There are urgent lessons to be drawn from the historic defeat of Victoria’s Coalition government over the weekend, but the most important are economic, not political.
That said, the political lessons cannot be ignored.
As counting begins today on the unusually high number of pre-poll votes, it’s impossible to be definitive about the number of seats lost by the Coalition, or the unusual swings within some seats -- a staggering 32 per cent swing in Shepparton, for instance, could be softened or even exacerbated by those early votes.
But whatever the final count, what is certain is that this was a very unusual political event -- which is why early reaction revolved around simplistic questions such as “was it all Tony Abbott’s fault?”
Well Abbott was far from irrelevant, but a more complex picture is now emerging.
Labor is justifiably crowing about its new grass-roots campaigning technique which deployed 5,000 volunteers to talk (oh yes, and listen) to swing voters.
Many volunteers were nurses, firefighters and ambulance drivers, and their interventions in key electorates have clearly had an effect.
This campaigning style, which has been used for some time by the Greens, is changing the relationship between voter and mass-media -- the latter increasingly ignored by voters for taking partisan positions of its own.
Those who doubt that should revisit the travesty of democracy that occurred in 2013 when senior journalists colluded with federal Labor’s ‘Rudd camp’ to manipulate national political debate and scare nervous Labor backbenchers into joining the disastrous Rudd come-back.
When journalists became covert political players (Rudd’s triumph of style over substance, June 27, 2013) voters look for other sources of information, particularly social media.
That is not to say that journalist cannot openly endorse candidates, with well reasoned and transparent arguments. Both News Corp and Fairfax newspapers urged voters to back the Napthine government – Labor’s Daniel Andrews, it was argued, was not ready to govern.
That may well prove to be the case, but the political lesson for all parties is that previous disgraces have lessened mass-media political power -- expect to see all parties doing more face-to-face and phone-based campaigning in future elections.
These political changes are important, but their implications for the Australian economy are terrifying.
What the Labor campaign has achieved is a dramatically lop-sided expression of democratic sentiment.
Ingenious political campaigning has allowed Victorians to say very loudly: “We want more money spent on essential services...”
The lop-sidedness of that expression is virtual silence on its natural corollary: “... and we’re prepared to pay a lot more tax to cover it!”
This is why Tony Abbott is not the central issue in the shock outcome of the Victorian poll.
The central issue, at the federal and state level, is tax reform.
Of course we want to pay ambulance drivers more. Of course we want more money for firefighters, nurses, teachers, infrastructure and even certain kinds of welfare.
Australians have been appalled at the Abbott government’s attempts to balance the federal budget by squeezing the unemployed, pensioners and low-income Medicare users -- and so yes, Tony Abbott has had an effect on the Victorian election result.
However, the lop-sidedness of the Andrews win in Victoria is that there are no more state-based revenues to go around. Federal revenues are continuing to be shredded by the commodities price slump. There is no more money at federal or state level to fund anything extra. Every additional splurge requires a bigger cut somewhere else -- ‘bigger’ because of those falling revenues.
That is what the left’s jubilation in Victoria, for the moment, obscures.
Good luck to Daniel Andrews -- and particularly to the ambos, TAFE teachers and the like that he has promised to support.
But his political success comes with a dollar-price, and only increases the urgency of the national tax reform debate.
If the feds want to push health and education funding back onto the states, how exactly will that be done when federal Labor is ruling out a GST increase?
Why is it that both parties stay silent on ‘tax expenditures’ -- around $11 billion lost from federal revenues from the negative gearing of loss-making investment properties, plus tens of billions of superannuation tax concessions that force more of the tax burden back onto struggling young families.
It’s often said in politics that you need to manufacture a crisis to achieve real reform.
Well the real take-away from the Victorian election is that the crisis is on track.
We all want better services, but we’re simply not prepared to pay for them.
The Coalition’s tax reform white paper next year is the chance to address that.
The Victorian people have let out a collective howl of discontent about one side of the ledger.
The pressing need now is for more constructive debate, and less clumsy and ideological political leadership, to deal with the other side of the ledger – before it’s too late.