Sunday, 3 June 2007

An Australian Experience-state politics in Victoria

There is an incredible situation recurring in contemporary Australian politics. A federal government under one political party might be surrounded by state governments under the opposition party. Before the election defeat suffered by the Keating government in 1996, Liberal governments mushroomed in states. Conversely, the current Howard government of Liberal Party in Canberra is virtually encircled by Labour governments in all states, especially sandwiched by opposing states of Victoria and NSW. At a 2006 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting, Howard was tightly surrounded by eight state and territory Labour leaders. It sounded quite possible that when they re-emerged from the meeting to face the press, a coup might be announced for a change of federal government.
The major means for the federal government to govern even if all states are run by the opposition is of course tax redistribution and transfer, which provide funding to major projects in states. For the 2004-2005 financial year, the federal government collected taxes of AUD$220 billion, while the states and territories could only manage a mere $41.6 billion. As expected, the states would rather beg the federal government for funding, despite ideological differences.
In the great state of Victoria, Labour has a long tradition of organising labour force and winning governments. A good example is state Labour Premier John Cain. I had wondered in early years why on earth there was a public park in northern Melbourne, Thornbury, as a memorial park for John Cain, a middle-aged Premier in the mid-1980s. I then learned that the honour belongs to John Cain senior, as they both won the prize to serve as Premiers. The Cain junior is not a figure to be easily forgotten, partly due to his slim stature and his deeply wrinkled face, the latter being taken jokingly among my friends as signs of what a hard life he must have been through. Much to the relief of a second language speaker, his English is clear, brief, and easy to follow. He projected an image of modesty and an unassuming person. His Ivanhoe residence in a side street does not look grand or posh at all, at least by outside appearance.
The successor to John Cain was Ms. Joan Kirner, a teacher by training and the first female Premier in state history. There were a lot of laughter of her appearance and styles in crazy TV comedies such as "Full Frontal". Her public image was overshadowed somewhat by an excellent actress Magda Szubanski who performed impersonation of Kirner in comedy shows. A serious political leader with that kind of unflattering image also bore full brunt of messy economic handling by previous Labour leaders, thus was reduced to a regular subject of ridicules. Kirners last ditch management of the economy and state finances failed to fill the big holes in state budgets. This miserable failure led to a change of government and the rising of the following political figure, her arch rival and more entertaining, in a sense, Jeff Kennett.
Jeff Kennett won for the Liberals in 1992, after a decade of Labour rule. That was a landslide loss for Labour, for their blunders, scandals, and mismanagement. With clear majorities in both Houses, Kennett could do whatever he desired. This handy convenience fit extremely well with his ego and grand pet plans. The reforms under Kennett were wide ranging, drastic, and in some cases, savage. The main purpose was to hurt those sacred cows of previous Labour governments. There were massive layoffs, and Kennett found ways to beat unions, let loose of employers rights to fire employees at will. Since teachers unions were considerably powerful, the Kennett government simply closed down many public schools and sacked teachers in large numbers. Empty grounds and buildings in those closed schools eerily resembled movie scenes of a ghost town. This devastation was so horrendous that even Liberal frontbenchers a decade later admitted the wrongdoings and ensuing damages, partly for rebuilding their credentials in education after loosing government offices.
This "slash and burn" strategy in fact worked for Kennett, as hurting and painful measures are to be implemented when they had a clear majority. When the next election comes, Kennett would be able to soften the shocks by offering some sweet candies, like abandoning certain draconian or unpopular charges. People with short memories would jump on the baits and allow the administration to stay. This threatening and taming process could well be a textbook politics in action for all interested.
The loudest protests were from unions, with John Halfpenny of Trades Hall Council telling rallying protesters to maintain their rage. Kennett said in public that he could not negotiate with unions with a gun pointed to his head, but staging a strike was the only gun unions had against announced redundancies and layoffs. As the election was just over a short time before, there was no possibility of a fresh election, and the huge majorities Liberals had in the Parliament could not be reduced either. The mandate under democracy was just willingly handed to this aggressive and ruthless politician. Unless Liberal MPs voluntarily crossed the floor and caused the government to collapse, there would be no chance for translating those public demonstrations and strikes into any significant change in government or in its policy. As those same MPs just began to enjoy the status of a ruling party, they had little thought of upsetting their brilliant leader.
The Kennett downfall presents a textbook case of disastrous overconfidence in politics. In 1999, state Labour endorsed a new leader, and an election was to be called soon. Kennett saw no coming threat and entered election campaigning with a prediction to win comfortably as was before. He certainly had little idea how many constituencies out there he had profoundly alienated and enraged in previous years. Election results disobeyed his wishes this time, and the two major parties reached a stalemate. The fate of a new government hung in the hands of three independents. The proud and cocky Kennett could not bear the thought that his post of Premier was being decided by a number of his opponents, and his almighty party had to bargain, humbly, with those independent MPs for a favour, those names Kennett had hardly heard of before. On the basis of Kennetts unpleasant track records and Labours persuasion, a new government of Labour was formed with support from the independents. Kennett was gone, together with his once massive, awesome Parliamentary majorities.
When I read this news in Hong Kong about Kennett losing, I had a deep feeling inside of huge relief, which cannot be described adequately in words. Regardless of party preferences, this overbearing giant in state politics finally left the centre stage, so that everyone else can get on with their normal lives. This is not merely a perspective of ones personal traits, but of the extreme extent a politician could exercise his ideologies to, which is scary. Restructuring was exciting, even profitable to some, but high social costs and immense shocks eventually wore people down.
In his high days, Kennett played his fair game in Victoria and attracted attention from desperate federal Liberals. He descended as a saviour of the Liberals nationwide and ran Victoria in an assuring manner. The federal Liberals seriously considered to draft Kennett to Canberra, for a test of leadership. Kennett declined, perhaps sensing unexplained complexities and risks that could ruin his good records of governance. What could be achieved comfortably in a state may not be obtainable at the federal level. Victoria remained the power base for Kennett, even after he quit Victorian politics, he stayed in the state and looked happy not being portrayed as a political figure of national stature. State Liberals, however, lost their tracks and are still bearing the burden of losing elections for about a decade after Kennett had his downfall.

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