Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Election 2015 - What Just Happened?

After spending a couple of depressing Saturday evenings over the past three years watching election results in which the Liberals/LNP gained substantial majorities, followed by months of pain as they set about shredding their respective governments' already feeble efforts towards equity and ecological responsibility, I finally get to talk about some good news!

It's interesting that all the commentators, even the ABC's seasoned election analyst Anthony Green, were stunned at the size of the swing.  Green's initial flummoxed response was that he didn't trust the numbers he was seeing.  They turned out to be correct.  After sweeping the pool in 2012, the LNP has clearly lost its majority.  At last we have seen Annastacia Palaszczuk with a genuine, unforced smile.

What's really interesting is that the opinion polls have been saying this for some time but no-one, including me, believed them.  We all assumed that come the election the undecided voters would compare the pair, conclude that Labor seemed unready to govern, and return the LNP with a reduced majority.  It just goes to show the value of trusting the objective evidence, even when it seems counter-intuitive.

Of course, there is still a way to go yet.  Neither party has a majority yet, and numbers are still fluctuating.  On election night the ABC closed with three seats still doubtful, today it is six or seven.   We probably won't have a clear answer until next week.  Most likely someone will need to negotiate with the independents and Katter Party MPs to form a government, which will be interesting since both parties were so emphatic that they would do no such thing.

Of course the LNP has an exit option because the promise was made by Newman and he's gone.  On the Labor side, we have already heard some mumbles about the definition of the word "deal".  The smart money would be on Labor - even outgoing Deputy-Premier Jeff Seeney seems to think this is what will happen.

Meanwhile, postmortems have already begun and the question on everyone's lips is, "why did voters turn so strongly against the LNP, only three years after giving them the biggest majority in Queensland history?"  Here's a quick run-down of some of the explanations, starting with the silliest and working up.

Seeney, in his press conference today, was quick to blame Newman and his advisors.  Coming from local government they didn't understand what was required in the State sphere.  This, of course, is the same Jeff Seeney who back in 2011 cheerfully took on the task of representing Newman in the Queensland Parliament.  In a democratic system it's just too easy to blame your leaders and forget that you put them there.  If Newman lacked knowledge of State Parliament and its requirements, what were his senior ministers - Seeney foremost among them - doing about it?

Closely related to this is the idea that the Newman Government had a marketing problem.  Scott Emerson, the outgoing Transport Minister, has suggested that the LNP were a good government but they didn't communicate their policies and decisions very well.  The poor dears, they were misunderstood, and we didn't appreciate the good things they were doing for us.

There's only a short step from this piece of self-delusion to its more bitter, contemptuous cousin - the notion that Queensland voters are incapable of understanding the challenges we face and shied away from the necessary reforms.  Mr Emerson professes concern that as a result of this election reform will become impossible for Queensland governments and our public sector will stagnate.

Only a zealot could make this claim.  Queenslanders know we have a deficit - how could we not?  We knew what the LNP were doing about it - cutting public health, education and welfare services in the name of austerity - and what they were proposing to do in the future - sell government businesses to for-profit corporations.  Emerson and his colleagues would like us to believe that this will solve the problem and that there is no other way, but neither of these is true.  Budget cuts have not pushed us into surplus, and the sale of assets would make the problem worse, not solve it.  Despite the rhetoric of selling assets to pay down debt, the government was proposing to use a substantial slab of the proceeds to fund vote-winning infrastructure projects.  The LNP's problem wasn't that voters didn't understand, it was that we understood too clearly.

The finger has also been pointed at Tony Abbot's decision to knight Prince Philip.  Not that anyone took this decision seriously.  The point is that it was impossible to do so.  The fact that Abbot chose to knight the member of the royal family with the greatest capacity for buffoonery only added to the general hilarity.  This decision says there is no longer any need to take Abbot or his party seriously.  The air of strength in hard times, the illusion of a strong government dealing competently with critical issues and making tough decisions, was punctured as we fell about on the floor laughing.  When we got up, we found that we saw other, more important issues differently.  Laughter can be cathartic.

But if we take the Redcliffe and Stafford by-elections and 2014 opinion poll results seriously we can't explain the LNP's loss by looking at what happened in the last week of the campaign, or indeed in any part of it.  Perhaps the missteps of the campaign made up the minds of a few wavering voters, but most of those who deserted the LNP did so well before the election was called.  I suspect that the swing against them would have been even greater if the Labor Party had not been so under-resourced and under-prepared.

There's been a lot of talk about broken promises, both Newman's and Abbott's.  Newman said public servants had nothing to fear, then sacked 15,000 of them.  Abbott promised not to do a large number of the things his government attempted to do in its first budget.  Electors, the story goes, don't like to be lied to.

I think there is truth in this, but it misses the point.  We are used to our leaders not keeping their promises.  John Howard invented the idea of "core" and "non-core" promises and his government managed to survive for over a decade.  We all know that governments promise in haste and repent at leisure.  We're pretty cynical about politicians.

I think we should be asking why Abbott and Newman felt they needed to lie about these particular things in the first place.  I suspect the answer is that if the LNP had gone into the election with a promise to sack 15,000 public servants, neuter the judiciary and give favours to mates they wouldn't have been elected.  If Abbott had promised in advance to cut pensions and unemployment benefits and raise university fees, the Coalition wouldn't have been elected.

Australians are not so much saying they don't like to be governed by people who break promises, as that they don't like to be governed by right-wing ideologues.  We value our public sector as a buffer against extreme poverty and hardship.  We value our income security system, our public health and education systems.  We value the services that support homeless people, women escaping violence and people with disabilities.  We value the rule of law, the balance of powers, a strong and independent judiciary, the rule of law. We are not prepared to support governments who try to wind back these systems.

Queenslanders don't mind reform.  We elected the Goss government in 1990 in the wake of the Fitzgerald Inquiry with a mandate to rebuild our system of government.  Fitzgerald remains one of the most trusted figures in Queensland public life to this day.  Australians elected the Hawke and Keating governments for 13 years as they drove through difficult economic reforms.  The difference was, Hawke and Keating tried to make sure their reforms were not at the expense of the poor.  Goss and his ministers boosted community services as part of their reform program.

The LNP and the federal Coalition, along with their favourite commentators in the Murdoch press, use the word "reform" differently.  They mean privatisation, tax cuts and less regulation for the rich, cuts to services, income cuts and more regulation for the poor.  When Australians are voting against this it's not because we don't like reform.  It's because we don't like this reform.

If Abbott wants to survive past the next election, and if the LNP wants to be electable again in Queensland, they need to come up with a Plan B.

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