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.