Slick media strategies and strong narratives are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable. Weekly column for The Drum.
How we’re exploiting the terrorism threat. Weekly column for The Drum.
This is a budget for the true (Coalition) believers. Weekly column for The Drum.
Direct Action: A load of meh. Weekly post for The Hoopla.
Shorten spooks the Conservatives. 2nd post of the week at The Hoopla!
Here’s the first: Coalition eases us into tough love policies.
After four years of watching the Rudd and Gillard governments do it so badly, it’s morbidly fascinating to see the Abbott Government play a particularly high-stakes expectations game with the Australian public.
While often portrayed in more simplistic terms, as promises kept or broken, the compact sealed between Australian voters and the government they have installed is more fundamentally about the expectations of what values and principles will be upheld. By confusing the two, political observers run the risk of misunderstanding which of the Abbott Government’s “broken promises” will be ignored or forgiven and which could be politically toxic.
Rudd learned that unfulfilled public expectations can bite badly when he squibbed on the self-proclaimed “great moral challenge of our generation“. By postponing any further efforts to establish an emissions trading scheme, Rudd effectively repudiated the need for urgent and effective climate action, which was one of the few principles he’d highlighted as distinguishing himself from John Howard in what was otherwise a me-too election campaign in 2007. The ease and speed with which Rudd discarded the commitment added the public’s concern to those already held by the business community and public service that there was a vast gap between the expectation created by Rudd (that he was a man of vision and action) with the perceived reality (that he was an obsessive micro-manager gridlocked by the unworkable need to make every government decision).
Julia Gillard also fell foul of an expectations shortfall. As deputy prime minister, she was a vibrant, articulate and engaging member of the Rudd government, as well as a beacon to the feminist movement. Yet this credibility was eroded by the apparently inexplicable knifing of PM Rudd; early bumbling on the mining tax, asylum seekers and people’s forum on climate action; an unnerving Stepford PM performance during the 2010 federal election campaign; and the need to go back on a clumsily worded carbon price commitment in return for securing minority government. While much was made of Gillard breaking her “carbon tax promise”, the real damage from this announcement was that it crystallised the public’s growing realisation that she was not the capable and honest politician they had expected.
As opposition leader, Tony Abbott ruthlessly exploited the public’s fractured expectations of Gillard. But in continually drawing a contrast between her government and his alternative, Abbott constructed a whole new expectations edifice for himself to uphold. However, he’s been much more strategic, creating expectations in broad brush strokes that give the Coalition Government a lot more room to move, including the occasional backdown on promises and commitments.
Hence Abbott’s constant referral to high level descriptors of his government when deflecting questions about backflips and reversals. They will “build a stronger economy”, “do what we said we will do”, and “be a no surprises, no excuses government”. Many sins can be dismissed or ignored under the cover of these generalities: for example, eliminating the debt ceiling can be framed as being in the interests of a stronger economy, and “re-profiling” of funding for the NDIS can be “doing what they said they would” but in a way that is “appropriately targeted and … sustainable“.
Even so, there are limits on the extent to which voters are prepared to have their expectations massaged by the Abbott Government. This was clearly demonstrated when Education Minister Christopher Pyne flouted the voter expectations of school equity under the Coalition’s version of Gonski that he and Abbott had deliberately encouraged during the election campaign. Despite protesting that they were keeping the commitments they had made but not necessarily those that people “thought they had made”, Abbott moved quickly to contain the disillusionment outbreak, forcing Pyne to perform a triple, double backflip with pike to placate the wailing hordes of teachers and parents.
When it comes to asylum seekers, we are yet to see which of the expectations created by Abbott and his Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will prevail. Considering that “we will stop the boats” was a core component of Abbott’s favourite election mantra, and that it’s shorthand for the broader principle of “protecting your jobs and your way of life”, it’s fair to say it will take priority over Abbott saying his government will be “transparent and open” and that “the last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people“.
As the billboard says, human rights abuse starts with secrecy, but in the case of boat-borne asylum seekers, many Australians seem prepared to accept being treated like mushrooms, lest they start to feel complicit in the atrocity.
It would be foolish however for the government to think this is a default position. As we saw during the Gonski shambles, voters won’t turn a blind eye to actions that “hurt” them or their nearest and dearest directly. If voters start to sense the government is being silent on a decision that affects them, particularly the hip pocket nerve, there will be electoral hell to pay.
This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum.
Considered the holiest of numbers by Christians and Wiccans alike, the number three has eerily presided over our past political year. From people to politics and policies, the rule of three was ubiquitous.
The most obvious triumvirate was Gillard, Rudd and Abbott, three prime ministers in one year, which is not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, this was the fifth time that we have had three PMs within one calendar year: the others were in 1904, 1939, 1941 and 1945.
Not only did the nation have three leaders in quick succession, so did the Labor Party. Kevin Rudd’s dark revenge fantasy played out to its inevitable end, with Rudd finally stalking Julia Gillard to ground and Bill Shorten arising from the bloody remnants of the party to bring Labor’s tally to three party leaders in four months. The worst the Liberals could do was three in eight months when the party shifted from Hewson to Downer and then Howard, the then-touted ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’, in the 1990s.
