Steve Bracks’s re-election is a triumph for the pragmatic politics of incremental change, and by saying this I am not damning with faint praise. His win is one of the great ones of Australian politics. To put it in perspective it has to be compared to three similar results - Beattie (Queensland 2001), Wran (NSW 1978) and Bjelke-Petersen (Queensland 1974).
What makes all of these elections significant is that they were second-or-subsequent-election landslides. Normally, if governments win in a landslide, it is at their first attempt, and majorities gradually leak away after that.
And out of the three of these it is really only comparable to Wran’s win, which was the most impressive of the lot. Beattie and Bjelke-Petersen had significant issues that created problems for their opponents. In Beattie’s case, the Opposition was unable to work out how to deal with One Nation; Bjelke-Petersen’s competitive edge was Gough Whitlam’s Federal Government.
But there were no outside influences of that kind helping Wran or Bracks. So, what were the major factors in the size of this win? I have a number of theories, but stress that they are theories. Unfortunately we didn’t have the financial resources to do online focus groups as we did for the Federal election (see On Line Focus Election 2001), but if you’d like to help out for the NSW elections, please email me. Without access to this sort of information, any analysis is almost purely speculation. (But that’s never stopped me before.)
Factor Number 1 – Jeff Kennett
At the last Victorian election, while the rural and regional areas swung heavily against the Kennett government it held its vote very well in metropolitan Melbourne. The Burwood by-election, occasioned by Kennett’s retirement, was entirely different. There was a 10.5 per cent swing against the opposition. Later that year in the Benalla by-election, caused by the resignation of National Party leader Pat McNamara, there was a 7.8 per cent swing. Yet this election, Benalla has been won back from the ALP, and the swing in Burwood was in the vicinity of 3.1 per cent – much less than the statewide swing.
This suggests that Melburnians made up their minds on Kennett about 3 months after the last election, and have not changed them since. So, maybe it was not a Bracks win, but a Kennett loss.
Factor Number 2 – Michael Kroger
What would Punch be without Judy? On election night Kroger was blaming Kennett for the result, not on the basis of similar analysis to that above, but because Kennett had criticised the Liberal Party during the campaign. Anyone who thinks anything negative Kennett might have said about the Liberals could have had a significant effect needs to look at Kennett’s ratings as a radio jock. Why was Kroger making such a far-fetched accusation? Well, it could have been for old time’s sake – the only person stopping Kroger from having complete control of the Victorian Liberal Party over the last decade was Kennett. But it could also have been a guilty conscience speaking.
When you’re at fault it is a standard ploy to try and find someone else to blame, and those of us who are prepared to go on the public record with criticism are the best ones to blame because the tribe see us as traitors. For detailed explorations of this technique see Animal Farm and 1984.
Insiders say that Kroger had his fingers all over the Liberal Party’s campaign, and while the campaign on its own doesn’t explain the entire result, it goes some of the way to doing so. It lacked consistency, and it delivered the wrong message. So completely out of touch with the electorate were the Liberal generals, that at one stage they apparently toyed with the theme – “Remember the Guilty Party – they’re back”.
As it turned out, their last week ran on the theme of industrial relations. This was possibly out of desperation because nothing else was biting, but only the far-right in the Liberal Party thinks this is an important campaign issue (as distinct from just being an important issue). When Liberals talk about industrial relations, the general public thinks about the work treadmill being adjusted up for speed and height simultaneously, or even worse being taken out from under them as they are made redundant. That means it is not a vote winner.
Perhaps this partly explains why there was no swing back in the last week. There should have been. Australians always like to cheer the top-weight horse along, and the Liberals made a very clear pitch for the sympathy vote in the last week. But by this stage they were knackered, not even meeting minimum expectations as a suitable way of telling Bracks not to be too cocky.
Factor Number 3 – Robert Dean
If I’m going to make these factors so personal, how could I leave out the Treasurer who was taken off the roll by the electoral commission? He really doesn’t deserve more than a footnote. I doubt that he changed too many votes directly, but he would have put the Liberal campaign off message for a few days and underlined a perception that the Liberals think they are born to rule and can be as careless as they like. He deserves all, and probably more than, he will get. He was knowingly enrolled at an address where he did not live, and the address where he did live was not in the electorate where he intended to vote. Do that in Queensland and you end up in court for fraud. Could Victorian law be any different?