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Category: Australia

LNP landslide in Queensland: what went wrong for Labor?

In these times of economic upheaval, dramatic electoral results have become commonplace in Europe.   Despite avoiding recession, Australia has also seen big political swings in recent years, with Saturday’s Queensland state election a case in point.

On 24th March, the Liberal National Party (LNP) won a landslide victory over the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in the Queensland state election, winning 78 seats in the 89 seat Parliament with 49.73% of the first preference vote.  The Australian Labor Party was reduced to only 7 seats despite winning 27% of the first preference vote.  A new entrant, Katter’s Australian Party, won two seats with 11.5% of the vote.  The full results can be viewed here.

Three factors contributed to Queensland Labor’s historic losses.  Firstly, they had governed uninterrupted for the last twelve years and there was a general mood for change.  Although Anna Bligh’s leadership during the Brisbane floods was highly praised,  Labor lost political capital through problems with Queensland Health’s payroll system and the sale of state assets. Queensland also suffered economic setbacks as a result of natural disasters in 2011 and the global financial crisis. Against this backdrop, the LNP managed to convince many voters that only they could ‘get Queensland back on track‘.

Secondly, the federal Labor party did not help their Queensland colleagues by conducting a leadership contest during the opening week of the state election campaign, when Queenslanders were exposed to open warfare amongst the ALP’s most prominent figures in Canberra.  Current Prime Minister Gillard defeated a challenge by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd convincingly, but it was the worst possible moment to re-open the wounds inflicted by Rudd’s ousting less than two years ago.  As a native Queenslander, Rudd has strong support within the state.

Thirdly, during the campaign itself, a highly personalised negative attack on the LNP’s leader, Campbell Newman, backfired.  Labor accused Mr Newman of corrupt connections with property developers during his tenure as Brisbane Mayor, but failed to land a killer blow.  They retreated from the allegations in the final week of the campaign, allowing Newman to claim that the allegations were unsubstantiated and should never have been made.  Although there was no time during the campaign when Labor looked like winning, their two party preferred support hovered around 40% until the final week when it plummeted.

Compulsory voting can also contribute to big swings in divisive elections.   Australia is one of only two democracies in the world where citizens are legally required to vote.  Those who are completely disengaged from politics would stay away from the polls in most countries, and are more likely than partisan voters to be swayed by media coverage in the final days of the election campaign.  This certainly worked in the LNP’s favour in Queensland 2012.

Although Labor’s electoral losses on 24th March were unprecedented, it is worth noting that the final results were distorted by a highly majoritarian electoral system.  The LNP won a super-majority with less than half the vote.  A pure proportional representation system would have given Labor 23 seats instead of the 7 currently awarded.     Therefore, the Labor ‘wipe-out’ is less absolute than it initially seems.  The defeated Premier, Anna Bligh, resigned yesterday, clearing the way for rebuilding efforts.

It will be interesting to see how the LNP wields their super-majority in the Queensland Parliament. They have much to live up to, having promised to cut the unemployment rate to 4%, reduce the cost of living and regain Queensland’s AAA credit rating.   During the campaign, they showed little appreciation of the economic headwinds affecting the Australian economy, including the fallout from the eurozone crisis and the high value of the Australian dollar.  They may yet regret setting such specific economic targets at a time when the global economic climate is so uncertain.  There is never a dull moment in Queensland politics, and the coming years will be no exception.

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @AliFionaSmith.

Slovakia’s election: another majority government from a proportional electoral system

On Saturday 10th March 2012, Slovakia joined the small but growing club of European countries that elected a majority government despite using a proportional representation system.  The centre-left Smer party, led by Robert Fico, won 86 out of 150 seats with 44.9% of the vote.  Although it was predicted that Smer would win the election, even Fico himself was surprised by the scale of the result.

Since the euro-zone crisis started to bite, strong anti-incumbency sentiments have regularly produced extreme results. In Hungary, Fidesz won more than a two-thirds majority in parliament in 2010 with 68% of the popular vote.  In Scotland, a proportional electoral system unexpectedly produced a majority government in 2011, when the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) won 69 out of 129 seats with 45% of the vote.

These recent cases show that proportional representation does not necessarily lead to minority or coalition governments.  The strong bias in favour of this outcome can be over-ridden if one single party becomes the repository of protest votes.  In Slovakia and Hungary, the incumbent coalition governments were badly damaged by the eurozone crisis and corruption scandals.  In Scotland, the SNP had led a minority government for the previous four years, but two other major parties (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) were punished electorally for decisions taken in London. In each of these countries, large numbers of voters opted for the one party that was perceived to be ‘untainted’.

