Putting Labor in its Place

Andrew Leigh wonders why Labor performs so well in state and territory elections but so poorly in national elections. His favourite theory is one Andrew Norton floated a while ago — voters think of the nation as a family where Labor is mum and the Coalition is dad. State and territory issues favour mum while national issues favour dad.

Labor is mum because it’s seen as the more caring and nurturing party. Voters see Labor as better on issues like health and education. The Coalition is dad because it’s seen as stricter and more demanding. Voters see the Coalition as better on defence, border security and terrorism. Andrew N’s idea is that ‘mum’ issues play a larger role in state and territory politics and ‘dad’ issues play a larger role in national politics. According to the theory, Labor has a natural advantage campaigning at state and territory level because elections are more likely to be fought on issues that require a caring an nurturing approach. Crime is the only major ‘dad’ issue at the state and territory level.

The mum/dad metaphor helps make sense of why the parties ‘own’ the issues they do. When voters are asked which party is best on education, health, immigration etc a stable pattern emerges over time. Some issues belong naturally to Labor while others belong naturally to the Coalition. It’s the same in the UK and US. American political scientist John Petrocik calls it ‘issue ownership.’

If this is right, you’d expect that support for the parties would roughly track voter perceptions of issue importance. All things being equal, you’d expect an increase in the importance of the law and order issue to benefit the Coalition at state and territory level and an increase in the importance of education to benefit Labor. And you’d also expect parties to try to spin their opponent’s issues into their own. For example, the coalition might try to spin education as a discipline issue rather than as a resources issue.

So far so good. But how do we make sense of political cross-dressing — when dad tries to get all caring and nurturing and when mum gets all strict and punitive? It’s the kind of thing that’s going on now in the UK. Under Tory leader David Cameron, the party’s logo is now an environmentally friendly tree rather than Margaret Thatcher’s aggressive fist holding a torch. Cameron likes to talk about ‘mum’ issues like poverty and the environment.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Before George W Bush started another war in the Middle East he tried to sell himself as ‘compassionate conservative.’ And in 1996 columnist Maureen Dowd complained that both parties were doing some serious gender bending:

Historically, the Republicans have always been the Daddy party, thundering about national defense and Communists and making money. And the Democrats have been the Mommy party, domestic caregivers clucking over women and children and health and the less fortunate.

But in this campaign, the parties are gender-swapping or cross-dressing or maybe just lying.

The Democrats are trying to woo men by playing the stern Daddy. In 1992 the Democrats Oprah-ized their convention, with Bill Clinton and Al Gore confessing their deepest New Age feelings. But the Dick Morris presidential model is the disciplinarian, kicking 1.1 million children below the poverty level by signing a brass-knuckles welfare bill and scolding America’s teenagers about drugs, smoking and pregnancy.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are presenting an estrogen festival, as Bob Dole tries to court female voters. In 1992, the Houston hall was packed with macho men: Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in President Bush’s box, as Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan terrorized the hall with blood-and-guts speeches.

Gramm has been replaced on the podium by his Korean-American wife, Wendy, and Pat Buchanan has been kicked off the podium. This is a testosterone lite convention where even Bay Buchanan is considered too macho. The Republicans have managed to come across as exactly opposite of how they look off camera, exactly the opposite of their punitive platform, and exactly the opposite of heartless budget slashers.

For campaign strategists it’s not enough to wait around hoping that one of your issues will suddenly pop up in the week before the election. If you can’t control the issue agenda, it’s important to neutralise your opponents advantage on the issues they own. David Cameron knows that many voters would love to kick Blair and Brown out of office. He doesn’t want them to worry about what nasty torch-wielding Tories might do to healthcare or the environment.

So where did the mum and dad metaphor start? Jude Wanniski likes to think it was his idea. However, in his 1996 book, Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, Linguist George Lakoff argued that the metaphor is deeply embedded in commonsense worldviews about politics.

