Want to win? Look after rural Australia
The 1990s are going out the way they came, with a competent State government led by a popular Premier with a large majority coming an electoral cropper despite being widely expected to win easily. It happened to Nick Greiner in NSW in 1991, to Wayne Goss in 1995 in Queensland and now to Jeff Kennett in Victoria in 1999.
In all three cases, the unexpectedly bad result was marked by large swings in provincial seats against the incumbent government (though, in Goss's case, the swing was consistent across the State). But this theme of provincial revolt does not only play at a State level. Paul Keating's 1996 debacle was notable for the ALP being almost completely wiped out in mainland provincial Australia. And in 1998, the Howard Government suffered the consequences of the rise of One Nation, again in provincial Australia. So, Greiner 1991, Keating 1996, One Nation 1998, Kennett 1999. What is going on here? With such a strong pattern, there has to be something bigger than the characteristics of particular Governments---after all, it has affected both sides of politics.
Actually, it is not that hard to work out what is going on. Paul Kelly famously analysed the politics of the 1980s as being about the dismantling of what he calls the 'Federation' Settlement. That settlement---the policy principles of imperial benevolence, trade protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and White Australia---was not fully put in place until the Deakin Government of 1905-08. This led to electoral revolt by provincial Australia, culminating in the creation of the Country Party in 1920. There was nothing mysterious about the reasons for the revolt---the whole Deakinite system relied on transfers to urban interests, via protection, from rural-based exporters.
Rural-interests were 'bought off' by marketing boards, rural subsidies and expanded government investment through public utilities and business enterprises disproportionately concentrated in provincial Australia. This was the 'work-fare' state.
The Whitlam Government greatly expanded the welfare state, an expansion which has continued. During the 1980s, the process of dismantling the work-fare state (through corporatisation, privatisation and rationalisation of services) in order to pay for this expanding welfare state began. In this process provincial Australia was obviously a loser, and it was not a winner from the expanded welfare state. This made some sort of revolt more likely.
The values of provincial Australia (or a caricature of them) have taken a battering. The period of the 1980s and 1990s saw a great surge in 'moral vanity' commentary in public debate---issues where media and media commentators show what 'good' people they are by ostentatiously attacking those who disagree with them as racist, sexist, etc. Rural and blue collar people do not believe they suffer these moral shortcomings. What is more, they resent being accused by people with whom they have little in common and suspect of looking down on them---namely city folk and the intelligentsia. As journalist Nicholas Rothwell has noted, the effect on a distraught intelligentsia of Hansonism was central to its appeal (until its proponent was revealed to be rather too much of a dill).
Moreover, job losses from urban posturing on indigenous and environmental issues have disproportionately affected provincial Australia.
So, provincial Australia has had jobs and services cut while its values are continually sneered at. Add to that presidential-style governments focused overwhelmingly on urban concerns, style and values with tight Party discipline suppressing feedback and ability to express regional concerns, and the situation is rife for provincial revolt. Which is exactly what we have seen.
So, what should governments (and others) interested in continuing the economic and social reforms embarked upon by Labor and coalition Governments do about it?
Obviously, more effort has to be put in to making sure the benefits of economic reform get through to provincial Australia. One of the best ways to do that would be labour market reform. Wage rates and employment conditions set in Melbourne and Sydney, imposed on provincial Australia, via awards and the arbitration system, are a major disadvantage and goes far to accounting for its much higher rates of unemployment. Provincial Australia has higher transport costs and lower housing costs. It must be able to compete on the basis of wages and conditions that suit its circumstances, rather than merely shifting to lower-wage industries like tourism. Given the strong correlation between youth unemployment rates and young male suicide, allowing it do so would probably also save lives.
Secondly, there must be more publicly sticking up for the values and interests of provincial Australia and a lot less pandering to urban moral vanity. Presidential-style election campaigns have an inherent problem here, since its central figure is almost always going to be an urban figure, concentrating on urban concerns.
Governments of either stamp which fail to heed these lessons will continue to suffer the humiliation of provincial revolt, preventing them from carrying out programs they correctly understand to be in the national interest and turning 'sure-fire' wins into feather-duster experiences.