Discussions of election results in Australia are usually marked by chronic overstatement, however the Saturday result is definitely the worst performance by one of the major parties since the two-party system emerged before World War I.
It could be argued that public opinion is today more volatile than it once was and that as a consequence electoral swings are likely to be larger. In 1988 Labor after 12 years in government crashed to only 38% of the primary vote. Is 2011 simply a rerun of 1988? However survey evidencesuggests that although levels of Labor allegiance weakened notably in the 1980s they have been fairly stable since then. NSW Labor does not face a more inherently critical electorate in 2011 than it did in 1988. It is true that the Greens mount a powerful appeal to many Labor supporters but the NSW ALP has failed to effectively appeal for their preferences. This is marked contrast to federal Labor's success in appealing to minor party left voters (although it is aided by compulsory preferential voting). Even a struggling Labor government should be able to haul its two-party vote well into the 40s as NSW Labor did in 1988.
However one aspect of political change does work against Labor. Outside of the inner-city and some ethnic suburbs Labor's branch membership has collapsed to pitiful levels. As the Your Rights at Work campaign suggested personal contact is an effective campaigning tool. Most voters are unlikely to ever encounter a Labor campaigner or even a friend or colleague who encourages them to vote Labor. The traditionally high levels of support for Labor in many of the more Anglo working-class suburbs, exemplified by the electorate of East Hills, are built on sand. These apparent Labor heartlands resemble those once unionised workplaces where union membership collapsed in the late 1990s in the face of an employer offensive that was unchallenged by the presence of union activists on the ground. Even Labor's appeal to ethnic communities was a diminishing asset as the Liberals finally shook off the spectre of One Nation. In Smithfield Labor failed to accommodate itself to the changing ethnic composition of the population.
The long-term consequences of Labor's defeat are uncertain. There is something to the argument that many Coalition MPs elected this time may build up a personal vote and be difficult to defeat but it is unlikely that at some stage two or more elections down the track a Coalition government will be saved by a victor of 2011. However the election may indicate a fundamental shift away from Labor in some areas, it is unlikely Labor will ever win Bathurst again, and it will have to fight to regain Newcastle electorates.
Labor is now such a small contingent in parliament that they will struggle to function as an effective opposition. In 1988 Labor held several crucial Sydney marginals and was able to regroup successfully. Labor's diminished numbers will also substantially reduce the funds that the party receives from the levy that the party imposes on Labor MPs. Labor's collapse and the Green's likely lower house breakthrough will even up the competition between the two parties of the left. However the ineptitude of the 2011 Greens campaign which largely failed to appeal to unhappy former Labor voters suggests that in the next four years Labor will continue to see off the Green challenge. The task of defeating the NSW Coalition government will be up to the ALP, a fact which will encourage Barry O'Farrell no end.
Why has Labor done so poorly? The answer might seem obvious. From the elections of 2003 and 2007 to the current campaign levels of Labor support have closely paralleled voter's judgmentson Labor's ability to best handle the perennial issues of state politics: health, education, economic management, transport and roads. In 2007 36% of voters on average considered Labor better equipped than any other party to handle these issues, the current average is 24%. Labor seems to have overperformed in 2007 perhaps due to Liberal leadership woes and the unpopularity of the Howard government but now the party's vote has collapsed to the level that would be predicted from voter evaluations of its policy record. However the truth is more complex. Labor's credibility on policy has collapsed across the board. Education has been a low profile issue since 2007 but whereas in 2007 voters preferred Labor to the Coalition by 45% to 29% they now prefer the Coalition 48% to 31%. The turnaround has been particularly notable on the largely meaningless concept of 'economic management' where the Coalition now leads Labor 50% to 18% after leading only 38 to 35 in 2007. It seems plausible that Labor's chaotic final term and its particularly poor performance on transport has influenced voter evaluations of its competence across all areas even where on an objective evaluation there has been little change since 2007. Labor's pitiful electoral campaign failed entirely to defend the government's record voters could have plausibly concluded that Labor itself felt it had achieved nothing in 16 years of office. Labor campaigners admitted that many lifetime Labor voters were considering change of vote but the party offered little to them apart criticism of the Coalition or the focus group meme of 'cost of living'. Labor apologists made most of Kristina Keneally's persistence but it was largely irrelevant to the task at hand; rallying those voters who could perhaps have been brought back to the fold.
Labor's crisis has been a long time coming. Labor government leaders did recognise the fortuitous nature of their victory in 2007. They concluded that they key to correcting voter evaluations of the government's policy record was power industry privatisation which they argued would substantially improve the government's financial position and enable increased expenditure on infrastructure. The case for power privatisation was however undercut however by the wild exaggerations of its proponents. The privatisation crusade also encountered an unsympathetic response from the public and was also received with hostility among the ALP membership and unions where traditional sympathy for public ownership remained a strong force. In the past Labor parliamentary leaderships at the state and federal level had been able to overrule rank and file party dissent but now divisions within the leadership group rendered this impossible. It was also the case that a Labor government whose leaders often regarded the appropriation of conservative themes as a source of pride rather than a regrettable necessity had little persuasive power for what remained of Labor's rank and file base. It probably was the case that the question of power station ownership was not particularly relevant to the task of 21st century social democracy but government ministers such as Michael Costa were unable to offer any positive vision of their own. Although power privatisation was unpopular any political benefit Labor gained from the reversal of its position was swamped by the chaos and disunity that resulted from the debate. The government's internal chaos also rendered it incapable of addressing broader voter concerns.
The basic cause of Labor's demise was the party's poor public policy performance. NSW is a difficult state to govern but this still reflects poorly on Labor. We have to trace Labor's poor performance to the calibre of its leadership. In recent years a torrent of excoriation has been directed against Labor MPs; they are universally depicted as remote political professionals unrepresentative of the mass of Labor voters. A contrast is drawn with Labor MPs of the past; proletarian everymen who brought the concerns of the factory floor to the cabinet table. In fact the exact opposite is true modern Labor MPs are much more representative of an increasingly white-collar, professional and tertiary educated population than the Labor MPs of old were of their electorate. Labor MPs are exceptionally average and ordinary and that is the problem. The Labor MPs of Chifley's generation were remarkable men; only a tiny minority of working class were able to fight their way into the political profession. On average Labor MPs were more competent than their Coalition rivals. As recently as the late 1990s Canberra public servants considered that Labor advisors were more talented than those on the Coalition because business provided a more rewarding career than did politics for intelligent young conservatives. The recent stampede of Labor NSW advisors to the private sector suggests this is no longer the case. It is also the case that the Greens are now the preferred party for most young people on the left the pool of youthful idealists from which Labor once recruited is now much diminished. The declining competence of labour movement leadership across the board from unions to Cabinet to ministerial advisors has inflicted a heavy price on the government.
Geoff Robinson teaches at Deakin University, Warrnambool and blogs on Australian and international politics and policy from a historical perspective at geoffrobinson.info. His book on former NSW Labor premier Jack Lang will be published later this year.