31 January 2014

The new marginals

Since the late 1960s, the marginal seats in Australian politics have been on the suburban fringes. The diviners in the major parties have devoted much energy to determining what people who live in those places think, and how to develop policies that mirror those thoughts.

The media has basically parroted the beliefs of the diviners. This does two things. It reflects those views back on the diviners. It makes people (whether in outer-urban marginals or not) think that major-party responses to such views are all there are, and all there can be, to modern politics.

As ever, the traditional media is reporting a new and different politics but it can't tell what it is. It can't tell because none of their existing sources spell it out for them, and because press gallery experience counts for fairly little they can't see it either. The marginal seats for this government are no longer on the periphery of the major cities (with one exception, which I'll get to later). The next election will be decided in rural and regional Australia.

The phenomenon of treating the outer-suburbs as a homogeneous constituency began with Whitlam Labor in the late 1960s and was vindicated by his 1972 victory. Since then, every time the government has changed, outer-suburban marginals have gone with the winning side. Look at this list of electorates won at the last election (thanks to Antony Green and to the tweep who pointed this out): the ones marked (**) are those with new MPs with different party alignment to those elected in and before 2010. Many of those, like Lindsay and Robertson (NSW) or Petrie (Q) or La Trobe (V) are pretty much standard outer-suburban marginals.

Students of political behaviour tend to be more reliable than pollsters, and they note that marginal seat MPs tend to get re-elected at least once. There are exceptions, of course, like Maxine McKew and whoever denied Kevin Rudd in 1996, but basically most of the (**) crowd can expect to hold the line next time. This leads people to assume that Abbott will have at least two terms in office.

Nothing is better as a result of this government having been elected, not a scrap of "glad confident morning" for anyone other than gloating loyalists who waited too little and gained more than they can handle. It has applied the reverse-Midas touch to every issue facing the nation. The idea that this stuff-up squad will be able to deftly outmanoeuvre the entire union movement as unemployment rises is the stuff of fantasy.

In every new government is the seeds of its destruction. Malcolm Fraser won office by outfoxing Labor with the Governor-General, and lost it when Labor outfoxed him as he went to the Governor-General again. The people who voted for Howard in 1996 voted for Rudd in 2007 on much the same basis. In 2013, the seats to watch were not the outer-suburban marginals - but for lasting impact you have to watch two regional seats, Indi and Fairfax.

The campaign for Indi, with its combination of grass-roots community activism, marketing savvy and social-media acuity, has been covered here and there and elsewhere. McGowan ran the sort of community campaign that Bob Katter threatened to run but never did. That result has put the wind up the entire Nationals organisation, and exposed them as a hollow shell where a vibrant community party once had been. It has put the wind up rural Liberals like Bill Heffernan; once regarded as a wily old bull but now just an old man with nothing useful to say, and no time to start again.

The Coalition holds the majority of rural and regional seats by default and has nowhere to go but down. Members in those seats have almost all had more than one term in office (Barnaby Joyce, newly elected to the House, does not count as a newbie; watch him squirm at State of Origin time), they've had a fair go. Drought, and issues like fracking or water-use conflicts, will see more community-based activism and less resort to the blandishments of the Coalition.

This government thinks it's good at playing up issues through brinkmanship, but it isn't. Abbott's negotiations for government in 2010 showed how bad they are, and how little they've learned since. The 'debt crisis' has been utterly negated, as has the idea that the carbon tax is killing the economy. The people who've learned most about brinkmanship are the Nationals. They are at the abyss, it is two minutes to midnight for them, and anything that pushes this government into decisions where the rural/regional members don't want to go means the whole government goes over the edge.

This country has long promised to be "the food bowl of Asia", providores of fine food in bulk to a hungry and growing region. Insofar as this government can be said to have any policies at all, this was one of them. It is fair to start judging them against that record.

If we are to succeed as exporters of high-quality food, we need high-quality food handling and processing companies. We need people who understand Asian food markets, and there is scant proof that such persons exist and/or are being developed through a career path in target-market countries. The people who ascend to run Australian food companies tend to be cost-cutting accountants.

Graincorp is a badly-run Australian company (spun off from a government entity, a corporate history designed to cultivate the dumb arrogance of a big private sector company married to the inertia of a government department - see also Telstra). In theory, it would be overtaken by a better-run competitor; in practice, Archer Daniels Midland was prevented from putting Graincorp out of its misery without other misery-abatement solutions being available.

It was cheeky of Coca-Cola Amatil to ask the federal and Victorian governments to bail out SPC Ardmona, but both those governments did bang on about food exports and jobs in rural areas, so it was worth a shot. Is the government serious about that "food bowl" stuff, and if so where's the proof? Rural MPs' brinkmanship is being explicitly invoked in the neighbouring seat of Murray, because party discipline is so tight that no allowance can be made for a long-serving local member to go off pop at a decision affecting their electorate.

