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Winning government from opposition: has Colin Barnett got a clue?

By Peter Tucker - posted Tuesday, 15 February 2005


One false but seemingly widely held view by opposition parties in Australia is that voters are waiting for them to seize the initiative. Surely they want an opposition leader with big ideas and grand plans: a “can-do” visionary who sweeps the electorate up in a march to the premiership?

I say false because the evidence of the last 30 years in Australia confirms the old cliché that governments lose elections, oppositions don’t win them.

But it seems that the leader of the Liberal opposition in Western Australia, Colin Barnett, is not one for the lessons of history. Rather he might have just “blown his own balls off” (as I understand one Labor campaigner put it) with a multi-billion dollar super canal proposal.

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In this article I will briefly examine recent opposition wins in Australian state and federal elections, concluding that voters have become increasingly pragmatic, risk-averse and self-interested. I will then offer a short analysis of Barnett’s tactics in this current election.

With the arguable exception of 1972, none of the Federal elections since then, where a change of government resulted, have hinged on the opposition grasping the initiative. In 1975 the people overwhelmingly rejected Whitlam's Labor rather than endorsed Fraser's Coalition, while in 1983 and 1996 Australians just became sick of three and four term governments. Even Labor’s “it’s time” victory in 1972 came after decades of conservative rule. Let’s face it, Hawke famously in ’83, Whitlam in ’72 and Howard in ’96 all won “drover’s dog” elections.

The state elections reveal a similar theme. Either through being arrogant, incompetent (or both) or just for being there too long, voters have kicked state governments out rather than voted oppositions in. The 1990s are illustrative. Liberal Premiers in Western Australia (Richard Court) and Victoria (Jeff Kennett) were punished for being, respectively, incompetent and arrogant, but only after they were trusted for two terms. In Tasmania the Liberal’s Tony Rundle had the millstone of minority government around his neck, but even then Jim Bacon’s Labor had to endure seven years in opposition before victory in 1998. In New South Wales, Bob Carr, in opposition for nearly a decade, came to power in 1995 after the voters tired of the Liberals in government, and has been there ever since.

So state opposition leaders have to fight for relevance. Their bane is that the public and the press take little interest in them until the premier of the day stuffs something up.

This means that the pattern for voters is reactive rather than proactive. It seems that, unless they have to, they prefer the devil they know than to gamble on a "fresh new approach to politics". (How many state Liberal oppositions have flogged that slogan to death?) Voters are risk-averse and becoming increasingly more so. Big, scary, hairy-chested opposition leaders play on voter's fears and right into the government’s hands.

Commentator Peter Brent agrees. Writing in 2003 for this internet political blog about Mark Latham, he sees it as a “… furphy that if you are ‘tough’, ‘take it up to the government’ and ‘score points’, come election time voters hold up their scorecards and give marks for your performance”.

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Then on August 19, 2004 in a Canberra Times article on political facts and fictions, Brent further proffers:

Voters don’t award points because one party “wins” the contest. Much more important is a feeling that the government’s time is up and the alternative won’t make a mess of things. Momentum is only recognised in hindsight.

So the evidence is that voters are rarely captured by the big picture coming from opposition. That is why Colin Barnett’s canal announcement on February 3 is so surprising. At the time he was in front in the polls and reportedly had Gallup on the ropes for raising taxes, neglecting the economy and largely wasting his first term on an unpopular social agenda. Surely, using history as his teacher, Barnett's best chance was to look like a sane and careful alternative premier, campaign on the government’s shortcomings and hope voters were in the mood to punish the government?

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About the Author

Peter Tucker has worked in Tasmania as an advisor for the Liberals in opposition and in ministerial offices for both Labor and Liberal governments. He is author of the Tasmanian Politics website, and is a researcher at the University of Tasmaniaís School of Government.

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