As the major parties and commentators seek explanations for the latest federal election results, they should re-visit the lessons of the 2004 federal election.
In early 2004 the Coalition faced three political challenges: Labor leader Mark Latham’s by-passing parliament as a forum to engage the Government; the Liberals for Forests national influence which was the catalyst for the term ‘doctors’ wives’ – those middle-class, inner suburban voters, largely women, for whom environment issues were their highest priority; and growing support for the Greens.
One of Mr. Latham’s tactics was to make policy by media release, thus avoiding both accountability in parliament and divisions within the Labor caucus. This approach had to stop.
One solution was to introduce legislation reciting his statements. The Labor Caucus would have to discuss legislation.
Mr. Latham issued one media release which could be transformed into legislation. That was that marriage was the union of a man and a woman for life to the exclusion of all others.
A Bill amending the Family Law Act was passed by the Representatives in June, but Labor, alert to divisions on this issue in the Caucus, persuaded the Australian Democrats to support its plan to refer the Bill to a Senate committee reporting back to the Senate in October, by which time the elections would have been held.
The Prime Minister’s announcement to a rally, organized by the Australian Christian Lobby, at Parliament House when Parliament resumed that the Government would force the Senate to vote on the Bill immediately negated that move.
Labor was wedged. Either it could support Mr. Latham’s announcement or it could humiliate him. A consequence of this initiative was that it strengthened support for the Coalition amongst church goers, especially after Labor’s divisions emerged. This outcome did not go unnoticed by Kevin Rudd.
This year the equivalent of that Bill was Australian Rugby Union’s terminating Israel Folau’s contract. As Barnaby Joyce put it, ‘People were a little bit shocked that someone could lose their job because of what they believe’. When Labor attempted to use Mr. Folau to wedge Mr. Morrison, many wondered where all this would end.
In 2004, rather than appeasing the ‘doctors’ wives’, the approach preferred by the PM’s staff, Greens’ policies were analysed to identify a policy which would broaden their focus beyond environment issues. The Greens’ liberal drug policies stood out.
During the first week of the election campaign the Greens’ drug policies made the front page of the Herald Sun. The story spread like wildfire and rattled Greens’ leader Bob Brown.
Ultimately, the Greens’ attracted 750,000 votes, well down on their forecast 1,000,000 votes, and Christine Milne was fortunate to be elected to the Senate.
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