Many commentators have compared Labor’s support for the Medevac legislation with the Tampa incident in late August 2001. The implication is that Labor lost the 2001 election due to Tampa, and could lose this year’s election due to Medevac.
Political commentator Katharine Murphy has said she was certain at the time Labor leader Kim Beazley “had just lost the election” after announcing Labor would vote against retrospective legislation giving the Coalition government the power to forcibly remove the Tampa from Australian territorial waters.
But are the claims that Labor lost the 2001 election due to the Tampa true? The Poll Bludger, William Bowe, kindly sent me the polling data for the 1998-2001 term, on which the historical BludgerTrack is based. BludgerTrack is a bias-adjusted poll aggregate.
I have used this data to create the graph below of the Coalition vs Labor two party preferred vote during 2001. The election was on November 10.
The graph shows that Labor had a massive lead in March 2001 of about 57-43, but it gradually narrowed to about 52-48 by the time Australian government involvement in the Tampa incident began on August 26. The Tampa was denied permission to dock at Christmas Island and deliver asylum seekers who had been rescued.
The Coalition received about a two-point boost from the Tampa affair to draw level with Labor. However, it had a much bigger lift from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, which lifted the Coalition’s vote five points to about a 55-45 lead. As the shock of the attacks wore off, the Coalition’s vote fell back to a 51.0-49.0 victory on election day (November 10).
If the Tampa had occurred in 2001, but not September 11, other issues, such as the economy, health and education, would probably have appealed to people in the lead-up to the election more than boats. Labor could have recovered to an election-winning position. September 11 made national security a huge asset for the Coalition government at the 2001 election.
If not for September 11, Labor may have won the 2001 election. The Tampa put the Coalition into a tie with Labor, not a lead.
Analyst Peter Brent in Inside Story thinks that, given economic factors, the Coalition would probably have won the election by 51-49 without either the Tampa or September 11. You can achieve this result by drawing a line from the Coalition’s nadir in March to the election, with the assumption that the slow improvement in the polls had continued.
However, the graph shows the Coalition’s recovery had stalled for over a month before the Tampa. Even though the September 11 shock had faded by the election, the boost it gave to the importance of the Coalition strength of national security assisted the Coalition at the election.
Labor did not lose the 2001 election because of the Tampa, and they are unlikely to lose the 2019 election because of their support for the Medevac bill. I believe the shock factor of terrorist incidents has been reduced by their frequency. There were two terrorist atrocities shortly before the 2017 UK general election, yet UK Labour performed much better than expected at that election.
Eight UK Labour and three Conservatives MPs form new Independent Group
While other causes, such as alleged antisemitism within Labour, have been cited, the reason these defections have happened now is Brexit. The defecting MPs are strongly opposed to their former party’s handling of Brexit, and all want a second referendum on Brexit – currently opposed by both major parties.
The Independent Group MPs have consistently voted in favour of proposals to avoid a “no deal” Brexit when the UK leaves the European Union on March 29. However, these MPs votes will not change. To avoid a no deal, either other MPs votes must change, or the major parties need to reach a compromise. The next important Brexit votes will be on February 27. The article I wrote on my personal website in January about why a no deal Brexit is a plausible scenario is still relevant.
On the morning of Monday, March 4 1996, the young treasurer in the Howard government, Peter Costello, and his press secretary, Tony Smith – now the speaker of the House of Representatives – took an Ansett flight from Melbourne to Sydney for their first departmental briefing. The treasury secretary, Ted Evans, who had initially asked to see Costello privately, offered his resignation in light of the change of government. Costello assured Evans he wanted him to stay on.
Once the meeting began, Evans had some startling news for his new boss. The budget had an underlying deficit of about A$9 billion. “Costello appeared genuinely shocked”, his biographer, Shaun Carney, has reported. The size of the deficit probably did take him by surprise, even if the existence of a deficit of some kind did not. John Howard recalls that he had wind of it before his March 2 election victory.
A submission released today by the National Archives of Australia in its 1996-1997 cabinet records sets out the nature and scale of the problem that the new government saw as its most serious during its first term. But problem would become opportunity. In his autobiography, Lazarus Rising, Howard would call the 1996 budget “the most important of all budgets” delivered during his almost 12 years in government, as well as “the best and bravest in 25 years”.
Howard is hardly a disinterested party. Nonetheless, there is a persuasive strand of opinion among commentators that the fiscal decisions taken in 1996, while creating political pain for the government and economic pain for voters, were foundational for Howard and Costello.
The cabinet submission of March 18 1996 predicted economic growth of 3.75% for 1995-96 and 1996-97, on the back of improved performance from the farm sector as the drought ended. Weak demand was likely cyclical, a “temporary slowdown of the type which often occurs at this stage of the business cycle and that growth should strengthen in subsequent quarters”, as business investment again took off.
