The Queensland election offers the spectacle of a conservative government headed by a deeply unpopular leader facing off with a still-shellshocked Labor headed by an almost invisible opposition leader. It makes perfect sense to view these proceedings as a possible forbearer of the federal election to come.
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.
While Labor is using its shiny new leadership process to distract members from election loss disappointment and take the heat out of ensuing acts of retribution, the Greens appear to be floundering in response to a poor election performance that was a surprise to no-one but themselves.
It was becoming clear as far back as the end of 2011 that the Green vote had peaked at the 2010 election. The Greens’ hagiographies claim this result as the point when they emerged as the third force in Australian politics.
In truth the minor party was as much a lightning rod for those protesting against the invidious choice offered between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott as it was seen a legitimate alternative to the major parties. The almost doubling of deliberate informal votes during that election compared with 2007 (from 1.48 to 2.70 per cent), and the ultimate minority government outcome confirm that many voters were looking for someone, anyone, other the Labor and the Coalition to vote for in 2010.
So in believing their own PR, perhaps it’s not so suprising the Greens didn’t foresee their poor result at this election.
An inflated sense of importance may have also contributed to the some of the Greens’ decisions that drove voters away, such as their refusal to pass Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and Gillard’s ‘Malaysian Solution’ for asylum seekers.
Wanting to sit at the big table while maintaining policy purity was another. As the Democrats learned when they bartered with John Howard to ultimately pass the GST, the Greens also learned it’s hard to claim you’re keeping the bastards honest when you’re also doing deals with them. The Greens’ constant laying of claim to forcing Gillard’s hand on the carbon tax/price, but being unable to deliver a carbon penalty that would actually drive achange in behaviour is the most notable attempt by the minor party to justify their decision to join the bastards.
Christine Milne’s later announcement that she’d told the Gillard Government ‘you’re dropped’ did little to assuage the concerns of those supporters who thought the Greens had got too close to their shared-power partners.
Another factor likely to have contributed is that, like the two major parties, the Greens have to accommodate disparate supporter groups and juggle the risk of upsetting one group to satisfy another. Labor has the Left and the Right, the Liberals have moderates and conservatives, and the Greens have the far Left, progressives and environmentalists.
Yet to compound this challenge even further, Milne announced when she succeeded Bob Brown as leader that the party would be reaching out to rural voters as well. It would be fair to describe the reception given by long-term farmers to the Greens – the party opposed to live animal exports, conventional farming methods and land clearing – as mixed. The Greens vote went down in the vast majority of rural seats, although they increased in those which included alternative lifestyle communities, regions threatened by coal-seam gas projects and those seats from which Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott retired. A nine per cent increase in Green primary votes to 18 per cent in Fairfax was the standout exception.
Milne has rightly declared she’ll review the Greens’ 2013 election performance. Her vow before the election to return the party to one of protest and holding the government to account will be tested with only one Greens member in the new House of Representatives that has no chance of influencing the outcome in that chamber, and a short-lived balance of power before the new Senate commences on 1 July 2014.
The review will necessarily scrutinise whether it was worth funnelling limited resources into retaining Bandt’ssymbolically important but practically useless green leather seat. Just as importantly it should seek to understand how the Greens failed to deliver on the expectations of potential supporters. Ultimately, like Labor, the prospect for a strong future lies in the Greens determining what they stand for and who they represent.
This post originally appeared at SBS Comment & Analysis.
Trust me. That was the basis of Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s pitch to Australian voters at the Coalition’s election campaign launch on Sunday.
The man who has run the longest and most negative campaign in modern Australian politics flicked the switch to positive with a polished and assured rendition of his claim to the top job in comparison with Kevin Rudd’s tarnished record.
With the strongest signal yet that most Australians vote on gut instinct at least as much as policy, the entire campaign launch focused on pushing the buttons of visceral voters, urging them to give Abbott the benefit of the doubt and put their trust in him on polling day.
The button-pushing started early with the relatively low-key entrance of Liberal eminence grise, former prime minister John Howard. Howard was seated prominently before the stage, providing the best camera angles for the mentor to be seen smiling approvingly upon his protégé, thereby conveying the not-so-subtle sub-text that Abbott’s election would bring a return of the Howard ‘golden’ years.
Howard’s presence said: “You can trust Abbott because he was part of my successful government and I believe in him.”
The opening address by Queensland Liberal Premier Campbell Newman, was to dispel any bad juju left hanging over the federal campaign from his austerity drive after being elected in that state. At least one media commentator noted (a fact no doubt supplied by the Coalition’s campaign team) that Newman still commanded a healthy lead in the polls, and by implication was a positive and not a negative for Abbott’s election prospects.
Newman’s speech said: “I am not a reason for you to distrust Abbott.”
Deputy Liberal Leader Julie Bishop not only provided the light relief but also shouldered the responsibility for taking the personal attack to Kevin Rudd. In an amusing display which might have made the Chaser Boys regret helping Bishop find her inner comic during the 2010 election, the Liberals’ most senior woman chanted the word ‘remember’ while reciting the recycled Prime Minister’s flaws.
