Reading Judith Brett’s Exit Right in the last week of 2007 was a fitting end to a memorable year in Australian politics. I was reminded while reading Brett of Peter Hartcher’s thesis in the first QE of the year, Bipolar Nation. In that essay, Hartcher proposed that Howard would win the 2007 election on the twin pillars of economic management and national security. I was in the audience at a Gleebooks event in April when Hartcher was interviewed by Maxine McKew. McKew had agreed to the engagement shortly before announcing her candidature for the seat of Bennelong; on the night of the event she fronted up to a large audience eager to hear what the Prime Minister’s challenger had to say about Labor’s chances. Instead of a leisurely talk between fellow journalists, the event turned into Hartcher interviewing McKew about why his thesis was flawed. Her argument? Yes, economic times were good and governments are rarely ditched by electorates under such circumstances. But these were, as McKew asserted, “extraordinary times,” particularly in terms of the environment and the workplace. Looking back over the year, it seems that while Hartcher’s prediction was wrong, his thesis was generally sound. Economic management was critical to the result in the 2007 election, but not in ways that particularly advantaged the Coalition. And the issues of terrorism specifically and national security generally did not feature in voters’ minds in the way they had in previous elections, preoccupied as they were with industrial fairness, rising food and petrol prices, global warming and water.
Brett’s meticulous chronicle of the Coalition’s annus horribilis makes these points and more. It’s difficult to quibble with such a thorough analysis. Except that, like all political junkies, Brett is interested in the jousting of question time, the nuances in the leaders’ debate and the posturing at APEC in a way few voters are. What becomes clear when you conduct any kind of research into social attitudes and trends is that the mini-dramas and minutiae of partisan politics comes across as meaningless static to most Australians. They try, and often succeed, in blocking it out. At best it creates a mere backdrop to decision-making about whom to vote for, a process that often happens months before an election is called, fought and won.
Indeed, the conditions for a change of government were all present in early 2007. In the focus-group research I and others conducted then for The Ipsos Mackay Report, we encountered fatigue with a government that seemed to be out of ideas and even at odds with the public mood on key issues. One of those issues was obviously the environment. Brett states that “it is not yet clear why public opinion had shifted so decisively by mid-2006” on this issue. From our research, what was clear is that voters were starting to make a crucial link between the global phenomenon of climate change and domestic concerns such as water shortages, drought and extreme weather. They perceived that environmental problems were already affecting their daily lives in the form of water restrictions and rising food prices. Among many voters there was a perception, and a subsequent anger, that because governments hadn’t acknowledged the problem and planned for the future, Australian consumers would be faced with higher prices for staples, water and energy. Suddenly it felt as if climate change would hit the back-pocket, sooner and harder than expected. In the face of all this, the conventional opposition between “the environment” on the one hand and “the economy” on the other didn’t seem to hold. The distinction wasn’t simple. Al Gore made this point graphically in his documentary – money or the world? It’s a false choice, and many Australians were beginning to sense this.
It was intriguing to watch the sustained interest throughout 2007 in how first-time and younger voters were going to swing. Intriguing because young voters are usually ignored or dismissed as ill-informed or apathetic. They haven’t got the numbers or the clout of the Boomers or the self-funded retirees, and so rarely merit attention from political parties focused on percentages. In previous elections, Howard had claimed the Gen Y cohort as some of his greatest supporters; certainly they had grown up with only dim memories of a Labor prime minister. And yet 2007 saw a small but significant shift among the late teens and early twenties from disengagement to engagement. Rudd’s lead over Howard among these voters cannot be attributed (as Brett partially does) to The Chaser boys’ pranks or party propaganda transmitted via Facebook or YouTube. Rather, it was the convergence of particular policy issues (specifically the environment, workplace security and faster broadband) and the compelling argument for generational change that I believe really won this group over. Of course Rudd’s work on FM radio and his eleventh-hour appearance on Rove didn’t hurt. But I believe that you underestimate the nous of young voters if you think that this is all it takes to win them over. Returning home late on election night, I listened as my neighbour, a 23-year-old girl with a penchant for fluffy dogs and havaianas, tearfully expressed to me how excited she was that Australia had, in her words, “made the right choice for my generation.”
Another issue touched on by Brett that merits further consideration is the public’s complex attitude to unions – and the ALP’s complex relationship with the union movement. Brett argues that “the government’s rhetoric on union power was out of line with public perceptions” and that Australians are more supportive of unions than they are suspicious of their power. Brett also asserts, as other commentators have, that in relation to unions the Coalition pursued two contradictory lines of argument during the campaign: one, that unions are irrelevant in today’s society, and two, that unions wield too much power. I see no such contradiction. Union membership remains in decline. Even the introduction of WorkChoices didn’t see a significant spike in their numbers. From our research it seems as if many Australians expected the government, not the unions, to protect them from unscrupulous employers; thus in the wake of WorkChoices they punished the government rather than joined union ranks. In terms of benefit to the community, many Australians may well view unions as no more or no less useful to society than any NGO that fights for social justice or any organisation that seeks to benefit its members. Their clout is diminished. And yet, as a consequence of their affiliation fees and conference delegate numbers, they have greater power within the ALP than they do outside it. Not, as the Coalition would have you believe, to dictate policy. But largely to ensure that the most powerful (usually male) union secretaries in the land make a fairly cruisy transition into parliament. This is a problem. For every talented Greg Combet there is a much less talented comrade promoted, often in advance of other candidates who could make more valuable contributions. The Coalition ads targeting the large number of former union officials on the front bench (and in the caucus) were not disturbing because these members were once union officials. They were disturbing because they revealed that Labor’s parliamentary contingent is unrepresentative of the broader community. It would have been just as worrying had it been shown that former dentists dominated the shadow ministry. It is this skewed and narrow profile of Labor’s parliamentary wing that so concerned thinking Laborites during the drab and desolate years of Beazley et al.
In his 2006 Quarterly Essay What’s Left?, Clive Hamilton argued that the federal ALP had run out of ideas and that Australia needed a new party concerned about the environment, willing and able to espouse a progressive politics not based solely on economic growth and deprivation. He said the federal ALP was moribund. Two years later it’s enjoying its most successful political period since its foundation (if we judge success by being and staying in government in every state, territory and now at the federal level). The irony in all of this is that the ALP is still much the same beast as it was during its long period in federal opposition. Few of the structural and cultural problems that its thinkers and members agonised over during the wilderness years have been addressed. As the Prime Minister and his team knuckle down to the hard work of government, I imagine all these concerns will be set aside until, inevitably, Labor’s fortunes change.
Rebecca Huntley has worked as an academic and political staffer and is now a social researcher with Ipsos Mackay. She is the author of The World According to Y: Inside the New Adult Generation. Her next book, about the food cultures of Australia, will be published in September 2008.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 29, Love and Money.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY