Unprepard Coalition Still Out of Power

By Scott Prasser

The Abbott Liberal Party-Nationals Coalition did better than many expected on Saturday.

It almost won office. It secured swings in five of the eight states and territories. In Queensland, the Northern Territory and NSW, these swings were more than four per cent. And winning 10-plus seats from a first-term government is no mean feat, especially given the Coalition's parlous political prospects last year.

Thanks, Tony.

Tony Abbott ran a better campaign than Labor expected. Indeed, it underestimated him and the Coalition -- up to a point. And that point is that once again the non-Labor parties, despite such fortuitous circumstances as a government that was largely incompetent in program delivery and that had poleaxed its leader so publicly, were still unable to capitalise on the shambles and convince the electorate that they were ready for government.

This occurs too often on the non-Labor side of politics to be described simply as bad luck.

During the past two years the non-Labor parties have lost successively in Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and the NT. It is a record of campaign failure. Only in Western Australia in September 2008 did the Liberals get over the line, but only just.

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Even at the height of former prime minister Kevin Rudd's unpopularity, voters only partially turned to the Coalition. And they did not turn to Abbott as the alternative prime minister: he never closed that gap with Julia Gillard throughout the campaign.

How could a government that has made as many policy mistakes as the Rudd-Gillard administrations secure swings to it in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia, and hold on to marginal seats such as Lindsay and Robertson in NSW?

Something must be lacking in the non-Labor side. It is a mixture of political skills, policy deficiencies and lack of skilled personnel.

The opposition never really nailed the Rudd government. Until Rudd fell, largely through his own miscalculations, there were few ministerial scalps. The Coalition lacked the forensic, probing and investigative skills to expose government failures.

Gillard's stumbles mid-campaign were largely caused by leaks from within the ALP rather than aggressive opposition tactics.

Then there were the Coalition's policy shortfalls.. We had a taste of this before the election with the Hockey-Robb debacle at the National Press Club over policy costings. We all asked: is this opposition fit to govern? This remained an undercurrent throughout the campaign. It was an important issue at this election, as voters were being asked to throw out a first-term government.

The opposition poured out the policies, but many were rushed, half-baked and at best just outlines. The launch of the Coalition's response to the government's National Broadband Network highlighted these deficiencies. It was hesitant, hard to understand and lacked conviction; although there was a viable alternative view, it was never properly articulated. Coalition spokesman Tony Smith looked and sounded painfully ill at ease, not helped by the hovering Andrew Robb.

The problem was made worse by Abbott's inept performance on ABC1's The 7.30 Report, where his basic knowledge about modern technology and communications was found lacking.

During the campaign, the opposition again stumbled over policy costings and never managed to provide all the details. Neither did Labor in opposition, but weren't the Coalition parties supposed to be better economic managers?

And if the economy was so important, why didn't Abbott take up the PM's challenge and debate this issue? No wonder the government wasn't far behind the Coalition on economic management.

In Westminster democracies, the opposition is not there just to oppose: it is also meant to propose solutions. Despite having been out of office only for a short time, the Coalition failed to give voters confidence that it was not just ready to take office but also capable of leading the nation.

The core of the Coalition's policies was about stopping things: the waste, the taxes and the boats. Knowing what an opposition is against and pinpointing government failings helps an electorate decide, but as Abbott acknowledged earlier this year, "it's not a recipe for effective government".

The opposition's campaign launch left out important parts of the policy recipe, raising concern about an Abbott government's agenda.

Another problem, also reflected in recent state election experiences, is on-the-ground campaigning skills and candidate selection. Labor is more professional, as we have seen in the Queensland and South Australian elections. Late selection of candidates, as occurred with Fiona Scott in the marginal Labor seat of Lindsay, hardly suggests a party ready for office, or with a large reservoir of talent. Similarly in Victoria, the Liberals selected candidates for federal seats just a couple of weeks before the election.

Without the feeders of trade unions, academe and other large organisations, the non-Labor side of politics always faces a talent gap until it wins office, when the allure of government entices those from the Coalition's natural business and professional constituencies to be more active in politics.

This election signified a revival in the fortunes of the non-Labor side of politics. For this it deserves congratulations. But it has not got over the line yet. More renovation is needed if the non-Labor cause is going to sustain itself in the battles ahead at state and federal levels.

Scott Prasser is executive director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University.

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