Majoritarian governments have also produced unexpected results in recent years; minority or coalition governments were formed in the UK and Australia.  In both cases, a third party (the Liberal Democrats in the UK at the Greens in Australia) picked up significant support.  Although these third party votes did not translate proportionally into parliamentary representation, they were sufficient to deny either of the main parties an outright majority.

In these difficult economic times, voters like to kick incumbents hard, leading to extreme results.  Whether or not electoral systems behave as political scientist think they ‘should’ depends largely on the dynamics of protest voting.

Follow Alison Smith on twitter @alifionasmith

Kevenge! How Not To Choose a Political Party Leader

The revolving door at the top of the Australian Labor Party continues to spin, with ex-Foreign (and Prime) Minister, Kevin Rudd, challenging the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, for her job on Monday morning. Three things are notable about this challenge: its speed (Rudd formally announced his intention to stand on 24th February and the ballot will be held on the 27th); its ferocity (military metaphors like ‘mutually assured destruction’ scarcely seem overblown); and the fact that Rudd was ousted from the PM job only twenty months ago.

Ms Gillard should win convincingly.  Although 58% of Australians think that Rudd would make a better leader, Gillard’s parliamentary colleagues support her by a ratio of two to one.   Mr Rudd’s deep unpopularity amongst his closest colleagues speaks to the reason he was ousted in the first place: he is is, apparently, almost impossible to work with. This raises some interesting questions about how parties choose their leaders.

Under the caucus system, used by both the Labour and Liberal parties in Australia, launching a leadership challenge is straightforward.  MPs put their names forward, and their Senate and House colleagues hold a vote.  Under this method, the Australian Labor Party has had five leaders in the last ten years, despite having governed the country for half of this time.  The opposition Liberal Party has burned through four different leaders during the same short period.

Since the ALP caucus chooses its leader behind closed doors, there should be no need to wash the party’s dirty linen in public. However, as any Australian who has dared to switch on their television over the last few days will tell you, it doesn’t quite work that way.  The twenty-four hour news media has been been dominated by deeply personal attacks from both sides, roughly summarised as:

Rudd camp about Gillard – “She’s a loser.”

Gillard camp about Rudd – “He’s a disorganised megalomaniac.”

Meanwhile, the Queensland Labor Party looks on, astonished that Rudd, a ‘native son’, could not postpone his long-planned revenge against Gillard until after their state election campaign.  Despite Australia’s high level of political decentralisation, no-one outside the caucus in Canberra has any say in the Federal leadership contest.  Many wonder if there is not a better way of selecting, and then sticking with, a leader.

In other advanced democracies, parties typically adopt more inclusive ways of choosing their leaders.  For example, major parties in the United Kingdom involve their members in leadership votes.  To avoid choosing a leader that is unacceptable to the parliamentary party, members are presented with a ‘shortlist’ of candidates nominated by MPs.  The process of choosing a new leader usually takes a couple of months, and may involve public unpleasantness.  However, the end result is almost always regarded as legitimate, and the cumbersome nature of the process discourages frequent leadership challenges.  It is not uncommon for UK party leaders to remain in their posts for ten years.

The United States’ presidential system has a very different dynamic.  Through a gruelling set of public primaries and caucuses, presidential candidates are chosen according to a set timetable.  This ensures that candidates are tested to destruction before they take the top job and, having won that position, they are almost never deposed until they have either served two presidential terms or lost a presidential election.  However, the selection process is expensive and time consuming, involving a prolonged period of ‘friendly fire’ before attention is finally turned to the opposition.

There is no foolproof way to choose a party leader, and what really matters is that vanquished candidates accept their defeat under the current rules.   This seems unlikely in Kevin Rudd’s case.  He claims legitimacy as the man who led Labor to a convincing victory in 2007 under the highly personalised slogan ‘Kevin 07′.  Lacking the self-awareness to acknowledge that he was a better campaigner (and, indeed Foreign Minister) than Prime Minister, he even refers to his 2010 overthrow as ‘the coup’.  The ALP caucus was probably too quick to remove Rudd back in 2010 – deposing him so ruthlessly was bound to cause bitterness, and this has dogged the Gillard administration from the start – but the clock cannot be turned back.

Rudd has sought to turn Monday’s leadership contest into an American style primary by asking the general public to contact their elected representatives in support of his comeback. In doing so, he highlights the paradox of the current system, which is that popularity amongst his close colleagues matters more than public opinion.  Ironically, anecdotal evidence suggests that, bemused by Rudd’s lack of team spirit, many Labor supporters have contacted their MPs in support of Gillard.

Regardless of who wins on Monday, leadership instability is a problem that both of Australia’s main parties must resolve.  It is, perhaps, time to re-write the rules of leadership contests, widening participation to make them more cumbersome and, as a result, more decisive.

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