Received wisdom among election watchers holds that the Australian electorate does not throw out governments when the economy is doing well. When governments changed in 1972, 1983 and 1996, the economy was just coming out of or heading into troubled waters, and this explains the shift. We're a pragmatic, materialist lot on this reading, not much moved by larger questions or principles, so don't get too excited about the prospects for change at this year's election. Commentators, wary of being caught out by events, keep trotting out this generalisation to balance the books on all the things that seem to be going Kevin Rudd's way.
But what about 1949, when Robert Menzies defeated Ben Chifley and the Coalition began its 23-year run in office? There are, I think, intriguing parallels between that election and the one due at the end of the year. First, Labor did not lose because the economy was faltering and people were feeling the pinch. On the contrary, Australians were fully employed rebuilding after the war, and the economy was booming. Inflation was a bit of a problem, but this was not harming people's hip pockets. There were issues aplenty, as there always are: communism, bank nationalisation, petrol rationing, the coal strike. But the general state of the economy was not one of them. So that is a counter-example to the received wisdom of the moment.
Secondly, the election was thought to be very close, too close to call for most observers; and the swing against the government was 5.1% - just about what Labor currently needs to unseat the Coalition.
Thirdly, and perhaps most worrying for John Howard, the election may not have been won by Menzies on the basis of his vision of the future, but lost by Chifley because of the way he handled the immediate past: bank nationalisation, the national coal strike and a currency crisis. This argument is put by David Lee in a 1994 article in the Australian Journal of Political Science, on the basis of a close study of the contemporary polls. Lee argues that the 1949 result was a retrospective judgement on the performance of the government in a few key areas. Facing his fourth election, Howard is standing on his record. And, in the case of his decision to commit Australia to the war in Iraq and his government's industrial-relations reforms, he is standing by it. Neither the disastrous stupidity of our involvement in Iraq nor the unpopularity of WorkChoices will deter his defiant defence.
Howard's WorkChoices legislation has always seemed to me to risk destroying his government, the equivalent of Chifley's decision to nationalise the banks, when ideology overcame good sense and tempted him to extremism. Howard claims that WorkChoices is about the future, guaranteeing the flexibility of Australia's workplaces so that employment and prosperity can grow. But it is also about the past, about defeating a union movement which Howard rails against as if it were the powerful militant force of his youth in the 1950s, rather than the much-diminished movement of today.
Listening to the Liberals' attacks on Labor during the March mud-fest, I was struck by their reliance on two lines of argument which are now almost a century old: that Labor parliamentarians are not really their own men, and that they cannot be trusted with the Treasury. These themes are stand-bys of the anti-labour rhetoric the Liberals developed when they were first confronted by a Labor government, after the 1910 election.
In 1911 the Liberal, the monthly magazine of the Commonwealth Liberal Party, warned voters not to be deceived by the seemingly mild natures and good sense of Labor candidates. These men were only "cranks in the machine" and the power in the lever was the political bosses outside parliament. Jump to that Thursday in March this year when the Coalition unleashed its attack on Rudd over meeting Brian Burke. The fresh-faced member for Dickson, Peter Dutton, prefaced his reply to the Dorothy Dixer he received about retirement savings with the following: "Every time you come to the dispatch box you look at ... the same old union hacks, the same puppets run by the unions and of course run by Mr Burke." As the minister for Revenue and the assistant treasurer, Dutton is an understudy to Peter Costello and is learning from his boss that a sure-fire argument against Labor parliamentarians is that they are not their own men or women; unlike, of course, the sturdy-minded independent thinking displayed on the Coalition side of the House. Elect a Labor government and the unions will run the country: this has been the warning of every Coalition at every election for the past hundred years.
The other stand-by attack on the legitimacy of Labor in parliament is that it cannot be trusted with the economy. When Labor won the 1910 election, the Liberals poured scorn on the new government's economic and financial credentials. "Labour men are determined to get all they can out of Parliamentary life for the brief time in which they will be allowed to run the Treasury benches ... The average Labour man has never had such a soft billet in his life," said the Liberal magazine. Scorn was poured too on their audacity in creating the Commonwealth Bank: how could such simple, uneducated men possibly understand something as complicated as banking? As Peter Costello said of Kevin Rudd's plans to fund a national broadband network from the Future Fund, "You cannot trust the Labor Party with money." It was a "burglary", a "robbery", a "smash-and-grab raid". And he accused Labor politicians of "raiding" the fund "to satisfy their base political instincts" - whatever these may be. We've heard it all before, over and over, again and again, as Liberals attack Labor's legitimacy as a party of government.
