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Alexander Drake: The party’s over - the challenges facing Brendan Nelson and the Liberal Party of Australia

Alexander Drake is a former adviser to a minister in the Howard government and a former member of the UK’s Conservative Research Department.

Throughout his 11 years in office, the gods smiled on John Howard – but not on Saturday 24th November, 2007.  Not only did his Liberal-National Coalition lose, but he also lost his Sydney seat of Bennelong.  Australia’s journalists have a new toy to play with in the form of the Rudd government, and so they are understandably excited – but as “one of the two great participants in the Australian democracy”, as Liberal campaign chief Brian Loughnane described it, the Liberal Party can only gain from taking stock of what it needs to do in order to rebuild, in order to win again.  Here are three observations and suggestions for Brendan Nelson, the new Opposition Leader.

1. Think carefully about how to reconcile the tension between building an electorally successful coalition, and the urge to “do something” with it.

Most of the seats gained by Labor were in either Kevin Rudd’s home state of Queensland, or in Greater Sydney and environs, beyond Sydney’s main orbital road.  By and large these were seats were gained when the Coalition won government in 1996.  These are the famous “Howard battlers”, repelled by Paul Keating and his Left cultural agenda in the mid-nineties.   For example, of the 25 seats that Labor looks like gaining from the Coalition, 19 of them voted “No” in the 1999 republican referendum, and at least 16 of them voted No in greater numbers than the national average of 55%. A similar pattern could probably be seen across these seats on other issues.  Howard used cultural values to great political effect for the Coalition.

So why did the battlers leave Howard?  Two words: “Work Choices”.  John Howard spent years assiduously assembling a blue-collar bloc for the Coalition, but lost it through pushing his package of labour market reforms (Work Choices) that made that same bloc of voters less certain about their economic futures.  Australia still has a much more regulated labour market than the UK, and Howard had been pushing for greater labour market deregulation for over 30 years – it was his raison d’etre in public life and a big part of his personal political brand through the dark years of Opposition.   The electoral cost of actually implementing these changes, though, was that it destroyed his majority.  Ultimately, Howard forced a “class” versus “values” choice among the battlers – and most chose “class”.

Perhaps a more positive take-home message is that in Australia there’s value in retaining the Howard conservative cultural agenda as the backdrop of an effort to regain electoral ground. 

2. Find ways to encourage good candidates to consider standing for public office, as opposed to party hacks

Unlike in Britain, there is no culture of acceptance surrounding MPs to take paying jobs outside the Parliament and there is no way that this will change.  The Australian expectation is that Members and Senators work full-time in pursuit of their responsibilities to their constituents, and their official duties if they are office-holders.

Even though Australian MPs are paid more than British MPs, it just isn’t enough to make it sufficiently attractive for some successes in business or the professions – much of the traditional base Liberal vote – to forego big salaries and face the scrutiny and workload of public life.  This is the challenge facing the Liberals in safe seats where these sorts of potential candidates are more likely to live.  Moreover, once they get into the Parliament, what’s the appeal of sitting around in Opposition, on lower pay, rather than running the show? 

In marginal seats, the Liberal challenge is to continue to identify potential community leaders with local credibility to stand and so hopefully leverage personal followings into a higher Liberal vote.  In my view this is the number one challenge for the Liberal Party in marginal seats going forward.  This will be harder for the Liberals to do without a local MP and their resources sustaining the Party’s local infrastructure in those seats, so in some cases the Party central organisation will have to do it from afar - but it will remain important all the same.

The alternative is simply reducing candidate selection to an internal factional war within the Liberal Party, which will be guaranteed to generate duds and doom the party to electoral failure.  British readers unfamiliar with Australian politics might be interested to know that the internal workings of the lay party organisations are by comparison to their British counterparts, often petty, deeply factional, and brutal (keep this in mind when I discuss the Queensland Liberals below).   It is an environment that, if unchecked and unreformed, has the potential to deliver some “lowest common denominator” candidates where the Libs can least afford it.

By contrast, the trade union movement provides Labor candidates with a career path and a place to learn about Labor politics.  Moreover, some Labor candidates don’t necessarily have the same high-earning potential from the private sector prior to entering Parliament – so the financial disincentives of a Parliamentary salary don’t usually apply in the same way they do to potential Liberal candidates.

3.  Do something about Queensland

Psephologists love talking about the US Republicans’ “Southern agenda”.  Well, this time Labor had a “Rudd Queensland agenda”. Speaking as a Queenslander by birth, I know we are deeply parochial, and love supporting our own.  In our minds, the Sydney-Melbourne axis has long looked down “The Sunshine State” and so Queenslanders love to take any opportunity to “stick it up ‘em”, including at elections.

During the 1980s, some Queensland conservatives preferred the home-grown Nationals over the Sydney-based John Howard, to the considerable net electoral benefit of federal Labor.  In 1996, the “Queenslander” instinct meant “sticking it up” the loathed Paul Keating by voting for John Howard – and in the process only electing 2 Labor MPs out of a total of 26 Queensland MPs.  And in 2007, Kevin Rudd, with his Sunshine Coast high school education, Queensland bureaucrat work history, and his Brisbane seat, unashamedly pitched his message to his fellow Queenslanders in a folksy, home-state style, and saw at least 9 seats – more than half of the 16 needed for Labor to win office – switch to Labor.

The pressure is therefore on for the Queensland Liberals to perform – but when you see stories about their state parliamentary party like this and this you know it’s not going to be good.  The whole Queensland Liberal Party needs an overhaul, but that’s too complex and obscure a topic to cover for a British website.

I’ve not intended this to be a comprehensive review of the election’s results – I suggest looking at the Australian Electoral Commission’s website at www.aec.gov.au, and armchair psephologists William Bowe and Peter Brent at www.pollbludger.com and www.mumble.com.au for that – but these are a start on the sorts of things that the Liberals should consider as they face Opposition, and the rebuilding process.

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