Monday, 13 December 2004

Blackmailers In the Ranks - a Government with a Senate majority

The conventional wisdom has it that the Howard Government will have an open slather with legislation when the Liberal and National Parties gain control of the Senate on 1 July 2005. In truth the situation will not be so simple.
What will happen next year is that blackmailers outside the Coalition will be replaced with blackmailers within it. The power to decide will pass from Democrats, Greens and Independents to any backbench Senator on the Government side disenchanted with the role being a rubber stamp for his or her colleagues fortunate enough to have been tapped on the shoulder by John Howard or John Anderson to become Ministers.
The significance of this shift in power form the third forces to backbench Government Senators has been missed by the political commentators because so few of them were around in the days when Reg Wright, the Liberal Senator from Tasmania, was the bete noir of Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Senator Wright, sometimes with his Queensland colleague Senator Ian Wood, regularly forced his side of politics to reconsider issues under the threat that he would vote against legislation if they did not. In a Senate career of 28 years he eventually voted against his own side on more than 150 occasions. Eventually John Gorton as Prime Minister realised that the only way to remove the irritant was to promote Reg into the Ministry where he served as an insignificant Minister for Works before returning to his role as a Prime Ministerial irritant during the early years of Malcolm Fraser’s rule.
Next year the most likely government rebels are National Party Senators who realise that there are those in the grass roots of their Party who believe that there would be greater influence in not participating in a Coalition Government at all. An occasional bit of muscle flexing would help appease those elements.
Not that the revolts have to be on the floor of the Senate. Senators with an objection to a piece of Government legislation can achieve their aims by making their views known behind closed doors.

Wednesday, 8 December 2004

Eight out of Nine Ain’t Bad - the Labor brand

There are nine governments in Australia – those of six states, two territories and the federal one. In Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory, Labor rules. For a political brand, eight ninths of the market can’t be bad.
Yet since losing the ninth election to John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition, the newspapers and the airwaves have been full of discussions about the need for Labor to undergo radical change. It is like the thinking of that head of Coca Cola who decided that the formula of the most successful soft drink in the world needed to be changed because it had lost a few percentage points of market share. Utter nonsense.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Labor Party brand. In so far as there is a problem federally it is because the federal party leaders, unlike their state counterparts, have forgotten who they should be trying to sell their product to. In recent years they have been more interested in minor segments than the mass market. It really is as simple as that.
Changing the chief salesman without changing the target of his or her message will achieve little. But there is some evidence about the kind of person who would be the most effective at getting the message across. A person who voters are familiar with has a much better chance of success than some one who is relatively unknown.
The following table shows the age and length of political service of Australian Prime Ministers at the time of their first victory to become Prime Minister or as Prime Minister. Non election winners are excluded and Bob Hawke’s length of prior political experience is shown as 10 years not three because once he became a President of the ACTU in 1971 he was as much a political figure as any member of the House of Representatives.

Australia's Winning Prime Ministers

Year of First VictoryPrime MinisterAgeYears in Politics
1901Sir Edmund Barton5222
1903Alfred Deakin4824
1910Andrew Fisher4717
1913Joseph Cook5222
1917William Morris Hughes5423
1925Stanley Melbourne Bruce417
1929James Scullin5319
1931Joseph Lyons5122
1940John Curtin5511
1946Ben Chifley6117
1949Robert Menzies5420
1966Harold Holt5831
1969John Gorton5819
1972Gough Whitlam5619
1975Malcolm Fraser4519
1983Robert Hawke5310
1993Paul Keating4924
1996John Howard5622

Labour Contenders

Mark Latham4310
Kim Beazley5624
Kevin Rudd476
Stephen Smith4911
Wayne Swan5011
The only exception on that list to the rule that experience counts is Stanley Melbourne Bruce who won his first election as Prime Minister at the age of 41 after being in Parliament only seven years. But Bruce was a decorated hero of Gallipoli who had been Prime Minister for two and a half years before leading his party to victory in 1925. Mark Latham this year was trying to become the second youngest man to become Prime Minister at an election after being in Parliament only a decade without becoming any kind of household name apart from publicity about leaving his first wife and thumping a taxi driver.
It will take another three House of Representative terms for Mark Latham to reach the average age and length of political service of those winning Prime Ministers. Kevin Rudd is even more of a political babe in the woods and while Stephen Smith and Wayne Swan will reach the magic age before the next election they are well short of the time in Parliament that most previous winners have taken to make their mark on the public.

The conclusion that it was a mistake not to return to Kim Beazley before the last election is hard to avoid.