The Liberals’ states (and territories) of confusion
Swept up in the excitement of federal issues, one can be forgiven for stifling a yawn at the mention of state politics. Liberals, in particular, might prefer not to reflect on this unprecedented spell of Labor domination. Yet just as the long federal drought is undermining the political viability of Labor, the Liberals face a bleak future if they do not soon regain the initiative at a state level.
The status quo puts the Liberals one defeat away from electoral oblivion. If it suffers a federal defeat in 2007 without first making gains at state level, the party will lose almost all the resources, influence and staffers that are critical to maintaining political and intellectual capital.
While the federal government is important to business generically, as it has prime influence over the nation’s economic climate, state governments are in a better position to assist particular businesses, especially property developers. This makes control of state governments a lucrative proposition for political parties, one which Labor has not been shy to exploit. It is an under-appreciated fact that the Liberals, not Labor, are the party that is playing catch-up in political funding.
What are the prospects of a Liberal resurgence? In New South Wales, Bob Carr’s tough-on-crime rhetoric has been exposed as just that by the repeated humiliations of his police force at the hands of riotous thugs. Sydney’s transport system is reminiscent of pre-Mussolini Italy. Yet for all that, the Brogden Opposition has failed to achieve the sort of ascendancy in the polls that might presage a change of government.
In Victoria, the shine has worn off Steve ‘Good Bloke’ Bracks. His constant refrain of ‘we’ll look into it’ has become a standing joke, while his unscrupulous revenue grabs have alienated many Victorians. But while there have been some promising polls for the Liberals, the sentiment in the party – and on the street – is more consistent with a respectable recovery next election from the total rout of 2002, not a miracle turn-around.
I tried to elicit comment from the party’s Queensland division, but they were both out. Nor are Liberals knocking on the doors of power in South Australia, Tasmania or the Territories.
In Western Australia, Colin Barnett went to the people with the most exciting election promise since Russian fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky pledged to build giant fans to blow radioactive waste across the Baltic states. I preferred Zhirinovsky’s plan; at least it might have worked. Voters consigned the mighty Barnett canal to the ash heap of history, to the relief of all thinking people.
To lose one state may be regarded as misfortune; to lose six plus two Territories looks like carelessness. A trend this strong must have an explanation.
The most thoughtful one was proffered by Laurie Oakes. He suggested that Australians look to Canberra for policies to sustain economic prosperity and defend national security. The states, by contrast, are seen as service providers, responsible for schools and hospitals. Thus the hard-edged issues which favour conservatives are concentrated at a federal level, while the touch-feely issues at the state level are Labor’s strong suit.
Centralism, which has seen Canberra steadily strip the states of responsibility since Federation, is partly to blame. State governments today are little more than service administrators and contract managers. It was not always so. This trend has also exacerbated the problem of finding decent candidates to run at state level.
The GST has also propped up incumbent state governments. Peter Costello is right to be frustrated by the ease with which the states have squandered their GST windfall, despite increasing their dependency on gambling revenue, outrageous traffic fines and obscene levels of property tax.
But politics is about results, not excuses, and the state Liberals produce far too many of the latter and not enough of the former. Why, in an age of growing hospital waiting lists, functionally illiterate school-leavers and widespread dissatisfaction with transport infrastructure in our major cities, have the Liberals failed so conspicuously to capture the public imagination in these areas?
A quick look at the average state campaign yields the answer: the Liberals aren’t trying. While the rampant vote-buying of federal campaigns is tempered with some issues of principle – asylum seekers, war, mutual obligation – state campaigns are wholly non-ideological.
In an age of few fiscal constraints, all that leaves is bribes to the electorate. State campaigns consist of a bidding war between politicians using taxpayer money. Even at its most feckless and patronising, the Liberal Party is never going to win that fight.
If spending like a drunken sailor isn’t the answer, what is?
Continuing the alcoholic analogy, the first step to solving your problem is realising that you have one. The logical corollary is that Liberals need to convince the voters that taxpayer money is being wasted, and that Liberals could do more with less.
I’m not talking about attacking the Premier’s twenty-grand ‘fact-finding’ mission to Hawaii, or the ministerial office furniture bill. The Liberals have already mastered those stunts. In a time of plenty, most voters ignore the politicians’ snouts in the trough, so long as they themselves are kept in gravy.
Liberals must undertake a more fundamental reappraisal of the big ticket items of state spending. They must convince voters that the problems with our health and education systems do not flow from absolute funding levels, but from structural failures.
Education is the most fertile ground for this argument. It is received wisdom in most “Howard battler” households that schools are failing to teach ‘the three R’s’. Educationalists and their unions have provided a treasure trove of quotes and documents displaying an obsession with politicising our children and a contempt for the importance of basic literacy and numeracy.
Attacks on curriculum would be political dynamite. Increasing access to private schools with a voucher system would empower parents and provide a tangible benefit. Similarly, Liberals should explore avenues to introduce greater consumer-focus into the health system.
Right-wing think-tanks, here and abroad, have produced a library of ideas on how to decentralise service provision and increase stakeholder control. While federal Liberals borrow heavily from the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute of Public Affairs, their non-ideological state cousins have demonstrated little interest in radical reform.
After years in the wilderness, it is shameful that state Liberal oppositions have done so little to build the intellectual capital needed not just to return them to power, but to make their future governments a success. The Liberal Party cannot afford more insipid, pork-barrelling campaigns, nor a repeat of Barnett’s giant boondoggle in the West. To those cynical state Liberals who claim that a reform agenda cannot win elections, I say simply: GST.