She also delivered two pivotal lines that must be playing well in the Liberals’ focus groups; so well in fact that Abbott repeated them in his own address. “If [Rudd’s] own party don’t believe in Kevin Rudd and they’ve sacked him once why should the Australian people ever trust him in the top job again?” queried Bishop, leading up to the clincher: “Kevin Rudd assumes that this election is all about him. Tony Abbott and our team know, believe, that it is all about you the Australian people and we stand ready to serve.”
Bishop’s speech said: “You can’t trust Rudd but you can trust Abbott.”
Nationals Leader Warren Truss took to the podium next, partly to ensure that rural and regional Australia did not feel left out, but also to transition the mood of the event from negativity about Rudd to positivity about Abbott. Truss had the privilege of announcing the first policy commitment of the launch, one that heralded a number of other infrastructure promises. This suggests the Coalition is taking a punt that more votes can be won from new and improved roads and bridges than will be lost from their budget version of the NBN.
Truss built on the presence of Howard in the room, noting he and 15 former colleagues from the Howard era stood ready to serve in an Abbott ministry. “Proven competence versus proven incompetence” was how he described the choice facing voters between the Coalition and Labor.
Invoking Howard’s “Who do you trust?” mantra from 2004, Truss’s speech said: “You can trust Abbott and we won’t let you down.”
Then Frances and Bridget, two of Abbott’s three daughters injected some homespun glamour into the launch, eschewing the autocue to read from notes about the man who had “helped us become the women we are today”. Conferring this role on Abbott’s daughters instead of his equally telegenic and articulate wife Margie suggests the younger women have been assessed by the campaign team to have broader appeal and may have a better chance of convincing younger men and women to vote for Abbott than Margie would have with women of her own age.
Frances and Bridget’s speeches said: “You can trust Tony Abbott as we have done all our lives.”
Finally, the Tony Abbott who took to the stage was the best we’ve seen of him yet: Abbott gave his supporters and potential supporters a glimpse of the prime minister he could be. Undoubtedly rehearsed to within an inch of his life, this Tony Abbott was a long way from the staccato Mr Negative we’ve seen since 2009.
In the tradition of opposition leaders before him, Abbott’s speech remained light on costing details despite demands from the media and his opponents to provide them. He gave purpose and momentum to his ‘positive plan’ by detailing what would be done on the first day, within the first 100 days and by the end of his first term.
Abbott made a few strategic commitments including more support for seniors, encouraging more young people into trades, and recognising Indigenous Australians in the Australian Constitution.
But most significantly, Abbott committed to restoring trust in government. This is audacious considering Abbott’s relentless negative campaigning is responsible for at least some of the community’s loss of confidence in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Government. Equally, Abbott’s pitch to restore ‘trust in people’ and vow never to seek to divide one person from another sits uncomfortably with some of the Coalition’s most divisive policies such as that on asylum seekers.
Trust may well be a risky characteristic upon which to build the remainder of the Coalition campaign. As Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham learned in 2004, this ephemeral quality has many interpretations and can swiftly be transformed from a positive to a negative depending upon who is more skilled at framing the debate.
On recent past performances, the Coalition is more adept at such campaign tactics, although Labor is more than competitive when not distracted by internal ructions.
But in the end it will likely come down to the two main contenders. It will be he who wins the ‘trust wars’ who will prevail on polling day.
This post originally appeared as a weekly campaign column at ABC’s The Drum.
Here’s my latest weekly campaign column for ABC’s The Drum.
Forget cigarettes. Forget alcohol. Forget the secret stashes of mini Toblerones or Kit Kats that dwell in desk drawers all over the country.
Australia is in the grip of an unhealthy obsession that has nothing to do with these temptations. Our nation is addicted to something far more insidious, brain-numbing and soul-destroying: we’re addicted to opinion polls.
In the 15 days since the federal election was called voters have, by my reckoning, been willingly subjected to 22 opinion polls. More than half were national polls, while the rest focused on individual marginal seats. And yet there are still three weeks of the campaign to go.
The reason for this survey cornucopia is that opinion polls sell. The prospect of knowing who’s winning seduces us into buying newspapers, giving up hard-earned cash to peer behind paywalls, clicking links on online news sites, and tuning in to television and radio programs.
These are challenging times for media organisations. They’re grappling with the tendency of consumers to shop around online for news and often bypass traditional news providers altogether. These organisations have noted that publishing exclusive opinion polls and news stories based upon them is a proven way of winning those consumers back, even if it is for a brief period.
And so news organisations galore have decided they must have their own opinion polls. As a result, at least once a week if not every couple of days we’re subjected to the latest survey from one of eight polling houses emblazoned on newspapers, online news sites and television news stories.
Are media organisations providing voters with a valuable service by propagating these surveys? Do opinion poll stories help to make us informed voters or enhance our democracy in any way? Well no; not any more than the arbitrary scorecards handed out at the end of each campaign day or week announcing who ‘won’ the past 24 hours or seven-day period.
