19 May 2010

Henderson lessens himself

It's normally the practice of the Politically Homeless Institute to ignore Gerard Henderson, a man still fighting the battles of 1985 (or, in the case of Robert Manne, long before) with the sort of half-baked polling analysis that tries to make savants from idiots. In this piece, Henderson has learnt less than he ought from the recent British election, and thus his ability to advise Barry O'Farrell (or anyone else reading his column) is limited.

In 1974 the Liberal Party leader, Billy Snedden, obtained some unintended notoriety when he declared that the Coalition was not defeated at the federal election. Rather, it did not win enough seats to form a government. That was all.

In 1974, Billy Snedden was attempting to lead the Liberals back to office after only 17 months in opposition, having been in power for the 23 years before that. In 2011, Barry O'Farrell is likely to lead the Coalition to victory after 16 years in opposition. Poor analogy, whether at the opening or close of an article. The parallel is closer to the position Tony Abbott is in, rather than O'Farrell.

In some academic circles in Australia it is fashionable to blame the global financial crisis on what is termed neo-liberalism ... The current electoral boundaries in Britain do not favour the Tories ... Cameron and his advisers made the political task more difficult by agreeing to debate both Brown and Clegg ... There is a lesson in the Conservative Party's performance for the Liberals and Nationals in NSW in the lead-up to next year's state election.

Maybe so, but this article doesn't prove that case:

  • Neo-liberalism and the GFC is not an issue for the NSW election. When there was plenty of money available in NSW, Labor was busy wasting it and pursuing facile media opportunities. Henderson takes more notice of "some academic circles" than most NSW voters, I suspect.

  • The electoral boundaries in NSW are neither particularly pro- or anti-Coalition; balanced, I think, is the word to describe them. It is eminently possible for the Coalition to win outright on these boundaries, and to win a proportion of seats roughly equal to the vote next March.

  • There is no coherent third-party force in NSW politics; you have the Coalition and Labor, then a motley collection of locals-first whatever-works pragmatists who lack a statewide scope. O'Farrell and Keneally need not have to choose between, say, Clover Moore and/or Peter Draper as debate partners. For Brown and Cameron to exclude Clegg would have given him other platforms plus a grievance, and would have diminished both the other leaders.

Henderson overreaches himself when trying to adapt different circumstances to NSW.

In Britain Cameron failed to distinguish himself sufficiently from Brown and New Labour.

No, Cameron failed to distinguish himself from the kind of economic vandalism that saw Britain kicked around by the EMU in 1992, policies that Cameron was then spruiking for the Conservative government at the time. He failed to win a majority because he could not rebut Labour claims that a Conservative government meant slashing and burning public services.

[Prime Minister Cameron's] major attempt in a speech to define a Cameron Tory leadership took the old form of the Hugo Young Memorial Lecture ... "big society" ... "empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives" ... resembled a meaningless mission statement ...

This was Cameron's attempt to distinguish his government from the combination of diminished social services and sexual peccadillos that characterised the last Tory government. O'Farrell doesn't need to distinguish himself from the Greiner-Fahey government of 1988-95: not to the same extent and not for the same reasons. Credit to Henderson for keeping tabs on the Hugo Young so the rest of us don't have to - but not for failing to understand what Cameron meant while on the Hugo.

On economic policy, Cameron decided not to square with the British electorate about the tough-minded policies necessary to solve Britain's economic discontents.

And quite right too: whatever ideas the Conservatives have about what should be cut will have to be renegotiated. Best they keep these to themselves: the old pantomime that "things are much wors than we thought" won't do. By contrast, O'Farrell can afford to target 16 years worth of Labor boondoggles, log-rolling and fucks-up while creating space in the budget to support infrastructure investment. It is fair to describe Britain's deep-seated economic problems can be described with a much stronger word than discontents.

And on issues of crime and terrorism ... the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition deal promises to water down the anti-terrorism legislation.

Firstly, I doubt that Barry O'Farrell has a major policy on terrorism other than working with federal and international authorities. Secondly, it should be possible to make these measures more effective by not sacrificing civi liberties in the process: good on the Brits for making this attempt, and hopefully an O'Farrell Government can distinguish itself similarly. Henderson is wrong to regard this as "water[ing] down".

In Britain the Conservatives found that Labour was deeply embedded in many of its traditional seats. The same applies in NSW.