The trouble, for the two Peters, Dutton and Costello, for Howard and for all the other Liberals who are relying on these two well-worn lines of attack, is that the rhetoric is losing its power with the electorate. Ridiculing the Labor Party may well still work to rally the backbench and the diminishing ranks of party faithful, but beyond this it sounds shrill, out of touch, and may be just a bit panicky. There are at least three reasons for the declining power of this traditional anti-labour rhetoric. First, the union movement is not as powerful as it once was, partly because of changes in the workforce, and partly - what delicious irony - because Howard's industrial-relations reforms have weakened it.
Secondly, sensing a possible change of government, business is talking to Labor. The Business Council of Australia, the Australian Industry Group and the National Retailers Association have all rejected Howard's suggestion that they fund ads supporting WorkChoices. One spokesperson said in the Australian that to do so would escalate the "unhelpful and unproductive debate between the Howard government and the unions". Business clearly doesn't see the sharp divide between friends and enemies in quite the same way as Howard.
Thirdly, the electorate has changed, and so the traditional rhetoric of both sides pushes far fewer buttons than it once did. Party identification was once the strongest predictor of how a person would vote, for the great majority of the electorate. People who identified as Labor voted Labor; Liberal, Liberal; National, National; election after election, year after year. Partisanship was habitual and lifelong, and it simplified the political world. Knowing that you were Labor or Liberal or National, you didn't need to know a great deal more and could let your party do your thinking for you. For such an electorate, party rhetoric at election time reminded people of their traditional allegiances, activating the existing party loyalty that would deliver the vote. The electorate still contains such people, but their numbers are declining. Across the Western world, partisanship is on the wane and electorates are becoming more volatile. People change their vote between elections, between state and federal, between lower and upper houses. People identify with one party but vote for another as a protest. Or people identify not much with any party and make up their minds once the campaign is underway, based on issues and their judgements of the leaders.
One widely held explanation for this increased volatility is that the contemporary electorate is much better educated than the electorates of the past. People are better informed about politics and more interested, and so fewer need a party to guide their political opinions and actions. They can find their own way through the issues, and make up their own minds about how to vote. Not only will such people have deaf ears for the party's traditional rhetoric, but they may well be offended by it as an insult to their intelligence and take it as evidence that the party has little new to offer. Perhaps this is why the Liberals' concerted attack on Rudd's character has failed to dint the public's interest in him as a future leader, one who might well win the next election and begin a new era in Australia's politics.
Whatever the reason that 5% of voters swung against Labor in 1949, that election is now widely regarded as a turning point in which Labor's planned socialist society was rejected for the Liberal Party's future of private enterprise and home-centred family life. It began the Liberal Party's golden age, and a bitter time for Labor. The meaning of an election is not just in the reasons for its outcome, but in the changes it ushers in. People use elections to give shape to the times through which they've lived, to mark ends and beginnings, and to write morality plays about the leaders who play for the highest stakes.
The 1949 election was about which party would own Australia's future. And so is the 2007 election. The imagery of past and future is already strong as the two leaders mark out their territory. Howard and the Liberals are standing on their record and accusing Rudd and Labor of inexperience; Rudd and Labor present the government as tired, compromised, lacking the energy or the ideas or the courage to develop new ideas to take Australia into the twenty-first century. This is the final reason Howard should worry about the 1949 election. If, as is looking increasingly likely, for whatever reason 5% of voters swing against the government, his defeat will come to carry a meaning far greater than its causes. It will be seen as the result of his stubborn clinging to the leadership, of the disastrous decision to take Australia into Iraq, of the inequities of WorkChoices, of his head-in-the-sand approach to global warming. It will cast a pall over his 11 years of government, and bring untold joy to those who felt shamed by his policies towards asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians. It will mean his bid to rewrite Australia's history in his own image has failed.