Labor failed to read the signs from 1996 21 December 2012
It is the tragedy of humankind that we repeat the same mistakes as our predecessors.
Author and publisher Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’ and the Labor Party could easily have adopted it as the single-sentence reason why they lost the last Western Australian State Election.
Had they cast their minds back to 1996, the ALP may have seen events – both Federal and State – which had similarities to what led them to lose government in 2008.
Former ALP parliamentarian Mick Young had once famously tackled his Liberal opponents across the chamber with:
“You’ll never get there until you’ve got a few in your ranks who’d washed their hands in Solvol.”
Young, the architect of Labor’s Federal win in 1972, clearly believed that unless you had worked with the people there was little hope of successfully working for the people.
The first of Labor and Premier Alan Carpenter’s mistakes was to select and promote all-stars candidates to win marginal as well as safe seats.
A second was for Labor to run a campaign based almost exclusively on its leader, who proved less popular than his campaign team knew.
Carpenter led a government that ‘no one believed’, echoing then ALP national party secretary, Gary Gray’s comments about Paul Keating in the wash-up to his 1996 Federal loss to John Howard.
“There was no other issue that we could campaign on. We couldn’t campaign on a positive policy agenda because no one believed us. They thought we were liars.
“We couldn’t campaign on our record, because by and large, the perception of our record was that it stunk.
“The issue that we could campaign on was the one issue that we had a significant edge with, and that was the leadership issue. It wasn’t much of a bus leaving the station, but it was the only one.”
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN 10-11 AUG, 1996
Similarly in 2008, the WA Labor Party also only had one bus leaving the station – a fact successfully exploited by the Liberal Party of WA in its campaign asking voters to name three things Labor had done in its term of government. The answer: Silence.
Carpenter, Labor’s only vehicle, turned out to be a bus voters refused to board. Critics decried his early call of the election one day after the Liberals had recalled their former leader, Colin Barnett to the top job. This set the then-Premier up for claims of arrogance which he was unable to shake.
Ironically, Carpenter had called the election too late. If he was going to go early it should have been earlier still because the Liberals, with four leaders since 2005, had been going nowhere. Had he called the election with first-term member, Troy Buswell as Opposition Leader, the Liberals would have been pummelled.
After the Liberals failed to unseat Labor’s Geoff Gallop in 2005, Barnett resigned and the leadership won by Matt Birney. He, in tun, was overthrown by Paul Omodei, who was subsequently removed in similar fashion when his party room opted for Buswell.
Here was the dynamic new face of the WA Liberals. A brilliant parliamentary performer with a keen mind, who could absorb all shadow portfolios and, later ministerial portfolios, with ease.
However, Buswell’s blokey cum yucky antics exposed him nationally for all the wrong reasons and gave Labor a target to fire at whenever able. When Buswell eventually resigned, Barnett was asked to lead the Liberals and Carpenter, citing fair play because the Liberal leadership was now settled, called the election the next day.
Carpenter drove his bus from the station (ironically Buswell’s pre-parliamentary life was running a tour bus company, where he was the colourful driver), followed on foot by an untrusted group of ministers; former ministers and back benchers, who had come unstuck during Carpenter’s premiership; and candidates, rated as ‘suits’, perhaps because they had never washed their hands in industrial-standard soap.
It was shades of 1996 when Labor Opposition Leader Jim McGinty tried to cobble together an election team with candidates he had head hunted, earning him the ire of many in his own party.
Labor had lost a by-election in late 1994 when Rhonda Parker (Lib.) won Helena against trade unionist Joe Bullock (Lab.) Parker, according to reporter Steve Loxley “became the first government candidate in 43 years to win a seat from an opposition in a by-election”.
THE WEST AUSTRALIAN 27 APRIL 1996
Bullock had lost nearly 5 per cent of Labor’s primary vote. It signalled need for a change in 1996 and McGinty, the cunning unionist now law student-opposition leader, began to recruit prospective candidates from further beyond Labor’s traditional blue-collar ranks.
