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The new politics and the Victorian election

December 5, 2014 - 12:17 -- Admin

Victorian electionDaniel Andrews, the incoming Labor Premier of Victoria, proclaimed in his victory speech on Saturday night that Victorians had voted for a new politics, a politics free of negativity and division, a politics focused on “putting people first”.

For good measure, the Premier-elect repeated the message on Sunday morning.

The cynical might want to investigate the claim made on the election night ABC news panel by Liberal Minister Mary Wooldridge that Labor’s advertising had been 70% negative and 40% positive.

Whether or not those figures are accurate, Andrews is undoubtedly right.

Much ink has been spilled already, as if the result were a foregone conclusion, on whether the defeat of a first term Coalition government was a stunning and cataclysmic event. Psephologist Dr Kevin Bonham explains that the “single term theory” is just wrong. Seven first term state governments have been defeated since 1955, the last time it occurred in Victoria.

That, however, should be no comfort to Team Australia Captain Tony Abbott and his barnacle encrusted shipmates. Bonham says there is evidence for a federal impact on the state result, and Dennis Napthine and his strategists can’t have gone out of their way to avoid any more Prime Ministerial hugs for no reason.

There are other tea leaves to be read in the Victorian result, though: not just the dregs of an unpopular Prime Minister or a lacklustre state government.

Andrews appears to understand what Tony Abbott spectacularly fails to get – voters are disgusted by “rhetorical flourishes”, repulsed by lies about lies, and just want governments to do what they said they would do. Perhaps that’s why the Victorian Labor Party concentrated on a few key policy areas.

It’s not without interest that they focused in not just on education and health but also on public transport. The promise of a Royal Commission into Domestic Violence is also immensely significant, and shows, along with the promise to legalise medical marijuana, how much change there has been in social awareness in Australia over a short period of time.

Social liberalism is the new black, even as the Victorian Libs, just like many of their interstate counterparts, are being colonised by the Christian right.

It’s often said that state politics is not ideological, but this isn’t true.

Significant here is the way Andrews embraced the very same unions that the Coalition demonised, lauding teachers, nurses, ambos and firies as “respected professions”. Andrews promised effective public services, an end to wars against those who provide them, and more, spoke eloquently of the rights and dignity of those who work for the public good.

The Labor Party has drunk its share of neo-liberal kool aid over the years, but the assaults on the public sector, and more saliently, on the very idea of a public good by first term LNP governments in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra have exposed the fundamentally social democratic values that have majority support among Australians.
This is not to argue that we live in a fair society, or a meritocracy, still less that social class and the cleavage between bosses and workers is of no material impact. It is to say that there are bedrock beliefs and habits of thought and action which will run any neo-Liberal ship onto the rocks.

Labor needs to recognise this, because its much touted army of doorknockers and phone-callers are mostly not signing up to campaign because of partisan attachment to the ALP, but rather because the ALP appears to be the vehicle for defending this particular set of Australian articles of faith. Or, appears to be so to some.

Hence, too, the breakthrough of The Greens into the lower house.

The Greens do have a unique demographic and a certain social base, that is not entirely the same as “disillusioned Labor left voters”. It’s far too simple to talk about “inner city elites”. The Labor left’s foundation was an alliance of university educated intellectuals and public service and manufacturing unions. The Greens are more likely to represent “knowledge workers”. There’s a reason why Greens functions have been known to debate the motion – “that Greens are more hipster than hippy.”

Ellen Sandell is the second lower house state MP elected to a non-proportional single member electorate, the first being Jamie Parker in Balmain in the 2011 New South Wales election. The fact that Parker faces a significant challenge from Verity Firth, and that Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek face no real challenge from Greens, does show that Sandell – and Adam Bandt – have no lien on these inner city seats.

The reality is that much rests on Sandell’s shoulders. Bandt was re-elected as much because he was a good MP as a good Greens MP. The new reality is that there’s a partisan contest for fluid voters in the inner city between Greens and ALP. It will continue to be a contest.

It’s here that The Greens do themselves no favours by recurrent talk of preference deals. Neither does Labor. It makes The Greens sound a lot like fully fledged members of the political class. It would be good if people devoted the same energy they expend on arguing about preference deals to campaigning for electoral reform which would empower and represent the preferences of voters and disempower the party strategists who make preference deals.

Party talk is not the same as talking to voters.

One more straw in the wind is the success of independent candidate Suzanna Sheed in Shepparton, and the close race that Labor’s Jaden Minton ran the Nationals in Morwell. Sheed, astonishingly, only threw her hat into the ring a month before the election. In an electorate no doubt disillusioned by the signal failure of Barnaby Joyce and crew to stand up for SPC workers, a smart Indi-style campaign has prevailed. Perhaps that’s why Deputy Premier Peter Ryan bemoaned – “social media is the problem”. In Morwell, Labor has almost captured a seat blighted by a coal mining company’s environmental and health disaster, a disaster to which the response of the state government was at best tardy.

Blogger Andrew Elder gets it right:

The social base on which the major parties were founded is wasting away. The initiative is with community-organising movements, which must necessarily be small-scale. There may come a revival of mass politics later this century, but it is hard to discern from this angle. The smart money is on independents and minor parties, with diminishing majors negotiating terms to enjoy office… This is the future, baby: thumping wins and inviolable mandates will be fewer and further between.

I think Daniel Andrews gets that, too.

He’s ridden a whirlwind into office, no matter how becalmed the surface of the campaign seemed.

Whether or not he does get it will become clear over the next little while. If there’s one thing voters in the age of the new politics is it’s unforgiving.