The Future of Australian Politics

Antony Green, the ABC political analyst who does consistently great work has published a very thoughtful analysis of the state of the Australian Labor Party on his blog. In that analysis he has dug into the data and produced the following graph:


The graph shows the percentage of lower house seats held by Labor over the last 43 years with the state of the Federal Government placed in the background with the pink sections denoting Federal Labor Governments. Anthony proposes that this shows that being in government Federally is deleterious on the health of the state parties as they consistently lose seats following the election of a Federal Labor Government.

I would like to provide an alternative view and some further comments and predictions as Anthony’s analysis may be confusing cause and effect. While the analysis is certainly plausible, the alternative is that rebuilding of the party’s power base come from the states rather than federally. If we look at the graph when Labor loses government nationally its total percentage of state seats is at its lowest ebb. Then the percentage of seats rises and Labor does not get elected federally until a significant percentage of state seats are won back. However due to a limited life cycle of governments by the time that has happened the State Labor Governments have started to be on the nose and so the percentage of seats held starts to fall. This is an alternative explanation of the decline rather than the election of the Federal Labor Government being the cause of the fall.

It is easy to find reasons why either of these explanations is valid. My theory would suggest that most of the effort from the Labor Party after a Federal defeat should go into building state party structures and campaigns rather than the Federal Party. I am conducting a “politics 101” training session for a not for profit organisations next week and these graphs will be a very useful addition to that session and I intend to raise these competing theories as a discussion point.

Beyond that analysis I would like to comment on the possible future of Australian politics and make some predictions. I certainly agree with Antony’s comments that there is now a larger percentage of people who are prepared to change their vote as evidenced by seats changing hands that have rarely or never changed hands (although some of that is demographic change), and the size of some of the swings.

What is interesting if we look at the recent political polls on our leaders is that we seem to have lost faith as a nation. A series of political polls shown on the ABC Insiders program last weekend showed a consistent long term fall in the ratings of both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Further back this was echoed in the polls on Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. It seems that the Australian people like their leaders when they are first elected and then when they get to know them they become significantly disappointed over time. The question is whether this is the fault of the politicians we have, or a set of unrealistic expectations that the electorate has of its political leaders. I think that it is a combination of both which leads me to my first prediction:

“There will be a significant and precipitous fall in the popularity of Campbell Newman in Queensland”

I do not make this prediction as a party political one (see disclaimer below) but as a comment on the state of mind of the people that voted Campbell Newman in and would apply to either party in the same circumstances. It takes a bit of a wrench for people to change their voting patterns in the sort of way that happened in Queensland and with that wrench will come an even higher level of expectation of change. There is a limit to which State Premiers can deliver that sort of change and so I am predicting a serious disappointment in Queensland in the next 2-3 years. I do not believe that will be enough to tip the government out and should no way be seen by the Labor Party as a revival for them.

My other comment is on the longer term future of politics in Australia. Antony Green has made a strong case in his blog that what we are seeing is unlikely to be the demise of the Australian Labor Party. His argument is basically that these things have happened before and the cycle always turns and he presents compelling evidence that this is the case. Of course such cycles and trends are always compelling evidence until the cycle or trend breaks and we are surprised. I am of the view that we are on the verge of significant political change.

As a futurist I am fond of saying that the best predictor of the future is long term consistent human behaviour. So if asked to predict the future of the internet 20 years ago I would have predicted that it would be filled with gossip, gambling, crime, sharing, and pornography because that is what people have done for thousands of years. In a political context the consistent pattern is that when enough people get upset then revolutions occur. On top of that human reaction we now have a range of communication and activism tools we did not possess a decade ago. Many people I am close to have commented over the years that my involvement in politics and industry organisations is just a waste of time and why do I do it. When I question them more closely it reveals that they are still involved in politics themselves but they have narrowed it down to where they can make a difference – in their local school committees or in organising a local event or protest. My conclusion is that they have narrowed down their focus down to a level where they can see they can make a difference and shut out where they think they have no influence. Therefore I believe that there is quite a lot of fuel out there because:

  • More and more people are dissatisfied with our political leaders and political parties (and less people involved as members)
  • There are a large number of people who will take action but feel they cannot make a difference.
  • There are more and more tools available for people to make a contribution and feel they are making a difference.This can change the discontented group into an activism group.

Once these combinations reach a certain point there will be an explosion. I am not sure exactly what that might look like but here are a few possibilities:

  1. More influence and members of such organisations as Get Up which increase the engagement of people in the process and also reduce the friction between people getting upset and being able to do something.
  2. More independent politicians, in part fuelled by dissatisfaction with the major parties, but also powered by new ways to communicate. In the past mass media has kept the major parties in power except in certain areas where an individual has a strong enough media profile to get significant coverage. Media power is starting to wane as new methods of producing and distributing content engage people more.
  3. A coalition of regional independents because once regional people wake up to the fact that they can hold the balance of power almost permanently by banding together on their major areas of concern they will support candidates outside of the major parties that will do that.
  4. A splitting of politicians into one group that has an even shorter life than now because of electoral volatility, and another group who have long careers and influence because they connect with the electorate far more. I do not mean that they have to be sycophantic but a combination of strong leadership and empathy will be key.

I said above that the sorts of changes that we are seeing in voter assessment of leaders are a combination of unrealistic voter expectations and problems with our politicians. I am probably in a minority of people who believe that most of our politicians are honourable people with great intentions who work hard for their communities. I have been exposed to politicians from all sides by my involvement in party politics but also in my role as Chairman of a national industry organisation. Sure there are corrupt and venal individuals involved, but I have been impressed by the majority of people who put themselves forward for political office. The fundamental flaw that seems to be occurring is that when they get to be leaders they try and hide parts of themselves from the general public or dissemble on significant issues. The Australian people have great “bullshit detection meters” and they see right through this sort of stuff. It is time for our political leaders to present themselves as who they are, and to talk honestly to the Australian public and let the cards fall where they may. The alternative is a slow rusting death followed by revolution.

Paul Higgins

P.S. Thanks to my friend and protagonist Chris Brennan who sent me the link to the Antony Green piece after a lively discussion on the Qld election last night

Disclaimer/Information: I am a member of the Australian Labor Party although no longer that active. I was President of Country Labor in Victoria for about 5 years before and after the Brack’s Labor Government took office. I ran for Federal pre-selection twice in the nineties and am profoundly grateful to the members who did not pick me to stand because I have seen more and more of how politicians have to live their lives and it is a difficult and thankless task. I presented to the Australia and New Zealand Clerk’s at The Table Conference in January on the future of parliament.


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