Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Control fetish stifles ALP

OPPOSITIONS don't win elections, governments lose them. It's an old saying but a good one. Governments are well-resourced, oppositions poorly resourced. So governments normally win re-election. If they lose, it's usually because they made a bad mistake.

Were it not for WorkChoices, our prime minister now would be John Howard or Peter Costello. Had the Kennett government kept its promises to regional Victorians instead of cutting their services, our premier might still be Jeff Kennett.

Longevity is a factor, too. I recall Dick Hamer reflecting that every decision you make in government costs you support from someone, and eventually you end up with more opponents than supporters. But that shouldn't trouble a first-term government.

So why is the Rudd government at risk of becoming Australia's first one-term government since the Great Depression? What big mistakes has Labor made that has cost it so much support in the polls?

First, an essential caution. I've looked back over 25 years of polling, and in every one of the past eight federal elections, the opposition was leading in the polls at or around this stage. But in only two of those - Howard in 1996, and Kevin Rudd in 2007 - did the opposition win the election. In the other six, voters came back to the government by election day in sufficient numbers to re-elect it.

That's not a forecast of what will happen this time. But it's a strong reminder that what we tell opinion polls months before the contest may not be the way we vote in the polling booth. Opinion polls at this time are a verdict on the government. Our votes on election day are also, in part, a verdict on the opposition.

A Newspoll yesterday implied that voters could be already turning back to Labor, which led by 52 to 48 in two-party terms. But that lead was due entirely to Newspoll's incorrect assumption that the 25 per cent of Australians now supporting the Greens or minor parties will distribute their preferences in the same way as the 15 per cent who voted that way in 2007.

The Age/Nielsen poll instead asks those supporting smaller parties which major party they prefer. In its last poll, a third of Greens preferences were going to the Liberals (up from a fifth in 2007), as were half of those from minor parties and independents. Replace Newspoll's wrong assumption with Nielsen's data, and its bottom line should read 50-50.

Labor is still in trouble. What went wrong?

Opinions will differ. To me, it's a combination of four specific policy failures, with a related set of broader underlying problems about how this government operates.

The first problem was the lack of qualitative controls in Labor's stimulus spending, which opened the way for rorts and poor workmanship by contractors on the insulation and school building programs. This has left Labor looking incompetent, and many voters don't forgive that.

Second, as the refugee boats returned, Rudd vacated the policy debate on how they should be treated, leaving the ground free for the Coalition and the shock jocks to fan Australians' fears that we are being swamped by refugees, and that the only solution is to keep them out of Australia.

Third, the dumping of the emissions trading scheme was an act of breathtaking cynicism from a Prime Minister who had told us that tackling global warming was the great moral issue of our time.

In part, the ETS was sacrificed to meet the government's self-imposed 2 per cent spending cap, a prime case of the tail wagging the dog. It mattered, because it cost Rudd and Labor respect. It told Australians that what this government cares about is keeping power, and anything else is expendable to that end.

The fight over emissions trading, like the fight over the resource rent tax, erupted because Rudd and his inner circle had no political strategy to get difficult reforms through the Senate - and for an opposition, the easiest choice is always to oppose.

A reforming government has two choices: accept battle, and fight like tigers to educate the public and win the debate - or bring the opposition into negotiations early, sharing the credit for reform, but also the responsibility. Rudd did neither.

By instinct, the PM is a manager, and a hands-on, untrusting manager. His ministers are not free to make policy in their areas, as in the distant past. They are advisers before policy is made, then sales reps afterwards. Like Paul Keating, like Howard, Rudd makes the decisions, using cabinet at best as a sounding board, or at worst - as when deciding to ditch the ETS, and impose a resource rent tax - ignoring it completely.

The common thread to all this is an overriding desire to control events. The ministerial press flacks consult at 5.30 each morning, having already read the papers, to decide what the government's lines will be, and to ensure that all ministers say the same thing. The stifling of individual initiative is one reason why the government is so ineffective at selling its message.

Labor, the party of reform, needs to reform itself. It needs to stand for the things it believes in. It needs to have the courage to go out and confront a sceptical public, and make the case for the reforms it knows we need. It needs to free up its frontbench and backbench talent, and use it better.

It needs to convince Australians that it stands for something more than just staying in power.