And so today Tony Abbott has launched an attempt to reinvent himself, in an effort to convince voters he’s more than the extraordinarily successful wrecker he’s portrayed since becoming Opposition Leader in November 2009.
That means Abbott plans to dispel over three years of entrenched negativity in only seven to ten months*. Coalition spinmeisters are already hard at work, backgrounding senior journalists on the transition secure in the knowledge that if the media can be convinced about its effectiveness then so can the public.
Early results of this strategy are not particularly encouraging. Despite being quite comfortable telling the Prime Minister last year to resign, Michelle Grattan is currently more circumspect about Abbott. With an initial cursory nod to the likeliness that he will be in the PM’s office by the end of the year, Grattan then goes on to qualify this by questioning whether Abbott can successfully make the metamorphosis to Mr Positive:
He is obsessed with discipline though seemingly unable to avoid periodic lapses. He knows he can be his own biggest risk.
His deep personal unpopularity and his negative branding are problems to which he will apply his usual diligence. But can he change his image? And how much will it matter in the end?
The social researcher Hugh Mackay believes Abbott’s brand – being negative, destructive and dismissive – has been unchanged for so long that it has become ”indelible” and it’s hard to see him being able to break out of it.
But one of Abbott’s senior colleagues argues: ”He’s strong on the tangibles. He’s an Alpha male. Alpha males are runners, jumpers. They build things.” He believes Mr Positive will be convincing.
I heard a ghost of leaders past rattle its chains as I read those words: an echo of another Opposition Leader who successfully buried his past reputation as a thug and a bully, only to have it lurch from the grave at the election campaign deathknock and pull him back into electoral oblivion.
The moment we saw Mark Latham aggressively shake the hand of the smaller, frailer John Howard we knew Latham would not prevail at that election. The gesture pushed other memories to the surface of our consciousness: allegations of punch-ups at the Liverpool Council, images of a taxi driver’s broken arm, and echoes of pugnacious language such as arse-licker and conga-line of suckholes.
Those memories dispelled the positive views we’d developed about Latham’s suite of hokey but popular policies, and brought into sharp relief the doubts we’d already harboured about his economic credentials.
That’s all it took, just one handshake, to finally shatter the public’s faith in the strongest electoral alternative produced by Labor at that point against John Howard. Despite starting the election behind the Labor Opposition, and trailing them at various stages in the six-week campaign, the Government was then re-elected with an increased majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the Senate (the first since 1981).
The Coalition’s current attempt to paper seven months of positivity over three years of Abbott negativity is a highly fraught endeavour. Recent political history suggests that Abbott’s Mr Positive will prove as brittle and short-lived as Latham’s Mr Congeniality. All it will take for the facade to be shattered will be an ill-considered remark or an unguarded moment.
Mark Latham’s despair will hover over Tony Abbott this election like the ghost of Banquo, providing an insubstantial but insistent reminder of past misdemeanours and their potential to bring ambitious leaders down. Whether Abbott heeds this salutary warning or dismisses it as the mere rattling of chains may well determine the outcome of the 2013 election.
*3 August 2013 is the earliest possible date to hold an election for both the Senate and the House of Representatives. An election for the House of Representatives only can be held at any time up to 30 November 2013.
You might recall I said in my rant about the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign that:
“there is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme.”
Many comments followed the post, here and on Twitter, and there has been a genuine attempt to identify ways to address the latter points.
While we might disagree on some things, Margo Kingston and I do agree that the Federal Court’s judgement raises matters for which Ashby and Brough must provide explanations. While the procurement and provision of Slipper’s diary might attract legal charges, it seems unlikely that any will arise from the abuse of court processes that was identified by Justice Rares.
Margo has already challenged the Sunshine Coast Daily to tackle Brough on his involvement with Ashby’s complaint.
But where is Ashby? Is his announced appeal against Rares’ findings actually a strategy to deflect media attention until some other political drama arises? Or is the media avoiding him anyway, in the same fashion they avoided anything other than scant coverage of the Federal Court judgement?
I’ve said I’d support actions that have substance and deal with known rather than suspected protagonists. In response Margo suggested I join her in challenging journalists to find the elusive Mr Ashby and get some answers.
And so I have. Consider it the inaugural D&M Newshound Challenge.
There’s plenty that we need to know, and only one person who can tell us. Why did Ashby accept a job in December 2011 with Slipper when he was already uncomfortable with texts he’d received from the then Deputy Speaker as early as October? Why did he not use other avenues of complaint/redress rather than going straight to courts? Why turn to Brough after describing him in considerably negative terms to Slipper? Who’s paying his legal bills? And was he encouraged to turn against Slipper in January 2012 and for what incentive?
