Friday, May 11, 2007

Election strategy, political football and climate change

I bumped into Bob Hawke in Melbourne airport just after the 2004 federal election, and asked him what on earth happened with Mark Latham and Labor's strategy for the election. He replied that Latham had earlier sought advice from him and he told him that

“you need to take a lead position on your key strengths and you need to cover the key issues that your opponents will use against you”.

I consider this sage advice.

In 2004, Labor arguably ran on education (e.g. school funding) and health (e.g. Medicare Gold). The Howard governed countered them on education by running a scare campaign on funding for non-government schools being reduced (as per their “hit list”).

The environment has been a differentiator between Labor and the Liberals, but in 2004 Latham played a game of cat and mouse on forests with John Howard. Instead of taking a leadership position on forest protection and taking it up to Howard, Latham was lured into a trap which was deftly sprung when John Howard visited Tasmania and famously hugged members of the CFMEU in Hobart. Labor's Tony O'Connor of the CFMEU denounced Labor's forest policy in favour of John Howard's. While this did not actually cost Labor the election, it certainly did not help them much.

Interestingly, Hawke also pointed out that one of Howard's former key strengths – national security – was effectively neutralised as a campaign issue for him when the “43 eminent people” including retired defence chiefs, diplomats and former senior bureaucrats strongly criticised Howard for deceiving the Australian people over the Iraq war and pointing out that Australia had not become a safer place as a result of the war. However, Labor was not able to capitalise on this, although they did ask a series of questions in Parliament on this topic. See PM shrugs off foreign policy attack for more information on this.

Howard also effectively attacked Labor's economic credentials by running a scare campaign that interest rates would rise under Labor, which Latham was not really able to counter in the public mind despite signing a dubious guarantee that interest rates would not rise under a Labor government .

Latham's earlier wins on policy issues like books for children in schools and reducing parliamentarians superannuation disappeared in the cut and thrust of the campaign and the ensuing media storm.

So what will the strategies for the major parties be for the 2007 Federal election? Here is my take on it.

Labor will run on:


  • Increase funding and boost the ailing public education system.
  • Position Labor as the “education experts”
  • Point out that investing in education is an investment in the future
  • In Rudd's budget reply, he has announced significant funding for new technical education, which could enjoy popular support.

Workplace relations

  • Campaign on the issue that worker entitlements have been lost via Australian Workplace Agreements and the Howard Government's Work Choices reforms.
  • Labor has committed to removing AWAs

Climate change and the environment

  • Position themselves as better than Howard on climate change by ratifying the Kyoto agreement and setting targets for greenhouse gas emission reductions.
  • Keep the CFMEU and coal miners happy by committing to grubby coal funding.
  • Tread carefully on Tasmanian, Victorian and NSW forest protection to avoid a repeat performance of 2004. Tony O'Connor and Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon have already fired warning shots on this issue.

Infrastructure and long term planning

  • Rudd has announced a policy for improving extending the speed and coverage of broadband across Australia to boost Australia's capabilities to use the Internet for competitive advantage.

Labor will seek to mitigate Liberal attacks on:

  • Economic management credentials, including keeping interest rates low and running a budget surplus
  • Being controlled by the unions and compromising Australia's productivity
  • Endangering the economy and our standard of living by reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • Rudd's inexperience compared to Howard

The Liberals will run on:

The economy
  • Claim credit for Australia enjoying prosperous times, low unemployment and a healthy economy (even though the minerals boom has been a major contributing factor to this)
  • Continuing to run a budget surplus
  • Reduce taxation to keep the electorate happy with more money in their pocket
  • Position themselves as the only party capable of continuing to run a healthy economy


  • Howard has already taken it up to Rudd with the announcement a funding boost for universities with a new $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund, which will initially produce $300 million to $400 million annually for capital works and research facilities.

The environment

  • Climate change. $741 million over five years on climate change has been announced, including funding for solar panel rebates, and deductions for the cost of establishing carbon sink forests. There is speculation that Howard will introduce an emissions trading scheme closer to the election date to strengthen their position on climate change
  • Water tanks - $200 million over six years to support installing water tanks and other water-saving devices by schools and community organisations.
  • Nuclear power and grubby coal. Howard is positioning both nuclear power and grubby coal (referred to by him with the oxymoron of “clean coal”) as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He is on dangerous ground here as neither will address long term energy sustainability, and neither will not be available in time for the immediate reductions we require.

Other items significant for the election in Costello's budget include:

  • The aged. Immediate bonuses for about 85 per cent of people over 65, bonuses for carers
  • Low -income earners. An extra $1.1 billion paid into the superannuation accounts of low-income earners.
  • Child care. Changes include increasing the child-care benefit and fast-tracking the child-care tax rebate
  • Defence. An additional $2.1 billion over 10 years to improve recruitment and retention of personnel.
  • Road and rail. New budget funding for roads and rail of $22.3 billion over five years.

The Liberals will seek to mitigate Labor attacks on:
  • Howard's ongoing commitment to the failed Iraq war, and his reluctance to reveal an exit strategy
  • Recent interest rates rises
  • A reduction in the growth of productivity
  • Australian workers not getting “a fair go” due to Howard's workplaces reforms and AWAs
  • The Howard government's lack of real action on climate change, despite growing public concern on this issue. Australia also appears as a pariah nation on climate change, constantly seeking to avoid commitments to setting emission reduction targets, criticising the Kyoto Agreement and failing to ratify it.
  • The increased cost of housing – pushing affordabilty beyond the means of most first home buyers

Where I think both major parties will fail:

  • Setting the aggressive targets and policies to address climate change. In particular, both major parties will avoid setting strong immediate targets and strong targets for 2020. Both will attempt to buy time on this, and maintain that they are taking appropriate action.

  • Protection of remain high conservation value forests, including old growth forests not currently protected. The Liberals favour large companies continuing to plunder our forest, even though forest destruction contributes to climate change and loss of water. Labor is locked into a militant CFMEU (Union) position of logging jobs rather than forest protection - even though the logging jobs will go once the remaining forests are destroyed.

  • Funding for a national high speed rail network similar to that operating in Europe in Japan. This is in the "too hard basket" for both Labor and Liberal who support spending vast amounts of money on the road system instead. This is in spite of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee report of February 2007 that states trains use about one third the fuel of trucks per net tonne kilometre.

  • Funding for cycling transport infrastructure to make it safer and more convenient in both urban and rural areas. Again, this is in the "too hard basket" as multi billion dollar toll roads such as Melbourne's Eastlink are being constructed.

  • Putting in place effective policies for reducing power consumption and the reducing the requirement for base load electricity.

  • Setting an exit strategy for coal burning and exports. The Liberals are addicted to the revenue for coal exports, and Labor is protecting coal miners jobs. But we got of whaling didn't we?

So what about the Greens?

This is topic for a separate posting. Some of the above points where major parties may fail could be addressed by them. They will be under strident attack from both Labor and The Liberals who are not keen to lose any votes to newcomers or to share the balance of power with other parties.

Will the Greens be able to counter attacks by the major parties and consolidate growing public support for many of their core policies which have now become mainstream? Or will they be marginalised and characterised again as “extreme”? Will Labor and Liberal really take action on climate change, or will they succeed in just greenwashing themselves?

Stay tuned.

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