A Labor government that replaced a controversial and polarising conservative administration loses ground at its first election to the surprise of observers who expected an easy victory and Labor loses votes to its left from voters disillusioned with its record in government. It happened in 1984 will it happen again? In 1984 there was a late swing to the Coalition in the last days of the campaign whereas now that swing has emerged much earlier. However there is a similar pattern of discontent on the left, in 1984 it was uranium mining and the American alliance now it is greenhouse and asylum-seekers. The Greens are surging in current polls and in 1984 the Nuclear Disarmament Party came from nowhere to poll 7.2%. The 1984 election has received little attention but Ernie Chaples undertook research during the election campaign for a planned book that never eventuated. The research was in the Sydney marginal electorates of Cook (Liberal) and Phillip (Labor). Although Cook was a very marginal Liberal electorate Chaples’ survey showed that Liberal MP Don Dobie was likely to be returned and this at a time when national polls indicated a strong swing to Labor. There were a few voters for whom disillusionment with Labor’s stance on nuclear issues contributed to a general disaffection with the government and a Liberal vote (relevant to the current debate about Green preferences) but committed anti-nuclear voters were mostly strongly anti-Liberal. Significantly:
the most frequently mentioned issues were substantially advantage the Liberals in both electorates…the assets test, taxation and medicare deficiencies…[and] taxing of superannuation
Might seem odd that Medicare was a liability but this reflected impact of the 1984 dispute between NSW government and medical specialists in public hospitals. The big areas of controversy are now largely settled policy on Labor’s terms but they cost Labor in 1984 (is the mining tax similar?). Who remembers now how Labor tangled themselves up over tax policy in the 1984 campaign and promised a ‘Tax Summit’ in 1985? Probably Ken Henry does. Chaples’ research also found that many Liberal voters continued to prefer Hawke as leader, in retrospect we might recall 1984 as against the odds relative triumph for Andrew Peacock, but still had a strong advantage on leadership. What lessons for Rudd? Is he in a relatively weaker position than Hawke in 1984? What are softly committed voters concerned about?