Australia Post will not become the fifth pillar of the banking system. It will not develop innovative payment solutions as a hub for local communities. It will not even become a dynamic delivery service like DHL did. It will become a bloated irrelevance and will have to be killed off, because of this government's limited vision and capacities.

As for Fairfax: one of the Coalition's toughest and smartest backroom boys, James McGrath, fled before the prospect of contesting the seat. His replacement was edged out by Clive Palmer - one of Antony Green's (**) MPs - probably because of gems like this:
... more jobs, higher wages and better services for all Australians ... keep fortnightly pension and benefit increases, help small business employ people, get the Budget under control ... Only the Coalition offers our country a competent, experienced and united government that is focused on delivering real change for our country.
That hasn't even worked for Ted, never mind anyone else.

Every rural/regional MP, within the Coalition or without, now knows that if they go to this government for help with a major employer in their electorate they will be sent away with a clip over the ear. A government handout will cultivate self-reliance in some people, while other programs do the opposite. Every rural/regional MP inside the Coalition, and every wannabe Coalition candidate, knows that if they promise to stand up for their community Peta Credlin and Joe Hockey will screech at them, and background journos that they're not team players anyway.

The government will dish out little projects to MPs who behave, which will be taken for granted by all sides the next election. Coalition MPs and candidates are sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by independents and stuffed about by the wide boys in both party head office and Canberra.

This government doesn't have a job-creation strategy. The job-shedding strategy with Holden and SPC will look nihilistic, but only if Shorten starts framing Abbott thus right now, so the impression sinks in and cannot be shifted.

In the horse-race politics of someone like Michelle Grattan, what's bad for the Coalition is good for the ALP. Labor holds few regional electorates and its head offices are not geared to win many more. Its preferences can boost independents standing against the Coalition in those seats, but absent compelling strategies and candidates it cannot win them. Labor's power structure is such that nobody will fail politically for failing to win seats the party has never held. Labor's shadow minister for agriculture and rural matters is Joel Fitzgibbon; enough said about his abilities, and about Shorten's foresight for wasting a promising role on such a drongo. You'd have to fancy an independent to knock him out of Hunter.

Labor does hold some regional seats - many of whom are women - but, um, yeah. It should target the following seats but it doesn't know how:
  • Gilmore (NSW)
  • Cowper (NSW)
  • Wide Bay (Q)
  • Hinkler (Q)
  • Leichhardt (Q)
  • Forde and/or Flynn (Q)
  • Lyons (T)
  • Gippsland (V)
  • Grey (SA)
  • Durack (WA) and Capricornia (Q) - representing communities disrupted by FIFO miners
Apart from Drew Hutton, nobody in the Greens is orienting their party toward land conservation or "brown" issues. The politics of that party is inner-urban Trotskyites vs other patchouli-scented suburbanites, and for existing members the emergence of rural blocs far from public transport is too wiggy to contemplate. You may as well have Indonesians voting as having knots of community-minded rural Australians upsetting the internal dynamics of the Greens.

We are going to end up with a sizeable number of independent rural/regional MPs in the next parliament, acting as 'honest brokers' between the urban parties. Major parties hate 'honest brokers' much more than they hate their opponents. Maybe the Abbott government will be returned but it won't get the benefit of the doubt. Imagine Margie-and-the-girls at rural-town shows, professing delight at steers and giant pumpkins in a feeble attempt to smooth over real concerns about education and jobs and water: here, have a brochure.

As it deals with its new paradigm the Coalition will probably have to do without one of its key personnel. With his knuckle-headed comments about Filipino porn stars and nobbling the ABC (the same ABC that gave the government its pretext to investigate the CFMEU), Mark Textor has clearly lost a plot that was always a mystery if you never took him at face value. What did Dick Wirthlin teach us about social media? Nothing, and the sheer depth and breadth of that nothing is swallowing up someone whom gullible Liberals, press gallery mouth-breathers and dills generally, regard highly and will miss without being able to properly articulate why.

Recently Textor took a holiday from politics to do some bicycle work and gobble up their website with pictures of himself. Nobody seemed to realise that the very dickheads who bully and injure cyclists are those he's spent his career cultivating: oafs, Alan Jones listeners, and other incorrigible morons. If Frank Luntz is having doubts then the post-Textor age of Australian politics is surely drawing nigh.

Shorten is hoping to give Labor the benefit of the doubt, but hopefully he brings other more tangible benefits too. He is more likely to adapt than Abbott to the new regionalism, where the Nationals fall away and are replaced by independent taskmasters. Adaptation to said taskmasters being the key lesson here - and while the Coalition have their own taskmasters, we'll see about them.

Update 2 Feb: it isn't only in Federal politics where regional electorates are the new marginals, as Farrah Tomazin explains.


