Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Reasons for the coalition loss in NSW, March 2007

Note to readers. The original version of this post mixed two very different things, the reasons for the coalition's loss in NSW with the future of the National Party. I have therefore broken them into two to avoid clouding matters.

In an interesting comment to a post on one of Neil's blogs, National MLC Trevor Khan provided a frank assessment on the coalition's failure to win the last NSW State election. I leave it to you to read the comment. However, the comment made me decide to summarise my own views.

In the run-up to the NSW election, I complained about what I saw as supermarket politics, a series of disconnected offerings, suggesting that the campaign was essentially a policy free zone on both sides.

Prior to this complaint, I had run an earlier series of posts looking at changing approaches to public administration and their impact on public policy. As part of this, I took the NSW Ten Year Plan as an example of the new approaches. In doing so, I took the broader New England as a case study, starting by analysing the area's problems and then comparing those to the approach in the Ten Year Plan. My conclusion was not positive.

This analysis bears upon my comment about supermarket politics at two levels.

Supermarket politics is part and parcel of current approaches to public administration with their emphasis on cascading outcomes and performance measures. In supermarket politics, you select some numbers, some individual activities and outcomes, and then put them forward in competition to your rivals. Coles versus Woolies or, in the case of the Nationals, perhaps IGA.

There is nothing wrong with an outcomes focus per se. But cascading outcomes set in isolation from an overarching policy framework, from vision, or indeed from full analysis of the needs to be addressed, means that effort is highly likely to be focused on the wrong things.

This is where the New England case study came in. Accepting that my analysis was partial, it did suggest that there was a substantial disconnect between the Ten Year Plan and New England's real needs.

So there was plenty of substance to criticise. We have seen this since the election in the apparent un-ending stream of policy failures within NSW. However, the supermarket approach to politics adopted by the NSW opposition made it hard for them to identify core problems, let along gain any traction in propounding solutions.

Here the opposition faced a further problem, credibility. By credibility, I mean no more than being accepted as a serious player. This has to be earned in advance of the election campaign. The opposition failed to do this.

The standard excuse put forward to justify this failure centres on the media. They would not give us coverage. I do not accept this.

Today people are so obsessed with the media, mass coverage and the sixty second sound bite that that they have lost sight of the most basic thing, you do not need media coverage to develop ideas and establish relations with key stakeholders. Indeed, if you are exploring ideas, you do not necessarily want media coverage at all.

Take any shadow minister as an example.

If you are interested in, say, education, you start by talking to those with an interest in the area. This builds networks and ideas. You test those ideas with selected speeches. In doing so, you are not trying to get votes, simply establish a position.

Do this well, and you will start to attract media attention. Now here you have to do something hard. Avoid party politics! Don't go for the headline. With fixed four year terms, there is really very little point in short term headlines. Unless, of course, you feel that there is something so important from a public policy perspective that it must be put on the public record.

If you and your colleagues do this, then by the election campaign you will be seen as a credible player. People may not agree with you, but they will treat you seriously. This includes the media.

To my mind, this was all the opposition needed to win the last election. Or, for that matter, the next.

All this is tactics that can be implemented by a reasonably competent parliamentarian with the right staff support.

Rightly, we do not (or should not) expect our parliamentarians to be intellectual giants in their own right. This is not their role.

At the end of the day, the role of the parliamentarian is to understand and represent the people, to want to serve. They can do this so long as they are reasonably competent and have the ability to select the right people to support them.

To me, perhaps the greatest attributes of a good parliamentarian are the willingness to treat all people equally, a capacity to listen patiently, a passion for service. I won't name names, but I have seen some very bright people who were disasters because their intellect got between them and their key roles.

I used the word tactics to describe the above approach. What about strategy?

To my mind, politics should be more than just winning elections. The business of Government is not just service delivery. There was no over-arching vision in the opposition's election campaign, nor is there in the NSW Ten Year Plan. Further, beyond the obligatory references to family values, to law and order, both Government and opposition were essentially value free zones.

In all this, I have had particular expectations of the National Party.

Country people are different from city people. I do not mean this in any critical way, nor am I talking about values as such. Rather, about the expectations that country people invest in their MPs.

We expect our MPs to represent us. We expect to know them and have contact with them in a way that would (does) seem strange to a city person. This holds across parties. Once we know them, once we believe that they will do their best, we will hold with them even when we disagree with them.

My particular expectation of the National Party, however frustrated in practice, is that the Party as a country or regional party will articulate and represent country or regional interests in a way that cannot be done by parties dominated by the metros.

Articulation, representation, does not mean simply trading off one thing to get something else for a particular electorate. It does not mean being simply a junior partner in a conservative coalition. Rather, it involves the development of an overall vision for regional NSW, including New England.

I am out of time. I will continue this argument, very briefly, in a follow up post looking specifically at the Nationals.

Reference Posts

I started putting up reference posts to support this post, then realised after several hours that there were just too many, and of varying quality. So I have stopped, leaving an incomplete list but one that does at least give something of a flavour.

Changes in Public Administration

Changes in Public Administration - Notes. This post sets a broader context and looks at the raise and fall of the welfare state under the impact of the 1970s oils shocks combined with the rise of alternative views.

Publish or Perish - where did the this phrase come from? This post look at the rise of citation indexes as an example of the interest in measurement that forms a key element of modern approaches.

Changes in Public Administration - the New Zealand Model. This post looked the rise of Thatcherism, the development and implementation of the New Zealand model and the transfer of its ideas to Australia.

NSW Ten Year Plan - New England's needs starts my analysis of the NSW Government's Ten Year Plan, an example of the application of New Zealand approaches, by trying to define some of New England's needs to provide a benchmark for assessment.

Does the NSW Ten Year Plan meet New England's needs? reviews the Plan against the benchmarks established in the previous post.

NSW Ten Year Plan and New England - Conclusions sets out the my bottom line, that the gap between the Plan and New England's needs was huge.

NSW Ten Year Plan - praiseworthy but flawed provides an overall assessment of the Plan.

Public Policy Examples


Child Welfare



NSW Government's coastal planning strategies - how they compare with reality

Regional Development

Constitutional Issues

Politics -with a particular focus on NSW

Supporting Data

Belshaw posts on demography - entry page. As the name says.

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