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The message is clear but no one is listening

Bruce Hawker - The Sydney Morning Herald

September 14, 2006

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CONSERVATIVE state opposition leaders from across the country gathered in Sydney last weekend to find a way to end the collective misery of their continuing political failure. We haven't heard too much about those closed-door deliberations, but the participants may have benefitted from a short history lesson. The fortunes of the respective parties today must be viewed in the light of a series of political events that began a generation ago.

Labor has adapted to the political environment and learnt from its mistakes, but the conservatives have persisted with a "give them what they need, not what they want" approach to state politics.

Unfortunately for the Liberals, it seems this approach was still evident at their retreat.

Twenty years ago Labor governed in NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia.

However, within a short time all those governments were rocked by economic and personal scandals that eventually saw them swept from office. In NSW there was a series of scandals including the jailing of the minister for corrective services for corruptly engineering the early release of prisoners. Victoria and South Australia saw their economies virtually bankrupted when their governments unsuccessfully ventured into banking and finance. The royal commission into WA Inc exposed links between politicians and entrepreneurs that eventually caused a former premier and deputy premier to be jailed for their misdeeds.

The collective effect of this series of misadventures was twofold. On one hand, Labor strategists and policy makers, by then in opposition, had to rethink fundamentally their attitude to intervention in the economy and reject the notion that states could manipulate the market. On the other hand, conservative governments had free rein to privatise to balance their budgets. In South Australia and Victoria, water and electricity assets were sold and there were retrenchments in the public sector. In NSW there was extensive restructuring including the sale of schools, the closure of railway lines, privatisations, the outsourcing of services and cuts to regional centres.

Within three years of the election of the Greiner government, the NSW public was having second thoughts about this approach. In the 1991 NSW election Labor came within a whisker of regaining office after just one term in opposition. The mood was similar in other states, most dramatically in Victoria, where the regions finally said "no" to more service cuts by Jeff Kennett and unexpectedly elected Steve Bracks as premier.

When state Labor governments began being re-elected from 1995, the public gave them qualified endorsement. In almost every instance they were elected with the barest of margins and had to prove they were solid, conservative managers of the economy. When they did move it was usually to the centre on their traditionally weak areas, such as law and order and encouraging development. Premiers such as Bob Carr and Mike Rann were also able to woo the green vote with environmental measures the conservatives could never match, saddled as they are to the Nationals. This political dexterity effectively gave Labor's opponents nowhere to move. The result has been a long run of election wins, each one as good or better than the last.

The failure of the Liberals to understand the electorate's disenchantment with the agenda of privatisation and downsizing was graphically demonstrated in NSW in 1999. The Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski went into that election with a central campaign promise to sell the state's electricity assets in return for a one-off $1000 payment to each elector. She lost badly. State government is about service delivery, not the stuff of "It's time" speeches.

So, what did come from last weekend's massing of the Liberal family? From what has been said so far, much of it looks like a rehash of the programs they put in place when last in office. The contribution of the federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, was to call for the outsourcing of management of public hospitals to the private, for-profit, sector. Greiner did this in Port Macquarie and it was a political disaster. Other proposals involve public-private partnerships and as such are not new and, unfortunately, suffer from a widespread media and public backlash, notwithstanding their value to users.

Even the ANZ Bank chief economist Saul Eslake, a former adviser to Kennett who came closest among speakers at the conference to offering practical solutions to immediate problems, is reported to have advocated the sale of the state-owned electricity assets. I wonder if the Prime Minister kept a straight face when Eslake made that recommendation. After all, it was John Howard who stopped the sale of the Snowy hydro scheme, not necessarily for good economic reasons but definitely for good political ones.

Bruce Hawker is the managing director of the public affairs firm Hawker Britton. He was a senior strategist for Peter Beattie in the recent Queensland election campaign.

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