Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

Economic trouble Beazleys only hope

At the wonderful Byron Bay Writers Festival at the weekend a desperate true believer asked me what the Labor Party had to do to win the next election.

The quick and pessimistic answer is that it probably cant: the conditions simply wont be there. But to have said that would have been too depressing altogether, so I waffled a bit about the need to be ready as an acceptable alternative if the economy collapsed or the government self-destructed.

However, given that both major parties and the media have already put themselves into election mode (a bit like celebrating Christmas in July, but thats what turns them on) the question perhaps deserves a more considered answer: so here goes. Readers who feel that talking about elections barely halfway into the governments term is an exercise in futility should now turn to the sports pages.

The accepted wisdom among amateur pundits is that oppositions dont win elections; governments lose them. But actually it is a little more complicated than that. A change of government by popular election requires several things to happen at the same time, and this is a very rare event. Indeed, in the last 50 years it has only happened three times: in 1972, 1983 and 1996 (in 1975 the new government had already been appointed by the governor-general before the election was held, so Malcolm Fraser faced the voters as Prime Minister a huge psychological advantage).

Certainly, to lose an election the government has to be seen as having passed its use-by date; it need not be actively hated, but it must be out of puff, and preferably out of touch as well. That is a necessary precondition for what has become known as the Its Time effect: the electorate feels ready for a change. But that by itself is seldom enough. The social researcher Hugh Mackay has identified two additional circumstances needed before the voters actually take the plunge.

One is that they have to be hurting, and this usually means the hip pocket nerve. The economy must be, if not in actual recession, at least heading downwards with the fear of worse to come. This in itself will not always cause enough voters to switch sides; they may decide to stick with the devil they know, at least for the time being although they seldom forgive and forget entirely, as Paul Keating found out in 1996.

Which brings us to the third necessary factor: the opposition has to be seen as competent to take over government. This is the only one of the three over which the opposition has any real control. Certainly it can and must draw the voters attention to the weaknesses of the government and exploit them as much as possible; equally it must dwell on the voters grievances, real or imagined, while avoiding the terrible political crime of talking the economy down as if an opposition had that power. But for the propaganda to work, there have to be weaknesses and grievances to begin with, and these are beyond the power of any opposition to manufacture.

A vigorous government in a thriving economy is in an almost impregnable position, no matter how heinous its other crimes. As long as they remain prosperous and they believe the government when it assures them that they will stay that way, a regrettable number of swinging voters will happily forgive the imprisonment of children behind razor wire until they go mad or the betrayal of their fellow citizens to illegal imprisonment and torture. This may dismay other Australians who are still appalled by such cruelty and brutality, but they do not constitute a majority.

They do form a sizeable base on which Labor can and should build. But to form government Labor needs to convince at least some of the swingers that it can do as good a job looking after their mortgages as the incumbents and thats about all it can do. Then it has to wait for at least one of the other two conditions to come about.

The good news, if the onset of national misfortune can ever be called that, is that one is getting close; the hip pocket is starting to twinge. The huge level of personal debt, in part an unintended consequence of the deregulation of the banking system and the subsequent hysterical competition for customers, has left a lot of victims; the last interest rate rise pushed quite a few to the edge, and another would be disastrous for them. My own feeling is that this is unlikely to come in the past the Reserve Bank has admitted a reluctance to take measures which might have serious political consequences for the government. But if it does, John Howard, elected on the slogan of Keeping Interest Rates Low, could be in real trouble.

It could even be enough to destabilise the entire government; the Nationals especially are already close to panic about petrol prices and, despite the apparent settlement of the leadership issue, there are still quite a few Liberals who would like to see the Dear Leader do a bit of squirming not enough to lose an election, of course, but once these things start they can get out of control.

So it is not entirely impossible that the political gods might start to turn against the Howard Government by the time the election comes around, and in spite of having the huge unearned advantage of being able to decide its timing (well, until the end of next year) the Prime Minister may have to go to the people in a mood of something approaching crisis. If that happens, all Kim Beazley will need to do is to present the acceptable alternative that is, turn a gang of factional misfits into a team of respected administrators.

Thats all.

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