Howard’s quip from opposition in 1995 – that the recovering economy was “five minutes of economic sunlight” – was effective politics. But it was not supported by the new government’s own records, which referred to a “generally favourable outlook”.
Compared with the skyrocketing interest rates and then the recession the Hawke and Keating governments faced in the early 1990s (or the recession the Hawke government inherited in 1983), these were happy days.
However, unemployment remained high at well over 8% and was projected to stay there in the following year.
The government was also concerned about the drag on economic performance of continuing budget deficits and rising government debt. This was running down national savings, undermining investment and worsening Australia’s current account deficit – the difference between the value of imports and exports of goods, services and capital.
Costello committed the government to reducing the underlying deficit of 3.5% of gross domestic product to 0.5% over three years, thereby reducing public sector lending, relieving pressure on the current account deficit, and returning the budget to a structural surplus. The government rejected the idea of a single massive cut of A$8 billion in the 1996 budget as running the risk “of knocking the economy off course”. It therefore committed to cuts of A$4 billion in each of the budgets of 1996 and 1997, with an eye to less pain in the 1998 budget leading up to an election.
With defence spending quarantined from the cuts, the August 1996 budget was indeed a tough one. The usual suspects – health, welfare, the public service and tertiary education – bore much of the load. Nonetheless, the government’s own polling suggested most voters thought its measures “tough but fair”, dispensing necessary if bitter medicine.
Howard remarked at the December launch of the latest cabinet records release that the government applied to the budget a “fair go” test, although he would ultimately bear pain for his too-clever distinction between “core” and “non-core” election promises.
Tony Abbott was a young parliamentary secretary in 1996, on his way up but still some way from the real levers of power. By 2013, however, he had his own government and with his treasurer, Joe Hockey, faced the problem of framing his first budget.
The 1996 effort would have been a powerful precedent for a new Coalition government in 2013 and, at a superficial level, the Abbott government did many similar things. As Howard and Costello had done, it established a National Commission of Audit.
Costello had complained of the “Beazley black hole” – the deficit bequeathed by Labor’s finance minister, Kim Beazley. Conveniently for the government, he was also the new opposition leader. The phrase lived on as a way of reminding electors of the Labor Party’s weaknesses in economic management and the Coalition’s achievements and strengths.
In 2014, Abbott and Hockey spoke of a “budget emergency”. But whereas the public seems to have bought the “black hole” image – although described recently by economist Warwick McKibbin as more like a temporary “pothole” – voters appear to have regarded the Abbott government’s “budget emergency” as invented.
One reason for this failure ironically lies in legislative changes that Costello announced at the very time he drew public attention to the black hole. This was the Charter of Budget Honesty, which mandated more rigorous reporting on the national finances, including the alphabet soup of MYEFO (Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook) and PEEFO (Pre-Election Economic and Fiscal Outlook), as well as five-yearly intergenerational reports.
These initiatives, which a Costello cabinet submission of August 2 1996 said were intended to promote “responsible fiscal management”, made it well nigh impossible to spring the surprise of a large deficit on an unsuspecting public and successor.
Unlike Hawke and Keating in 1983, and Howard and Costello in 1996, Abbott and Hockey could not stoke panic to implement unpopular measures and back out of difficult election commitments. The Charter of Budget Honesty meant they could not claim to have been blind-sided by an unanticipated budget deficit.
Howard and Costello also faced a much more helpful set of parliamentary numbers than their Coalition successor. With a massive 94 seats in a House of 148, they had political capital to burn. While few imagined the government would last almost 12 years, equally few considered it could be defeated after one term.
But it is in the Senate that the differences between 1996 and 2014 become clearer. There, the Howard government held 37 seats in a chamber of 76. After the defection of disgruntled Labor senator Mal Colston in August 1996, the government could get its legislation passed without the support of the Australian Democrats if it had Colston and the other independent senator, Brian Harradine, on side.
By way of contrast, the Abbott government faced a Senate cross bench of considerable complexity and diversity. And, as Howard has remarked, dealing with the Australian Democrats was notably easier for a Coalition government than getting Greens support.
In 1996, Howard and Costello got the politics right. They still paid a political price, but it did not prove fatal. McKibbin argues that the introduction of a GST in 2000 was made easier by the reduction of government outlays and the elimination of the budget deficit in the government’s first term.
By dealing with spending in 1996, the government was able to turn its attention to revenue and taxation in a more favourable fiscal environment for politically difficult reform.
The image remains: as they contemplated their own horror budget, Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann relaxed with cigars. Trivial in itself, this clumsiness epitomised the Abbott government’s muddled budget politics.
