It’s true the coronavirus has made the job of being in opposition difficult. It’s understandable at times of crisis the public want stability and unity, not criticism and division. What’s less understandable is the parochialism and at times mean-spiritedness the crisis has provoked – which many premiers, with the notable exception of Gladys Berejiklian, have manipulated.
The coronavirus and border closures help explain the re-election of the Palaszczuk Labor government in Queensland last year. Statements from that state’s premier that “people living in New South Wales, they have NSW hospitals, in Queensland we have Queensland hospital for our people”, sadly, contributed to Palaszczuk’s re-election. The Premier said this as a 14-year-old boy with a double-lung transplant was denied permission to travel for medical treatment from Tweed Heads in NSW to Brisbane. But the coronavirus doesn’t explain the previous state election losses of the Liberal Nationals in 2017 and 2015.
It looks like the Liberals in Western Australia could be annihilated at that state’s election in a fortnight. Some might argue they deserve to be. The Labor Western Australia energy minister described the Liberals’ plan to shut all government-owned coal-fired power stations by 2025 as “risky”, “not realistic” and “reflects Mr Kirkup’s inexperience”. Zak Kirkup is the 34 year-old opposition leader in the state who has been an MP for four years. But Kirkup can’t be blamed for the Liberals’ loss at the 2017 election that saw them reduced from 31 out of 59 seats in the WA Parliament to 18. On some predictions the Liberals will be fortunate to have even two seats after the coming election.
Likewise, if he decides to remain as Labor leader, on current indications Premier Daniel Andrews will easily be re-elected in Victoria next year. Michael O’Brien, the Victorian Liberal leader, might be finding it difficult to get the attention of the public amid the barracking for Andrews of most of Melbourne’s media, but it wasn’t O’Brien who led the Liberals to election defeats in 2018 and 2014. The coronavirus has nothing to do with the Victorian Liberals losing seven of the past 10 elections in the state.
The truth is that the Liberals’ problems in the states that make up more than half the country are deep-seated and profound. Much is made, correctly, of the conflict within the Labor Party between its once working-class base and its modern green-left wing. Within the state Liberal Party divisions there’s a similar conflict. Some Liberals believe the party should represent the economic, cultural and social aspirations of mainstream voters in the suburbs who aren’t on Twitter all day.
Too often state Liberals have avoided asking themselves the basic question of who they’re trying to represent and gone for the easy option of changing leaders.
Liberals in opposition tend to promise more of the same as Labor, only delivered slightly more efficiently. In the past when the public were concerned about state government finances the Liberals offering versions “pragmatic managerialism” might have worked – it doesn’t now.
This week Moody’s downgraded Victoria’s credit rating from AAA to AA1 and declared its outlook was “negative”. Three months ago Standard & Poor’s also lowered the state’s rating.
Once Moody’s decision would have been front page news – this week it hardly rated a mention. Victoria’s state government debt will triple between now and 2023-34. The state’s treasurer made no apologies for this, saying Victoria was only doing what everyone else was doing too: “We, like the federal government … are borrowing to drive investment, create jobs and revive our economy.”
Tony Abbott was the most successful federal opposition leader of any party of the past half century, and a good case could be made that Gough Whitlam would rank second. Both led their party from opposition into government, something accomplished by only a very small number of leaders of either party.
As Abbot has put it, the task of a leader of the opposition is simple, but not necessarily easy. It is to “demonstrate how life will be different and better for people if they vote for the opposition”.
Trying to be different from state Labor governments is not something Liberal oppositions tend to do these days – and the results of this approach speak for themselves.