Tag Archives: Coalition
With taxes, health care and climate change emerging as key issues in the upcoming federal election, we’re running a series this week looking at the main issues that swung elections in the past, from agricultural workers’ wages to the Vietnam War. Read other stories in the series here.
Johannes (Joh) Bjelke-Petersen’s reign as Queensland’s premier began in 1968 and came to a dramatic and inglorious end 19 years later with the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption. He is still Queensland’s longest-serving premier, but he leaves a complicated legacy. For many, he is remembered most for his rigid control of over all areas of government and his anti-democratic stance on public protests.
Bjelke-Petersen governed the state as leader of the Country Party (which later became the National Party) until his downfall in 1987.
In May that year, the ABC television programme Four Corners aired the first public allegations of organised crime and police corruption in Queensland. Bjelke-Petersen would hang on to office for only a few more months before being forced to step down.
The Fitzgerald Inquiry, launched in the aftermath of the Four Corners programme, continued for another two years, uncovering a deep and systematic web of corruption that implicated many at the highest levels of Queensland government and the Queensland Police Force.
For Bjelke-Petersen, not only was his career as a state premier over, but so, too, were his national ambitions. In early 1987, Bjelke-Petersen had launched an ill-fated “Joh for PM” campaign in a brazen attempt to challenge then-Liberal Party leader John Howard as head of the Coalition, then run against Prime Minister Bob Hawke in that year’s federal election.
His bid for power split the federal Coalition. Capitalising on the internal dissent of the Opposition, Hawke easily won the 1987 election, holding onto the prime-ministership for another four years.
An ill-fated run for federal office
Hawke’s win in the 1987 election had been far from inevitable. The Coalition had actually been ahead in the polls for much of Hawke’s 1984-1987 term. However, internal divisions, typified by the rivalry between Howard and Andrew Peacock over the Liberal leadership, put pressure on the party. Tensions were further stoked when Bjelke-Petersen announced his intention to enter the federal arena.
In January 1987, when Bjelke-Petersen announced that he intended to run for parliament, he assumed that his success in Queensland could be duplicated at the federal level. Fresh from a win in the state election the previous year, he and his backers did not acknowledge the distinctive set of circumstances in Queensland that had given rise to his long time in office.
His bid for PM did make a brief splash in the national media, drawing further attention to the deep ideological rifts within the federal Coalition. Howard, leader of the Liberals, and Ian Sinclair, leader of the Nationals, struggled to contain the division caused by Bjelke-Petersen’s ambitions. The discord reached a breaking point at the end of February 1987, when the Queensland National Party decided to withdraw its 12 federal MPs from the Coalition in support of Bjelke-Petersen’s efforts. The Coalition formally split soon after.
Hawke seized on the Coalition’s infighting and quickly called an election on May 27. Bjelke-Petersen was not even in the country at the time, having gone to the United States. Outplayed and dealing with increased coverage of corruption and dissent in Queensland, Bjelke-Petersen swiftly abandoned his plan to run for prime minister.
By the end of the year, Howard’s Coalition was fatally divided. Labor was returned to government and increased its majority in the House with 86 seats to 43 for the Liberals and 19 for the National Party.
The win allowed Hawke to take his place in history as the party’s longest-serving prime minister.
A tarnished legacy in Queensland
The failings of the Bjelke-Petersen government in Queensland extended far beyond the arrogance that saw him attempt an ill-conceived move into federal politics.
Under his leadership, Queensland was not democratic. His government exploited the state’s electoral gerrymander, which over-represented rural electorates at the expense of urban ones. The state’s unicameral parliament meant the checks and balances a second house would have provided were absent.
Bjelke-Petersen also relied on a police force rife with corruption to prop up his government. Dissenters faced brutalisation at the hands of police when they took to the streets. A repressive set of laws that banned protests meant taking to the streets could result in time in prison. For too long, the media were silent about the corruption taking place in the state.
Journalist Evan Whitton called Bjelke-Petersen “the hillbilly dictator” in reference to his carefully cultivated parochial style of leadership. Yet, Bjelke-Petersen was guided by a shrewd political awareness. He styled himself as a defender of a unique Queensland sensibility and scorned the more progressive southern states. He was not opposed to using fear and prejudice for electoral gain.
His treatment of LGBTIQ issues provides one strong example. During the 1980s, the Bjelke-Petersen government made efforts to prevent gay and lesbian teachers from being employed and gay students from forming support groups. When the AIDS epidemic reached Australia, his government demonised LGBTIQ individuals. As most other Australian states decriminalised sex acts between men, Bjelke-Petersen’s government attempted to introduce anti-gay licensing laws and criminalise lesbianism. In 1986, the Sturgess Inquiry into Sexual Offences Involving Children and Related Matters was used by the government to further ostracise gays and lesbians and turn the public against them.
The Bjelke-Petersen era provides a cautionary tale. It is difficult to imagine any other premier maintaining his or her position for this long again. His ill-fated bid for federal politics also reveals the impact that egomaniacal and divisive figures can have on political parties.
Bjelke-Petersen may not have been the only factor behind Hawke’s 1987 win, but his intervention certainly did Howard no favours – and deepened a rift in the Coalition that took years to mend.
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.
Some have credited this early decision-making for Australia’s economic resilience in the face of turbulent global winds: the Asian financial crisis, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, even the global financial crisis.
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.
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.