It’s good news and bad news from the Australian election: mostly good for Helen Clark and mostly bad for Don Brash.
John Howard’s resounding fourth term win on Saturday was a reflection in part of the advantage of incumbency when the economy feels buoyant at the household level. Which, if there are no big shocks, should be the case here when Clark faces voters next year.
No matter that in both countries households are floating on a balloon of debt puffed up by a house price bubble. What matters with voters is perception.
Howard is good at perceptions. According to focus groups and media voter interviews, he convinced those indebted voters to fear interest rates would be higher under Labour than under his Liberal-National coalition government — even though economists did not agree with him and his own profligate vote-buying promises virtually ensure higher interest rates.
Howard’s reward is a fourth term in which he will so bestride his party he will be able to pick his retirement date — if, indeed, he is of a mind to retire before the next election.
He should also be able this term to get on with asset sales, workplace law liberalisation and more choice in education and health services — especially if (as seemed likely when this went to press) he gets an effective majority in the Senate, where many of his past initiatives were blocked or mangled.
Howard’s is an incremental agenda but a persistent one, which is gradually lifting productivity. Contemplating a Howard Senate majority on Saturday night, Labour grandee Bob McMullan said this election may well “change the political landscape more than any election for quite some time”.
That evokes an opportunity and a challenge for Clark. She is talking of taking a new third-term programme to voters next year. But can she transform the political landscape? Howard’s success has been on the right and, while Clark herself has been edging rightwards this year, she leads a left-of-centre party and the highest-profile initiatives this term have come from that direction. She has blocked choice in health and education.
The other good news for Clark is continuity in progress towards a single trans-Tasman market. She and Howard have a good working relationship, Treasurers Michael Cullen and Peter Costello likewise. So there should be no interruption, provided Costello stays Treasurer. The new cabinet was not known when this column went to press. And Costello, a long-frustrated heir apparent to Howard, flagged during the campaign that he will reconsider his future in politics at Christmas.
Now for the bad news.
In a minor key Clark does not have a fraternal Labour government (though there are Labour governments in all the states).
The bad news is mostly for Don Brash, in the eerie parallel between Australian Labour leader Mark Latham’s newness to the job and Brash’s, between the electorate’s unfamiliarity with Latham and with Brash.
Latham’s freshness, energy, passion and down-to-earthness were pluses with voters. So have been Brash’s freshness, authority, and straight-talking on Treaty issues in this country.
But those qualities got Latham on the board only, not into office. Focus groups and media voter interviews showed his lack of experience and of a track record (plus qualities such as impulsiveness and anger) outweighed his pluses. Top Australian political commentator Paul Kelly described him as a “political construction site”. Brash, too, is still forming as a leader.
Since the peak average of 45 per cent in opinion polls in February-March, National’s support has dropped to 36 per cent in late September-early October.
That downwards trajectory drove through Brash’s attempted big hit on law and order in July without a flicker. Projected forward, it would in mid-2005 cross the slow upward trajectory under Bill English as leader from the 2002 election to Brash’s takeover nearly a year ago.
Of course, opinion poll trend lines don’t go on forever. Labour’s long slide from March 2003 reversed in the winter to an uptrend. So expect National’s downslide to stop — most likely in the mid-30s.
That would make a platform from which a credible bid for power could be launched next year — or earlier if the Foreshore and Seabed Bill goes bad in the next 10 weeks.
There is another platform, one Brash laid this year: a big lift in members, money and morale. National believes in itself again. That is Brash’s gift and it is huge.
But he has not yet positioned the party as a compelling challenger. The opinion poll leap after the Orewa speech was more a referendum on the Treaty than endorsement of National.
With Clark edging rightwards and determined to emulate Howard’s style of government (modestly reforming small-c conservative), Brash and his strategists have limited room for a convincing differentiation before an electorate which is not radical.
And, to make that task harder, households are buoyant. That was good news for Howard. And it is good news for Clark.