An Australian electoral truism is that ‘Oppositions don’t win elections — governments lose them’. By and large history is on its side. Malcolm Fraser’s government was on the way out in 1983, whether or not a drover’s dog was leading the Opposition (for the uninitiated, that was a the remark made by Bill Hayden after his removal from the Labor party leadership by Bob Hawke, just before that election). It was the case when Labor lost the last NSW elections, and when it lost in Queensland, too. There is a time, and you can sense it. People want a change in government, whatever they think of the Opposition. Indeed, when that mood is about, Oppositions just look better. The great majority of us are not frightened at the prospect of a change, if we’re sick and tired of those in power.
There are some who think that is going to be the case in the ACT as well. Labor is on the nose everywhere, so that must be true in Canberra. The principal difference in the ACT is not that it is a traditional Labor enclave, but the nature of the electoral system, which is a form of proportional representation. In single-member systems, whether first-past-the-post or via preferential voting, a swing to the other side in votes tends to be magnified in seats. PR reduces the impact of the vote-swing, and offers independents and small parties a decent chance to gain seats in the parliament.
None of that means that the Liberals cannot win in the ACT. After all Kate Carnell led a decently competent Liberal Government from 1995 to 2000 and won more seats than Labor in 1995. It does mean, I think, that the Liberal party needs to look like a credible government-in-waiting, and can’t just rely on on a mounting urge for change. So its recently announced election platform is worth some inspection, and my assessment of it is that Zed Seselja and his colleagues have ticked the credible administration box.
What would be a credible administration in the ACT? It must live within its means, it must deal competently with the roads-and-garbage tasks of municipal administration, and it has to be able to speak for the city both in aspiration and in negotiation with the Commonwealth. It mustn’t make embarrassing gaffes. The last one is important because of the ACT’s well-educated and well-connected electorate. While one has to take this one on trust, it has to be said that Zed Seselja has been learning on the job, and that the Liberal Party is much less prone to internal strife than was once the case.
There is nothing especially striking in the Liberal election platform, but it is coherent and sensible. Its message is that the Liberals have thought hard about what they would do were they to come to power, and that they are particularly conscious about the need to manage money well. That will strike a chord with many ACT voters, who (like many other Australians at the moment) are saving, not spending, and worried about their future employment.
Once the campaign is on, attention will move to specifics. Let me provide a series, just in the health area. I am in favour of the proposed new sub-acute hospital at the University of Canberra (which both parties are proposing). And the borrowed capital expenditure needed to erect it is a fair charge on the future. But what about the people needed to staff it? Where are they to come from? Or move a step closer to one of the real problems: what is proposed to deal with the lack of competent nursing staff in the retirement villages and old-people’s homes?
If they were properly staffed then there would be less pressure on accident and emergency at the main hospitals, which would then have less trouble in recruiting their own staff. I understand that the Liberals are in favour of the nurse-run drop-in centres, but think that each should have a doctor in charge. Why? Unless the doctor is to serve some straightforward purpose this looks little more than a piece of traditional hierarchy support — and it adds another pressure on finding competent staff to enable the new sub-acute hospital to operate properly.
I see no sign that anyone thinks that paying nurses more would be an obvious step forward. Many well-trained nurses leave the profession after only a very few years, partly because of the industrial conditions under which they work, and partly because they are poorly paid for what they do. Is a new deal for nurses part of the Liberal platform?
I’ve no doubt that these questions can be answered. Governments have more experience, and more resources with which to answer such questions, than Oppositions. So the real test will be one for the Liberals. The campaign will inevitably move from the broad paint-brush strokes to these details. And it is dealing with the details that will determine whether or not the Liberal Party has the resolve and the intellectual energy to be a credible administration.