In 2014, after decades of strong economic performance, few believed that the drastic measures the Abbott government proposed in 2014 were either necessary or fair. Hockey declared the “age of entitlement” over, but voters suspected this did not extend to politicians or their friends.
The contentious measures in the 2014 budget – such as the Medicare co-payment and the winding back of unemployment benefits – did not pass Howard’s “fair go” test.
But the tough spending cuts Costello announced in 1996, while hardly provoking an outbreak of national joy, were an early taste of the professionalism and toughness that he and Howard brought to their long years at the helm.
Australia’s federal Liberal Party began not with Robert Menzies in 1945, but with Alfred Deakin’s Commonwealth Liberal Party in 1909, and before that with his Liberal Protectionists.
As a leadership party, the Liberals have always needed heroes. But in the 1980s, as Liberals embraced deregulation, they turned against Deakin and the policies he championed.
In his brilliantly succinct description of Australian settlement, Paul Kelly identified the core policies of the early Commonwealth with Deakin, and compulsory arbitration and the basic wage with his Liberal colleague, Henry Bournes Higgins.
Deakin’s support for protection and for state paternalism were his key sins in the eyes of the Liberal Party as it rehabilitated the free-trade legacy of New South Wales Liberal premier George Reid. Reid is not a well-known figure, so this left the Liberals with only Robert Menzies for their hero, although he has now been joined by John Howard.
In jettisoning Deakin, the Liberals made a great mistake and showed the thinness of their historical memory. The party and its traditions did not begin with Menzies, but stretched back to the nation-building of the new Commonwealth, and into the optimism and democratic energies of the 19th-century settlers.
Indeed, Deakin was one of Menzies’ heroes. The Menzies family came from Ballarat, where Deakin was the local member, and his Cornish miner grandfather was a great fan.
Accepting his papers at the Australian National Library just before his retirement, Menzies described Deakin as “a remarkable man” who laid Australia’s foundational policies. It must be remembered that in 1965, Menzies supported all these policies the Liberals were later to discard.
When it came to choosing a name for the new non-labour party being formed from the wreckage of the United Australia Party, it was to the name of Deakin’s party that Menzies turned, so that the party would be identified as “a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary”.
This is a direct invocation of Deakin and his rejection of those he called “the obstructionists”, the conservatives and nay-sayers, who put their energies into blocking progressive policies rather than pursuing positive initiatives of their own.
In June this year, Turnbull quoted these words of Menzies, in his struggle with the conservatives of the party. Clearly Turnbull wants to be a strong leader of a progressive party, rather than the front man for a shambolic do-nothing government. He does have some superficial resemblances to Deakin: he is super-smart, urbane, charming and a smooth talker who looks like a leader. But as we all now know, he lacks substance.
When I first began thinking about this piece I was going to call it “What Malcolm Turnbull could learn from Alfred Deakin”. But I fear it may now too late for him to save his government, and might be more accurately called “What Malcolm Turnbull might have learned from Alfred Deakin”.
First, he could learn the courage of his convictions.
Deakin too was sometimes accused of lacking substance. He was not only a stirring platform orator, but he was quick with words in debate, and could shift positions seamlessly when the need arose. But he had core political commitments from which he never wavered. The need for a tariff to protect Australia’s manufacturers and so provide employment and living wages for Australian workers was one.
One may now disagree with this policy, but there was never any doubt that Deakin would fight for it.
Federation was another. In the early 1890s, after the collapse of the land boom and the bank crashes of the early 1890s, Deakin thought of leaving politics altogether. What kept him there was the cause of federation, and he did everything he could to bring it about.
He addressed hundreds of meetings and persuading Victoria’s majoritarian democrats that all would be wrecked if they did not compromise with the smaller states over the composition of the Senate.
Deakin had a dramatic sense of history. He knew that historical opportunities were fleeting, that the moment could pass and history move on, as it did for Australian republicans when they were outwitted by Howard in 1999.
In March 1898, the prospects for federation were not good. The politicians had finalised the Constitution that was to be put to a referendum of the people later in the year, but the prospects were not good. There was strong opposition in NSW and its premier, George Reid, was ambivalent.
In Victoria, David Syme and The Age were hostile and threatening to campaign for a “No” vote. If the referendum were lost in NSW and Victoria, federation would not be achieved.
Knowing this, Deakin made a passionate appeal to the men of the Australian Natives Association, who were holding their annual conference in Bendigo. Delivered without notes, this was the supreme oratorical feat of Deakin’s life and it turned the tide in Victoria. Although there were still hurdles to cross, Deakin’s speech saved the federation.