So that’s the challenge. Find Ashby and find some facts. We’d love to read, hear or watch reports from fourth and fifth estate journalists on their strategies and progress in meeting this challenge. Surely there’s someone among Australia’s many talented investigative journalists, professional and amateur, who can succeed.
Relentless. There’s simply no better word to describe Australia’s current political atmosphere. Ever since Julia Gillard became the nation’s 27th Prime Minister in June 2010 we’ve been caught in a groundhog day election campaign.
Tony Abbott’s determination to tear down the Gillard minority government, and belief that he will ultimately succeed, has seen him treat every day since the 2010 election as yet another campaign day. He’s constantly subjected us to a scrappy, negative campaign distinguished only by factoids, fluro-vest photo-ops and three-word slogans.
The Prime Minister has had no choice but to respond in kind, and her counter-campaign has been no less intense. Julia Gillard has left no media opportunity unexploited to reaffirm her legitimacy, proclaim her government’s fiscal virtuosity and stake her claim for posterity. But no-one is meant to run a country while simultaneously fighting an election campaign. That’s why we have caretaker arrangements once an election is called, to shift the running of the government into the hands of an apolitical public service. This ensures the grubby business of vote-winning does not contaminate government decision-making.
But the faux election campaign being waged right now has no such separation. Time and again, we’ve witnessed craven electoral politics triumph over responsible government and sensible policies. A confident and secure government, not stuck in an election campaign loop, would have taken a strong leadership position on issues such as the mining tax, climate action and asylum seekers. The more politically palatable options chosen instead by the Gillard government serve as a constant reminder that in this groundhog election campaign, vote-winners will prevail every time.
Minority government too has compounded our sense of a never-ending election. The Opposition and some quarters of the media have attempted smear and character assassination to change the parliament’s composition and trigger an early election. Lobbyists and activists, meantime, have felt a strengthened sense of purpose with the small number of unaligned and minor party MPs holding the balance of power. Vested interest campaigns have been redirected and redoubled as a result, in an attempt to put greater pressure on the minority power-holders.
It’s not just the leaders and lobbyists that are carpet-bombing us with faux election hype. All MPs seem to have defaulted to constant campaign mode. Once there was nary a politician to be seen between election campaigns, but now they are ubiquitous. Parliamentarians tout their wares on our televisions most mornings and every weeknight. Weekends are no longer sacred but crowded with political chat shows and interviews that yield little more than the lines of the day. Our local MPs now lurk in shopping centres and main streets, as well as sending us stalkerish letters and robocalls or popping up on our Twitter streams and Facebook pages.
The only respite we’re given is the Christmas break; the political hiatus when voters and parliamentarians alike flock to the beach and the barbie, preoccupied by little more than the batting average or the plot of a good novel.
But summer days are starting to shorten again and soon the campaign will begin afresh. Despite feeling that we’ve been living with a looming election for the past two years, the real campaign will commence sometime this year and an election will be held even as early as March.
It’s little wonder then that we’re heartily sick of the federal election, even before it’s officially underway. There’s only so much hype and harping that we can hear; only so much politics trumping policy that we can swallow. For many, the temptation to switch off from it all is particularly strong.
But for others, the lure of dissent prevails. These are the voters who’ve added their voices to the shrill and the shouty. Perhaps this explains the negativity that pervades our current political discourse. The groundhog campaign, more than the shockjocks, Twitter trolls, combative political talk shows or online disinhibition effect may be the reason we’ve turned into curmudgeonly quarrelers.
Perhaps the online commenters who habitually seek to discredit the authors of political news, analysis and opinion do so because they’re sick of campaign spin and cant. Perhaps political discussions on Twitter and Facebook have been reduced to snark and the crushing of alternative views in response to the infestation of sock-puppets and shills. Or perhaps we’re simply more cantankerous and less tolerant than we used to be.
Either way, when the federal election is finally held it will mark the end of the longest campaign seen in contemporary Australian politics, spanning as it will from the day after the 2010 federal election to the 2013 polling day. Official or not, the non-stop election campaign will be remembered for diminishing Julia Gillard’s capacity to run an effective government by denying her the free air needed to make necessary decisions despite their political unpalatability.
Hopefully, polling day will mark the end of the groundhog election campaign too, allowing the newly elected government to proceed comparatively unencumbered by short-term political considerations.
Such a government would be free to lead and make the right decisions, rather than the politically expedient ones. It could also set the tone for a new civic discourse, distinguished by respectful, constructive debate and a focus on policy. Over time, this could change how Australians participate in their nation’s democracy, and in turn influence what the media considers to be newsworthy.
In the meantime, we must endure. But at least we can do so in the knowledge that the groundhog election campaign will end within the year, and may yet bring with it the promise of better public debate in the years and elections to come.
