The Queensland election offers the spectacle of a conservative government headed by a deeply unpopular leader facing off with a still-shellshocked Labor headed by an almost invisible opposition leader. It makes perfect sense to view these proceedings as a possible forbearer of the federal election to come. Weekly article for The Hoopla.
The next federal election may be two years away, but Tony Abbott’s reckoning will take place within the next six months.
Plenty of Australians are suckers for embarrassing overacting in daytime soaps and semi-scripted reality shows. But even those faux drama queens pale into insignificance next to the Liberal state leaders’ unconvincing collective dummy spit in response to the federal Budget this week.
The Budget revealed cuts to health and education funding for the states and territories commencing in four years’ time (which is conveniently after the next federal election).
By 2024-25, the Federal Government plans to be spending $25 billion a year on schools (compared to $30 billion) and $25 billion a year on hospitals (compared to $40 billion). This is an $80 billion cut on the amount previously promised by Labor.
State and territory leaders lined up to express their considerable displeasure at being raided to improve the feds’ bottom line in 10 years’ time.
Queensland LNP Premier Campbell Newman, who’s down in the polls and facing a state election in the first half of next year, says the cuts will not “be taken lying down”.
Victoria’s Liberal Premier Denis Napthine, who has an even more imminent election on November 29 this year, vowed “to absolutely shake the Federal Government from their top to their bottom so that they understand their responsibility to meet their share of public hospital payments”.
And newbie NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird accused the feds of outsourcing their budget problems to the states. Baird will convene an emergency meeting of the state and territory leaders this weekend to discuss the cuts. Incidentally, his state election is on March 28, 2015.
Tasmania’s Will Hodgman and Western Australia’s Colin Barnett appear much more sanguine about the cuts. This may be a product of their next elections being some way off.
Depending on whether one buys their amateur theatrics, the states are either being wedged by the Federal Government to initiate a national conversation about increasing the rate or coverage of the GST, or the state Liberal governments are in on the act.
The smart money is on the latter explanation. Exactly two weeks ago state and territory leaders were in Canberra for the latest Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting with the Prime Minister.
At that meeting the leaders considered the draft terms of reference for a white paper on Reform of the Federation and draft themes for a white paper on taxation reform. Through these processes, Tony Abbott wants to see “sensible adjustments” to funding arrangements, while Joe Hockey wants to “realign” the federation.
This is clearly code for revisiting the GST and perhaps repatriating some other revenue-raising powers back to the states and territories.
It’s not too long a bow to imagine Abbott holding a private meeting with the Liberal premiers – outside of COAG – to advise that they’d take a haircut in the Budget but would be the beneficiaries of federation and taxation reform. That is, play along and you will be rewarded.
The other clue to this being the true state of play is the states protesting that they only want a fairer share of the existing GST pie. This is an unsustainable position if the pie remains static.
For every state that gains more GST revenue there will be another that gets less, so the only way for all states to get more (in actual terms) is for the overall pie to grow. And to do that the GST must be increased or broadened.
The states and territories know this. They also know they must play the reluctant bride if they are to avoid the worst of the opprobrium for requesting that the GST be increased.
Just the right amount of squealing will make everyone look good, even Abbott.
While the parties vie with each other to favourably spin the results of the weekend’s state elections – where one Labor government was routed and another may yet cling to victory – one clear lesson is the Greens can become collateral damage when elections are fought over jobs.
For whether the results are attributed to local issues or national ones, seen as a message for the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader, or simply a matter of a government’s time being up (or not), both election outcomes were predominantly about jobs, or lack thereof.
Protection and growth of employment prospects was always going to be a pivotal issue in both campaigns. Tasmania and South Australia have the nation’s highest unemployment rates, and the apple isle also has the lowest weekly wage. Job insecurity is high across Australia and jobs have become the major parties’ chosen battleground.
So the two considerably divergent election outcomes could generally be explained as being due to local issues, but more specifically the result of voters holding certain parties to account for the poor state of employment.
If there’s a message that Prime Minister Tony Abbott should take from the South Australian election outcome it’s that SA voters don’t take lightly to their slightly dodgy but still famous car manufacturing industry being abandoned and then run out of town by the Federal Government.
Successive industry ministers have recognised over several decades that the perceived importance of car manufacturing jobs extends beyond the directly affected electorates. They threw money at the increasingly unviable industry not out of the goodness of their hearts but to hold off the dire electoral consequences. And now Abbott knows what it’s like to release that particular beast.
While the South Australian count is not yet concluded, there are enough trends evident in the vote counted so far to draw a few conclusions. The SA Liberals achieved a modest swing in their primary vote, but failed to draw a similar amount away from Labor in order to secure enough seats to form government. This suggests some of the 60 per cent of voters who thought the Liberals would win stayed with Labor in protest.