But even before we were graced with our third PM for the year, Australians were well-familiar with the rule of three in political communication. Not a day had passed without us being bombarded with the Coalition’s three word slogans, vowing on the attainment of government to stop the boats, axe the tax and eliminate the debt. Apparently the necessary caveat – but only if the Senate will let us – couldn’t be condensed into three words and had to be ditched as a non-core slogan.
Rudd’s quest to be a thrice-anointed PM – after his elections by the Australian people in 2007 and the Labor caucus in 2013 – was thwarted. For yes, the man’s ego was so immense that he thought he might actually win. But he was prevented from doing so by three not insignificant matters: voter concerns about Labor’s unity, competency, and adherence to core Labor values such as equality and social justice.
The dominant factor was competency, though, and in electing the Abbott Government, voters quite justifiably assumed they were getting the grown-up government they were promised.
In the gloomy days that followed the not-as-much-of-a-landslide-as-expected, Labor dusted itself off and for the first time in history had not one but three leaders simultaneously. While the two contenders for election to the Labor leadership, Albanese and Shorten, traversed the country doing and saying leadership things, acting Labor leader Chris Bowen was doing and saying leadership things too. Labor members loved the new-fangled ‘democracy’ imposed on the party by Rudd (to prevent any further coups like the one he’d just pulled on Gillard), while the rest of Australia’s political classes looked on in bemusement.
And then finally, over 60 days since being elected and after early stumbles on women in Cabinet and the wedding-rorts saga, the members of the Abbott Government placed their shiny arses on the green leather benches and showed us they could do chaotic and incompetent just as well as the previous mob.
Since then the carbon tax has not been scrapped, the boats haven’t stopped, deficits have become an acceptable necessity and debt is no longer a dirty word. Public service cuts may or may not continue because they may or may not have already been counted. It’s become acceptable to say sorry to pretty much every nation in the region unless it’s one that Australia has been caught spying on. And a broken promise is not broken even if there’s physical evidence that you made it and that you broke it.
Even amongst the detritus of this incompetence, the power of three continues to rule. Australian businesses have faced the challenge of keeping up with three climate action policies (Gillard’s carbon price, Rudd’s ETS and Abbott’s Direct Action). The combined wrath of the nation’s teachers and education ministers brought about an extraordinary triple-backflip from Pyne on Gonski. And those who don’t have the cojones to take responsibility for unpopular decisions establish a Commission of Audit, Productivity Inquiry or Royal Commission to take the flak for them.
Meantime, the indignities wrought on asylum seekers defied even the rule of three and became almost too horrifyingly numerous to count.
Kevin Rudd may have entertained the fantasy that he could win the 2013 election by sheer force of will and popularity. Tony Abbott would have never suffered from such a delusion. He knows full well his success was more dependent on voters being sick of the other side than them preferring him and his policies.
In the end it came down to perceptions of competency – Labor was seen (whether fairly or not) as chaotic and ineffectual while the Coalition was seen as holding the promise of a dependable and competent government.
So, as the remainder of 2013 is measured in long summer evenings and the ruling triumvirate is the beach-barbie-cricket, Prime Minister Abbott would do well to ponder one last three word slogan. Without delivering “a competent government” in 2014, Abbott’s own days may well be numbered.
This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.
Next week, while most of Australia is already counting the hours until the first ball of the Ashes, political aficionados will be tuning in to watch the Abbott Government’s first parliamentary session.
Some will do so for the pomp of the official opening. Others will be looking for a bit of biffo during Question Time. And those with the acquired taste will settle in for the often surprisingly entertaining Senate Estimates proceedings.
But mostly, these democracy diehards will be looking for evidence that the weeks since the September federal election were merely a disappointing hiatus and not a disconcerting sign of things to come.
Of principal interest will be how the Coalition adapts its low/no information approach to the demands of parliamentary scrutiny. It’s no revelation that very few of the new ministers are strong parliamentary performers. While it’s one thing for the Prime Minister to keep newbie ministers away from the risks of media events and other public appearances, it’s more difficult to protect them from a brace of ex-ministers on the opposition benches bristling with knowledgeable questions.
What will Prime Minister Tony Abbott do if the Opposition runs a concerted Question Time campaign against a weak minister? How would Environment Minister Greg Hunt cope, for instance, under sustained and systematic questioning from Labor MPs on the impacts of climate change and his previous support for an emissions trading scheme? Being not that great a debater himself, the PM may see more risk in stepping in for his minister than leaving him to fend for himself.
This then raises the question of the extent to which Abbott will willingly expose himself to scrutiny while Parliament is sitting. On the basis that he would only hold press conferences when he had something to say, Abbott has considerably reduced the frequency from Rudd’s daily epistles since the election. His interviews with the ‘serious’ media have pretty much ceased altogether.
And there is no indication the Cameo Appearance Prime Minister has any intention of veering from this approach during the parliamentary session. Considering that Question Time is the only period when Abbott is moderately exposed to scrutiny, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility the Coalition will shorten its duration or revert to the roster system once favoured by Paul Keating, which saw him face questions only a couple of days each week.
