According to Barry Jones, a minister in the Hawke Labor government, the “current national situation” is at the lowest point he can recall. Writing in The Age on Saturday, he maintained that politics was worse today than when the ALP spilt in 1955, or when Arthur Calwell led Labor to a massive defeat in 1966, or when the governor-general John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam Labor government in 1975, or when Paul Keating lost to John Howard in 1996. As bad as that. He puts Labor’s problems down to the inability of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd to work together.
For the most part, this is an exaggeration. In 1955, Labor split primarily over its approach to communism. The Labor split led to the creation of the Democratic Labor Party – it gave first preferences to the Coalition and saved Robert Menzies and John Gorton from defeat in 1961 and 1969 respectively.
Calwell’s defeat in 1966 was Labor’s eighth loss in a row and was not unexpected. Under the leadership of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Labor provided good government but Keating fell victim in 1996 to a feeling that it was time for a change. And in dismissing Gough Whitlam in November 1975, Kerr did Labor an unintended favour in that he diverted attention from the disaster that was the Whitlam government.
Certainly the opinion polls at the moment do not look good for Labor. However, like the Coalition, Labor invariably recovers relatively quickly from its darkest moments, provided the party does not split. Labor was down and seemingly out in 1966 and 1975 but back in office in 1972 and 1983 respectively. Labor’s inability to win in 1998, 2001 and 2004 reflected the strength of the Howard government and Mark Latham’s unsuitability in the last of these unsuccessful campaigns from opposition.
Jones believes that in the 2010 election “there was no debate about ideas” and there was “an infantilisation of debate on refugees and climate change”. But it’s just that Jones regards Tony Abbott’s opposition to a carbon tax leading to an emissions trading scheme as inappropriate. Likewise with the Coalition’s hard line on border protection. Opposing an emissions trading scheme and campaigning on border protection may be good policy or bad. But it is not infantile.
In any event, negativity does not amount to poor politics. Today Malcolm Fraser is a hero of the leftist-luvvies set and receives standing ovations at taxpayer-funded literary festivals. It was not always so. Fraser took over the Liberal Party leadership in March 1975. He proceeded to become one of the most negative opposition leaders in Australian history. Under Fraser’s leadership, the Coalition defeated numerous Whitlam government bills in the Senate and eventually blocked supply.
In the 1970s, the most authoritative gauge of public opinion was the Morgan Gallup Poll, published in The Bulletin. The last poll taken when Fraser was opposition leader had his approval rating at a mere 29 per cent with a disapproval rating of 53 per cent. The Bulletin headed its report “Fraser’s appeal at record low”. Fraser went on to record the biggest victory in post-World War II Australia – despite campaigning on an ill-thought-through and, at times, contradictory policy agenda.
On ABC News Breakfast yesterday, 7.30 presenter Chris Uhlmann gave vent to the familiar Canberra press gallery refrain that Abbott’s relatively low approval rating might mean he is replaced as Liberal leader. Experienced observers should know that what matters in polling is the party vote – not the leader’s approval rating.
Jones, Kevin Rudd and more besides now refer to the events of June 24, 2010, when Gillard replaced Rudd, as a “coup”. Not so. What happened in 2010 was not dramatically different from what occurred in 1941 (when Arthur Fadden replaced Robert Menzies), 1971 (when Billy McMahon replaced John Gorton) or 1991 (when Keating replaced Hawke).
Dictatorships have coups. Parliamentary democracies have leadership election ballots. In this system, prime ministers and opposition leaders are chosen by their peers. On The World Today yesterday, Rudd strategist Bruce Hawker declared that Rudd “won the public opinion war but lost the battle in the caucus”. But Hawker knows that “people power” has no role in parliamentary democracies, where MPs choose leaders. It was no different when Keating replaced Hawke.
The electorate gets to choose a government in Australia every three years – it’s up to elected members of the legislature to choose who will head the executive. Billy Hughes led the conservatives to victory at the 1922 election but stood down as prime minister when he found he did not have the support to form a government.
There is a lot of exaggeration around. However, there is in fact nothing all that unusual about contemporary politics in Australia.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.