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Observations, Opinion, Politics

Keys to The Lodge – how many is Gillard holding?

The rollercoaster of Aussie politics is an eye-watering ride. Can Gillard hold on? Second in an irregular series.

In January 2012 I ran a little exercise to see if I could predict the outcome of the next Australian Federal election.

As my starting point I used this article about American academic Allan Lichtman and his 13 Keys to the White House.

According to Lichtman, if six or more of his ‘keys’ go against the party in power, they lose. Simple enough, and Lichtman’s record of correctly predicting every US election result since Reagan in 1984 speaks for itself.

At the start of the year, by my humble and purely subjective assessment, Julia Gillard had a grip on just six Keys, not enough to keep her in The Lodge.

The eye-watering rollercoaster ride of Aussie politics being what it is, another look seems in order.

While Lichtman’s Keys to the White House are the basis for the exercise, the Keys to The Lodge are no more than my interpretation of his performance indicators in an Australian context.

Occasionally, I’ve had to make a guess on how to fit his criteria to our situation but, in the febrile atmosphere of our current politics, my guess feels as good as anyone’s.

Here then, is the coolest assessment I can muster of Gillard’s current hold on the Keys to The Lodge.

Key 1 – Party mandate

Has the incumbent party increased or decreased its majority in the Parliament since the last Federal election?

Baxter January 2012:

An early loss for the Prime Minister.

Last year’s last minute Slipper Manoeuvre put her in a stronger Parliamentary position, but not enough to win the first key. And it could yet turn around to whack her.

Baxter April 2012:

I’ve wrestled with the best way to determine this Key in an Australian context.

The minority government makes it absurd to consider it strictly in terms of numbers between the Lower and Upper Houses, as Lichtman seems to demand, but it’s clear that his analysis demands a purely objective assessment. So, on that basis, it looks like this:

House of Representatives: ALP 72 Coalition 72 Others 6 = 150

Senate: ALP 31 Coalition 34 Greens 9 Others 2 = 76

Like some existentialist film noir, those numbers alone say Everything and Nothing.

For from them, as we all know, has arisen the most terrible hubble bubble, toil and trouble this side of Alan Jones’ apparent recent conversion to the Hippie Cause.

It’s been impressive to watch some pretty deft manoeuvering from Gillard as she works those knife-edge numbers and of course great fun for lovers of Shakespearean drama.

But in terms of our Key, all we need to say is that I should have given it to her in January (if I’d read Lichtman properly) and I give it to her now.

Having said that, WHACK!

Careful, Julia! It’s Slippery out there.

Running Total: Then: 1 (corrected) Now: 1

Key 2 – Contest

Does the incumbent prime minister face any serious contest from an internal challenge?

Baxter Then:

She can’t have this one either. The best you can say is that the ALP was stupid to dump Rudd in her favour when it did and would be even stupider to do anything similar this year. Which is not to say it won’t, and even if it doesn’t the speculation won’t be going away, so no key.

Baxter Now:

Well, big movement on this one. This Key got thrown right up in the air and was firmly caught by La Gillardene.

She bested the ridiculous Rudd challenge and strengthened her position in a 71-31 defeat.

For now, that’s one to Gillard she didn’t have three months ago.

Will she keep it?

The polls remain shockingly bad, her government lurches from drama to crisis and back again and the biblical size of the Queensland election winnowing won’t have done anything to quell the night terrors of the backbench.

Running Total: Then: 1 Now: 2

Key 3 – Incumbency

The incumbent party leader is the serving Prime Minister

Baxter Then:

(An easy win for Obama under Lichtman) Likewise for Gillard, except for the ongoing charge of illegitimacy which isn’t going to go away either. But she is the incumbent, so she gets the key.

Baxter Now:

No change, obviously. Another key for Gillard.

Then: 2 Now: 3

Key 4 – Third Party

Is there a significant third party challenge?

Baxter Then:

Oh dear, she loses this one too. The Greens are a challenge for both major parties but right now they’re Gillard’s problem.

Baxter Now:

I said before the Greens are a challenge for both major parties but right now they’re a stick for Tony Abbot to beat the ALP with.