The horse-race approach to reporting is nothing more than the political equivalent of empty calories: it might satisfy a short-term need (to feel knowledgeable about the campaign) but ultimately it leaves us unsatisfied (because it tells us nothing about which party will best deliver on our policy needs).
More often than not, stories on opinion polls aren’t even actually news. No opinion poll is perfectly accurate and all have a buffer within which their numbers should be viewed. If any single poll moves only within that buffer, or margin of error, then it’s not considered to have actually moved. Newspoll for example has a 3 per cent margin of error, meaning that any increase or decrease of less than 3 per cent in one Newspoll is not really a change at all. So if the ALP primary vote increases by 2 per cent – it’s not news. If the Coalition primary vote decreases by 2 per cent – it’s not news either. And yet we see and hear such ‘news’ stories almost every day.
If voters really wanted to be informed voters they’d eschew all opinion poll stories that report movements within the margin of error and only pay attention to those that report opinion poll trends. The direction in which a party’s votes are trending over more than just two or three polls is where the real news stories are to be found.
But why do voters even care who’s won any particular day or week during the election campaign? Are we so superficial and fickle that we can be swayed by an opinion poll? Well yes, according to someacademics: the bandwagon effect can lead to voters choosing the side that looks most likely to win, while the underdog effect can produce the opposite result. Undoubtedly both of the major parties have incorporated this into their campaign tactics.
Scores more polls will be dangled before voters eyes over the campaign’s remaining weeks, but the choice between hollow superficiality and satisfying substance is entirely within our hands.
Will we continue to indulge our obsession by wasting time and thought over next-to-meaningless blips in the polls? Or will we direct our efforts to determining which party will form the government most capable of serving our country’s best interests?
In my post for The Drum this week I’ve looked at the Leaders’ Debate.
In the broader scheme of things, last night’s Leaders’ Debate will unlikely have much impact on the final outcome of this federal election.
For many disengaged voters, not yet fully aware the election campaign is now upon us, the televised event may have inconveniently delayed their local news program or more likely passed them by altogether as they tuned into their usual Sunday night fare.
Nevertheless, the event sets the tone for the week ahead.
The team with the candidate thought by the political media and pundits to have ‘won’ the debate will head into the second week of the campaign re-invigorated by the endorphins that only a winner can experience.
With public opinion polls suggesting a slight downward trend in support for Labor since the reinstalment of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, it would appear Team Rudd needs the boost more than Team Abbott.
This was evident from the demeanour of both men at their respective podiums during the debate.
Rudd gave the impression of being on edge: constantly referring to notes, cramming as much information as he could into every answer, and constantly using Kabuki hand gestures that distracted the viewer as much as illustrated his answers. Rudd clearly knew his stuff but showed little sign of rehearsal (which is a common weakness in those who over-prepare).
Abbott, on the other hand, delivered his opening remarks with the casual confidence of a well-rehearsed public speaker. By looking down the barrel of the camera, he chose to engage the ‘viewers at home’ rather than the audience. The cadence of his voice was deliberately lower and slower, most likely to emphasise Rudd’s higher tone and speedy monologues.
Why mention these elements? Surely what the men said is of more import?
Well not exactly: audiences respond as much, if not more, to how something is said than the actual content.
Incumbency gave the Prime Minister an edge when responding to the questions of economic competence and policy – it’s much easier to point to an existing government’s achievements than foreshadow the benefits of a hypothetical one.
However, Rudd’s constant listing of those achievements (as he had done on ABC’s 7.30 just a few nights before) was the aural equivalent of trying to take a drink from a spouting fire hydrant.
In contrast, Abbott stuck to his tried and true method of repeating the simple but memorable policy mantras his team had no doubt carefully honed through numerous focus groups.
As an opposition leader not yet prepared to unveil the bulk of his party’s policies and their costings, this was all he was ever going to do and so the contrast of policy detail and lack thereof was particularly stark.
Both men told their fair share of porkies (for example, Rudd again raised the now discredited $70 billionCoalition budget black hole, while Abbott claimed the GST cannot change without the consent of all the State and Territory Governments*) and completely evaded a number of direct questions from the moderator and/or the panel (for example, on raising Australia’s emission cut target from 5 per cent if other countries take action).
Both men ended the debate as they started, their closing comments echoing the tones they’d struck with their election opening gambits just one week ago.
Rudd signalled challenging economic times ahead and that his return was needed to guide the nation through the New Great Economic Transition. Abbott repeated there was nothing wrong with Australia that couldn’t be fixed by a change of government.
Rudd seemed to have gained no confidence from the hour’s exchange, while Abbott’s final delivery was more stilted and sing-song than his opening, perhaps from being unnecessarily rattled by the question on marriage equality.
In the end there can be no winner, as audiences will seek and take different things from any such exchange. Those looking for reassurance for more of a stable Labor Government will have seen it, whereas those looking for a new approach from a competent alternative will have found that too.
And so the outcome of the Leaders’ Debate, like most things in the politics, will entirely be held in the eye of the beholder.