Part 4 transcript

George Megalogenis:

Thank you all. I’m going to give a short political history lesson and I’m going to work from the 2001 election to the 2010 election, because when you break down this debate in political terms, a refugee card was played twice by the Coalition. It allowed them to keep government in 2001 and from Opposition they almost won government, not necessarily on the strength of the card alone, which we’ll debate later, but that’s the context I want to address this short contemporary history lesson. The 2001 election year is almost as interesting as the one we’ve just had. The one we’ve just had is more interesting because it was so awful, but the 2001 election was actually quite a painful experience for a lot of people just to observe.

The first half of the year, you saw a government in freefall. The Coalition had lost the State election by a landslide in Queensland, they’d lost power and they didn’t expect to lose power in Western Australia, and they lost a seat in Brisbane at a by-election they had never lost before, the seat of Ryan, which is the equivalent to the seat of Higgins or Kooyong in Melbourne. John Howard had inherited a problem on the electoral map from the 1998 election which was, especially in Queensland and to a lesser extent in New South Wales, One Nation had pulled the primary vote, quite an extraordinary primary vote at their first outing in a federal election, a bit over 8% and it was in double digits in Queensland. In Queensland it was around 14%. Now the problem he faced in the first part of 2001 was that he had a very low primary vote for the Coalition, a quite volatile outbreak to his right, which was One Nation, that he still hadn’t contained and he had the Labor Party in this rather unusual position where its primary vote still wasn’t that strong but it had the moral high ground because it didn’t need to do deals with One Nation on preferences to be able to pinch some of their votes by the back door after preferences were distributed. So this was the context of the first half of 2001, before the Tampa. A lot of people forget the specifics of the context which was just the implementation of the GST. 2000-2001, there was a shallow global recession, sourced to the US where the Tech Wreck gave them the first of their two recessions over the past decade. We, because of the way the GST was implemented, had one quarter of quite colossal, as they call it, negative growth. The property market basically crashed the economy in the last three months of 2000. So whilst there was a shallow global recession washing over us, a lot of people in Australia thought it was just the GST that had done it. So John Howard was wearing this for the first six months of 2001.

He needed to find a way to get the Hanson primary voter back to where it was in 1996, which was in the Coalition column. But if it didn’t play the refugee card until the Tampa arrived, some of the things he tried in the first half of 2001, after he’d witnessed this sort of electoral wipe-out in Queensland, in Western Australia and in that by-election in Brisbane, there were things like being tough on drugs, there were a series of hand-outs in the May Budget to older voters, self-funded retirees and pensioners to a lesser extent. Anything really that he could do to re-connect with the voters he thought were migrating to the Hanson column. But it was all hip pocket. It wasn’t about this mind and mood thing that asylum seekers became.

Now, the Newspoll that was taken on the eve of the Tampa still had him in a 50-50 position in terms of the election, Labor were already marking the curtains out for the transition to government, and his personal rating was very, very weak. In fact the electorate thought he was weak. The Tampa gave him this opportunity, which he took, because he had some experience in politics, and he knew that events can transform even politicians that have been known for twenty years … the Tampa gave him the opportunity to demonstrate strength. Julian does make the point that there’s a harshness to this strength, but essentially what the electoral transaction was telling people that tricky John Howard in the first half of 2001, the chap who couldn’t make up his mind about which hand-out to give next, because every constituency in the country was outraged about the implementation of the GST, he suddenly looked like a strong leader again, because he got to stop this boat.

Now, of course, a couple of weeks after the Tampa, September 11 happens. So that context – refugee boat, which he stopped from landing, picked up the Norwegian vessel, the Tampa and September 11 – the two things fused in the public mind. The interesting thing about the 2001 election is very few seats changed hands and when you look on a seat by seat basis at what happened across the country, Howard did get the transaction that he was looking for in the first half of the year, half the Hanson vote came back in his primary vote, a small increase in his members on the floor of the parliament, but and this was a big but, across most seats, whoever the incumbent was, whether they were Labor or Liberal, got a swing to them. The context of September 11 and the engagement in Afghanistan, which is the context on which this election was fought, now I do understand that kids overboard was a bit of an issue. But the context in that election was pretty much everybody stuck with what they knew, whether it was a Labor member, or a Coalition member. Now the Coalition picked up seats in Queensland and New South Wales, and Labor, as it has been doing for the last fifteen years, picked up seats in Victoria against the trend. So that’s the 2001 context.

A couple of things happened straight after the election. One was children weren’t thrown in the water. John Howard suffered the single biggest collapse in his approval rating as measured by Newspoll after he admitted that the children hadn’t been thrown in the water. The single biggest collapse that any Prime Minister has had outside of the breaking of an election promise, outside of Paul Keating’s L-A-W Law tax cuts for example, being repudiated after the ’93 election. This was the second biggest event as you measure one poll to the next. And it was because people saw him a bit sneaky, getting back into power. I think they felt a bit uncomfortable about it. Now the thing that was going on in 2001 as well which a lot of people forget now, is that the Democrats still had a pretty strong vote but the Greens were rising in 2001, because at the margin, the Greens started to pick up Labor voters because of asylum seekers and a few Coalition voters.