If the Queensland election result is anything to go by, the Greens and the ALP will fall together and all will depend on how the Greens, minus Bob Brown, steer their course in the next Senate.

Even if it goes swimmingly, it won’t necessarily be a plus for Gillard.

No Key.

Running Total: Then: 2 Now: 3

Key 5 – Short term economy

Is the economy in recession?

Baxter Then:

Easy win. Surely this is an easy win. We’ve got the most enviable numbers in the world and officially its Greatest Treasurer. It seems a very Australian habit to regard an accolade like that with disdain, but the cold fact is, our economy is doing great. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s stick with reality and give her this Key.

Baxter Now:

The economy is not in recession. This Key remains in Gillard hands.

Running Total: Then: 3 Now: 4

Key 6 – Long term economy

Does real per capita economic growth during the term equal or exceed mean growth during the previous two terms?

Baxter Then:

The only real threat to our long-term economy is a slowdown in Chinese demand for our resources. Oh, and maybe the small matter of looming economic Armageddon in Europe.

Undecided. We weathered the GFC brilliantly but the next round is going to be worse and dealing with it effectively will be unpopular for the government. I withold this key, pending developments.

Baxter Now:

According to the Macro Business Superblog which also has some excellent charts on the matter, GDP per capita grew by an imperceptible 0.53 per cent over the 14 quarters since its peak in March 2008.

Before that, it grew a steady 1.5 per cent per annum for the previous 10 years.

No key.

Running Total: Then: 3 Now: 4

Key 7 – Policy change

Has the incumbent effected major changes in national policy?

Baxter Then:

She gets this one. And if they were my keys she’d get a bonus one for the relentless slog she put in. Two major policy wins in 2011 with the carbon price and the mining tax, plus numerous smaller ones.

Note: Lichtman doesn’t take into account the perceived popularity of policy change and so I don’t either.

It looks like we’re counting the ability to get the big things through, not what the electorate thinks about them in the heat of the weekly polls.

Those 150-plus pieces of legislation and some historic policy achievements in the face of pretty tough odds stand up well on this measure.

Baxter Now:

Gillard is not going to lose this key between now and the next election. She’s done enough to earn this one. Remember, popularity of the changes isn’t under consideration.

This Government has managed to push through some major programs – most recently the under-reported overhaul of aged care. As ever, the problem isn’t getting things done, it’s getting some attention for it, let alone credit.

Running Total: Then:  4 Now: 5

Key 8 – Social unrest

Is there any sustained social unrest during the term?

Baxter Then:

Wow, Lichtman can’t see any social unrest in the US. On whatever rating he’s using, I guess there’s none in Australia either.

We heard some incredibly vicious language during 2011 and a few violent suggestions involving chaff bags and the like. There was also an upsurge in political protest, from the anti-carbon tax rallies to the Occupy movement, to name two indicators of social unrest.

Nevertheless, I’m agreeing with Lichtman and giving Gillard this key because while there’s been a lot of noisy anger in some quarters, there hasn’t been general social unrest. If this key doesn’t belong to Gillard, perception has finally trumped reality .

And that’s a prospect too depressing to contemplate for this space cadet.

Baxter Now:

No change. This Key stays with Gillard.

Running Total: Then: 5 Now: 6

Key 9 – Scandal

Is there a major scandal tainting the incumbent?

Baxter Then:

Whether you think the Great Carbon Tax Lie was the worst political crime in our history or just politics (see backflips passim), it sticks to her wherever she goes.

Unfortunately for Gillard, if she overcomes that one there’s still the small matter of the knifing of her predecessor, plus a long litany of real (some) and confected (mostly) scandals and missteps that have dogged both this and the Rudd government, from pink batts to Craig Thomson.

Baxter Now:

That ol’ Thomson Scandal, it just keeps bubblin’ along… and as of writing it’s somewhat overshadowed by the allegations against the Speaker.

No change, no Key.

Running Total: Then: 5 Now: 6

Key 10 – Foreign military failure

Has the government suffered a major failure in foreign or military affairs?

Baxter Then:

I nominate the Malaysia Solution here.

