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Why the Ruddslide?

By Leon Bertrand - posted Monday, 26 November 2007

The election result was historic in many ways. I know that many commentators have a tendency to say this about most elections, but this one did involve a rare change of federal government. In fact, it was only the fourth time since the Menzies years that the electorate decided to ditch the incumbents.

The election result therefore represents a decision of confidence by the Australian people, in the sense that in spite of Australia’s prosperity, people believed that things could get even better. The burden of expectation on Mr Rudd’s shoulders will now also be substantial. He will be expected to keep the economy strong, deliver tax cuts and keep interest rates low, just like the Howard Government was expected to. Mr Rudd also clearly stated that "the buck will stop with me", which is a quote that can be used against him whenever something goes wrong, perhaps even when it’s clearly not his fault.

In many ways, the result defies conventional political wisdom. Here was a government that had presided over years of ongoing prosperity, which was generally trusted by the electorate to be good economic managers and under which most people thought the nation was heading in the right direction. Add to this the fact that its leader, John Winston Howard, was probably the toughest and most determined political leader since John Curtin, and the fact that they were well supported by hard-hitting television election ads, and this Labor victory is certainly an astonishing one.


Of course this is not to say that the election result is incomprehensible. There are many factors which contributed to the Government’s defeat. Most notable were the following:

  • The "it's time" factor: Many voters I saw on television leading up to the election seemed to think that it was time for a change without actually saying why. I believe that there are two main factors which contributed to this. First, John Howard had been Prime Minister for almost 12 years, and people were bored of him and were more interested in the younger, more sprightly Kevin Rudd. Second, I believe that unlike the last election, people were persuaded that Australia’s prosperity would continue under either side of politics. The public therefore felt there was a much lower risk in changing government, and the main reason to vote for the Government had been seriously undermined. This in turn led voters to concentrate more on personality, and the fact that Howard had been there for over a decade.
  • WorkChoices: An issue that could have gone away if the unions hadn’t mounted a sustained television advertising campaign that reminded people of the laws, and featured actors saying that pay and conditions of employees were being stripped away. One episode of Four Corners presented a migrant family that had always voted Liberal, but was voting against the Government because of WorkChoices. When asked if they had been affected by WorkChoices, or if anyone they knew had been affected, they answered in the negative. Politics is all about perception, and the TV ads overshadowed the fact that most people had not been adversely affected by the laws.
  • Interest rates: There were five consecutive interest rate rises after the 2004 election, the election in which the Liberal party promised to keep interest rates at record lows. This was always going to be an irresponsible promise, and it came back to bite the Government, particularly when one of the interest rate rises came right in the middle of the election campaign.
  • Mixed Coalition messages: The Coalition’s campaign slogan of "Go for growth" was severely undermined by the ninth consecutive interest rate rise, which pointed to the need to constrain economic growth, at least in the short term. Then the Coalition changed tack and emphasised the importance of experience, warning of obstacles the economy would face, and that made it appear that growth would be much harder to achieve. The Coalition’s 2007 campaign stands in contrast to its campaigns in recent years that have featured one or two simple and sharp messages that Labor has not successfully countered.
  • Kevin Rudd: Although Rudd was greatly assisted by the circumstances surrounding the election, it is also true that his political skill also had an important part to play. It was just over a year ago that Labor seemed to face certain defeat under the leadership of Kim Beazley, who like Howard, seemed to represent the past more than the future. The electorate was more tired and bored of Beazley than they were with Howard. But Rudd was more than a fresh face. He cleverly moved Labor towards the middle ground, thereby depriving the Government of its wedge issues, or a basis for an effective scare campaign. On many issues, such as gay marriage, Dr Haneef, Indigenous interventions, tax cuts, Mr Rudd refused to take the bait. Mr Rudd also was able to appeal to voters through the use of buzz-words and slogans, such as "new leadership", "education revolution", "the buck will stop with me", "economic conservative" and "striking the balance" on industrial relations. Mr Rudd was very good at telling the voters what they wanted to hear.

Other factors which probably also contributed were:

  • Climate change: With all the hysteria about global warming, many people, particularly young voters, were always going to vote for the partly which do more on this issue. Labor’s greenhouse gas reduction targets were far greater than the Coalition’s, and Labor was able to paint the Government as not taking climate change seriously.
  • Peter Costello: The "2 for 1" deal that the Coalition presented to the electorate, where John Howard would serve as Prime Minister for the next 18-24 months and then hand over to Peter Costello, was not a particularly attractive package for the electorate. Opinion polls have consistently shown that Peter Costello is not liked by the electorate. Therefore, the handover arrangement was always going to be another liability, particularly since the Opposition consistently reminded the electorate of the fact that this was the arrangement.
  • The media: As the results came in, there was loud applause that often almost drowned the commentary in the ABC studios. At one stage Kerry O'Brien described the election as a "victory to the ABC" rather than the ALP. It was a classic Freudian slip. The commercial networks were also on board with Labor. Ray Martin’s surreptitious use of the worm, which turned out to be a reflection of Labor voter views more than swinging voters, confirmed Howard as the loser of the debate. Just yesterday Ray Martin confirmed that he is left-wing by saying that history would not judge the Howard Government too kindly, as he had neglected the environment and reconciliation. Sunrise was also quite blatantly supporting Kevin Rudd. With the exception of the ABC, which is always a shameless supporter of the ALP, the media was bored of Howard and wanted a new Prime Minister so that people would be more interested in political stories. This was a trend I noticed at the last election as well, however on that occasion that did not stop Howard obtaining a fourth term. All this of course also contributed to the "it’s time" factor.

