Reports of Labor’s death are greatly exaggerated

Last weekend the SMH’s political editor, Peter Hartcher, made an extraordinary claim that “Labor’s looming death as a stand-alone political entity is the biggest story in contemporary Australian politics.”

Hartcher is an experienced and astute political analyst, having reported politics for the Herald not only from Canberra, but also Tokyo and Washington. However, his prediction seems disconnected from reality.

Hartcher’s thesis is that Labor has lost its progressive supporters to the Greens and has no chance of getting them back. He says that “Labor has yet to squarely confront the fact that it is on track to bring the two-party system to an end as Australia witnesses the rise of a three-party system,” and that “even if [the Prime Minister] can win passage of a carbon tax through the Parliament, it will not be enough to save her, and Labor, from oblivion.”

I don’t quibble with Hartcher’s contention that Labor has had a tactical tendency to lurch to the right on contentious issues to prevent voter leakage to the Coalition. Nor do I dispute that this has caused some progressive voters at the other end of the political spectrum to abandon the ALP for the Greens.

I can even agree that Labor’s low primary vote (37.99%) at the 2010 federal election was mostly attributable to “disillusioned and disgusted Labor voters going across to the Greens”.

But there is no evidence to suggest, as Hartcher does, that these voters are lost to Labor forever. To do so would be to fundamentally misread (or rewrite) what occurred.

The Greens garnered 11.76% of the primary vote at the 2010 election, a swing to them of 3.97%. However, nearly 80% of that vote went back to Labor in preferences, just as it did at the previous federal election.

Interestingly, 26% of Green voters said they did not make up their mind how to vote until 24 hours or less before casting their vote, compared with 17% for Labor and 9% for Coalition voters. This proportion of votes, decided so close to polling day, is unusually high compared with previous elections.

The combination of Green votes preferenced back to Labor, with the delayed decision to vote Green, suggests that many more potential voters wanted to vote Labor but couldn’t bring themselves to do so.

When voters are uncertain about which party to choose, they usually lean towards the devil they know (the incumbent). But on this occasion they were faced with two relatively unknown politicians, both of whose authenticity were in question. As a result, some voters ended up rejecting them both.

Unfulfilled expectations also played an important role in that rejection.

Kevin Rudd’s downfall was that he didn’t deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices.

While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation he didn’t deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so because they knew voters were waiting to take out their anger on him, just as they had done to Keating in 1996.

Julia Gillard was also damaged by the mismanagement of expectations, but not in the irretrievable way suggested by Hartcher. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne illegal immigrants. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

Hartcher claims these actions were a grievous insult to the progressive side of the ALP and caused a permanent mass exodus of voters. In fact these actions were viewed much more simply, and by a broader range of Labor voters, as yet another PM welshing on their commitments.

While Hartcher seems to think the battle has been fought and won by the Greens, they should take no comfort from the fact that a chunk of their voter base is comprised of disaffected major party supporters.

The published opinion polls mean nothing this far out from an election: the Greens’ support is nothing more than soft and fickle at this point. It’s conditional upon two things: (1) continued voter antipathy towards the major parties and (2) the Greens’ capacity to deliver on the high expectations they’ve created for themselves.

The Greens shouldn’t lose sight of what happened to the Australian Democrats when placed in a similar position 30 years ago.

The Democrats held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, they also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.

Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.

There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated. It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing.
When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it’s much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. The Greens will need to manage voter expectations better than the Democrats to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.

Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, on either side, but if the Prime Minister can find ways to wedge the Greens on their legislative wish-list it will be the minor party and not Labor that will face public opprobrium for unpopular decisions.

This dissatisfaction will then be played out at the ballot box.

Hartcher says Labor is finished as a major party and that it “cannot hope to govern in its own right any more.”

His prediction is a long way yet from being fulfilled.