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How the Liberal Party can win state elections: be a viable alternative

By Vern Hughes - posted Friday, 20 February 2004


With another crushing defeat in a state election behind it in Queensland, the Liberal Party can no longer pretend it has a strategy to win state elections. It does not.

Labor is entrenched in all the states and territories, and on the eastern seaboard the Liberals are facing a generation on the opposition benches. Economic management and foreign policy (traditional areas of Liberal Party strength) are the preserve of Canberra, while at the state level, elections are fought in the party’s tradition areas of weakness – education, health and community life.

The two failed responses to this predicament can now be safety discarded. One response has been to assume that Labor administrations will eventually implode through inability to manage state finances and the demands of public-sector unions. The thinking here is that voters will eventually “come home” to the responsible economic managers when these implosions have occurred. But the Beattie, Bracks, Bacon and Carr administrations have put that hope to rest, and there is no reason to think a re-run of the Kirner years is imminent in any of the Labor states.

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The second response is “me-tooism”. Liberals can throw money at schools, hospitals and police departments just like Labor. They can buy industrial peace, too. They can play the role of state marketers on the international stage, underwrite transient sporting and arts events, and invest in bio-technology as well as they can.

The trouble with this response is that it is just not authentic. Why would electorates not prefer the original to the imitator? Try as it might, the Liberal Party just cannot put its heart and soul into sweetheart deals with public-sector unions and education bureaucracies.

The Liberal Party is out of office in every state because it has no alternative to Labor’s genuinely held conviction that public-sector bureaucrats know what is best for families and individuals in education, health and community life. Offering a pale imitation of Labor’s philosophy is a dead-end street

If the Liberal Party thinks families and individuals know better than bureaucrats what is best for them (and this simple formulation is very close to Liberal core philosophy), why does it find it so difficult to adopt a political strategy that embodies that view?

There are three institutional legacies that seem to make it difficult and impede the Liberal Party’s thinking about education, health and community life. The first is a problem of constituency. The party has very few activists or professionals whose fields are those of social well-being or provision. It does not help to have an oversupply of farmers, lawyers and merchants bankers, and a shortage of activists or professionals whose passion is community health or disability supports or remedial teaching for kids with learning difficulties.

The second problem is to do with policy-making. If policy-making is the business of the parliamentary party, and not the party’s membership as a whole, then the capacity to generate creativity is limited when the parliamentary party is reduced to a rump. As an institution, the Liberal Party does not quite know what to do with its membership when it is in opposition, or how it might generate a sea-change in policy thinking.

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Third, the Liberal Party’s membership (parliamentarians and branch members alike) have relatively little experience or expertise in thinking strategically about their objectives, compared to its Labor opponents. Labor’s pool of trade union, student union, community sector and university-based members have considerably more institutional space and opportunity to nurture the habit of thinking strategically. The Liberals culture has been historically formed out of the experience of government administration, but when the current generation of parliamentarians are out of office in the states, with no prospect of immenent promotion, the traditional source of supply runs dry.

The combined effect of these legacies is an institutional and cultural inability to translate the Liberal Party’s instinctive sentiments around families and individuals, self-help, individual choice and volunteer community service into a strategic outlook and political program.

A dispassionate observer would quickly conclude that the Liberal Party in the states needs a strategic outlook that mounts a clear intellectual and policy challenge to Labor governments. The key policies would be in the social provision fields of education, health, community well-being and safety. It offers clear product differentiation; reconnects with the constituencies that have moved to Labor and it integrates a new policy agenda with constituency-building grass-roots activity.

The following is an outline of what this strategic outlook might look like. It is based around suburban families as the key constituencies – the “mallers” as Wayne Swan so disparagingly calls them (though he is right in identifying the key social unit). The Liberal strategic goal can only be to drive a wedge between suburban families and Labor’s credentials in social provision by empowering and resourcing families and not bureaucracies, institutions and service providers.

But how? Here is a start:

  1. Give the education budget to families in the form of allocations to parents for each child to drive school choice and accountability to parents, payable into a Family Education Account (administered by parents until the child reaches the age of 18, self-administered thereafter). Consolidate school-based special assistance, and post-school training/TAFE expenditure as allocations paid into the Family Education Account. Consolidate the various programs in early childhood development, children’s services and child care, before and after-school care to families in the form of allocations payable into the Family Education Account.
  2. Introduce a system of Work and Family Brokers who would access and purchase child care, child support and recreation options, facilitate teenage mentors, and represent working families to employees on balance in work and family life. Brokers would receive a publicly-funded fee for every family that registers with them. Families would be free to transfer from one broker to another based on quality of service offered. Brokers would have to compete to attract the registration of families.
  3. Empower families in the health system by introducing a system of Family Health Brokers to act as price and service quality brokers on behalf of families in seeking health services. Brokers would be publicly funded, and receive a fee for every family that registers with them (the fee being risk-rated for age and health status). Brokers would be permitted to contract with hospitals, providers and practitioners in developing price and service quality benefits for their subscribers and would be free to develop packages of care, innovations in information management, home-care and supports, and ancillary benefits for their pool of families.
  4. Give the disability, family and community support budgets to families in the form of allocations to parents or guardians based on risk and disadvantage-rated adjustments for each child/person, payable to a budget holder of the family’s choice. Enable families to appoint a Support Co-ordinator of their choice to purchase the supports chosen by families.
  5. Introduce family responsibility for juvenile crime and drug use by requiring restitution to victims by the families of offenders below the age of 16 and allowing financial penalties to be levied on the families of offenders as fines.
  6. Give the arts budget to families/households in the form of an annual cash payment.
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Article edited by Ian Miller.
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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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