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Such an ungrateful electorate ...

By David Ritter - posted Friday, 14 December 2007

The winners, it is often said, get to write the history. Yet in the aftermath of the defeat of the Howard Government on Saturday, November 24, it is a series of senior figures from the Coalition who have been particularly quick to try and define the meaning of the result.

According to the Liberal view, a splendid government has just been tossed away by an ungrateful electorate that was idly bored. It is an attitude that shows an astonishing contempt for the intelligence and the democratic deliberation of the electorate. The Liberals would have us believe that a more than 5.5 per cent swing against them was just a fidgety public choosing a new prime minister as if it was a decision to spend a reinvigorating weekend at the beach.

While Howard’s concession speech on election night has been regarded by some commentators as showing a certain unexpected graciousness, the collective hubris of many of his former lieutenants has been marked. Tony Abbott said he had served in a “good government” and that the “Howard era” was “a golden age” that people would look back on “with considerable nostalgia and affection”, while Helen Coonan modestly declared herself to have been part of “a very great government”. Peter Costello too has already engaged in a number of eulogies following his own political funeral, in which he has reeled off what he regards as the virtues of the former government.


So if they were so good, why did they lose? The essence of the 2007 election result, if the Liberal mythologising is to be believed, is that the Australian electorate was happy with the government and pleased with the new policy initiatives, but was a bit bored by the leadership. According to Costello:

… the problem was that we were going for a fifth term. We'd been in office 11 years. … along came Mr Rudd and said, oh well I'll be a little fresher. He didn't put forward any substantive policy differences in my view, and we could have muted that appeal of Labor if we'd had a fresher face …

Costello’s views on these matters are obviously self-serving, implying that the result might have been different had the transition from Howard to himself occurred, but the former Treasurer was not alone in his opinion. Alexander Downer said in an interview that:

Well, I think, look, the honest truth is we've been there for a very long time, 11½ years. After a while people do start to get that sense that they'd like a change. … I think at the end of the day, people just thought it was time for a change.

According to the Liberal view of the world Howard was exchanged for Rudd by an electorate not exactly dissatisfied, just a little restless.

It is clear that even in their downfall, the Liberals are still applying the same exclusionary view of society that has so characterised the government of the last 11½ years.


The Howard administration always proceeded on the basis of the dog whistle and when figures like Costello and Downer refer to “the people”, we know that there are lots of sections of Australian society whom they are implicitly excluding. Employees whose lives had been undermined by WorkChoices; voters for whom their country not ratifying Kyoto was a matter of genuine shame; or citizens who remembered Iraq, Tampa, AWB or Kids Overboard.

These were all Australian people and despite the Liberal myth-making, they were waiting with the only “baseball bat” that the Australian system of government recognises: casting their vote against the government.

In their insistence that they were not dumped in anger, the Liberals are coming across like rejected suitors, lying to themselves to cope with the pain of rejection. “They still love us”, Costello, Downer and Co. seem to be saying of the electorate, “they just don’t want to be with us right now”.

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About the Author

David Ritter is a lawyer and an historian based at UWA. David is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.

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