The whole asylum seeker issue is wrapped up, inevitably, in our relations with our neighbours, who have been given pretty good reason in the past 200 or so years to think that we don’t really like them very much.

This adds a complexity to the issue for the government of the day which is rarely appreciated within the Australian debate, where it is seen largely as a domestic matter.

The issue of asylum seekers will continue to tear this country apart until a solution can be found. A solution is only possible if it involves our entire region.

So far, the only deal Gillard’s been able to negotiate with the neighbours on this issue has been unacceptable at home.

And the things we’ve been saying about it have probably hardened regional attitudes against us too, making an acceptable solution even harder to find.

No key.

Baxter Now:

Afghanistan? Asylum seekers?

I withheld this Key in January because of the Malaysia Solution. This time I feel I should, reluctantly, award it.

Our hideous and cruel asylum seeker policy remains unresolved and, on Afghanistan, Gillard managed to confuse most of us with her announcement that we’d be sort of declaring Victory and leaving early, maybe.

As usual, the biggest failure is a failure to communicate effectively, but that’s not the criteria here.

We continue to muddle through our international relations but there’s been no major failure which warrants the witholding of this Key.

Running Total: Then: 5 Now: 7

 Key 11 – Foreign/military success

Has the government achieved a major success in foreign or military affairs?

Baxter Then:

When Gillard said she wasn’t very interested in foreign affairs, I think she believed it would win her points with an insular electorate which wasn’t very interested either.

This is a country after all that seems to think it’s a bad thing when the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister visit foreign countries or even welcome foreign heads to our shores.

It’s funny that we spent more time worrying about whether she should have curtseyed to the queen (who doesn’t matter) and far less about the obvious warmth between her and Obama (who does).

Last year saw a major policy shift from the Americans for our region and it will have deep and ongoing implications for Australia and our relationship with China.

Gillard gets this key from me for handling the Obama visit with aplomb and for making the right noises about it for regional consumption.

Baxter Now:

Afghanistan? Asylum seekers?

I could repeat the previous couple of pars, substituting ‘success’ for ‘failure’ and come up with much the same result.

Accordingly, where I awarded the previous Key, I withhold this one.

In the year to date, there has been no outstanding foreign or military success and therefore no Key.

Running Total: Then: 5 Now: 7

Key 12 – Incumbent charisma

Is the incumbent party leader charismatic or a national hero?

Baxter Then:

I don’t think anyone would argue that Gillard loses this key. There’s been enough said about her charisma. You don’t need my two cents’ worth.

Baxter Now:

Sorry Julia. No change.

Running Total: Then: 5 Now: 7

Key 13 – Challenger charisma

Is the Opposition Leader charismatic or a national hero?

Baxter Then:

Tony Abbott is charismatic, no doubt about that. And while his stamina has been heroic, his negativity is definitely starting to play against him.

There’s been a lot written about how he needs to turn that boat around in 2012 but can he get his head out of the dress-ups box long enough to do so?

I’m guessing he can’t and therefore I’m giving Gillard this key.

Baxter Now:

This is the only Key which turns attention to the Opposition, reflecting the truism that elections are for governments to lose.

At the start of the year I questioned whether Tony Abbott could present a more positive style of leadership and frankly he hasn’t managed it so far.

He failed to negotiate himself into power in 2010 and he’s spent every day since then trying to force a new election.

Which is fine, but a little more expenditure on what he plans to do if he finally wins his heart’s desire and gets to rule us all would be nice.

Instead, Abbott seems to be relying on the electorate’s economic illiteracy equalling or exceeding his own.

Might work.

In the meantime, the good news is he seems to have eased up on the daily fancy dress parade, as demonstrated by a quick scroll through the excellent Tony Abbott Looking at Things site (Content Advisory: Recent entries are not entirely lycra-free).

I’m giving Gillard this Key because I am unconvinced that Tony’s one-note strategy can woo the electorate when it counts.

The next election remains Gillard’s to lose.

For now, according to her current hold on Baxter’s Keys to The Lodge, she just might make it. But it remains a wild and unpredictable ride.

Final Total: Then: 7 (corrected) Now: 8

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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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