However, was he following the same path towards a lopsided future Caucus as Keating had watched over federally between 1993 and 1996? As former Labor minister Barry Cohen had observed:
“Of the 110 Caucus members, who graced the green and red leather benches of the House of Representatives and the Senate from 1993 to 1996, 17 were lawyers, 27 were trade union and party officials and 37 were teachers or lecturers. The remaining 29 covered the hundreds of trades and professions occupied by 12 million other Australians.”
THE AUSTRALIAN 24 APRIL 1996
Cohen also criticised the “extraordinary lopsidedness” of the educational lobby with 37 of the 110 (more than a third) of the members.
His opinion of the trade union officials in parliament was somewhat different to what the Labor-voting public may have expected:
“Where things have changed over the past couple of decades is that while once MPs with a trade union background had risen from the ranks of shearers, boilermakers, engine drivers et al, most of the present crop have gone from university to research assistant to official and then to parliament.”
So Carpenter came to WA’s State Election in 2008 repeating this previously made Labor mistake, endorsing too many clean-cut candidates for Federal and State elections –candidates who had followed university with research assistant roles then official status before becoming a Labor candidate.
The Premier had himself been a clean-cut candidate – a successful TV journalist who columnist Janet Wainwright said many grassroots members of the ALP regarded as “one of the ‘yuppie’ candidates who have been fast-tracked into a seat.” The Solvol users had been ditched “for the deodorised executive type”.
SUNDAY TIMES 28 APRIL 1996
When Carpenter was on television, the ABC was considered a more powerful political influence than commercial stations but in the ensuing years governments and opposition in WA had learned to get air time on Channel 7’s Sunday News – the most watched TV program of the week.
Enter 7 political journalist, Reece Whitby, fast-tracked by Premier Carpenter as one of the deodorised executive types to bring more talent into his government. The more things changed, the more they remained the same.
Unlike Carpenter, who won his seat and rose up the totem, Whitby faced the ignominy of losing to a Liberal candidate, who had replaced the endorsed candidate only shortly before the hastily called election. Ian Britza was a virtual unknown but was to benefit from the swing to the conservatives and the preferences of Independent former ALP minister John D’Orazio in the seat of Morley. It was a telling blow to the Premier, who had presided over D’Orazio’s resignation only months before.
Watching on was McGinty, who had presided over his own failed new candidates’ policy and let Carpenter repeat the strategy. Was Carpenter not listening to advice? Had McGinty forgotten ’96? Or was he content to let the Premier fail in similar circumstances? The former Member for Fremantle has probably never been asked the question.
McGinty was a sworn foe of another Labor premier, Brian Burke, whose continued influence on and association with Carpenter Labor ministers and MPs had cost many their jobs.
Between the two wily veterans lay Carpenter, who tried to win over the people with his natural media friendly presence.
However, the makeup began to crack. Labor MPs began to fall as the Corruption and Crime Commission linked some to Burke, fellow lobbyist Julian Grill, and doubtful actions by public servants and corporate Perth.
Barnett, before returning as leader, had made a brilliant parliamentary attack on Labor’s ‘football team’ of cast-offs. More than 18 Labor ministers and backbenchers alike had fallen foul in one way or the other during the government’s reign.
Carpenter’s patience with his team was fraying. He began to look tired, angry, frustrated, almost to the point where his face was betraying a look of how much more of these idiots do I have to endure? His demeanour was due to his colleagues but the attitude showed through publicly and the voters took this look and sound to be arrogance towards them.
The upshot was a surprise loss of government. When the Premier called the election his party had been priced by national corporate bookmakers at $1.18 – old fashioned odds of 11 to 2 on.
Long odds-on chances do get beaten but not usually in two-horse races. If elections are lost by government, not won by opposition, 2008 was the election that a government was not due to lose.
Lessons from 1996 had not been remembered.