How to defeat a long-serving government – lessons from Australia

Politics doesn’t just happen in the US

Australian politics should be a fertile learning ground for those interested in British politics. Whilst it does not have the West Wing glamorous scale of US politics, it shares the US advantage of a common language – which makes access to political information much easier than for other countries. Moreover, unlike the USA, it has the mundane – but vital – importance of having a political system that in core elements is the same as Britain (two houses of Parliament, leader of the largest party in the lower house gets to be Prime Minister, no elected person more senior than the Prime Minister).

Both Australia and the US have had a long period of right-wing political dominance (Liberals and Republicans respectively), during which time the right seemed to have largely shifted the terms of political debate, come to dominate the vocabulary of issues and seen off an opposition that was often split between those who urged moderation and the centre ground as the sensible response to defeat and those who saw that very moderation as timidity and the cause of repeated defeat.

In both cases, the right finally lost – John McCain in 2008, Australian PM John Howard in 2007. But whilst lessons from the previous Democrat defeats and then Obama’s victory in 2008 have been commonly discussed in the UK, Australian politics does not get much of a look-in, although former Labour Cabinet Minister Alan Milburn was a key advisor during the 2007 Australian election. What are we missing by failing to look more often to Australia?

Post-election writings

John Howard’s eleven and a half year stint, making him the second longest serving Australian Prime Minister, ended last year in defeat to a Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd. The election saw the biggest swing since 1975 and Howard himself defeated in his own constituency.

A mini-flurry of books followed, which help paint the picture of how this came about. The trio I have recently read – Robert Maclin’s updated Kevin Rudd: The Biography, Christine Jackman’s Inside Kevin 07 and Peter Van Onselen and Philip Senior’s Howard’s End: The Unravelling of a Government, all highlight the relative absence of number-crunching from Australian political coverage and political science compared with Britain’s.

The equivalent books in the UK after a general election regularly feature not just graphs and tables, but analysis based on statistical number crunching, regression equations and all. In contrast, it is rare for an Australian political book to even contain a table listing all the opinion polls published during the election, frequent though partial references to poll results may be in the text.

Yet Australian politics is no amateur affair. Indeed, when it comes to polling not only do Australian parties poll far more intensively than those in the UK, but they often lead their way in their techniques; hence the Conservative Party’s tapping in to the polling expertise of Liberal polling firm Crosby Textor.

The improbability of defeating John Howard

Jackman lays out the essential achievement of Labor: they “took on a formidable campaign machine promoting a proven political leader whose personal approval ratings were still at record highs, at a time of unprecedented economic prosperity, when two out of three Australians thought the country was going in the right direction.” Indeed, Rudd started and ended the campaign with only a four percentage points edge in the preferred Prime Minister stakes.

Despite the failure of a previous Labor leader – Kim Beazley – to win with a “small target” strategy (i.e. say and do as little as possible, in the hope that the government will defeat itself with its own unpopularity), Rudd and team went for a very similar approach. This time dubbed “me too-ism” it resulted in Labor copying most Liberal policy stances, thereby allowing them to focus media and public attention on the few where they drew a significant distinction. For all the “me too” brickbats, it was a highly effective way of largely keeping control of the political agenda, despite being in opposition.

Macklin’s biography is so favourable to Rudd that reading it alone gives a very partial picture of the election, and you could easily fail to spot several of the main controversies that engulfed Rudd. For example, whilst it gives considerable space to Rudd’s childhood, with the deprivation and challenges he faced as a young kid, you would barely know from the book just how much his account of events came under scrutiny and criticism. The detailed account in the biography generally wins the argument, but it is only in the other two books that you get the contrary case, the fumbled attempts to handle the media and the farce of Kevin Rudd hiding from the (right-wing) person he was having lunch with whilst making calls to the media trying to rubbish stories questioning his accounts of his childhood.

Change and the future

Part of Rudd’s success came from presenting himself as a fresh face, a force for change (sound familiar?). A significant route to achieve this was the opportunity offered by the high popular Sunrise TV show, which gave him a regular slot and was watched by a probably popular audience that traditional political shows don’t reach. Think GMTV rather than Radio 4 and Today. He bolstered this approach with a willingness to appear on a much broader range of radio shows during 2007 than Howard, fearful of losing his gravitas or appearing awkward, was.

Presenting himself as the face of the future, versus John Howard being the face of the past, allowed Kevin Rudd to appeal even to those who respected John Howard’s record and still felt personally better off for his policies. For all the dislike Labor activists had for John Howard, Rudd was more the son easing out of the family firm the father who was past it and had lost touch. “No offence, but you’ve been there too long” in the words of one voter quoted by Jackman.

Rudd painted Howard as a “clever politician” – a double-edged description that, whilst acknowledging he had some strengths, also undermined him, and tried to make Howard’s record of astute tactical manoeuvring into a weakness and a trap.

The fork in the road

He presented Australian as being at a fork in the road; he was not wanting to turn the clock back so much as just now take a different direction. He was helped in this by Howard’s misstep over workplace rights, where the hugely controversial Work Choices not only firmed up Labor’s trade union base but gave them an issue which reached out to non-union, mainstream audiences.

Although Labor’s initiatives in particular in internet campaigning drew some attention during the election, it is striking how little they feature in any of these three books, even though the practice each party had of taking the other’s TV ads, editing them with a knocking commentary and then putting the result up on YouTube is one others could productively copy. More, these three books tell a story of the importance of the political leader and the strategy and message they shape. In that, there is an interesting parallel with Obama, because – for all the love of talking about the technicalities and tactics of his campaign – he too got those big picture items right. And therefore perhaps the Australian elections not only offer their own lessons but offer a hint of where the real lessons from the US lie too.

But in an immediate practical sense, Rudd’s maiden speech in the Australian Parliament included words that many UK MPs would do well to heed: “I do not know whether I will be in this place for a short or a long time … but what I do know is that I have no intention of being here for the sake of just being here.”

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