12 November 2006

A preference for bloody-mindedness

There are many parties in the Australian political system. There are only two parties of government - the ALP and the Liberal-Nationals coalition - hereafter referred to as POGs.

A POG loses office when it loses sufficient seats to the other POG. The losing POG tries all sorts of tactics to win voters back, but occasionally they only succeed in winning one or two seats here or there while remaining in opposition.

The old saying goes that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them - but when an opposition loses the government can't claim all the credit. Not only is the loser POG abandoned by the middle ground, they are undercut by their own people. A winning POG has to appeal to the centre without losing the fringe, and this is the stuff of the best political leadership. Not every party has it, and those that do don't have it all the time.

In 1988, Nick Greiner led the Coalition to power. Labor not only lost the marginals to the Coalition - and even relatively safe seats like Cessnock - they lost heartland seats like Balmain, Newcastle, Wollongong and Swansea to independents. In private, Liberal wide-boys would claim credit for preference deals that added that extra bit of spice to the 1988 victory - the same victory they frittered away over two elections - but in truth these were symptoms of ALP failure. If ever there was an example where an opposition that won the election, Greiner is it.

Today the tables have turned. Dubbo, Port Macquarie, all those independent seats in State Parliament are seats that would normally be held by the Coalition. Safe seats that aren't demoralise oppositions and take their focus away from the government. The NSW Coalition missed the Orkopoulos scandal, and the latest Tripodi outrage, because they were busy playing silly-buggers with independents and Christian fundamentalists.

In South Australia a similar phenomenon is in place - Mike Rann is duchessing disaffected Liberals in seats he can't win to keep the opposition pinned to the floor, a more effective strategy than massaging hard-to-please voters in the marginals. Federally, the three independent MPs all hold conservative regional seats one would expect the Coalition to hold; they are polyps in the Coalition's body-politic whose growth is another sign of Nationals impotence.

In Victoria, there will eventually be a Liberal government. Not only will Labor lose the marginals out around Narre Warren or Glen Waverley, but they'll lose those inner-Melbourne seats where the fractious left take their politics seriously. Kirner shored up those seats as her popularity decreased to ensure they didn't go independent. The loss of Bob Hawke's federal seat in that area in 1992 was one of the few wake-up calls they actually heeded, and accounts for Labor's resilience after they were belted by Kennett later that year. Kennett ignored those Labor heartland seats - it was a mistake, he had ample opportunity for mischief, but they stayed united and eventually pushed back.

The Victorian Liberals should preference the Greens in inner-city seats they can't win. Labor can afford to lose a few marginals, but it fears the loss of inner-city seats and the Liberals were wrong to indulge their opponents. Labor would struggle to define itself and would lose the composure that makes it so reassuringly dull, which would have Federal implications in Labor's best state.

The Liberals would have some explaining to do to their donors in preferencing Greens over Labor. The explanation is this: bloody-mindedness. The property industry provides numerous examples where companies stop rival developments by funding a fake environmentalist front: the principle of Liberals working to secure the election of a Green is no different. For Greens, this raises the question of Faustian bargains, but that's their problem. The POG least able to escape a pincer movement isn't nimble enough for government anyway.

Another problem is that a badly-managed pincer strategy makes a POG look like it doesn't know what it's about. Labor funds going toward an arch-conservative, Liberals funding the Greens, this is intellectually incoherent and double-dealing. Yeah? So? Been in politics long, have ya?

Preference deals like this, some say, might give leg-ups to minor parties whose obscurity is well deserved. This would be fine if current arrangements worked better than they do in freezing out fringe players like the Greens and Fielding First. When it comes to preference deals, minor parties and independents are so many stick sthat one POG uses to beat the other.

Such deals are arranged by the sort of person who is utterly repellent to voters, but who can make it to positions of power within POGs. These people occupy the upper houses of our parliaments, and are prone to chummy deals with their fellow professionals that can work against the interests of the parties which gave them their position: all care, no responsibility.

With you consider the piss-poor governments in this country, it simply is not fair to give them the credit due to political genius. The credit belongs to Oppositions with a knack for failing to win the marginals while also disaffecting the heartland. Oppositions in this country have worked hard to cop it from all sides, and they deserve more credit for that than they've received.


  1. A winning POG has to appeal to the centre without losing the fringe

    Not with compulsory voting.

    With voluntary voting you have to appeal to your own heartland. Under compulsory voting you are guaranteed the support of the fringe of your type (right or left).

    The possibility of the Greens getting elected is no problem to the ALP because they will always support the ALP in government. The ALP will not lose government if it loses seats to the Greens... they will only lose govt if they lose seats to right-wingers.

  2. If the ALP loses power to the Coalition, it will not be able to offer the enticements to their fringe that would otherwise keep them within the fold. Labor's fringe consists not only of the Greens, but in Victoria at least the DLP.

    It is a sign of political weakness and incompetence to lose both marginals and heartland seats. I've given examples of how the Coalition at state level are so incompetent that they not only lose seats to Labor but to independents as well. An opposition can only win government if they not only court the swingers, but can convince their fringe that they have the ability to deliver for their fringe to a greater extent than is possible for that fringe to battle on alone.

    The experience of Tasmania's Field government in the 1990s showed Labor always going cap-in-hand to the Greens. While Labor held office during that time, the perception of that government was so poor they achieved little and lost office at the following election. I'd speculate the same would happen if Howard were forced into minority government after the next election and had to negotiate with Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Peter Andren (all of whom hold seats where, without these individuals, the Coalition would beat Labor).

    POGs will always seek to avoid frustration and failure to this extent, which is why they face the difficult task of appealling to both their fringe and to swinging voters.

  3. The DLP has traditionally been seen as a fringe conservative party, not a fringe labor party.

    Obviously, no party wants to lose both marginals and heartland seats... but sometimes difficult choices have to be made. Losing a heartland seat generally means you've lost it to somebody who is guaranteed to support you, so it makes political sense to fight for the middle.

    I think Howard would be able to manage relying on HoR independents. There is no question that Windsor & Katter would support the conservatives.

    Likewise, when the ALP lost Cunningham to the greens it made no real difference.

  4. I'd argue that the DLP is both a conservative and a labour party.

    Happy to joust with you on the high plains of theory, but in practice a political party that starts losing heartland seats loses the basic competence necessary for voters to entrust it with power. It is a fallacy akin to the school student who does not pay attention to lessons or texts but assumes that he/she will blitz the exam.

    The loss of Cunningham showed the nation that Labor was not ready for government, and indeed it has not won since.