The interesting aspect about this election was the implicit assumption by the electorate that the economy would stay strong regardless of which party won government. It’s quite a reversal on the last election, where the economy and interest rates were allowed to predominate. Kevin Rudd’s success in presenting himself as an "economic conservative" would have assisted in this way. The "me-tooism" which frustrated the Government, was even more crucial, because if Labor was adopting most of the Coalition’s policies, it was always going to be difficult to mount a strong and effective campaign around the economy. Labor took its strongest economic platform in Opposition to the electorate this time, and were strongly rewarded for it. This fact is the most effective reply to those who wish that Labor moved further to the left: not only would it be economically irresponsible, it would also make Labor unelectable.

Also interesting was the fact that Labor was able, with the anti-WorkChoices TV ads, the drought (and consequent effect on grocery prices) and interest rate rises, to convince the electorate that they were doing it tough. Howard's remark that "Working families have never been better off" was used against him in an effort to portray him as out of touch. This is in spite of the fact that real wage increases had continued, offsetting petrol and grocery prices. As for the interest rate increases, the promise to keep them low was always going to be difficult to keep. If working families were struggling, it was because they had taken on mortgages they could barely afford, and every interest rate increase or price hike is therefore felt acutely. As Janet Albrechtsen has pointed out, the Government in the end failed to manage people’s expectations, and this contributed to the sense of dissatisfaction that Labor was able to fuel.


Did the electorate become ungrateful towards the Howard Government? There’s no question that few voters were motivated by a sense of gratitude towards the Government, which had, as Howard himself pointed out in his concession speech, left the country far more strong, prosperous and optimistic than before. But a lot of this growth in prosperity was part of the long-term consequences of the reform agenda embarked on by the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. The Howard Government certainly consolidated this legacy with its own reforms, including the introduction of the GST, the privatisation of Telstra, two rounds of serious industrial relations reforms and the lowering of tariff levels. So while the Howard government certainly has taken the credit for the strong economic growth of the last 11 years, on the whole it was only partly responsible for this. The Coalition should therefore not feel indignant for being thrown out of office. They were given four terms by an Australian public that had high confidence in them, and enjoyed the power and perks associated with Government for over a decade. For all these reasons, the Australian public did not owe the Government another term in office.

Arguably, in fact almost certainly, the alleged ungratefulness of the Australian public is a good thing. Rather than focusing on the past, the Australian people are wise to look to the future and think about what each party can offer the nation over the next parliamentary term. This way, both major parties are future-focused and do not rest on their laurels expecting to get re-elected simply because they have done a good job.

The trade union movement is probably now blowing their greatest ever sigh of relief over this Labor victory. There is no doubt that if the unions ever needed Labor to win an election, it was this one. One of the reasons they contributed so much to Labor’s election campaign with their continual WorkChoices ads was that they knew that this industrial relations package would substantially weaken the role of trade unions in Australia. A Coalition victory last night would have consolidated the existence of WorkChoices. With awards no longer being updated, and being gradually replaced by a statutory minimum, unions would no longer be responsible for the minimum standards of employment set in this country. Furthermore, the emphasis on AWA’s over collective agreements and awards would effectively cut unions out of the action in many instances.

While Joe Hockey was wrong in saying that the role of unions was “finished” under WorkChoices, it is true that their role would gradually be diminished, and that in effect they were fighting for their survival as a political force in Australian politics. However, Rudd has already committed to tough workplace entry restrictions and has sacked the more extreme elements from the Labor party, so unions will not get everything they desire under the new government. Much like the Hawke and Keating years, the new Labor Government will have a close relationship with the unions, but the ACTU will have to accept that Labor will not adopt all of its left wing policies.

Kevin Rudd and the Labor party should be congratulated on the "Ruddslide". Hopefully, Labor not only keeps most of its promises, but also introduces policies which a Howard government did not after more than 11 years in office. Among these are reducing red tape for small business, reconciliation, another referendum on the republic, a more efficient and effective form of federalism and the streamlining of the Commonwealth public service which Kevin Rudd has flagged. A new Government always presents new opportunities for a nation. If a Rudd Government keeps its economically responsible pledges and moves on the issues of Howard Government inaction the nation as a whole will be better for it.

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About the Author

Leon Bertrand is a Brisbane blogger and lawyer.

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