This post originally appeared in The King’s Tribune
I know your hearts are in the right place, honestly I do. I share your concern about 2013 ending with Tony Abbott installed as Australia’s 28th Prime Minister. I’m uneasy about Abbott’s ascendancy and what it could mean for equality, equal opportunity and protection of the disadvantaged in Australia.
I also share your concern about the state of Australia’s conventional media, which more often than not descends to lowest common denominator populism to attract eyeballs and earholes rather than serve the public good through objective reporting and unbiased analysis.
It’s because I share many of your concerns that I say you’re seriously mistaken if you think the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign will prevent Tony Abbott from becoming Prime Minister.
That IS the purpose of your campaign, isn’t it? It’s not really about Ashby and Brough colluding to entrap Slipper in a nasty pre-selection stoush for the seat of Fisher. We already know they did (and don’t need an inquiry to tell us) because it was exposed by the Rares judgement. Nor is your call for an inquiry really about the role that journalist Steve Lewis played, because Justice Rares found that Lewis was simply doing his job.
The #AshbyInquiryNow campaign is really about pinning the whole sordid mess on Tony Abbott – isn’t it? – in the hope that …. well, what do you hope to achieve?
- Maybe the inquiry would find Abbott favoured someone running against a sitting Liberal candidate? That’s not a sackable offence and has plenty of precedents.
- Perhaps it would show that Abbott had knowledge of Brough/Ashby’s plans to undermine Slipper in the preselection contest for Fisher? If irrefutable proof was produced this would certainly blunt Abbott’s capacity to accuse Gillard of complicity through prior knowledge in the AWU saga. It would be unlikely however to sway undecided voters not already turned off by Abbott’s other unsavoury characteristics such as wall-punching and anachronistic views of women.
- It’s likely you’re hoping an inquiry would find Abbott actively participated in the Brough/Ashby scheme. But why would he? Why would Abbott get personally involved in one of the 150 preselection battles that will have occurred before the 2013 election? Remember, Slipper was not Speaker when Ashby set his plan in motion and there was no inkling the current Speaker Harry Jenkins would retire from the position.
- Some campaigners also seem keen to prove Abbott was involved in treason/sedition. Firstly, see 3 above. Also, Ashby’s plan was to bring Slipper down for Brough, not to bring the Speaker and the government down for Abbott. The government was never at risk, having gained a spare vote when Harry Jenkins stepped down from the chair. So there was no act of treason or sedition.
Now perhaps I have misunderstood your campaign, and you’re calling instead for an inquiry into the parlous state of Australia’s conventional media. Well we already had one of those and you’re unlikely to get another media inquiry soon or a different outcome.
In short, you can call for an #AshbyInquiryNow until you’re blue in the face but there’s nothing to be achieved by it. The Government would have already established one if they saw it as a way to get at Abbott.
Instead, the Government may be pondering whether charges can be laid against Brough/Ashby for the “abuse of process of the court” identified by Justice Rares. This may be the most effective way to get justice for Peter Slipper.
There is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme. That’s not to mention the shameful way in which News Ltd media dropped the story once it diverged from their political narrative.
Nevertheless, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign does nothing to address those wrongs. It is nothing more than an empty campaign, a hysterical witch hunt, driven by a single-mindedly desperate wish for Abbott’s downfall. As a result, #AshbyInquiryNow is seen as nothing more than tweet-spam; the left’s equivalent of #JuLIAR. While chants, hashtags, ranty blogposts and automated tweets may reinforce the views of your campaigners, it’s simply annoying for others and puts off any potential new supporters.
Social media prides itself on being what the traditional media is not – focussed on substance not political dramas, conducting analysis not witch-hunts, and being objective not pig-headedly partisan. Unfortunately, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign meets none of these criteria and I’ll be filtering it from my tweetstream from now on.
But if you find a way to challenge Tony Abbott with substance, analysis and objectivity, be sure to let me know. I’ll be one of the first to join the campaign.
Battalions of straw men sprung to life last week, conjured to defend the heretofore-unassailable political edifice known as Australia’s compulsory voting system.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard led the charge, tweeting:
Fight @theqldpremier’s plan to end compulsory voting. Don’t let the Liberals make our democracy the plaything of cashed-up interest groups.
Somewhat inconveniently, the ABC’s Antony Green pointed out that former prime minister Kevin Rudd had also encouraged a discussion on non-compulsory voting back in 2009.
The PM’s call to arms was followed by a flurry of similarly strident tweets. Many expressed horror at the thought of Campbell Newman oxymoronically taking away someone’s freedom by no longer forcing them to vote.
Almost any suggestion that non-compulsory voting could have merit was met with fervent and obdurate rejection.
Compulsory voting proponents vowed that a voluntary system in Australia would undoubtedly follow the US model, beset as it is with disenfranchisement and extremists, and not that of the UK or New Zealand, which is not. US-like ruination was apparently only a matter of time for the 20 other OECD nations that currently allow voluntary voting.
