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What’s the Coalition doing right?

By Dennis Glover - posted Wednesday, 17 August 2005

Sometimes losing isn’t all your own fault.

I’m going to break Don Watson’s rules for speechwriters now by using a sporting analogy. Last year, after three thumping Grand Final victories the seemingly unbeatable Brisbane Lions lost to Port Adelaide. Had the Lions actually done that much wrong?

Same coach, same team, same remorseless attitude. And even more experience and confidence.


The answer to the loss probably lies with the other team. Perhaps Port Adelaide had just improved more: evolved some new tactics; developed some new muscle and skills.

So perhaps turning to politics we should be looking at what the Coalition is doing differently and more effectively and Labor hasn’t yet caught up with. Here is an alternative explanation of Labor’s failure to defeat John Howard.

John Howard and his conservative allies have transformed the electoral game itself - sometimes in ways Labor has barely comprehended, never mind developed an effective strategy to counter. Labor’s not the only one at fault. The failure of analysis belongs equally to the political media and the broad anti-Coalition movement, which for this purpose we’ll call the “centre-left”.

It’s my belief that Labor’s problems stem from the fact that it continues to pursue a political strategy in many ways developed during the 1980s. This is the idea of pursuing consensus and co-operation above all else; always looking to the middle ground; always appealing to the centre; always rejecting the extremes. The only thing Labor is consistently extreme about these days is its moderation.

In recent years these Hawke-era strategies have evolved into the “triangulation” strategies at which Bill Clinton was so adept - always finding a middle way between the two extremes of any argument, and always searching for non-controversial issues, like reading books to children, that don’t cost much money and everyone can agree is a good thing.

Labor’s strategy abides by the old gentleman’s agreements - the unwritten rules that have stood since Robert Menzies’ time:

  • you don’t talk about race;
  • you don’t politicise national security or the armed forces;
  • you respect multiculturalism and keep off the subject of immigration; and
  • you tell the truth.

As strategies go, this is admirable, and - superficially at least, very democratic. What could be more democratic than trying to appeal to everyone on every issue, be honest and try to bring out the best instincts in voters?

But John Howard is playing a different - and arguably less admirable - strategy. He’s interested in winning.

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This is the an edited version of a speech given to the Politics students at Latrobe University on May 5, 2005.

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About the Author

Dennis Glover is a Labor speechwriter and fellow of the new progressive think tank Per Capita.

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