IF THE Opinion polls are right, Australia will have a new Government by December, and a new Leader of the Opposition. If history is any guide, the new Government will get about three terms before being replaced in its turn. The next Liberal Prime Minister of Australia may not yet be in Parliament, or, if (s)he is, may not have been a minister in the Howard Government.
If the opinion polls are right, it will be a pretty demoralised and shattered Opposition which gathers in early December to elect a stop-gap leader. If history is any guide, that leader will never be Prime Minister, even if the party forgives him or her a first election loss in 2010.
If the swing were, for example, of the order of 10 per cent (about two points less than the latest poll indicates) Ministers losing their seats would be, in approximate order of execution, Malcolm Turnbull, Gary Nairn, John Howard, Mal Brough, Christopher Pyne, Peter Costello, Peter Dutton and Andrew Robb.
Some of these might survive on either personal or local factors. Still in Parliament would be Brendan Nelson, Julie Bishop, Alexander Downer, Philip Ruddock, Tony Abbott, while Joe Hockey and Kevin Andrews might just have scraped home. The comers of these, assuming that Ruddock is too old and Downer too battle-scarred are Julie Bishop, who has hardly impressed as a minister, Brendan Nelson (still yet to be identified with any ideal) and three other Catholics with the old DLP firmly in their DNA. Moral conservatives and, essentially, market interventionists, a far cry from the free marketeers of 1996-2006.
The Liberals could be down to about 40 seats, and Labor with a 58-seat majority. If history and experience is any guide, Rudd’s biggest challenge in his first term will be appeasing and satisfying the backbench section of his own majority, not in dealing with a squabbling opposition. If history is any guide, it will probably not be such a problem after 2010 when a Rudd Government is fairly comfortably returned, but with its majority down to about 20, still a long distance from defeat.
Rudd’s backbench problem will be two-fold.
A significant proportion of even the existing backbench, left alone the newbies, will be uncomfortable with many of the pragmatic policy decisions involved in achieving government. The Liberals will declare during the election campaign that the chief casualty of this will be the very conservative industrial relations program which has been put up, and predict that the advent of a class of former trade union heavies will put irresistible pressure to roll back all of the Howard reforms, and, probably, the Keating reforms as well.
Perhaps, but more likely will be the combined appeal of Labor conscience and sentimentality over its silence, since 2001, on core emotional issues such as refugees, multiculturalism, Aborigines, public housing, human rights, and security laws. The problem for Rudd, and for many of the modern Labor frontbenchers, is that they actually have little sentimentality over such issues: Labor’s silence on Aborigines and refugees, for example, is a reflection of the fact that they (and, they judge, the electorate) doesn’t care much, and certainly not in a way much different from the status quo.
This tension will be aggravated by the fact of a landslide. Were Labor to win narrowly, Rudd would be able to caution his backbench about being their only on trial, and on an implicit deal with the electorate (from the nature of the campaigning) that nothing very much was going to change. But the backbench will argue vehemently that a landslide reflects a desire for real change, and a positive rejection of the Government in power.
John Howard faced this in 1996. He made very few policy promises, and, in a host of areas, promised mildly that there would be little change. He was strong on his criticism of Paul Keating, and his style and arrogance, (knowing that the electorate was in a mood to throw Keating out) but did not appear to have an extensive program for Government. Keating argued, without avail, that behind the bland smiles and reassurances was a true radical (like the John Hewson he had defeated three years before), one who would completely remake the country. But the electorate wasn’t buying, or, at least, was not focused on this. It just wanted Keating out.
It was the "discovery" of the "black hole" that changed the way Howard could present himself. Who knows, perhaps he would have been more cautious and moderate had he not found that Keating had misrepresented the state of the nation’s finances (as Howard had himself done to Keating in 1983). In the confected air of crisis this produced, Howard’s galvanisation towards cost-cutting and fundamental review of government programs had the air of virtue and necessity, rather than an ideological attack.
Rudd may yet find his own black hole. Not, directly, in mis-stated accounts, or an economy in direct trouble. But in an array of vague but highly expensive commitments and undertakings, mostly quickly packaged for electoral purposes, made over 2007. Here, $10 billion, a figure pulled out of the air in a program, devised in the PM’s office without departmental or Cabinet consultation, to save the Murray Darling. Or $5 billion or so, from within the cranium of the Minister for Defence without departmental agreement, for already obsolete aircraft we do not need; or the simply uncosted long-term commitment inevitably embraced by the invasion of the Northern Territory. Or it could be absorbing the great bump in hospital funding created by the electoral commitment to Devonport – a decision simply unable to be reconciled with any known principle of health care funding, or the movement towards administrative and resource reforms.
During the election campaign we will no doubt see more, with grand announcements about billions in expenditure on climate change, the environment, national building, the usual unaccountable pork-barrelling by the Nationals, as well as handouts to marginal seats. There are plenty of other cases. Not for nothing did Peter Costello observe, last year, in his interview for John Howard’s biography, that we have to worry about the sustainability of such commitments, and not only against this year’s balance sheets, but those of five, 10 and 15 years time.
Some parts of the Government appear to recognise that they are headed for crushing defeat. For John Howard, admitting the odds against re-election is a way of pleading for discipline, and perhaps even some dignity, in the sure and certain knowledge that if the party implodes now, before the poll, defeat will be the greater.
But some of his colleagues, concerned for the future of the Liberal Party after John Howard, and concerned for their own position in that party, must inevitably be thinking of how they are positioned, first to survive, then rebuild, after the disaster. Most likely, their reputation, a year from now, will not be based on nearly 12 years in the ministry. It will, more likely, be by what they did over the last year of government – and whether they were seen as any sort of restraining hand as a desperate Prime Minister threw every economic principle, and a good deal of Liberal ideology, out the window in an attempt to hold on.
Kim Beazley could tell them. He was an able enough Minister for a decade. As far as John Howard and Peter Costello were concerned, however, he was only the Minister for Finance who created the black hole.