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What the opposition really needs to return to power

There is a growing problem on the right of politics. The evidence is not just in the loss by the Morrison government, but in the manner of the defeat, and the concession of a number of heartland seats to independents.

Similarly, the Liberal party’s poor showing in the recent Victorian election comes after nearly a decade in opposition. It is not clear they are any closer to government than they were in 2014.

Several commentators, as well as current and former politicians, have been vocal about what they believe the Liberals need to do to get back into office.

Some argue the party needs to become more conservative, others think more moderate. Some have suggested specific issues that should be raised to prominence, from homeownership to climate change, to gender politics.

Yet these analyses, whatever their political merits, are simply too narrow. The point is not to win elections for their own sake, but to be able to govern effectively.

The previous Liberal government — from Abbott to Turnbull to Morrison — is notable not for its achievements, but for its lack of them. And from its ascension to office in 2013, it was never clear what they were trying to achieve in many areas (especially evident in the 2014 budget).

In fact, across the country, the Liberal party has increasingly struggled to exercise the machinery of government to any end, much less a conservative or moderate one. It is where there have been exceptions to that rule that right-wing parties have had success in winning elections.

Those who cite the prominent conservatism of Howard’s government miss the bigger point that it was first and foremost an effective government, led by ministers with deep knowledge of the departments they ran. Like the Labor government that preceded them, incidentally.

Arguably, it was when the Coalition began to lean more heavily into ideology (WorkChoices) and lost the perception that they had a clear governing vision (Howard’s unconvincing climate package in the lead up to the 2007 election and the ongoing saga over his retirement) that they lost the support of the electorate.

An even better example is the Key / English government in New Zealand with its clear focus on accountability and efficiency. They were able to achieve remarkable electorate success following a right-wing economic agenda because of their emphasis on delivery.

Nor is this lesson limited to the right: Bill Shorten’s cavalcade of totemic left-wing policies cost him the 2019 election. Compare this to state Labor in Victoria and Western Australia, touting a track record of ‘keeping people safe during the pandemic’ and winning sweeping victories.

The right has a particular need to start prioritising outcomes over debates on ideology right now; both because it has shrunk into a malaise and because they have an inbuilt advantage over the Labor party in this space.

It’s not that Labor is worse at governing — at the moment they would argue the opposite — but on the whole, the left gets bogged down in controlling the machinery and processes of government.

And Labor can be hamstrung because too many policies are unacceptable to their coterie of vested interests and insiders.

Look at where the new government has spent political capital in its first year: reviving a long dormant industrial relations agenda; unwinding overdue reforms to superannuation transparency; gender politics; and symbolic initiatives like the Voice where the expected outcomes are unclear.

Labor is delivering for its constituency. No doubt they believe outcomes will flow from this, but that’s clearly secondary.

In response, the right should return to the basics of government: what tangible and measurable outcomes can be delivered for the electorate. In practice this means three things.

First, the Liberals should invest heavily in the ideas of transparency and evaluation. Focus less on how much money is being spent and more on how will it achieve its supposed goals. Make the government go back and account for the lack of results.

The Liberals should make themselves champions of diagnostic tools like NAPLAN, constantly under threat from a sector that has significant performance issues.

To be fair, they had some good ideas in government — most notably in superannuation — but too often they shied away from transparency, seemingly because of a fear of being held accountable for poor performance or because of an addiction to pork barrelling.

Which brings us to the second key element: embracing accountability for outcomes, both good and bad.

Politicians are very fond of taking credit for all the good things that happen on their watch, while wriggling away from the bad things by blaming the previous government, their ideological enemies or unspecified shoddy behaviour from underlings (at a pinch).

The public may not know the specifics but they understand that this is all nonsense. It’s why they keep looking for alternatives to the current crop of political figures. It’s why the Americans elected a crass outsider like Trump.

When was the last time a minister resigned because the department they oversaw performed poorly? If you want the fancy title and office, then you are the one responsible for making it work. If nothing else, that might start to thin out ministers who have no idea about the portfolio they oversee. The goals for these departments also need to be relevant to ordinary voters.

This is the crucial third point: a party seeking to be elected needs to understand what outcomes are important to people and what aren’t. Overwhelmingly, these will not be the kinds of things that deeply matter to the politically aligned (be they conservative or moderate).

Australian families are suffering real challenges, and government has a role in fixing many of them (even if it’s just remedying the problems it caused in the first place).

Of course some of these goals will be connected to, or driven by, the ideological concerns of the party. It’s not that the debates being held now over values aren’t relevant. However, in the absence of a convincing plan to deliver for voters, the risk is they simply won’t care which ideology wins.

Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.