Problems of Opposition since 2001
The National Opposition got a new leader recently, its fourth in seven years. A few days later the Australian Labour Opposition elected its fifth leader in ten years, or its sixth if Kim Beazley's second coming is counted. And in Britain the Conservative Opposition is on to its fifth leader since Tony Blair took office in May 1997. Only in Canada among the countries we like to compare ourselves with, has an opposition recently broken into office, and it took nearly 13 years to happen. It was scarcely an impressive win: the new Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, heads a shaky government.
What is going on here? Why are oppositions finding the climb to office more difficult these days? Has there been some kind of world-wide charisma blight afflicting all opposition leaders so that collectively they find they can't win? Or is there a more significant force at work? I believe there is; since September 2001 the political preoccupations of a majority of voters have altered.
Throughout the twentieth century similar trends affected the politics of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Urbanisation and unionism produced parties that called themselves Liberal, then Labour. Our own longest reigning political force was the Liberal Party of John Ballance, Richard John Seddon and Sir Joseph Ward. They governed for more than 21 years on end. Liberals were strong in Britain, Australia and Canada at the same time. All of them pushed state or federal construction - railways, roads, bridges - and regulation. After a generally more conservative interlude after World War One, another world war gave a huge boost to a different kind of state activism, especially in the areas of health, housing and pensions. As in Britain and Australia, our first Labour government set the political agenda for the second half of the twentieth century. Labour didn't often hold office, but the more conservative forces that did found they were unable to repeal Labour's welfare state, and needed to demonstrate they could make it efficient. The Canadian Liberal Party held power for most of this time under Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, but at the price of being like Labour elsewhere.
The end of a quarter century of growth in world trade in 1972 left all four governments in difficulty, cutting their coats with less cloth. Budget deficits rose, available funds for new spending shrank because of mounting interest costs, and the wider public got restless. In Britain it was Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives who re-arranged the ship of state's ballast; in Canada both Conservatives and Liberals did the same. In Australia and New Zealand, Labour governments influenced by Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, David Lange and Roger Douglas questioned whether historically, state activity had become a hindrance to economic growth. De-regulation was the name of the game. Ruth Richardson added her piece, too. But all four countries kept talking the same language, around the same time.
Since September 2001, for the first time in a century, the grip of economic and social preoccupations has weakened on voters. Fears about long-term personal security escalated rapidly. Whether nominally right or left, all governments have had to deal with a world where greater danger lurks. While most Muslims aren't terrorists, all terrorists seem to be Muslim. They strike in countries ruled by Labour, Liberals or Conservatives. There is palpable apprehension everywhere, and it works to the advantage of incumbent governments so long as they are sensible about security. New Zealanders have suffered least of the four, yet several were killed in the 2002 Bali outrage, and we experience increased travel costs and irritating security requirements like everyone else. Moreover, the Pacific states to our near north are collapsing into chaos, heightening a general sense of uncertainty. World-wide there is a growing perception that the forces of darkness are winning the struggle.
Since 2001 the replacement of economic advancement, the twentieth century's political talisman, with concerns about physical security, has meant that the only one of our four countries that has seen an opposition triumph since 2000 is Canada. Their long-term Liberal Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, retired. Readjustment couldn't be avoided, just as will happen in Britain when Gordon Brown succeeds Tony Blair. But in Australia and New Zealand a profound "better the devil you know" feeling prevails underneath the political rhetoric about transforming ourselves economically. "Don't put it all at risk", Labour's campaign slogan in the last days of the 2005 campaign, might have been shrewder than its designers knew.