Comment: Traditional supporters not buying what Coalition is sellingby John StylesNews Weekly
, June 3, 2000
John Styles argues that the Coalition needs a different product if it is to maintain support among conservative voters.
In the wake of the National Party’s narrow but nevertheless spectacular loss in the Benalla state by-election on May 13, The Australian newspaper’s cartoonist Peter Nicholson summed up the situation.
Nicholson’s cartoon characterised the by-election result in terms of a dog checking the scent of a farmer (representing the Victorian National Party). “He can still smell Jeff Kennett on my clothes,” the worried farmer says.
That conclusion is a more plausible summation of the result than the one offered by the National Party’s federal president Helen Dickie the same day.
No fewer than five times in a five-minute interview on ABC radio, Helen Dickie insisted that the party’s failure in Benalla was due to its inability to sell its message.
But the fact is, the electorate wasn’t buying what the Nationals were trying to sell.
For example, a by-election brochure intended to promote the National candidate Bill Sykes merely served as an eloquent reminder of precisely what the party failed to deliver while it was in government with the Liberals.
The brochure bemoaned the need for country children to leave home to get a decent education. “I am committed to expanding educational and training opportunities in country Victoria,” Mr Sykes declared. That could also have been a Labor line.
“The shortage of doctors in the country is alarming,” the brochure added. Labor couldn’t have put it better.
“We are sick and tired of being ripped off at the bowser by petrol prices 10 and 12 cents higher than Melbourne and LPG often double the price.” Precisely.
“Local roads are falling into disrepair. Many bridges are becoming unsafe and dangerous,” Mr Sykes complained.
The obvious question for Benalla electors to ask was: why is there so much wrong in Benalla after seven years of Liberal/National government? Quite clearly, the Nationals had a communication problem. But it was the message, not the delivery, that was flawed.
The same self-delusion was evident amongst the Liberals in the aftermath of the 1999 state election. “A protest vote gone wrong” was the official reason for the failure.
That excuse was undermined by the result of the subsequent Frankston East supplementary election which saw that seat also fall to Labor. On that occasion, we were told, there were other reasons. The electors had warmed to Steve Bracks and wanted to give him a go. And, it was claimed, Frankston East had really been a Labor seat all the time.
What a slap in the face for an electorate that had returned a Liberal candidate in 1992 and 1996! When the Liberal stronghold of Burwood, the seat held by Jeff Kennett prior to his resignation, also fell dramatically to Labor, the myth of “accidental defeat” should have been laid to rest.
Just as the Nationals’ Helen Dickie sought to blame her party’s marketing effort in Benalla for the ignominious loss, some internal Liberal Party critics pointed the finger at the party campaign apparatus in the aftermath of their party’s failures.
Like Helen Dickie, the Liberal critics seemed to believe a good spin doctor could cure anything; that the residual bank of Kennett images built up over seven years could be totally erased and overwritten with a new set of images during the election campaign.
The commentary and analysis that followed the Victorian election cited a number of reasons why Victorians, especially those in rural areas and regional centres, turned away from the coalition. Chief among them were:
(a) the personal style of Jeff Kennett, who was perceived as arrogant, an impression reinforced by the infamous “gag” supposedly imposed on all Liberal candidates during the election campaign;
(b) the failure to convert healthy surpluses, achieved after years of pain, into a social dividend, especially in education and health;
(c) disenchantment with a privatisation program in which, it seemed, no public resource or utility would be spared; and
(d) a propensity to avoid scrutiny and accountability, most dramatically illustrated by the departure of the auditor-general.
Whether or not all of those criticisms were completely justified, they were constant media themes throughout the Kennett Government’s second term.
But other significant reasons for voter disenchantment with the Liberal and National parties have been largely ignored.
They relate to the perceived ideological nature of the coalition parties in Victoria today.
Coalition supporters holding socially conservative beliefs were alienated as Jeff Kennett embraced trendy positions on a range of social issues.
