Monday, October 22, 2012


Another election, this time in the ACT. Another disaster for Labor.

Because of the usual strong Labor vote in the territory, Labor didn't lose and will probably be able to form government. The last time the Liberals came this close to having a Chief Minister was in 1995, just before the Keating government lost in a landslide.

This column considers the dynamics behind the vote:

A pause for reflection

Politics has always been just as much about leadership and personality as policy. Take the result last weekend. The ACT Liberals will have the single largest party in the Assembly – but this is utterly irrelevant if they can’t command a majority. Achieving this will require successful negotiation. That depends on the ability of individual politicians to hammer-out common ground and decide they can work together.

Here, Zed Seselja has created his own uphill battle. The very attributes that saw the Liberal’s secure their highest ever vote – his dogged determination and relentless pushing of a single message – may now cost him the chance to form government.  The ACT’s electoral voting system meant it was always that case that he would need to do a deal to become Chief Minister; the only question was with who.

Labor’s vote didn’t collapse: it was the Green’s that suffered that ruinous fate. Yet they’re still the party most likely to hold the vital seats that will determine who forms government. That’s why it wasn’t so very smart to proclaim, so publically, the obvious on the night of the election. A casual glance at the vote demonstrated to anyone that chose to look that the Greens had been massacred. There was no need to hector or gloat. By doing this Seselja began a process of alienating the very people whose support he’ll require if he’s to form government. His speech of triumph needed to open a way towards finding common ground. He didn’t. His attitude remained hard-line, demanding the right to form a government simply because the Liberals are now the biggest party on the floor. Katie Gallagher might just as well have tried to claim Labor should govern because her party received the largest percentage of the vote. Such figures are, of course, irrelevant. All that counts is managing to achieve a majority on the floor of the Assembly. Seselja’s words, his tactics, aren’t helping him achieve his strategic need.

Personality will be the key. To become Chief Minister either Seselja or Gallagher must lobby people who don’t necessarily share their policy agenda. That’s how Liberal Kate Carnell took office in 1995. Perhaps Seselja’s working hard behind the scenes, although there doesn’t appear to be a lot of evidence to back up this assumption.

The federal dynamic is interesting too. Carnell’s victory occurred just before Paul Keating’s Labor government was kicked out federally. That’s why Tony Abbott’s supporters have been thrilled by the ACT result. Despite all the usual caveats about being careful when extrapolating federal lessons from a territory result, the message is clear. A Labor bastion has again demonstrated Australia is ready to dismiss Julia Gillard as soon as it gets the chance. But the last couple of weeks have seen a different dynamic enter the national equation.

Nobody, certainly not those of us engaged in the media, wastes any time wandering around and encouraging a bit of quiet reflection. This is the Nike generation. We’re so busy “doing it now”, totally engaged in the moment, and giving it our all that we never have enough time to look beyond the latest outrage. Just occasionally, however, it’s worth taking a peek behind the scenes, because there’s been a significant change to the dynamic. Formerly it was Abbott who changed the scenery, moving from topic to topic and all the while castigating the PM. Today, although Labor is still facing electoral oblivion, Gillard is beginning to redefine herself. The shift is subtle and very much a work in progress, but for virtually the first time since she took office we’re beginning to talk about her choice of subjects, not his.

Take her recent speech. It may not have secured her any extra votes, but that’s irrelevant. For the first time in ages, Abbott was forced onto the defensive. Everyone was talking about her issue, not his. The vote endorsing Australia’s bid to join the UN Security Council provides will be used as a further endorsement of her abilities. Gillard’s aim while Parliament sits this week will be to use this success to bludgeon the coalition. She’d be well advised to get our brilliant Ambassador to the UN, Gary Quinlan, to draw up a detailed program of what we might be able to achieve once we actually occupy the seat before outlining her own ideas. Unfortunately, these have a habit of falling apart under scrutiny; she’d be well advised to listen before (again) shooting for the moon.

Because this has been the critical weakness of the government since it dispatched Kevin Rudd. About a month ago the blog Pollytics examined the primary role that leadership has in shaping political perceptions. There’s no need to go into the detail, except to say it’s vital for an incumbent. Almost all of Labor’s current polling problems can be laid at her feet. She badly needs more weeks like the last few.

Finally, it’s the Greens that should be most concerned about the weekend’s result. Until Saturday their vote had been building from strength to strength. On Saturday it collapsed. They lacked a leader with popular appeal and policies that would appeal to the centre. A tight group of supporters will remain, but the many fellow travellers who began parking their votes with the environmentalists are now abandoning that party. They’ve decided Green rhetoric doesn’t appear quite so good when it’s put into practice; whether the $200 million plan for a light rail network for Canberra or finding a solution for asylum-seekers. By accepting they were on the extreme left of a simplistic left/right political divide, the Greens consigned themselves to cannibalising Labor votes. That was never going to be enough. Voters do want alternatives to the main parties but the Greens are now perceived as simply a more extreme version of the left. This is not offering voters policies they feel they can embrace. Most particularly, it’s preventing the party from appealing to small-l liberals. The stage was set for decline when the Greens adopted a ‘hard left’ agenda rather than a conservative environmental one. The ACT result demonstrates their vote has passed its zenith and is now on the decline.

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