Wednesday, April 30, 2003

An unexpected rant about Australian politics

Patrick Crozier has a piece on why the Conservative Party in the UK is becoming steadily less electable. Essentially, the longer it stays in opposition, the fewer people support the party other than its traditional hard line supporters. These people tend to have more ideologically extreme political positions than do the sorts of voters who will actually vote the party into government, but the longer it stays out of government, the more these people come to dominate, and the less electable the party becomes.

I started out writing this response as a comment, but it got out of control. My Australian readers should be aware that I started writing it with the thought that mostly British people would be reading it.

Basically, though, this sort of vicious circle is a very common type of situation in parliamentary politics. A party spends a few years in power. They spend that time catering to the centrist tendencies of swinging voters, and paying attention to opinion polls. This tends to mean that a government of a nominally left wing party is a little to the right of grass roots of the party, and one of a nominally right wing party is a little to the left of the grass roots of the party.

Then, for whatever reason, the party loses office. The leadership of the just defeated government retires. The party rank and file discover that they rule the party again. These people have always resented the lack of ideological purity of the people who led the party when it was in government, and they always (at least for the first few years) believe that this lack of purity was responsible for the defeat. Therefore a defeated left wing party retreats to the left, or a defeated right wing party retreats to the right. In both cases, the net effect is to make the party unelectable for the next decade. This goes on until someone centrist who actually wants to be Prime Minister comes along and reforms the party, and the rank and file allow him to do this because they are demoralised due to being out of office for the last decade and will do almost anything to regain it. It helps if the party in government has become so dire that capable people are willing to look for alternatives, nomatter how much effort will be needed to revitalise them. Sadly for the Conservatives, we are nowhere near this point in the cycle.

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) is at present another classic example of this, although I think Australia is a little further down the cycle. The party has lost three elections in a row, and it is presently arguing about whether it should reinstate Kim Beazley, the (dreadful) leader who lost the last two elections, on the basis that his replacement (former union leader Simon Crean) is even worse. What it needs is someone to come and really shake things up.

Given that the ALP is in government in all eight states and territories - something that no party has ever achieved before - there is starting to be a feeling that someone may try to cross over from state to federal politics. Whereas in the US state politics seems to be a very useful source of new talent in Washington, people very seldom make the switch in Australia, at least not at leadership level. This may have something to do with Australia's use of the parliamentary system, and the fact that politicians have to build up parliamentary power bases before they can take a leadership position. However, when a party is in a desperate situation, funny things can happen. (The last time the ALP was out of office Bob Hawke (another union leader) was drafted into federal politics and became Prime Minister just over two years after being first elected to parliament).

In particular, at the moment we seem to be seeing one or two calls for Bob Carr, who has just been reelected for his third term as Premier of New South Wales, to enter federal politics. I personally think he would be a disaster as Prime Minister, but he is certainly someone who knows how to run a successful election campaign and how to figure out what it actually is that voters want, which is more than can be said for the leadership at the moment.

That said, if Carr was to eventually become Prime Minister, there would be a certain weird irony to come from it. Carr is a bookish, somewhat introverted chap who became Premier of NSW almost be accident. The extent of his ambitions appeared to be that he wanted to be the (federal) Foreign Minister. He was patiently waiting for Lionel Bowen, a minister in the Hawke government, to retire so that he could be given Bowen's safe federal constituency. He was persuaded to take a vacant seat in the NSW upper house, to get some parliamentary experience while he was waiting. The then ALP state government lost an election badly shortly afterwards, and there were no obvious candidates for the party leadership. (The groomed successor had died due to an unexpected heart attack a couple of years before).

Carr was persuaded to take the leadership, with the thought being that he would hold the party together in opposition for a few years until someone more charismatic came along to lead the ALP back into government. However, what actually happened was that under Carr the party completely unexpectedly came within a couple of seats of winning the next election. The state party leadership then talked him out of his ambtions of becoming federal Foreign Minister, Carr stayed on as state leader, and won the election after that. That was eight years ago. He has been re-elected twice since then, each time with a larger share of the vote than the time before. And as I said, people are now trying to persuade Carr to move to federal politics, with the thought of his quickly becoming party leader and hopefully Prime Minister clearly in mind. The alternatives are such that I think he would become party leader fairly quickly, and as to winning an election, I tend to think he could.

Present Prime Minister John Howard is actually much more vulnerable than people reading the international media realise. His majority is small, and he may well have lost the last election, despite the opposition leader being dreadful, were it not for September 11. (The election was held a couple of months later). The way things are now, he will get reelected in two years time, but after that he will have been in office for nine years, and may even be thinking of retirement. My feeling is that someone is going to come in and give the federal ALP a big kick sometime soon. Carr is a possibility.

The Tories in the UK seem completely moribund, however. These things seem to take longer over here. (This seemed to be the case with the British Labour party in the 1980s and early 1990s, too). This may have something to do with a five year electoral cycle, which by international standards is a short one. In Australia, a hopeless political party gets to lose an election every three years. This may mean that action is forced a little more often.

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