Despite the fact that the Liberal and National parties are constantly labelled “the conservatives” by some political journalists, academics and non-coalition politicians, the tag is wrong and misleading.
The Kennett Government was not a conservative government, and Mr Kennett did not rule to a conservative credo.
In fact, on numerous occasions he revealed, across a range of social issues, his liberal social credentials.
The Liberal Party has always boasted that it is a “broad church”, embracing liberals and conservatives.
But in the lead-up to the state election last year, the Liberal Party apparently was not broad enough to embrace a socially conservative MP like David Perrin, who held the seat of Bulleen for the party. Mr Perrin lost preselection in what some claimed was an orchestrated exercise in branch-stacking aimed at installing a Kennett-preferred candidate, a charge the party denied.
There also have been reports about moves in the Victorian federal seat of Menzies to challenge another Liberal MP with conservative social views, the anti-euthanasia campaigner Kevin Andrews.
There is nothing wrong with a fair pre-selection contest and a debate about ideas. The cosy and comfortable convention that has protected sitting members from preselection challenges is not a satisfactory one. Nevertheless, when accusations of branch-stacking come into play, the “broad church” in Victoria starts to look somewhat narrower.
There was also the Kennett ageist exercise in so-called “generational change” that effectively led to the retirement of several senior and experienced MPs. What kind of message do you think that sent to the comfortable middle-class voters of Burwood in their 40s and 50s harbouring fears that their careers could be cut short at any moment to facilitate the meteoric rise of a gen-Xer? Ironically, the experience of some of those ministers forced out would have been useful in the Victorian opposition party room today.
The liberal social beliefs of Mr Kennett, sincerely held and spontaneously expressed, no doubt succeeded in attracting support from some younger voters. But how many older voters did they alienate in the process? The electors in Benalla who, as cartoonist Peter Nicholson put it, could still smell Jeff Kennett on the National Party that claimed to represent them, had good reason to be disenchanted.
For, unlike the manifesto on the wall of that Orwellian barn, if traditional National Party members and supporters checked the party’s core beliefs, they would find that, in theory, they have not changed.
In Victoria, the policy platform may be under review, but that traditional conservative National Party credo is still there and intact. It is just that the people they elected and sent off to Spring Street to defend and promote those ideals, did not do so. Instead, they became virtually indistinguishable from their Liberal coalition partners.
When the Country Party changed its name to the National Party, one of the motivating reasons was that it would broaden the party’s appeal. But that has not happened. The Nationals today look and sound more like a forum for the largest and wealthiest landholders than a broadly based conservative party.
Little wonder traditional conservative voters with no taste for One Nation’s divisive and inflammatory race rhetoric on the one hand, and ignored by their one-time representative organisation on the other, are turning to independents like Russell Savage in Mildura.
Rural conservatives, on the land and in regional centres, are looking for a conservative answer.
In the Benalla by-election, the winning Labor candidate, Denise Allen, despite a heavy campaigning effort from Premier Steve Bracks, did not increase the ALP’s primary vote. Independents once again amassed respectable tallies. However, sufficient preferences flowed through to Labor to edge Denise Allen across the line.
As the National Party conducts its Benalla post mortem, it might consider the advantages of positioning itself as a strong, independent, conservative force, a real alternative to the Liberal and Labor parties that frequently seem to converge on economic and social issues.
That forceful, principled National Party ought to be prepared to play balance-of-power politics to achieve its political program.
That kind of National Party might win voters back from One Nation and win over a swag of Liberal and Labor conservatives. It might even earn a new kind of respect in the electorate at large.
Despite the enthusiasm of Kim Beazley for his new “Country Labor” branding, a strategy that Bob Carr used to some effect in New South Wales, conservatives in Victorian rural electorates are unlikely to be duped.
The Victorian state election, the Frankston East supplementary election, the Burwood by-election and, most recently, the Benalla by-election all had an odour attaching to them. For conservatives, it was the stench of betrayal.