, a furphy.”

    More direct would be the backlash from the federal “Strengthening the Integrity of the Welfare System..” as announced in the 2015 budget papers by ditching a tried and well found method that had integrity and creating the DSS/DHS/Centrelink Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) debacle, ie., the Robodebt scam.

    By now there are hundreds of thousands of victims in Victoria alone. Robodebt, in a most underhand and dodgy way, victimises anyone who has ever received any commonwealth payment and who has ever been employed. It is not only an attack on workers of any kind, but an attack on working!

    Robodebt lacks all integrity. Robodebt is knowingly based on government held data that is corrupted, invalid, flawed, and fake. Quality control is absent. Robodebt places onerous burdens on victims in dealing with it and the fake debt repayments, usury interest rate charges and financial penalties it demands. Robodebt cuts across all classes, including blue-blood liberal voters, their old aunt, and their kids. The Robodebt government fail recovers little of the claimed overblown fake debt even though many intimidated fearful victims cave in and pay their fake debt after being placed in an impossible situation under great duress.

    Robodebt costs taxpayers more to run than it delivers.

    Robodebt engenders outrage.

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