  1. The Nats did not run in Indi and in fact a long serving former Nationals state MP backed McGowan.

  2. I agree with you Andrew apart from your suggestion that Abbott could have another term.

    I don't think so. I think too many people are going to be hurt or alarmed by his 'policies'. I think too that the constant aggression is going to wear people out.

    In the light of your new regionalism it would not surprise me if Sharman Stone contested her seat as an independent.

    What is left for her with her old party?

    1. My forecasts have failed so often that I fain to stick my neck out this far from the next election. Even so, I think it is entirely possible the Abbott government won't be re-elected,

  3. Further to my comment above (Anon 7.27) ...

    I have just read the fascinating interview with Frank Lunz. I had never heard of him.

    Many of his observations resonate with what is happening here.

    I was struck to by his ability to express his disquiet. People in similar positions here utter platitudes and/or are antagonistic.

    Our public debate has become so coarse.

  4. Warning - rant incoming.

    I have campaigned actively [thousands of hours of effort] for several elections state and federal in one of those electorates you listed.

    I can say categorically that the ALP has no idea how to win that seat despite :
    - in '07 the candidate [woman] shaving 10% off the COALition margin
    - the neighbouring electorate [also a woman candidate] having the same result ie a cut of 10% in the COALition margin
    -the current sitting member having not only no public profile nationally [I've seen comments by informed persons at places like Poll Bludger who admit they've never heard of him] but also having zero impact outside the rusted ons in the electorate
    -the ALP spending very little money at that '07 election, or subsequently, on advertising and none at all on promoting the local issues or candidate[s] in contrast to heavy advertising by the incumbent[s]. By a factor of lots.
    -the political 'machine' presence is close to zero, and is considered a joke, and an offensive one at that, by the local sub branches who, in at least 3 of the sub-branches are angry and disappointed at the lack of support from head office. Worse - in that the city 'boys' have clearly wiped the seat off their 'might win' list and behave accordingly and obviously.
    Not just lack of money but other aspects as well eg no visiting 'heavies', zilch in 3 elections, to get publicity, bugger all advance pre-election preparation and planning, no attempt to revitalise declining membership.
    For example at one major regional centre with thousands of voters there has been absolutely minimal staffing of polling booths on election day for the past 3 elections [no one at all at the last election] and all the other stuff that goes with that [corflutes, leafleting, local ads, public appearances, door knocking, visits by the candidate].
    Same scenario at the adjacent regional centre which has a few thousand voters, only one person handing out HTVs in 3 elections.
    A major reason is the decline of membership in the party locally, no initiates to overcome that forth coming.

    Yeah, I'm pissed off at the Labor Party.
    I'm not alone.

    Get off your arses ALP.


    1. Fascinating, Fred, thanks for that.

    2. I too left the ALP in disgust in the last 18 months - moribund party structure, struggling small inner city branch, and a general dearth of ideas, discussion. If you weren't coming thru from Trades Hall or a former student politician, it was a closed shop. And after every electoral defeat, the hand-ringing and branch members pouring out their anguish to Bracks & other elder statements which amounted to a plea: INCLUDE US, LISTEN TO US. Politics has to be more than the federal caucus. But as I said, I left. Maybe the two party paradigm has run it's course.

    3. Correct.

      The professional politician is here to stay.

      Sadly the careerist and corporatist approach has destroyed the soul of politics

      M.b.a graduates are running their offices who are a......holes in some cases.

      Jason Yat Sen Li is the exception to the rule.

      More of that please! !

  5. Labor is too busy squabbling over the spoils of opposition to focus on any kind of smart long-term view. Witness the current SA debacle, where they are not even in opposition yet!

  6. I tend to disagree. Country dwellers are traditionally very conservative and tend to form and hold their opinions over a long period of time. They learn information and opinions from their peers and spend years being taught the lay of the land from their elders. They see people like Barnaby Joyce as one of their own. The pot (policies not supporting or working against their interests that will lead to their demise) will be boiling before the frog (themselves) realise.

    1. If we were having this discussion twenty years ago I might have agreed with you. Over a long period of time the bush has been underrepresented by the Coalition, and the heat gets turned up rapidly a) when there's a drought and b) when fracking is an issue. Thus this article now.

    2. Country people, if my conception is correct, know their entitlements, are quick to demand they be provided in full.

      If Abbott does not look after them, they will look for someone that does.

      There does not appear to be any rusted on voters anymore.

    3. Traditionally, yes. But what good are those traditions doing for them now? There's been a flight from rural areas to the capital cities and the larger regional centres, what farmers are left have out of necessity had to adopt more sustainable practices, and while the major parties (ALP included) have cultivated the idea that "Greenies are evil" to a certain extent, that's a meme that doesn't stand up when you see who's on the side of farmers when issues like CSG or Landcare funding come up.