Some supporters defended the compulsion to vote as defence of a right, while others saw it as imposition of a responsibility. “People died so that we can vote,” said one. “Voting is a duty,” said another, “we might as well opt out of other ‘public good’ responsibilities like paying tax and wearing seatbelts.”
A few even tried to have it both ways, arguing that the compulsory vote is actually voluntary because one only has to turn up and not necessarily cast a vote. The Electoral Commission has (also inconveniently) challenged that argument as a common fallacy.
But if the partisan jibes and straw defenders could be set aside, it would become clear that the debate about whether or not a vote should be compelled is really one about political engagement. Many of the arguments raised against voluntary voting rely upon the resigned assumption that, given their druthers, most people could not be bothered voting.
This is the real issue that should be debated and resolved, not a scarecrow battle over compulsory versus voluntary voting.
Compulsory voting may have bestowed Australia with an admirable participation rate, but other statistics show we’re considerably disengaged from politics and becoming more so. As the Australian Electoral Commission rather euphemistically said in its analysis of informal voting at the 2010 federal election, “a challenge remains to maximise electors’ potential participation in the electoral process”.
In the 2010 federal election, the informal vote was the biggest it’s ever been since 1984, rising from 3.95 per cent at the 2007 election to 5.5 per cent. But unintentional informal votes – being those with incomplete numbering showing either a misunderstanding of what’s required or confusion with state election voting processes – actually decreased between the two elections.
It was the level of intentional informal votes that rose, now representing 48.6 per cent of all informal votes. The rate of blank ballots doubled, with more than a quarter of all informal votes cast in the 2010 election being left unmarked. The proportion of informal votes defaced with scribbles, slogans or other protest marks also increased, off a low of 6.4 per cent in 2001 to around 14 per cent in 2007 and 17 per cent in 2010.
Some might be tempted to dismiss this result as the work of Mark Latham, but that would ignore the fact noted by Peter Brent that the informal vote has been on the rise since 1993 with the exception of the 2007 federal election.
Claims that the compulsory vote makes Australians value their democratic choice are as insubstantial as straw man defenders. In 2010, almost a million of the 14 million Australians enrolled to vote simply did not bother to go to a polling booth. Another 1.4 million eligible voters were missing from the electoral roll altogether. And this number has since grown to 1.5 million.
So in 2010, within Australia’s supposedly optimal and indisputably preferable compulsory voting system, an estimated 3.2 million Australians or 21 per cent of eligible adults were either not on the electoral roll, did not turn up to vote, or lodged an informal vote. As Brian Costar and Peter Browne observed at the time, that’s equivalent to 33 federal seats. It also represents a whopping $7 million in electoral funding that never made it to political party coffers.
The compulsory vote may partially disguise Australians’ political disinterest at election time, but there’s no hiding our manifest disengagement at most other times.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics has found that only 19 per cent of adults actively participate in civic and political groups. Alongside the 1 per cent who are active in political parties, 7 per cent participate in a trade union or professional/technical association; 5 per cent in environmental or animal welfare groups; and 4 per cent in body corporate or tenants’ associations.
Perhaps the starkest indication of all is a 2011 opinion poll which found only 10 per cent of respondents follow politics closely. This proportion was quite consistent regardless of political preference and age group, except for over 55s who had a higher level of interest at 17 per cent.
Is it any wonder then that our democracy is looking a little shabby? It’s dependent upon the vote, regardless of whether it’s considered or informed, of citizens forced to attend a polling station on election day. Surely the objective of any democracy should be for voters to value their democratic right enough to participate in political discourse and processes between elections and turn out in force on polling day to cast a considered, informed ballot.
We’re missing the point arguing over the merits of voluntary voting. We should instead be identifying and implementing ways to help Australians better understand and participate in the nation’s democratic processes. This would require more than a one-off civics course in school; it would involve comprehensive and longitudinal exposure to different forms of government, political philosophies and types of engagement; experience in negotiating and advocacy; and immersion in everyday political discourse.
Once our citizens were truly engaged, they would genuinely value their vote and vigorously exercise it. The straw man defence of compulsory voting would be dispersed in the wind. It’s hard to not also conclude that the more citizens there were who decided their vote on policy comparisons instead of fridge magnets, the better quality our politicians and governments would be. Another ancillary benefit would be that viewers and readers would demand better political reporting and analysis from the media too.
Yes, this approach to civil engagement would be challenging and something that no democracy has ventured before. Is that a reason not to do it? Or is it easier to not do something because the US does it badly?
If we can make better coffee and pizza than the Yanks, why can’t we make a better voluntary voting system too?
This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum. The comments are well worth reading.