The second lesson Turnbull could have learnt is to have put the interests of the nation ahead of the interests of the party and the management of its internal differences.
Deakin always put his conception of the national interest before considerations of party politics or personal advantage. And he fiercely protected his independence.
He too was faced with the challenges of minority government, but it is inconceivable that he would have made a secret deal with a coalition partner to win office. Or that he would have abandoned core beliefs, such as the need for action on climate change, just to hold on to power.
As the Commonwealth’s first attorney-general, and three times prime minister, Deakin had a clear set of goals: from the legislation to establish the machinery of the new government, or the fight to persuade a parsimonious parliament to establish the High Court, to laying the foundations for independent defence, and, within the confines of imperial foreign policy, establishing the outlines of Australia’s international personality.
Party discipline and party identification were looser in the early 20th century than they were to become as Labor’s superior organisation and electoral strength forced itself on its opponents.
But as the contemporary major parties fray at the edges, and their core identities hollow out, Australians are crying out for leaders with Deakin’s clear policy commitments, and his skills in compromise and negotiation.
Had Turnbull had the courage to crash through or crash on the differences within his party on the causes we know he believes in, he too might have become a great leader and an Australian hero.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
It has become an established fact of Australian politics that when the non-Labor side of politics is in power, the government will be a coalition of the Liberal Party and the National Party. This has been the case for almost 100 years, since the formation of the Country Party in 1920.
Even on those occasions when the Liberals have won a House of Representatives majority in their own right, the Coalition has held.
It is also true that when the then Nationalist Party and the then Country Party came together in coalition in 1922, the Country Party had much more clout than it has today. In the 1922 federal election, the Nationalists won 35% of the vote and 26 seats in a 75-seat House of Representatives. The Country Party won 12.5% of the vote and 14 seats, including seats in Tasmania.
The price Country Party leader Earle Page demanded for coalition was the political execution of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, and the treasurer’s job. He got both, creating the Bruce-Page government.
When Robert Menzies became leader of the United Australia Party in 1939 following the death of Joe Lyons, Page attempted the same trick again. He made a savage personal attack on Menzies and refused to serve under him – only this time the Country Party refused to follow suit, and replaced Page as leader.
The political reality was that to form an effective political relationship, any non-Labor prime minister needed to have a good working relationship with the Country Party. Menzies understood this.
When Menzies put together the bits and pieces of the non-Labor political forces following the collapse of the United Australia Party and formed the Liberal Party in 1944, he knew the Liberal Party would not be able to govern in its own right.
What was its impact?
At the 1949 election, which swept Menzies to power, the Liberal Party won 55 seats in a 121-seat House of Representatives. The Country Party won 19 seats.
Country Party leader Arthur Fadden became treasurer and remained so until 1958, when new leader John McEwen chose not to move to Treasury. McEwen’s influence in non-Labor governments, especially in relation to tariff matters, was considerable until his retirement in 1971. His antipathy to William McMahon effectively forced him out of the contest to elect a successor to Harold Holt in early 1968.
During this period, the Country Party could use its influence to shape Coalition policy. It did so because it had strong electoral support, which kept its numbers in the House of Representatives hovering around 20.
Liberals seemed to be quite happy to acquiesce in that influence, especially as Menzies and his immediate successors – with the possible exception of McMahon – were not opposed to government regulation of the economy.
Over time, Australia’s demography worked against the Country Party. The number of people living in urban areas has always been high in Australia, but the numbers have swung even more against rural areas. The size of the House of Representatives increased in the 1980s to 148 but the number of Country Party members remained static.
In 1982, it officially became National Party policy to indicate it was not merely a sectional party. This was followed in the 1980s by an attempt by Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to create an urban base for the Nationals in Brisbane. This had some initial success, but ultimately failed.
What are its contemporary implications?
The Nationals remain a country-based party in an Australia in which urban areas experience the greatest growth in population. Since the 2016 election, the Nationals have held 16 seats in a 150-seat House of Representatives.
What this means is that National Party policy will not disappear in the medium term, unless the party agrees to a union with the Liberals. The Liberals will have to take account of the wishes of the Nationals, up to a point.
However, it is clear that current Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce does not have the power to veto particular individuals from the leadership of the Liberal Party.
It is also clear that a Nationals leader will not be able to influence policy in the way McEwen did. Joyce may be a sort of agrarian populist, but times have changed – and the Liberal Party is no longer the party it was in the 1950s and 1960s.
It all comes down to numbers. The Nationals have relatively fewer seats in parliament than did the old Country Party 50 years ago. So, their capacity to influence what the government does has diminished.
Nevertheless, the Liberals need the Nationals if they are to form stable governments. They need each other. But, ultimately, the Liberal Party can only become the more powerful part of the relationship.