Opinion | Note to the losers: It's called democracy

After every election, the victors celebrate and praise themselves for the superiority of their candidates, their policies, and their campaigning skills. They presume that they deserved to win, they overlook their own shortcomings and tend to become even more arrogant.  Meanwhile, the losers lick their wounds and tend to blame either the ‘dirty tricks’ of their opponents, or, more commonly, the shortcomings of the voters. 

In the recent local government elections the shortcomings of all sides were glaringly obvious. Candidates groups were put together only weeks before the election. Policy development was rudimentary at best. Many candidates were unknowns. Splits and factional tensions within parties were at best barely concealed - and at worst erupted in open warfare with lawyers involved. Candidates were endorsed and then dis-endorsed for reasons that were never clear. Simple errors were made in nomination paperwork.  Preferential voting instructions were unclear, leading many voters to ‘exhaust’ their vote by numbering only one square. It appears that recruitment of volunteers was problematic for all parties, and instructions to booth workers was poorly coordinated. All of these problems were shared to a greater or lesser degree by all parties. 

Unfortunately we will hear little of party groups accepting the blame for their mistakes. Instead we will hear repetitive bleating about the voters: “Novocastrians are stupid”; “They have no vision”; “They don't know what is good for them”;  and so on . . .

For democracy to work, political aspirants need to learn how to win.  They also need to learn how to lose, and to learn from their mistakes. It is said that John Howard made every mistake in politics, but he only made them once. And he never blamed the electorate.  His concession speech in 1987 was one of the noblest moments in his career, and in 2007 he again blamed no-one but himself.  Winston Churchill remarked that he was given “the order of the boot” in July 1945, but he did not label the electorate as misguided or stupid.

Local think-tank the Newcastle Institute recently hosted a public forum with another political ‘loser’. Former NSW premier Nathan Rees talked frankly about what he learnt as a politician, and his achievements and defeats. He reflected frankly on the vagaries of politics, and how things could be improved. But he never blamed the stupidity of the electorate. 

On Wednesday this week another politician who has learnt about losing will be visiting Newcastle. Former Queensland premier Campbell Newman, who won in a landslide only to lose at the next election, will reflect on what he learnt during his time in politics.  It is a rare chance for the public to get behind the image and spin that passes for political discourse. 

I respect anyone who is prepared to put themselves forward for election.  A democracy is built on active participation. The candidates are “the ones in the arena” who know the glory of victory and, more commonly, the agony of defeat (and I have been a loser as well).  But no-one brings glory to themselves by blaming the electorate for their own shortcomings and mistakes. Rather, it is a time to learn from your own mistakes – or the mistakes of others. 

Ross Kerridge is a member of the Newcastle Institute Committee

  • Campbell Newman will be speaking 'in conversation' with Paul Scott at Souths Leagues Club, 6pm on Wednesday. Donation $5.  newinstitute.org.au