Politicians often rejoice about the wrong things.
In 2009 Labor MPs were thrilled about Tony Abbott’s rise to the Liberal leadership. Over the following four years Abbott destroyed two Labor Prime Ministers and became Prime Minister himself. In 2005 Coalition MPs toasted gaining majority control of the Senate. That majority delivered WorkChoices which helped to destroy the Howard government.
On Friday, the current Prime Minister appeared to be celebrating approaching victories in South Australia and Tasmania, triumphs which would ensure Liberal governments in every state and territory bar the ACT. An exclusive interview with The Australian gave way to the headline “PM will put ‘blue map’ to work as polls point to Liberal clean-sweep”.
Meanwhile there was pre-emptive hand-wringing about what this might mean for Labor, with predictions that the weekend would leave the party demolished, demoralised and hopeless.
On Saturday, the Liberals won a clear victory in Tasmania. In South Australia, the result is less clear, but Labor has a solid chance of retaining power. Late on Sunday, Premier Jay Weatherill was talking with independents about forming a minority government, and had not given up all hope of taking power in his own right.
But even if the Liberals claimed power in both states, to the extent that they have a national impact, it is likely to be in the direction precisely opposite to that anticipated.
Premiers versus the PM
On the Liberal side, the natural assumption is that Liberal Premiers will be easier to work with. As Abbott said on Friday: “It’s always more helpful to be working with like-minded people who want to be constructive. The last thing I want to do is to see a deliberate, wilful picking of fights”.
But deliberate, wilful picking of fights might be exactly what Abbott gets from his fellow Liberal leaders.
Among Premiers, there is a constant paranoia that their actions are being overshadowed by Canberra – that they are forever sustaining ‘brand damage’ on behalf of their federal colleagues.
So while you might expect Labor states to be the fly in Tony Abbott’s ointment, there are strong incentives for Liberal Premiers to distance themselves from the federal party and its crusades. There is no political benefit for a Premier in being seen as a PM’s lackey. That is doubly true when you are talking about a personally unpopular Prime Minister like Abbott. We have already seen this in action, with NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell repeatedly refusing to fall into line with Abbott’s demands.
This paranoia will only rise in the face of wall-to-wall Liberal dominance. There persists a strong belief among the political classes, only partly borne out by reality, that Australians like to balance their federal rulers with state rulers from a different party. Rare is the Premier who would rather see himself thrown out of power than his Prime Minister.
As an aside, one interesting consequence of Liberal dominance is that it removes the Prime Minister’s most convenient excuse for not pursuing a change to the GST. In a 2013 campaign debate Abbott twice made the point that a change to the GST requires approval from all states and territories, and that with two Labor state governments it would be almost impossible to secure that approval. If only the ACT remains red – with its Chief Minister having indicated she is open to GST change – Abbott may have to address the case on its merits.
Is Labor on the ropes nationally?
Turning to Labor, we find a party down at heel. Labor does stand a fighting chance of winning in Victoria this November. But Western Australia in 2017 then offers the next hope of victory at a state level, given the almost certain losses in NSW and Queensland.
But this isn’t as disastrous as it seems. It is very similar to the situation facing the Liberals just seven years ago.
In 2007 Labor held every state and territory government. Campbell Newman, now Queensland Premier, then Lord Mayor of Brisbane, was the most senior Liberal in the country. A year later Colin Barnett won WA for the Liberal Party, but it was two more years before he was joined by another Liberal Premier. Four years after that, Liberals rule the roost.
So Labor shouldn’t despair. Losing Tasmania, and South Australia if it comes to that, is not an apocalypse. But nor should Labor sit back and wait for the cycle to turn of its own accord.
To stand a chance of taking government at the next election, Opposition leader Bill Shorten will have to prove he is a new type of leader (as I’ve argued before), with a clear vision for the country, an ability to explain that vision and a willingness to fight for it. He cannot do this alone. Labor must do the work in opposition it arguably failed to do before 2007, to determine exactly what it wants to achieve in government.
At an organisational level Labor will need to change. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating recently said the party’s record of selecting candidates “who can think strategically and carry an argument” has been getting “progressively lower”. It is up to Shorten, as well as powerful state secretaries like Jamie Clements in NSW, to address this (and NSW in particular has been taking some interesting steps in this direction).
This work – on both policy and party reform – is best carried out now, when there are no powerful leaders who can block progress on the grounds it is distracting from the important task of governing. Opposition can be an opportunity. Whether the ALP seizes that opportunity is another matter.
All this leads to one simple conclusion. However South Australia turns out – regardless of which party ends the week popping champagne – all MPs everywhere would do well to remember Oscar Wilde: “When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.”
Sean Kelly was an adviser to Kevin Rudd from 2009 then to Julia Gillard from 2010. He is on twitter @mrseankelly