28 November 2010

Wake-up call

There are 88 seats in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Here on the morning after a general election, the Coalition have won 44, Labor have won 38, there are 6 in doubt - and in at least one of those, the Liberals are ahead.

It is bullshit to talk of "hung parliament" or "too close to call". The Coalition have won this election and Ted Baillieu is Premier, end of. It isn't like the Federal election, it isn't like the first AFL grand final this year (credit to St Kilda for not bellyaching how they scored more goals or some such, they got on with it and took their lumps). We are only talking about the size of the Coalition majority, and nebbishy considerations like what the Nationals will demand in return, what sort of minister that a certain Liberal frontbencher will make, etc.

There was a high number of pre-poll votes. Pre-polls tend to favour the conservatives, or favour Labor less than the general vote on polling day. Snarl all you like but don't shoot the messenger.

Even if Labor win absolutely all those seats that are now undecided, it will be 44-44 (which it won't be). Eleven years in government and all you can show for it is public indifference as to whether you live or die. For a hung parliament result, Julia Gillard deserved and got the benefit of the doubt; John Brumby, having lost the 1996 election, having been consistently unpopular before and since his ascent to the Premiership three years (not three weeks or three months) ago, has already got what he deserves.

Labor has been eviscerated here. John Brumby said that Labor had received "a wake-up call", but the whole idea of a wake-up call is to enable you to get ready and get into action. The whole idea of polling is that you can foresee the possibility of such a result and take action on your campaign. It's genuinely pathetic that Labor's polling showed they were up against it for so long (and by "so long", I mean well before the election), and they did bugger-all about it. Here are two coulda/ woulda/ shoulda examples:

  • Maxine Morand (Mount Waverley): was Minister for Children and Early Childhood Development and Minister for Women's Affairs. Brumby singled her out for praise, but you'd think she would have done something, anything, to appeal to the women and parents of Mount Waverley - something that might countermand the inherent unpopularity of their Premier and of a government that was obviously complacent in so many areas.

  • Tony Robinson (Mitcham): another minister left to run himself ragged for no gain whatsoever.

  • Tammy Lobato (Gembrook): I've had no access to private polling there or anywhere else, but Vic Labor must have known that she was a dud in terms of popular appeal. In marginal seats you need members/candidates with their own personal appeal to counteract a longterm government with a not-terribly-popular Premier; smart political machines seek out and promote such people, attractive political causes have such people on hand. They must have been able to find someone, anyone to take over from her. They must have been able to tap Lobato on the shoulder and find her another job. Don't give me any crap about loyalty because whenever loyalty conflicts with Labor winning government, you know what modern Labor will ditch first.

Baillieu was right in saying that Brumby's authority is gone. He's had more than enough rope, and look where he's led them. The Victorian ALP is a fractious beast and it won't stand for Brumby lording it over them in his high-handed way: only winners get away with that, as Kevin Rudd found. There is no clear successor:

  • Rob Hulls has many of the same qualities and shortcomings as Brumby, at worst he could be an almost-but-not-quite leader like Costello;

  • Daniel Andrews is a hack, Brendan Nelson without the personality or record of achievement;

  • Tim Holding is a promising youngster who won't be able to shake off either the dead weight of the former government, nor maintain statesmanlike distance from factional skullduggery - the Libs would pick him off like they did Kim Beazley, or like Labor did Andrew Peacock, except Holding isn't as nice or as disciplined and dogged as either man.

In other words, Vic Labor are pretty much where they were in 1992: likely to go through a number of leaders in a short time, and the next Victorian Labor Premier is probably not in Parliament now (nor in a few weeks either).

An election result is not a wake-up call. An election result sets the parameters of the political environment. It is patronising for politicians to represent an election result as just another piece of advice.

Another difference is that the Greens were a fringe force in 1992, and in at least four seats they aren't any more. The Greens stuffed up in taking the Liberals for granted; but I would expect the Greens to learn the lessons of that long before the ALP stops crowing and, yes, taking the Liberals for granted. Labor are going to bumble on in the inner city as they always have, endorsed by their "Labor values" campaign in inner-Melbourne seats, which is ultimately unsustainable (particularly when their ability to dole out government largesse dries up in a few days). The Greens didn't make any Maoist Great Leaps Forward but neither did they hurtle backwards like the Democrats.

The third key difference here is that the Liberals are different, too. Baillieu is not Kennett, and the attempt to convince people otherwise has failed. The Liberals have stopped denying that there was anything wrong ("we just need to get our message out"), which is why they weren't thrashed like they were in 2002 and '06. Tony Nutt is a sharper and tougher operator than Brian Loughnane.

Why this idea that the election is "too close to call" by people other than hopeful Labor supporters?

Partly it's a kind of Stockholm syndrome by the Victorian parliamentary press gallery. Every article or soundbite indicating that Brumby was a bit stiff or dismissive of legitimate public policy concerns over many years was met with fury by Brumby government staffers, hissy denunciations and freezings-out of media briefings. Rather than telling those people to get stuffed and doing some proper investigative journalism, the press gallery began to adopt the mindset of the Brumby government: there is no leader but The Leader, if a man can handle a press conference he can manage the State Government, etc. They just can't believe it's over, that the dolts and losers who apparently constituted the Liberal Party until fairly recently are actually going to be slipping into the big white cars and hiring staffers of their own.

Partly it's because the conventional wisdom has failed, on a number of levels:

  • In terms of the election, conventional wisdom held that the Libs would win a few seats, but not enough to win government. What ended up happening bears no relationship to the predictions. These reports were not useful in helping form sensible judgements about Victorian politics;

  • Polling needs to change. If 25% of voters have voted before polling day, the question is not how are you going to vote but how have you voted, a question that must be put over a longer timeframe and in a better targeted way; and

  • In terms of what it means to be a successful journalist: you've entered the journosphere well and proper if you can convince a senior party official, on the basis of anonymity, to let you see selective aspects of private polling. You can't lash out at the polls or the party officials who tailored their campaign to an inaccurate representation of the public's wishes and requirements from their state government.

What we have is a lazy journosphere that is using the same themes from the Federal election, but changing the names. The fact that the Greens have held the balance of power in Victoria since 2006, and look set to do so again, has been ignored despite their considerable impact on public policy outcomes. In some cases, like the ABC's Lyndal Curtis, journalists actually blame voters for being "indecisive". Bloody voters!

Wouldn't it be a cosy world where the journalists filed stories on political tactics, the politicians read those stories into Hansard or called press conferences on the basis of those stories, which led to another round of stories? Isn't that what journalism and politics is all about? Sadly, no. The voters set the parameters within which politics operates; and when media consumers and voters turn away from the media then it is the media that has failed, not the consumers and voters in hoping for more from the politico-media complex and not finding it.

Update: Libs have won Bentleigh. Told ya. Here's Shaun Carney recognising that voters make elections, not pollies or ads or journalists.

1 comment:

  1. Well, it's just the Canberra press gallery writ small ... perhaps Lyndal Curtis thinks the journosphere needs to elect a new people.