Granted, this protest vote may not have done as much damage if the South Australian Liberals had run a half decent marginal seats campaign, but that is another matter altogether.
Interestingly, according to the ballots counted so far, the Green vote in South Australia increased by almost half a per cent. This trend runs counter to the slew of state, territory and federal elections since 2010 where their vote dropped. The status quo vote for the Greens in South Australia suggests they were neither blamed nor particularly acclaimed for their contribution since the previous state election. For good or bad, the election was about the major parties and the Greens survived by keeping off the jobs radar.
In contrast, on the same day as the South Australian election, the Tasmanian Greens and one-time partners in a Labor minority government lost eight percentage points from their vote and three of their five seats in the state’s lower house.
Undoubtedly many factors combined to produce that result, but there’s no denying that jobs played a significant part. Abbott and the Tasmanian Liberals ran strong on reinvigorating the forestry industry; essentially putting jobs before the environment.
It’s clear from this strategy that the Liberals’ private market research showed voters were ready to seek retribution for what they perceived to be a weak Labor Party rolling over to the Greens’ environmental demands instead of protecting jobs. Labor’s vote dropped by about 10 per cent in the Tasmanian poll, thereby ceding majority government to the Liberals for the first time since the Groom Liberal government was elected in 1992.
If the Greens are perceived to be thwarting jobs in Western Australia they may suffer a similar fate to their Tasmanian colleagues in the WA Senate election re-run that will be held on April 5. Western Australia doesn’t face the same job pressures that bedevil South Australia and Tasmania, though the downturn in the mining boom would be causing some employment anxiety.
Additionally, the Australian Greens no longer have a power sharing arrangement with the incumbent federal government and cannot be held directly responsible for jobs in the way the Tasmanian Greens were.
Yet there’s no doubt the Abbott Government will assist WA voters in recalling that the Greens were responsible for Julia Gillard’s broken carbon tax vow and the “job destroying” impost that resulted from it. The Coalition will likely lay the mining tax at the Greens’ feet too, now that Shorten has conveniently blurred his stance on the failed profit sharing mechanism.
So while the Greens will be campaigning to be given a balance of power position in the Senate to keep the Abbott Government from the worst of its excesses, the Government will press for the Greens to be prevented from being able to block the repeal of “job destroying” laws. Meantime, Labor will quietly do its best to harvest votes away from the Greens with selective preference deals.
The Greens may believe that every time Abbott opens his mouth “the Green vote goes up“, but the opposite effect is more likely.
On April 5, a Greens Senator will be elected (or not) predominantly because of what WA voters perceive their party has done (or not) to protect and foster jobs in that state. Other factors such as climate change, asylum seekers, health, education and sharks may play a role, but it will simply come down to jobs.
That almost imperceptible whirring sound is not your imagination. It’s the wheels of politics grinding back into motion. Before we know it, they’ll be spinning at breakneck speed and the summer break will be no more than a fast-fading memory.
There’ll be no comfortable transition to political discourse in 2014, no gradual incline from February sittings to May budget and the still-as-yet-undetermined new Senate in July. Politics in 2014 is going to be like waking up on a rollercoaster: one day we’ll be taking our usual summer afternoon siesta and the next we’ll be hurtling full speed towards political turns and descents so unpredictable that even the strongest of constitutions will be unsettled.
We’ll probably still be packing away our Australia Day paraphernalia when the by-election for Kevin Rudd’s old seat Griffith gets underway – it’s expected in late January or early February. The Liberal candidate, former AMA President Dr Keith Glasson, looks like a shoo-in: after all, he rated more primary votes than Rudd and clipped the ALP’s margin by 5.4% to a much more achievable 3% in the 2013 election. Yet only one federal government has ever taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and that was Kalgoorlie in 1920. So Glasson’s path to victory may be more turbulent than first thought – particularly if dissatisfied Queensland voters use the by-election as an opportunity to whack the Federal Coalition over the knuckles.
Around the same time we’ll be thrown headlong into the continuing saga of the lost WA Senate votes. The High Court’s Justice Kenneth Hayne flagged in December that challenges to the result (one from the Australian Electoral Commission, and one each from the Palmer United Party and Labor) would not be heard until late January. The AEC wants a new WA Senate election and has asked the court to rule by 18 March so the poll can be held in April. Conversely, PUP and Labor want the court to revert to the first count of the vote, which allocated the 5th and 6th WA Senate positions to them. This would give Clive Palmer’s party the balance of power in the new Senate.
Is the Greens’ bubble bursting? Regular post for The Hoopla.