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Amateur hour in non-Labor parties

By Scott Prasser - posted Thursday, 8 April 2010


Although enjoying swings of more than 7 per cent, the Liberal Party at the recent Tasmanian and South Australian elections failed to win government from Labor despite their long-term incumbencies and scandals.

These were not one-off failures. The non-Labor parties also failed to capitalise on similar large swings away from Labor in the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in 2008 (9 per cent) and in Queensland in 2009 (4.5 per cent). Only in Western Australia in September 2008 did the Liberals just get over the line.

Despite dissatisfaction with incumbent Labor governments in New South Wales and Victoria, voters remain suspicious of the quality of the non-Labor oppositions. In Queensland, doubts persist about the abilities of the Liberal National Party team. Labor governments may be bad, but the non-Labor oppositions are not yet seen fit to govern.

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And federally, the real challenge facing Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is to convince the electorate that he and his team are serious contenders against Labor, led by a very focused and professional Prime Minister in Kevin Rudd. On-the-run policy making and questionable shadow minister appointments need serious attention.

The crux of the non-Labor problem and the cause of the leadership crises, disunity, weak frontbench performance, inept campaigning and missed opportunities is the lack of talent, in parliament to spearhead attacks against well-resourced incumbent Labor governments, and in quality candidates to win marginal seats.

Poor recruitment practices, including the inability to replenish their ranks and career plans to nurture and train their existing talent, are key problems.

This is an issue that has long bedevilled the non-Labor side of politics, but has become more evident as they are out of office across most of Australia.

This lack of capacity reflects the structure of non-Labor parties, the nature of their memberships and the sources of their support.

Organisationally, non-Labor parties have less formal internal factions and structures and more decentralised processes in selecting candidates compared with Labor. Non-Labor parties tend to be collections of individuals seeking office, pursuing their own careers and allowing less intervention by the party hierarchy about who gets what seat or in long-term career planning. It is a hit-and-miss, amateurish affair.

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Further, non-Labor parties have looser connections to organised interests. Labor's strong links to trade unions, community groups, universities and particular professions provide a regular feed of personnel into the political mix, an ongoing training ground in the skills that matter and places to park party supporters when out of office.

Business may be aligned to the non-Labor cause, but it is unenthusiastic in employing former non-Labor members as lobbyists at their different organisational offices. This could taint relations with incoming Labor administrations. Dollars, not causes, is what counts for business. Look at the problems Peter Costello, former Liberal federal treasurer, had in gaining offers from business. No wonder he and other former Liberals grabbed offers of government posts from the Rudd Government.

Our left-of-centre universities also offer little refuge for former non-Labor members let alone their critiques of interventionist government policy.

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First published in The Australian on March 31, 2010.



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About the Author

Scott Prasser is Professor of Public Policy and was Executive Director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University. Scott has worked previously in senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments and in several universities in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Recently, Scott co-edited with Associate Professor Nicholas Aroney and J.R. Nethercote the book Restraining Elective Dictatorship: The Upper House Solution? He has just written with Helen Tracey a report entitled Beyond Gonski: Reviewing the Evidence on Quality Schooling.

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