Australia’s election: ingredients of change

Rod Tiffin
27 November 2007

Australia ended eleven and a half years of John Howard's conservative government when Kevin Rudd's Labor Party scored a very emphatic victory (to use the outgoing prime minister's description) on 24 November 2007. Howard was the second longest serving prime minister in Australian history. Now he also enters the history books as only the second sitting Australian prime minister to lose his own seat in an election, following Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929. The election was also historic in that for the first time there are now Labor governments federally and in every state and territory.

The polls had consistently shown Labor with a strong lead all year, ever since Rudd assumed leadership of the party in December 2006. Nevertheless many pundits and many in the government refused to believe that a change of government was imminent. Their refusal to recognise the portents derived from the rarity of changes of government in Australian elections - this is only the sixth from twenty-five elections since the end of the second world - and an apparently comfortable buffer with a thirty-two seat majority, and a swing of at least 4% needed. Moreover Australia had enjoyed sixteen years of continuous economic growth, and while the opinion polls consistently showed Labor ahead, they did not record strong expressions of discontent with the government. Finally, Howard had a proven record of electoral success.

Rod Tiffen is professor of government at Sydney University. Among his books are Scandals: Media, Politics and Corruption in Contemporary Australia (University of New South Wales Press, 1999) and (as co-author) How Australia Compares (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

The electoral context

John Howard had won four successive elections, and in the last two had become the first prime minister in history to enlarge his government's majority in successive elections. The huge majority he won in 1996 all but disappeared in 1998 election when he proposed the introduction of a goods-and-services tax, and when he trailed Labor badly in early 2001, commentators had all but unanimously started writing his political obituaries. Then he staged a single-minded revival.

This triumph, however, also coloured his opponents' perceptions of Howard, as many thought he took the low road to victory. Apart from some populist domestic measures, his political recovery was built around his tough stance against "boat people" (asylum-seekers who were landing on the northwest coast of Australia). In August 2001, against all precedent and convention, he refused to allow the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, from landing on Australian soil after it had rescued over 400 asylum-seekers whose boat had sunk. Then after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, the political climate was dramatically transformed, and instead of defeat Howard won a clear victory.

Moreover, the longer Labor was in opposition the less it looked like an alternative government. The party lost two elections under Kim Beazley, but in the five years after his departure there were four further changes of leadership. Labor again entered the 2004 election slightly ahead of the Liberals in the polls, but lost the campaign comprehensively: Howard not only increased his majority, but also secured a majority in the senate (elected by proportional representation), the first time since the 1977 election that the winning party had achieved this.

The seeds of his 2007 defeat lay in the hubris following this 2004 triumph. With control of the senate, Howard was now free to embark on a legislative programme with no need of compromise with any other groups. Apart from the content of specific policies the style of government changed, so that by 2007, many Labor advertisements and speeches - no doubt informed by market research - focused on the government as arrogant and out of touch.

For reports, analysis and discussion of Australia's politics, society, international relations and culture, see the excellent website Australian Policy Online

By far the most momentous legislation was the government's changes to industrial relations, labelled "work choices". This was seen by many as a return to the 19th century, a determined attempt to break trade-union power and rights. This had been an ambition of Howard's for his whole political career, and he no doubt saw it as his last great reform. But it produced a great mobilisation of the unions, and all the opinion polls showed overwhelming opposition to the radical changes. An attempted dilution by the government with the introduction of a fairness test was both a precarious public-relations exercise and also produced even more "red tape" than earlier systems, as all individual contracts had to be vetted.

Howard reacted to this setback by delaying the announcement of the election for as long as he could, and then making the campaign last six weeks instead of the customary five. He chose this schedule for two reasons: he was so far behind in the polls, and hoped (Micawber-style) that something would turn up; and he thought that the longer Labor and Kevin Rudd were in the spotlight, the greater the chance they would say something that the government could exploit as the basis for a scare campaign. This approach had worked well for Howard in the past.

A campaign surprise

This time, however, the delay disadvantaged the government in a crucial respect. The monthly meeting of Australia's Reserve Bank coincided with the middle of the campaign; the bank, having clearly signalled its willingness to do so in advance (possibly to the government's disbelief) raised official rates by a quarter of a percent. It was the sixth successive rise since the 2004 election, and the first such decision during an election campaign.

