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The myth of Howard's 'comfortable control'

By Peter Brent
August 14 2002

"John Howard could well utilise Gough Whitlam as a role model for an opposition leader ... like Whitlam, he must initiate reforms of the party structure ... the Liberals would benefit from a national conference structure similar to the ALP's."
Malcolm McGregor, The Australian Financial Review, January, 1995

"To win, the Liberal Party will have to be performing at its optimum in all states and territories . . . In short, the Liberals still do not have a national party structure."
Gerard Henderson, The Age, April, 1995

The combatants change but the nagging remains the same. Seven years ago John Howard ignored all the advice and left the structure in place. It seemed not to dent his 40-seat win in March, 1996.

In 2002, the circle has turned and professional observers are unanimous: Howard is "comfortably in control" and "on top of his game" and poor old Simon Crean can't get "traction".

But out on the ground, opinion polls tell a different story. Last week's Newspoll, for instance, was one of the recent worst for the ALP, showing the opposition's primary vote on 37 per cent and the Coalition on 41 per cent. And yet this points, if anything, to a Labor win.

To see why, we have to look at preferences - which Newspoll doesn't distribute between campaigns. But we can guesstimate from last year's election result - when those numbers were 38 and 43 respectively, going after distribution of preferences to 49 to 51 - a reasonably close result.

Most important in this exercise are the minor parties. One Nation, whose preferences favoured the Coalition at the election, has collapsed from 4 per cent in November, 2001, to 1 per cent now. The Greens, whose preferences go to Labor three to one, are actually up 1 per cent. All these developments favour Labor, giving them more than the 1 to 2 per cent needed for victory.

In truth, of course, it's too early to tell, and the voter exodus from both parties continues. But the evidence of electoral dominance by the government does not exist.

Which doesn't stop the explanations coming. Last week Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian that having last year "severed" the "post-Whitlam political alliance between the working class and the tertiary-educated Left that defines modern Labor", John Howard was set to exploit further social issues to "smash" that alliance once and for all.

People should beware of New World Orders; they have a habit of reverting to the old.

After Paul Keating's surprise 1993 GST win, many a true believer excited themselves with the thought that the country had reached a consensus on the big issues such as reconciliation, engagement with Asia, and the republic. Others even claimed the GST had delivered the Labor government a new constituency that would sustain it into the new century.

These fantasies came crashing down in 1996.

Real life is more mundane than commentators' sociological abstractions. Elections are discrete entities, and one victory does not make a long-term electoral base. A government that pulls off a "heroic" victory is by definition one with problems in punterland (otherwise why the need for heroism?) that will be three years older next time.

Swinging voters are famously unideological, there is today little difference between the major parties, and governments generally fall when they run out of steam and the other side doesn't look too incompetent or scary. This was the real lesson from March, 1996, and will probably be again at the next change of government.

To some of us there are few things in the news more eye-glazing than 60:40 versus 50:50, but those who appreciate such things are adamant that reform of the Labor Party will boost Simon Crean's chances of taking the prime ministership. At the very least, it shouldn't hurt - bar some sort of ALP split - and might boost his perceived leadership credentials.

But for the other view we can go to John Howard, who told the Financial Review soon after regaining the opposition leadership in 1995: "There's nothing much wrong with the structure of a political party that a decent win wouldn't cure."

Psephologist Peter Brent is the editor of

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