It would be unwise to draw too many inferences for New Zealand domestic politics from last Saturday’s deadlocked election in Australia. But some things which happened during the marathon eight-week campaign will come under scrutiny by National, Labour, the Greens and other parties on this side of the Tasman.
John Key, in particular, will want to know why Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberals — National’s sister party — did so badly.
The final results in some crucial seats will not be known until later in the week. But Turnbull, who decided to hold an early election with the purpose of securing majorities for the Liberal-National Party coalition in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, is now staring down the barrel of a hung Parliament in the lower one and even more obstacles in getting legislation through the upper one.
Key, however, will be asking why Turnbull’s prime theme that only the coalition could be relied upon to maintain economic stability while promising tax cuts failed to convince people to stick with the status quo. That theme has been a fundamental part of National’s election strategy.
The answer might be two-fold. First, the Lucky Country has not been so lucky over recent years following the end of the minerals boom and cuts in manufacturing, best symbolized by the closure of car plants. For many voters previously getting hefty pay packets, there is no longer any economic stability to maintain.
Second, the 2014 Budget — the first one to be delivered by the newly-elected government led by Tony Abbot — was one tough document which was a brave attempt to get government finances back into surplus as soon as possible.
. It was so stringent that it prompted an across-the-board backlash from which the coalition never really recovered.
That does not answer the question of the political efficacy of tax cuts.
Turnbull, however, was basically outmaneuvered on tax cuts by Bill Shorten, the leader of the Australian Labor Party, who shrewdly avoided slamming all of his opponent’s tax cut plans.
Shorten made it clear that the ALP would not try to block the raising of tax thresholds for those in the middle-impact bracket. However, his party did not support big companies enjoying promised cuts in company tax, saying that such reductions should only apply to small enterprises.
Shorten instead concentrated on bread-and-butter issues by constantly stressing his priorities were more jobs and better provision of education, health and other social services. It was traditional Labour party stuff.
And it seems to have worked. In leading his party to the brink of power, if not power itself, Shorten defied the political pundits who were almost universal in predicting that while Turnbull would lose some seats, he would retain a comfortable enough majority.
Shorten’s success should give New Zealand Labour more confidence to make a similar pitch to voters here at next year’s election. Labour senses that tax cuts are no longer the boon they have been for National. Labour senses a mind shift among voters that the surpluses forecast by the Treasury would be better utilised in tackling growing inequality, especially to help those at the bottom of the economic heap.
Andrew Little can also take some heart from Shorten’s performance during the election campaign. Prior to that, Shorten came across as a machine politician who whined about everything his opponents did just for the sake of it.
But he has since flowered. His relaxed personable style and approachability seemed to hit the right spot with voters. Shorten’s back story as a trade unionist did not appear to hurt him — another potential plus for Little.
Having said all that, too much can be made of last Saturday’s swing to the ALP. That was more down to a plunge in support for the ruling Liberal-National coalition. The ALP’s share of the primary vote rose from the 33.38 per cent recorded at the 2013 election to 35.32 per cent.
Those figures hardly justify cracking open the champagne. In fact, you could seriously argue the result is merely a minor blip upwards in what has otherwise been a major downwards trend in the ALP vote over recent elections,and which is likely to continue unless the party finds a way of stemming the increasing flow of voters switching to minor parties.
In that regard, the Australian Greens have a long-term of strategy to capture inner-city seats from the ALP in the major metropolitan. This threat resulted in so-called “dirty deals” being struck between the ALP and the Liberals, the former party’s traditional enemy. In some seats, Liberal Party voters have beenurged to give their second preferences to the ALP candidate in order to shut out the Greens’ candidate.
New Zealand’s electoral system is less complicated than Australia’s — and thus not prone to such perverse maneuvering. But Labour and the Greens will have to consider electoral accommodations in order to shut National’s governing allies out of Parliament. Doing so will be a test of the strength of the recently-signed co-operation agreement between both Opposition parties.