While a powerful demonstration of the bank's independence, the decision - and the pattern which it continued - directly struck at the promises Howard had made in 2004 to keep interest rates at record lows. The government, spinning more vigorously than cricket hero Shane Warne, then tried to turn the move to its advantage: it demonstrated the more volatile times Australia was about to enter, went the argument, when it would be too great a risk having inexperienced fanatics and anti-business unionists in charge of the economy.

There was another probably unique occurrence during the last week of the campaign, and it also damaged the government. The husbands of the outgoing and new Liberal candidates for a seat in western Sydney were caught distributing forged pamphlets purporting to be from a Muslim group urging a vote for Labor on the grounds of how much the party would support, for example, the terrorists whose bombing in Bali in October 2002 killed around a hundred Australians. A disgusted moderate inside the Liberal Party tipped off the Labor Party, who organised the perfect ambush-by-camera. While such accusations of forgeries are made sometimes in the heat of partisan conflict, it is possibly unprecedented for the perpetrators to be caught in the act with photographic evidence and eyewitnesses. The prime minister's favourite paper, the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sydney tabloid. the Daily Telegraph, filled its front-page with the dramatic photo and the headline "LIBS BUSTED/Shameful race tactics exposed in key seat". Many felt there was a poetic justice in the way this episode derailed the Liberals' attempts to generate any late momentum.

It's time

While the election campaign had its usual tactical ups and downs, with charges of gaffes and various mis-steps, none of these - even this last dramatic exposure of an attempted dirty-trick - was a key to the outcome. Labor knew that it was ahead, and that if nothing upset the electoral equilibrium, it carried decisive strategic advantages.

Also in openDemocracy on Australian politics:

Peter Mares, "The Nauru solution" (12 September 2001)

Peter Browne, "Withdraw, Australia unfair" (14 November 2001)

Fred Halliday, "Mr Howard's Australia" (3 March 2005)

Tom Nairn, "On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne" (15 November 2005)

Tom Burgis, "Howard's way" (3 January 2006)

This logic of the contest - a potentially winning opposition against an embattled incumbent - dictated much of the strategy. Governments stress that they are the proven performers and that the opposition are a risky unknown quantity with secret plans and incompetents, and plans that will lead to disaster.

There is also a difference between the frontrunner and the party trailing. The latter has to change the momentum of the campaign, while the latter typically pursues a small target campaign, trying to ensure that it does nothing to alarm potential voters. John Howard honed this tactic to perfection in his 1996 defeat of Paul Keating. In 2007, it manifested itself in Kevin Rudd's "me-tooism". The government charged that every promise Howard made, Rudd matched.

In contrast, the government was facing an "it's time" factor (this, the most famous slogan in Australian politics, was used as the theme of Gough Whitlam's victorious 1972 campaign). It was compounded by the prime minister's age. At 68, Howard was still vigorous and energetic, but seen to be out of touch with emerging issues in particular: broadband and childcare, for example, but most importantly and potently, global warming. Then there was the clumsiness of his promise to hand over to his chosen successor, Peter Costello, and the personal tensions between them, as well as by Costello's poor public ratings. Labor made much of their claim that Howard's main promise was that he would retire.

Moreover, Rudd was able to project himself as a moderniser, on the wavelength of a new generation and its challenges. This was someone who had risen from a disadvantaged background through his own ability, who understood the information age, and who would promote what he called an education revolution. He projected himself as a figure who could represent Australia on the international stage; who would be independent of America but not endanger the alliance; and who (as a former diplomat capable of speaking in Chinese to visiting Chinese leaders) embodied Australia's future in the Asia-Pacific region.

When John Howard was elected in 1996, he said he wanted the Australian people to feel relaxed and comfortable. It is hard to imagine Kevin Rudd making any similar comment. It is sometimes said that Labor wins elections on hope and the Liberals on fear. A somewhat different way of formulating that is to say that Labor governments come to government with far more expectations about the agendas they should pursue, facing pent-up demands in areas like education, health, welfare, infrastructure and the environment.

There is an extra twist in the pattern this time. For whether or not the economic stability of the recent past continues, there is now a consensus in Australian politics that problems of global warming must be addressed, though perhaps with limited recognition even at this stage of the challenges that will bring.

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