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17 years ago

Don’t you think the roles will reverse when the Libs eventually get the boot in Canberra?

Ken Parish
17 years ago

The mother/father thing probably has a degree of validity, in the sense that it’s easier for Labor to frame itself reassuringly (and its opponents negatively) on health and education and easier for the Coalition to frame itself reassuringly on defence and national security (and maybe even the national economy).

But the extent of the advantage can be overstated. In the early 90s the current Australian position was almost exactly reversed, with Coalition governments in power in almost every state and territory and Labor in power federally. It seems unlikely that the mum/dad thing was less powerful then than it is now. Of course, one of the reasons why the Coalition won all those state elections was the extraordinary mismanagement/corruption of so many Labor state governments of the late 80s. But there had been longstanding Coalition state governments in previous decades too e.g. Court in WA, Bjelke-Petersen in Qld, Playford in SA (though ending in the mid 60s) and so on (not to mention the NT CLP which ruled unbroken for 23 years until 2001 and managed to appeal to an urban Darwin electorate that is demographically little different – albeit a bit younger, a bit more affluent and a bit more multi-ethnic – from other larger capital cities).

Moreover, the Coalition governments of the early 90s arguably mostly lost government because they were too obsessed with neoliberal orthodoxy and too neglectful of old-fashioned pragmatism and pork barrelling. It’s a mistake John Howard didn’t repeat when he achieved power federally, and one suspects that state Coalition leaders will take a leaf out of Howard’s book when they eventually get their hands back on the levers.

It all tends to suggest that incumbency is a far more powerful factor than mum/dad “issue ownership”, as Charles Richardson suggests in today’s Oz.

Incumbency gives today’s governments huge advantages, as election campaigns are funded more and more from the public purse, and Labor has learned to take full advantage of it. But its power is not uniform. It didn’t protect the state Liberal governments of the 1990s and the Howard Government has never been re-elected with the sort of landslide that the state Labor governments are getting.

However, Labor’s win in Victoria was not a landslide, and I doubt that the Iemma government in NSW will manage to engineer a landslide either, despite the dubious quality of Debnam’s leadership. Beattie managed it in Queensland partly because of the weakness and division of his opponents and partly because he really is an extraordinarily able political leader. Once you get one or two state Coalition governments back on the board, the incumbency picture changes, because the incumbent state Coalition governments can then help out their interstate colleagues with campaigning by sending squadrons of state payroll-funded apparatchiks. At the moment Labor has a huge employed personnel campaigning advantage, which is becoming increasingly important as party membership numbers on both sides of politics stagnate or fall (leaving aside ethnic and other branch stacking, which delivers party pre-selection votes but not bodies to assist in actual campaigning).

Nicholas Gruen
17 years ago


It’s near enough a landslide in seats, but I’d call 55% of the two party preferred vote – a 10% margin – a landslide.


I’d guess one can trace some of these ideas about Mum and Dad back at least to those studies in the 1950s into the ‘authoritarian personality’ and the suggestion (which seems right) that the right of centre mind set values authority more than the left.

Ken Parish
17 years ago


Charles Richardson characterised the Victorian election like this:

WHILE Saturday’s election result was not a disaster for the Victorian Liberal Party, “not a disaster” is about as good as it gets for state Liberal parties these days.
The Opposition made up some ground in Victoria, winning about six seats with a two-party-preferred swing of about 3.5 per cent. But coming off Labor’s record-breaking 2002 landslide, that still leaves the Opposition a long way behind. Steve Bracks will have a majority of more than 20, and a swing of about 6 per cent will be needed to lose next time. Unless Labor falls apart dramatically, it looks like being in office until 2014.

Although the swing to the Opposition was respectable, it was mostly in the wrong places. Nine seats swung more than 6 per cent, but only two of them were Labor-held. What were marginal Liberal seats are now relatively safe but there was little movement in most of the Labor marginals.