The same applies everywhere, really. Long-established political parties have safe seats that remain with that party even in the face of considerable swings.

Since World War II the NSW Liberal Party has won only twice from opposition ... And Greiner was committed to economic reform.

Yes, but he didn't run on it. He didn't emphasise cuts and disruptions that would have sent voters fleeing back to Labor, did he Gerard. Cameron did the same thing, and ended up with a coalition of conservatives and liberals like we used to have in NSW - and it is to liberals you apply the slander "left of centre".

The opinion polls suggest Barry O'Farrell is heading for a comfortable victory. However, the sassy Kristina Keneally is popular. It may be that the NSW electorate is so tired of government by Labor mates that it will vote to change government irrespective of what the opposition has to offer. However, as Cameron has found out, the small-target strategy can backfire.

It would have "backfire[d]" if Labour and the LibDems had formed a coalition to keep the Tories out. As it stands, Britain has ended up with a moderate conservative government, lucky them.

The position O'Farrell is in today is more like that of Victoria's Jeff Kennett in the early 1990s. I don't know if you'd describe Joan Kirner as "sassy" (I wouldn't describe Keneally in that way: hopefully O'Farrell learns not to describe her that way either), but basically Labor is so unfit for government that the Coalition can be, should be, and clearly is given the benefit of the doubt.

Over the past couple of years O'Farrell's message has not always been clear. In 2008 he declined to support Morris Iemma's attempt to privatise the NSW state-owned electricity generators. Here O'Farrell lined up with the Labor Left and Greens against the right-of-centre Iemma government. Politics aside, this was not good policy since this is the kind of reform that many would expect an O'Farrell government to make.

NSW's coal-fired electricity generation system is in need of such drastic reform that it can only and must be done by government directly. The technological, environmental and regulatory changes facing coal-fired electricity is far greater than that facing the Commonwealth Oil Refineries in 1950. This reform cannot be left to an organisation run by people who are charged with maximising short-term profit. Iemma would have sold these assets for a song, and extracted such concessions for the sale, and squandered the proceeds, that O'Farrell's manoever was the right public policy choice. This makes it brilliant policy by itself: the fact that a generation of Labor politicians (particularly creatures of the Sussex Street Right) have since been pinned to the barbed-wire and machine-gunned is a bonus, and one for which O'Farrell continues to receive too little credit.

The Liberal Party's three most successful leaders - Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and John Howard - all won elections from opposition by staking out Liberal Party positions that were dramatically different from those of the incumbent Labor government at the time.


  • I'll give you Menzies, but that was a while ago and much has happened since then.

  • The first thing the Fraser government did was to pass the budget developed by its predecessors, in full. It retained contentious Whitlam initiatives of family law, Aboriginal land rights and much else besides.

  • On coming to office the Howard government did cut government services and distanced itself from its predecessors on, well, Aboriginal land rights in particular. It almost lost the following election.

While not criticising those policies in themselves, one can dismiss Henderson's idea that the Coalition must first look to Labor to set the agenda, and only then adopt a position markedly different from whatever Labor initiates, preferably in line with Henderson's preconceptions.

O'Farrell will win office when he sets out an agenda that is right for NSW, regardless of whether or not Labor's media-cyclists adopt the same position or a different one. This is the secret of Labor's success federally: Rudd is often called "Howard lite" when his positions coincide with those of his predecessor, and a dangerous radical where they don't; always, however, Rudd can be said to be more his own man than his disingenous opponent who would restore Howard in every way except personally.

While the Conservative Party only narrowly failed to achieve a majority of seats in the House of Commons, it still failed.

It would have "failed" had it not secured the Prime Ministership, the three great offices of state below that office, and control of the government generally. Compromise isn't failure Gerard, in politics it's a strength, and O'Farrell has demonstrated that strength to build alliances that show Labor can be frustrated without a collapse of government in this state. Will Hodgman could do worse than ask O'Farrell what his secret is in dealing with the Greens - particularly when the NSW Greens are more militant than Tasmania's.

In The Monthly, John Hirst said that Henderson gave O'Farrell a job in John Howard's office in the 1980s. It's not ingratitude for O'Farrell to learn from Henderson's rant that he shouldn't let Henderson's misjudgments limit NSW, the Liberals or even one's understanding of contemporary British politics.

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