Political observers will also be watching next week for reassurance that Coalition reform agendas indeed hold ‘no surprises’ as Tony Abbott vowed before the election. Like the monster under the bed, the longer the reforms remain unseen the greater their beastliness will grow in the imagination of voters. Glimpses of the reform elements during the post-election period have only made things worse, leaving those voters who are paying attention to wonder what the Business Council of Australia’s role in the Commission of Audit might mean for unions and workers or the GST, how the nation can afford tax cuts when there is a deteriorating budget bottom line, and what happens if electricity prices don’t go down when the carbon price is scrapped?
In the absence of ministerial answers or statements next week that comprehensively explain these reforms, it will be fair for voters to assume the Government intends to proceed with the post-information regime it established immediately after the election. Any unwillingness on the part of the Prime Minister to be subjected to questioning or provide illuminating answers will be taken as confirmation.
What then of Labor? Political observers look to the first sitting of the new Parliament to witness the emergence of the revitalised, united and democratised Labor that candidates Albanese and Shorten promised during the leadership campaign. The appearance of such an entity will dispel fears that opposition MPs have been missing in action over the past month because they’ve been collaborating on a strategy to systematically deconstruct the Abbott Government, and not just squabbling over office space and staffing allocations.
Clinically astute performances by shadow ministers in Question Time and opposition senators in Estimates will consolidate that view.
But perhaps most importantly of all, an opposition brought into full battle mode for Parliament next week could quickly and effectively fill the information vacuum deliberately created by the Government.
This would disrupt not only the Coalition’s efforts to manipulate the media cycle but thwart their efforts to accustom Australians to expect less information – and explanations – from their elected representatives.
This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.
Canberra’s parliament house has become the political equivalent of purgatory. The sprawling edifice is currently home to scores of lost souls stuck in political limbo since the government changed hands.
In the raw days after an election defeat, these staffers would normally be adjusting to the rhythms of life in opposition – measuring the ebb and flow of contrarianism and scrutiny instead of riding the highs and lows of governing.
But instead the bulk of the new opposition’s staff is sitting and waiting, with next to nothing to do until the ALP’s leadership is resolved. Aside from those working for the interim leader and two leadership aspirants, and the personal staff of each parliamentarian, the rest have no idea whether they will have jobs until the new leader is elected on 15 October, followed by a shadow ministry announcement and the government allocating the requisite staffing resources.
As a result, the people best equipped with the policy and political know-how to exercise scrutiny on the Abbott government are simply missing in action. Without portfolios to shadow and, in many cases, even functioning email addresses or access to basic office equipment, one of the principal cogs of our parliamentary system is simply spinning in neutral.
Our democracy is the poorer for it. An opposition that actually intended to deliver a one-term Abbott government rather than just mutter about it would be resisting every attempt by the government to lull the public into a false sense of security. Instead of indulging in empty theatrics to bolster its own membership books, the opposition should be exploiting the government’s weaknesses in strategy and judgement right now.
For it’s clear the government has lost some strategic and political clarity in the past few weeks, since the locus of control shifted from the Coalition’s campaign team to the prime minister’s office. Within hours of that transition, political smarts were being traded for political whims, even on an iconic issue like the number of women in the ministry. Without even a blink of shame, previous Coalition articles of faith were turned on their heads: stopping information to the public on asylum seeker arrivals took priority over action to deter them, the budget emergency dissipated overnight with the possible deferral of the mid year economic and financial outlook (normally delivered between October and December) to January, and the nemesis of travel rortersproved to be an adept manipulator of the travel allowance rules himself.
Each poor decision and stumble has rated barely a mention in the media, kicked along like an empty can by disheartened shadow ministers “sans portfolio” and treated with disinterest by journalists ironically transfixed by the incredible vanishing prime minister and his low/slow/no media strategy.
By the time parliament resumes, at best guess in November and only for a short time, the Coalition will have had two months to prepare and Labor will have had two weeks. It will be almost impossible for the opposition to bring the Abbott government to account on any shortfallings before the Christmas hiatus.
That leaves a lot of time between now and the next sitting of parliament in February 2014 for Abbott, his strategists and his ministers to get away with making bad or sloppy decisions, mis-counts or mis-speaks, and delivering the unpopular actions that most new governments jam into the early days of their parliamentary terms – such as Paul Keating dumping the second part of his L-A-W tax cuts, John Howard backtracking on election commitments by designating them as non-core promises and Campbell Newman cutting the number of public servants as part of his new government’s austerity drive.
Whether voters remember these early fumbles and flaws at the next election depends entirely on the ability of the opposition to hold the government to account – from day one, not two months after the government wins office.
Labor has embraced Rudd’s leadership election legacy like a vampire’s bride – succumbing to the mesmerising attractiveness of the members’ vote while choosing to ignore the danger that lurks beneath. It will be potentially destructive for the party if the caucus decision does not align with the popular vote.
But perhaps even more damaging for Labor will be a broad voter perception that the opposition vacated the field in the early days of the Abbott government, when opposition scrutiny and protection of the community was needed the most.
This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.