Clearly the Coalition would have hoped to make greater gains than this, but nevertheless to label the result a landslide without acknowledging the scale of the 2002 landslide and the fact that the 2006 result represents at least a modest recovery from that nadir gives a somewhat misleading picture.

I still reckon Iemma won’t escape anywhere near as unscathed as Bracks has done in Victoria. As far as I could tell from this distance, the Bracks government has managed an ongoing fairly low key, uncontroversial if undistinguished performance over the last 3-4 years. Unline Carr and Iemma in recent times in NSW, Bracks hasn’t attracted strongly negative public reactions. If Debnam and colleagues weren’t so seemingly inept, I reckon Labor in NSW would be eminently beatable. And just holding government in NSW and federally would shift the political balance of resources significantly for the Coalition.

17 years ago

Absolutely. There are several reasons why NSW could welcome a Liberal state government, except that it’s this particular one. The NSW economy is not given enough focus, and it’s reasonable to assume lib govt would. Not that there’s reason to believe it may prove a better manager, but that there’d be a stronger focus which itself could be beneficial. A bloody good cleanse out of course is also attractive. The repercussions of a NSW Liberal govt would be quite compelling. Apart from a very changed narrative (among other factors I feel journos would welcome writing up stories including the NSW change just for the sake of a fresh inclusion), there may even be reason enough to satisfy NSW voters for having voted Liberal and be comforted then in voting Labor/Independent/Green nationally. It’s very tempting.

Except, we have an abhorrent vibe surrounding NSW Libs, which appears to be the greater condemnation. This is in no small part a reflection of the weirdo-religious emanations growing, hard core so called right wingers – whom Howard apparently was more responsible for instituting than the widely blamed David Clarke, according to a report I read recently. If I get a moment I’ll try to find it.

It all makes for a very strange melting pot of possibilities and ‘punditations’.

17 years ago

Jacques, Oppositions always look incompetent, simply because they don’t have the shinybums to pull them up before making truly embarassing mistakes.

Judith Brett argues that the only way a party leader can gain party authority is through winning an election. Only then does the party come into line. Makes it pretty hard for oppositions as by definition they are in opposition through losing an election.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
17 years ago

To pick up on Robert’s point, the Libs would need a landslide to unseat the Iemma government and the polls aren’t pointing to anything approaching even a slim victory let alone a landslide. The Liberal Party is consumed by a bizarre internecine battle over ideological hue and “ideology” of any kind is a total turnoff to state voters. In fact, Beattie, Bracks and Iemma have eradicated ideology entirely (apart from the odd lip service scripted comment about Workchoices) and replaced it with can do middle of the road pragmatism. Oppositions can’t compete on a middle ground in which Labor has staked out a very broad claim.

Stacking Liberal preselections with a mob of weirdo Godbotherers seems an odd way to convince an Australian electorate about your readiness to provide workmanlike state governance. This perception is exacerbated by a lacklustre leader who redefines mediocrity.

The deputy leader, Barry O’Farrell, would be a far better choice but it’s too late to change now.

17 years ago

Slight correction to the point above: the article mentioned stated “Howard forces” as being “the culprit”.

The article appeared in Sunday’s (yesterday’s) Sun Herald in the Naked Eye section. It’s only available now through the $2.20 payment.

Here’s some of the article as taken from print:

When John Howard became Prime Minister in 1996 he soon found the sections of the NSW Liberal Party were passionately opposed to his ultra-conservative views on Asia, asylum seekers, cutting outdated ties with the English monarchy, equality for gay people, Aboriginal reconciliation, drug law reform etc. Howard’s hard right lieutenants [Heff, Abbott, Bronnie, Ruddock, Clarke et al] set about the destruction of this moderate faction known as the Group and putting the NSW division under ironclad right-wing control.

The article suggests they could claim mission accomplished by 2004.


[…] Hartcher says, national security and the economy are typically seen as Daddy issues. According to the theory, if these issues are high on the public’s agenda during an election campaign then […]


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