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Libs were their own best opponent

By Graham Young - posted Thursday, 29 November 2007


Kevin Rudd had a great result, but he had help. Strategic and tactical blunders by the Liberals allowed him to get ahead and stay ahead.

John Howard's political ascendancy has been rooted in a "compact" with blue-collar conservative voters. He embraced Anglo-Celtic working-class themes based on a particular concept of national identity, expressed in policies on immigration, foreign affairs and culture.

The price of this compact was the alienation of many middle-class voters. With the WorkChoices legislation, Howard repudiated the contract, and it was only a matter of time before the aggrieved party extracted damages.

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These working-class Australians are the same Australians who were attracted to Pauline Hanson. They live in Queensland more than any other state, on the outer metropolitan fringe and in mining and small-cropping areas.

WorkChoices need not have been fatal if Howard had told a good enough story. The outgoing government never effectively enunciated a coherent world view. Rather it latched on to particular incidents, such as the Tampa, galvanising sentiment via slogans, or administered largesse to favoured constituencies.

During the last government the way that Australians view themselves and the world changed. We are richer and more confident and outward-looking than we were 11 years ago. Despite the fashionable left-of-centre chorus, Australians are more altruistic and less materialistic. Increasing numbers of people are involved in volunteering and philanthropy. We are more effective internationally. The result is that our expectations and demands have changed.

The government needed not just a better story, but a different one too. Australians needed to see how government performance was improving the world, not just making it richer. A sympathetic coherent world view could have dealt with not just WorkChoices, but climate change, education, health and infrastructure. It could have kept battlers less grumpy, and it could have soothed the middle classes.

This failure belongs to the whole non-Labor side of politics. With the exception of a handful of some media and a couple of think tanks, the national story is told by the Left. It's hard to win an argument when almost all the citadels of public opinion are ranged against you and available for media comment yesterday.

In previous elections this hasn't mattered so much because the campaign professionals have produced a disciplined campaign with a handful of messages that have reinforced existing prejudices in key demographics.

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They have exploited the weaknesses in the Opposition's case, skirted its strengths while dwelling on their own.

In this campaign the Coalition almost inverted this practice. They opened with tax cuts but spent the rest of the campaign on Labor's issues: climate change, education and health. There was not one campaign slogan, but at least six - one for every week of the campaign - "Doing what's right", "Go for growth", "Wall-to-wall Labor".

One issue appears to have been personnel changes. I first noticed loose play when Arthur Sinodinos retired as Howard's chief of staff. Other key personnel also moved on.

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First published in The Australian on November 28, 2007.



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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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