  7. Re ALP and rural electorates:

    Alp won Page from an old dinosaur in the nationals then held it in 2010 but lost it in 2013 when they could have held it. Not enough money or care about their campaign led to the loss of the seat to Kevin Hogan, a (g)Nat born in South Australia. Hogan went out of his way to oppose CSG mining pre the election and was even at an anti CSG meeting in Kyogle in November but he says nothing else in public about his opposition. So did his labor opponent Janelle Saffin, who was a prominent Rudd supporter.

    People hate CSG, especially in Page where over 80% of the electorate (over 95% in places) oppose the industry. if Hogan doesn't stand up against CSG in the area he'll probably lose the seat next election, but who'll he lose it too?

    Justine Elliot, the ALP member for Richmond, held her seat at the last election. She gave up a position as a parliamentary Secretary for Trade because it conflicted with her opposition to CSG early last year. Its hard to know whether she won cos of the CSG issue but surely it contributed. Everyone in her electorate knew she'd given up a position that may have benefited her to oppose CSG.

    Saffin and Elliot were both vocal in their opposition to CSG but Saffin was also a prominent Rudd supporter and probably tainted thru her association with Rudd and the whole "ALP putting itself and its internal crap ahead of everything else" thing. Rudd was in favour of CSG and Saffin's support of him seemed at odds with her rejection of CSG mining. Elliot on the other hand was publicly seen to give up a position that may have helped her career to support community concerns.

    Page and Richmond are not typical rural electorates tho. Both are very progressive culturally,especially Richmond which is full of hippies.

    1. I think Cowper could go the way of Richmond and Page for the same reasons. Hogan will go like every other marginal MP when the swing is on.

    2. I live in Cowper and can tell you this won't happen. This despite being the region with I think the second lowest income per capita in NSW. There is very little ALP or Greens presence that gets reported except or the occasional outbreak of csg argy bargy to the north and south. The people here are not the sharpest tools in the shed

  8. Here in Victoria. ..new blood with a Hellenic twist in the party

    Next generation are smart and savvy

    Not all is lost!!

    I think.

  9. Nice one Andrew...

    One issue you may have overlooked is this partisan fight over our a.b.c

    Mr Turnball has sold his soul...sad for such a smart man.

    Mr Abbott's comments were weird and sloppy.

    Nationalism→→→→ Chinese media


  10. Melbourne is a progressive city

    Adam Bandt has a strong brand innercity.

    Big blow for the A.L.P and The Liberals.

    Furthermore our state government here has Geoff Shaw and an unruly speaker...interesting times ahead

    Hope Ted B makes a return!

  11. Gee, Anonymous @9.09. I read Frank Luntz very differently. He's disillusioned because the people are wrong. Maybe the truth is that the people have finally seen through the nasty GOP bullshit he was peddling.

    1. ^Ditto this. Perhaps the real reason Luntz is disheartened is because there is some shred of his conscience left telling him that HE has been wrong all this time and that HE is to blame for the anger and division in the electorate.

    2. My interpretation of the piece on the Luntz was that he's a person who's been hollowed out by the paucity of warmth and compassion in his own rhetorical strategies.

      I don't expect or desire some Damascene conversion whereupon he embraces his ideological antithesis but I don't think it's too much to hope that he finds a better way to connect to (his own) humanity.

      -M Santorum

  12. I enjoyed watching the Giddings sack the Greens six weeks out from a poll - as if it's going to make a difference. God the ALP can be thick.

  13. Audioio - I meant that a keen observer like Luntz appears to be has recognized that people in his country are cross and fragmented.

    I agree he probably thinks they are wrong to be so.

    1. I think he is deluded if he thinks they shouldn't be.

  14. The update proves my point - that Labor is its own worst enemy due to its inability to get its own house in order.

  15. Hillbilly Skeleton3/2/14 9:18 am

    The best advice given to the ALP today was by their equivalent to Mark Textor, Tony Michelmore: stop being joined at the hip to the Unions and become the community-minded, Social Democrat party the electorate craves. http://www.smh.com.au/comment/dont-blame-craig-thomson-union-image-fell-behind-long-ago-20140202-31uwm.html

  16. good read Andrew - links in your article are broken and I'm interested to follow some of them ...

  17. I'm from one of the electorates you mentioned, Andrew. It seemed to me that the ALP had no wish to win. They replaced a pretty popular, retiring female MP who lived in the major population centre and had a fairly high profile with a union hack from a mining town. 'Cos up here, it's all about 'the moines'. He was never available for a quote in the local paper, and knew nothing about local issues. The only thing you ever got from him was regurgitated talking points about programs that weren't even available in the electorate. Ministers also promised to visit, creating loads of work and drama, and then cancelled at the last minute. This was a winnable seat that had been labour prior to Rudd's 2007 victory. The ALP has lost the plot.