Trouble in victory for Labor in Victoria

30 December 2014

This year of politics in Australia has ended with a rarity, the defeat of a one-term government.  Voters rarely throw out first-term governments, be they federal or state – they usually give governments at least two terms.  But last month’s state election in Victoria saw the Liberal-National Coalition Government voted out after one term, with Daniel Andrews leading the Labor Party to victory, marking the first time in ages that voters had tossed out a first-term government.

Having unexpectedly taken office at the previous election, in 2010, the Coalition ultimately looked like it had no agenda for government.  It actually governed well, but several scandals, notably involving Liberal-cum-Independent MP Geoff Shaw, coupled with the Coalition’s narrow parliamentary majority, made the Coalition look worse than it was.  Worse still for the Coalition was that in 2010 it not only won a majority, albeit narrow, in the Lower House of Parliament, where governments are formed, but it also won a narrow majority in the Upper House of Parliament, meaning that it could’ve pursued whatever policy agenda it chose, without needing to negotiate with minor parties or Independents in the Upper House.  As such, the Coalition arguably wasted a rare opportunity, which the Labor Party now won’t enjoy.

As for the predictions by this election tragic for the Victorian election, I’d tipped Labor to win forty-three of eighty-eight seats in the Lower House and the Coalition to win forty-three.  In the end, Labor won forty-seven, two more than I’d tipped, and the Coalition won thirty-eight, five less than I’d tipped, while the Greens won two seats and an Independent won one seat.  In the forty-seat Upper House, the Coalition had twenty-one seats and Labor had sixteen and the Greens had three, and I was only tipping the Coalition to lose a few seats, though I wasn’t sure who’d win them – ultimately both the Coalition and Labor lost seats to minor players, which I’ll look into later.

I’d tipped Labor to win Wendouree, Yan Yean, Carrum, Bentleigh, Monbulk, and Bellarine from the Coalition.  I’d also tipped Labor to win Frankston from the rogue Shaw.  These predictions came true.  But my incorrect predictions were for Labor to lose Eltham and Ivanhoe and Macedon to the Coalition.  I also didn’t tip the Greens to win the inner urban seats of Melbourne from Labor and Prahran from the Liberals, and I didn’t tip an Independent to win Shepparton from the Nationals.

Why did some of my predictions go wrong?  My predicted Labor losses stemmed from my belief that departing Labor MPs and a controversial road tunnel proposal, which Andrews had promised to scrap any contracts for, would cost Labor those seats – in the end, they didn’t matter.  I wasn’t expecting the Greens to win Lower House seats, even though the Greens had won a Lower House seat in inner Melbourne at last year’s Federal election off the back of major disillusionment with the major parties – I just didn’t believe that there was as much disillusionment at state level with Labor in particular in inner Melbourne, where the Greens had been tipped to potentially win seats.  And the Coalition’s willingness to use Independent support for unpopular Labor governments in other parts of the country as a means of scaring voters away from Independents made me reluctant to tip Independents to win.

The unpopularity of the Coalition at Federal level certainly hurt the Coalition at state level, particularly regarding cuts in health and education spending, but the Coalition in Victoria simply didn’t look good.  Mind you, Labor didn’t really give voters a reason for endorsing it.

I’d also thought that Labor might lose the election off the back of promising to scrap road tunnel contracts.  Voters stuck in traffic jams often see new roads as a means of a faster commute to and from work, and the notion of scrapping a road project implies nothing changing, and I doubted that they’d like that.  But it had little or no impact in the end.  Yet the cost to taxpayers of scrapping the road might bring trouble for Labor.

As for the Upper House, the Coalition lost five seats to fall to sixteen and Labor lost two seats to fall to fourteen.  The Greens gained two seats to go to five, and the other five seats went to minor players.  Labor must negotiate with the crossbench to pass laws through the Upper House.

Victoria might look messy for Labor as a result of this election.

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Political scene of 2010 being revisited

21 December 2014

Some days ago, I heard on radio an interesting observation from political commentator Peter Hartcher, who writes for the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD.  He said that Australia’s political scene now was like what it was in 2010.  This sounds pretty accurate.

Back in 2010, Australia had a popular government suddenly becoming unpopular, and an alternative rated unpopular but running an effective scare campaign on government debt and taxes and immigration.  Kevin Rudd was then Prime Minister, hitherto immensely popular until a change of environmental policy sent his popularity into freefall, and running against him was Tony Abbott, long rated unpopular and having the reputation of an attack dog.  This scenario saw Rudd, less popular in his own party than with the public, ousted from the top job in a partyroom coup, shortly before a general election was due.  Because the coup was sudden and somewhat unexplained, voters revolted over being denied a chance to pass judgement on Rudd, though they didn’t really warm to Abbott.  When the election came, neither side of politics really impressed the voters, and the result was a hung parliament.

Julia Gillard became Prime Minister after the coup against Rudd, and after the election, she beat Abbott in the negotiation battle to win support from the crossbenchers holding the balance of power, among them two rural Independents from areas thought more likely to vote for conservative governments.  Abbott never accepted the legitimacy of the outcome, and spent three years of campaigning with relentless negativity and attacks.  Somehow, Gillard was able to govern for three years, until her own leadership grew unpopular and Rudd rolled her in another partyroom coup.

Abbott overcame his own unpopularity to win the election that followed Rudd’s return to the top job.  Apart from campaigning against debt and taxes and immigration, Abbott ran the line that he wasn’t either Rudd or Gillard, whose squabbling over leadership ultimately made them look messy.  After Abbott’s election win, with Gillard and Rudd both to depart the scene, Bill Shorten became Opposition Leader.

Hartcher’s observation about 2010 being revisited would seem accurate.  Since Abbott’s election win, Shorten has run a relentless campaign of negativity – he and his party haven’t really accepted the legitimacy of their election loss, despite publicly arguing otherwise.  Their attacks have been largely on the basis of Abbott’s attempts to cut government spending and debt, which they see as hurting poorer people through cuts to services and so forth.  Shorten himself isn’t that popular, even though he leads Abbott in the opinion polls.  He’s considered a party hack and machine man, with little inspiring or interesting to say, and indeed he was considered a key player in the partyroom coups against both Rudd and Gillard.

With unpopular leaders, there’d be little wonder that voters have been looking at minor parties and Independents for alternatives.  Enough of them looked elsewhere to cast their votes at the 2013 election, even though Abbott emerged the overall winner, and minor players won a decent number of seats, especially in the Senate, leaving Abbott to have to negotiate his legislation with a mix of people, some of whom simply can’t abide him.

Time will tell whether Abbott can negotiate his way through an unpredictable Senate, and whether Shorten will have anything inspiring or interesting to say as Opposition Leader.  For the time being, voter disillusionment will remain strong.