In the Liberal election post-mortem, I think at least three levels of factors will need to be considered: the transitory, the cyclical, and the structural.
The media puts most emphasis on transitory factors, because these generate the material needed to fill the space and time allocated to Australian politics. Into this category I would put things like leadership issues, interest rates, various stuff-ups, and the campaign strategy. Most what-ifs belong here – what if Howard had left in 2006 and allowed Costello to establish himself as PM, what if Howard hadn’t promised in 2004 to keep interest rates low or if interest rates had stayed low, etc?
There will be some lessons for the future in all these experiences, but at least in principle things could fairly easily have turned out differently, and could turn out differently in the coming years. Analysis of these factors will have only modest value for the Liberals in planning their next move. Howard will be gone, and interest rates will be Kevin Rudd’s problem.
My main interests are in the other two sets of factors. Various aspects of public opinion in Australia are cyclical, with people’s views going back and forth without any long-term trend. Some of this opinion is of the what-is-to-be done variety. We have several decades of data, for example, showing that the public changes its mind over time on the balance between taxing and spending and on the right level of migration to Australia. We also have about 25 years of reasonably consistent survey questions on which issues people think are most important. The public’s basic stance on these matters may be stable – unemployment bad, hospitals good etc – but what varies is the emphasis placed on them as issues affecting votes.
I think it is fairly clear that we are not in a good part of the issue cycle for the Liberals, though due to the mummy party/daddy party phenomenon it may not be quite as bad federally as it is in the states.
For example, Newspoll finds that the Liberals still have a healthy lead over Labor as the best party on tax. But polls since 2003 have consistently found that if given a choice between less taxation and more spending the public prefers more spending. Though some recent polls indicate people want tax cuts as part of dealing with the surplus, a Morgan Poll last week found tax cuts at a record low as the thing the federal government could do that would most benefit the respondent and his or her family. And what do people want the tax dollars spent on? Health and education, two issues on which Labor has historic advantages.
The Liberals also have a comfortable lead over Labor as the better party to handle the economy. But the economy sank as an issue as it improved as a reality. Various economic issues could once get a majority of all issues mentioned, but more recently it is just a handful. On top of this, the public is getting more sceptical that either party has a big effect on economic outcomes.
For a while the Liberals were benefitting from an issue cycle in their favour on immigration and national security, but these strengths have faded as people became more satisfied with migration and less satisfied with issues like the Iraq war.
In his book Tides of Consent, the American political scientist James Stimson argues that in US politics the issue cycle turns against those in power. I think this is an interesting idea in the Australian context. In areas where a party enjoys success in the public’s eyes, as the Liberals have with the economy and immigration, the issue stops becoming so important and so becomes less of an advantage. And with the Opposition and interest groups constantly emphasising – and perhaps reality partly matching – the government’s weaknesses in areas of Opposition strength the issue cycle starts to turn.
If we do have an issue cycle dynamic something like this, the Howard government has reached a point where it is counter-cyclical, and therefore vulnerable to defeat, especially if specific transitory factors such as personality issues, bungles or scandals are running against it. But what the dynamic taketh away it can also giveth – sooner or later the cycle is likely to turn against Labor and towards the Liberals.
The final factors to be analysed are structural. These are long-term shifts in the social composition of the electorate and attitudes (though the two can be inter-related; certain types of people are disproportionately likely to think in certain ways). The Liberal Party, as I argued in January, and which Ian Watson showed in more detail in May, faces a major demographic challenge as older voters who support it are replaced with younger cohorts more inclined to vote for the ALP.
I think there is an open question on whether the Liberals have made a long-term political blunder on climate change, creating a stereotype that will persist regardless of their actual policies on a subject of long-term electoral signifance. Though climate change is an electoral negative now, it is too early to tell how much of a long-term liability it will be, particularly because any serious action on climate change is likely to cause the kind of economic issues that are traditional Liberal strengths to rise again.
Various errors and failings could still bring Labor governments down. But on my analysis, cyclical factors are working against the Liberals for at least the medium term, and structural factors are working against the party in the long-term. It’s going to be a lengthy period in Opposition.