Saturday, December 18, 2010

Losing governments run on "leadership"

Someone who is both politically and policy savvy recently observed to me that losing Governments run on leadership. The Keating Government in 1996, the Howard Government in 2007, the Brumby Government in 2010 are all examples of this.

What running on “leadership” says is that you are an exhausted government with nothing more to say which connects to the concerns of voters and so have become self-referential – it is all about you. Voters generally feel that it should be about them and theirs, so you have a problem.

In the recent Victorian election, this self-referential problem unconnected with the concerns of voters also showed up in the ALP’s way overdone negative advertising against Liberal Leader (and now Premier) Ted Baillieu. For some years, I have been saying that Ted Baillieu’s problem was that, if we woke up tomorrow and he was Premier, people would not be worried, but they would not be excited either. The other side of that is that he has something of a “nice” public persona. The frenetic negative advertising against him that the ALP engaged in, in the last stages of the Victorian election campaign, therefore seriously misfired and just reinforced the “you have nothing to say that is about us and ours” message of their own Leadership focus.

Particularly, as the same politically savvy observer noted, the negative advertising was not connected to any underlying narrative or theme: not one, at least, that was in any way grounded in the concerns of voters. To work, negative advertising generally has to reach beyond the “bubble” of politics.
Someone else commented in a discussion looking back on the election campaign that, if one has a Leader “in a bubble” that the media supports and feeds into, the only lever people have left is their vote. One of the features of the campaign was the overwhelming newspaper endorsement of Brumby. A journalist present put this down to media responding to the bullying from Brumby’s office and being afraid of being “punished” by exclusion, despite the polling suggesting a change of Government was possible.

An inner city Liberal candidate observed that the inner city local newspapers were beyond bias and were clearly Labor/Green partisan. The aforementioned journalist pointed out that local newspapers are dependant on local and other government advertising that creates a media-machine politics nexus. The large number of taxpayer-funded PR flacks/media staff increases this effect.

The candidate also observed that it was hard to get election posters in windows; traders were clearly intimidated. One restaurant that did run the Liberal candidate’s photo was rung up by someone who claimed they were going to make a booking but wouldn’t because of the poster: the restaurant owner responded that this was not China and if they kept talking like that, he would put up a second poster.

This did not seem to be a problem in my area (the electorate of Footscray, a very safe Labor seat) since posters for the Liberal candidate (along with the Green and an Independent candidate) were in lots of shops and businesses. Indeed, this is the first time in almost 10 years of residence that I knew the name of the local Liberal candidate. But the resumption of properties in Footscray for the railway and tunnel extensions has caused some local angst, which may have assisted.

The return of patronage politics
From the later C18th to the middle of the C19th, the main legislative activity of the British Parliament was removing statutes and otherwise abolishing special privileges, exemptions and official discretions generally. The result was a massive decrease in the level of corruption in British politics, since corruption is the market for official discretions and the less official discretions there are, the smaller the potential market in corruption is.

A feature of more recent decades – despite economic liberalisation – has been an increase in official discretions, particularly in land use. The result has been, even though levels of personal financial probity of officials remains high (Australia rates as one of the least corrupt countries in the world), a great expansion in patronage politics. Whether in the form of career opportunities, control or receipt of publicly provided goods or services or (most dramatically) development deals. The candidate noted that Brumby Government’s patronage/development politics, with a series of inappropriate local development proposals, offended a lot of people, and generated considerable local community activism that he was able to tap into.

This division within the local Left between those tied into the patronage/development politics and those who resisted developments threatening local amenity reflects a larger division in the Left between environmentalism and more traditional concerns for working class prosperity. As a long-time observer of such issues pointed out in the aforementioned discussion, environmentalists have come to pervade the bureaucracy and consultative structures to do with land use and infrastructure development. This allows them to push what he described as their “command and control” approach to the city, where people were to live “as the Greens decree”.

It also raises a potential problem for the incoming Liberal-National Government of dealing with a profoundly unsympathetic bureaucracy. Particularly given that putting the Greens last on Liberal preferences not only destroyed the Greens' chance of winning any lower House seats but also seems to have led to a more positive general view of Baillieu (since it meant a center-right Party would not be preferencing for a left Party against a centre-left Party, so showed some "believe in something" consistency rather than going for crass political advantage, as was widely presumed they would: a prominent ALP figure even praised the Libs for choosing ideological consistency instead).

It was fairly obvious from the pattern of swings that land use (high rise development, public housing) and infrastructure issues (railways, water, roads) mattered for the election result. In some ways, this was the third rejection of the Cain-Kirner Government (thrown out in 1992, clearly rejected again in 1996) since it was the freezing of infrastructure development during its tenure (a process that started under the Hamer Government), along with its mismanagement of the State finances, that has meant that infrastructure provision has failed to keep up with population increase. The Brumby Government’s “catch up” policies failed to catch on.

Modern State government in Australia is all about land use and services. Lose sight of that and you lose Government.

ADDENDA This post has been added to, to clarify some points.


  1. For quite a while I have thought that all Ted had to do was keep a modest profile and Brumby would win the election for him.

  2. That proved to be a good call :)