I’ll do a quick fast forward to 2004. The Greens are now an actual issue for the Coalition, not Labor. We had this phenomena of the doctors’ wives, which some people might remember now. It’s ancient history, ancient political history, but the Liberals were concerned, going into the 2004 election, which was an election held in the context of outrageous prosperity, booming house prices and very low interest rates, a lot of high income earners, a lot of lifetime Liberal voters, in the inner cities, were flirting with the Greens. Now, when we break down the Newspoll by age, we find that the first group that moved en masse to the Greens were young women who had previously supported the Coalition under the age of 35. So this thing is starting to niggle.

He wins the 2004 election with an increased majority because he played a brilliant interest rate card against Mark Latham and slapped an “L” plate on his forehead. But immediately after the election, with the Senate in his hands and he’s about to unleash Work Choices, Petro Georgiou, from a position of apparent weakness, gets John Howard to soften mandatory detention policy and children, out. Which is quite an extraordinary thing. It was the one and only time that a back bench revolt had gone straight to the Prime Minister’s office and the Prime Minister blinked. What was that context? Now the point that Julian makes is that there weren’t that many boats at that time, but the other part of this context is that the electoral map was starting to shift under the Liberals in their home territory. Bennelong had become a marginal seat at the 2004 election. Wilkie stood against John Howard, got a bit of a swing to him, if he had won North Sydney I suspect he would have won the seat on his own then. It took him two goes and he finally turned up in Denison and he has won a seat in his own right and he’s got the balance of power. And good on him I suppose, but he could have actually made his mark in 2004 after he blew the whistle on Iraq in 2003 by taking a neighbouring seat to Howard’s. Howard’s was a hard seat to shift, but he still did something quite interesting – he turned it into a marginal seat.

So what’s John Howard thinking in 2005? Well, he’s looking at the Senate, the Nats will let Work Choices through, he’s looking at his lower house, most of them support a tougher asylum seeker policy, then he looks at the electorate map and thinks, hang on, my seat’s gone. So Petro Georgiou did get his big win. Now I think this lulled Labor into a false sense of security because they win the 2007 election, they take Bennelong off John Howard, and they think well, the country is where we are on this issue. Now Labor’s position has always been quite confused to me. It’s bi-partisan. They’ve always tried to match the Coalition and sometimes they flirt with the idea of going to the right of the Coalition and Paul Keating always makes this point – you could never be harsher than the Liberals on this issue, so while Labor views a variation of harshness as strength, I’ve never been able to work it out. The idea of strength is standing for one’s convictions. Now if one’s convictions are counter to the government’s view of the day, you’re losing the election but in the long run the conviction trumps, because people can identify with this party’s conviction and think, well, they’ll stand by this sort of thing and there’s an electoral consequence. And I think Labor were able to demonstrate that with their position on Iraq but obviously can never demonstrate this with their position on asylum seekers.

I’ve taken all the emotion out of this – this is straight political calculation. When a voter looks at the Labor Party they see them all over the shop on asylum seekers. When a conservative voter looks at the Liberal Party, they get a sense of consistency. Now that’s the context for 2010. 2010, because we’ve obviously jumped the 2007 election, 2010 we’re coming off the back of a global recession. And that is as big as anything that any of us will see in our lifetime. Australia’s avoided this one as it sort of avoided the 2001 global recession, but then the one source was the Tech Wreck in those days, but there were a few other countries who avoided the 2001 recession including the UK, including Spain. We were the only ones that avoided the GFC in 2008-9, which is now called around the world “The Great Recession” because it’s the next biggest thing to the Depression that economic history has to look at over the last hundred years.

So you’ve got, even though we’ve escaped the GFC, you’ve got some of the things that started to play out in the second part of 2001, in the minds of some voters, which is this world looks like it’s a mad place, there’s not that much we can control, John Howard tells us he can control our borders, hooray for that, Tony Abbott wants to control our borders, well, I think I might think about that as an option.

But the difficulty in analysing the 2010 election through the asylum seeker frame is that both parties if they’re honest with themselves, don’t think that that side of the election one way or the other, because there was a much bigger force moving across the electoral map and that was this thing called Queensland. Now Queensland suffered the sharpest dip from its position at 2007-8 at the top of the boom to the position at the other end of the GFC. It didn’t quite fall into recession but we’ve got some stats coming out next month which may actually show that the state was in its first technical recession for over twenty years. So if you’re living in Queensland, the house price differential from Brisbane and Sydney has narrowed to virtually nothing. You’ve made your move already – I’m going to get knocked off soon – you’ve made your move already and you’re thinking, what am I doing here? The place is crowded, cost of living pressures, not that much a political party can promise you other than revenge. Now the Coalition won nine seats in Queensland and they picked up another four in New South Wales, roughly the same sorts of voters, and a few others, that were in play in ’98 and 2001, coming back into play in 2010. But I don’t think it is … and this is quite a subtle distinction. I don’t think the asylum seeker card was the thing that made it. I think it was the GFC and the difficulty that a lot of people felt around their own kitchen table that forced them to cast a protest vote against the Labor Party. The fact that the further south you went, you didn’t see those votes, well, you could say attitudes are a bit more cosmopolitan here, actually the economy here is a little more balanced here than it is up north.

I’ll leave it at that and invite Robert to maybe contradict.