The questionable loyalty of Anthony Albanese

The-Guardian-logoThe questionable loyalty of Anthony Albanese. For Guardian Australia.

Coalition eases us into tough love policies

I’m a tiny bit thrilled to be writing a weekly column for ABC’s The Drum.

Here’s the first: Coalition eases us into tough love policies.

Bill who?

Bill who? Regular post for The Hoopla.

Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

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.

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2013 in politics: the power of three

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.

Rudd’s tears before bedtime

While Tony Abbott announced in Sunday’s videogram that the adults were back in charge, the first real business day of the 44th Parliament more closely resembled a first day at primary school.

Wobbling trainer wheels, name-calling, and testing the limits of the yard duty teacher were all on show, ending with a spectacular dummy spit – and tears – later in the day.

Kevin Rudd’s emotional resignation from politics last night ensured the news of the day’s business would be relegated to second place, but it wouldn’t have been a fitting first day in the schoolyard if it didn’t conclude with someone crying in frustration or exhaustion.

Rudd declared it was finally time to give back to his family who had supported him over the years. The announcement met with a standing ovation and acclamation… though many will be relieved to see him gone.

Before the climactic ending, the day had been jam-packed with new legislation, procedural skirmishes and petty point scoring. The inaugural Question Time presented the first real opportunity for Labor to hold the Coalition Government to account under the collective gaze of the parliamentary press gallery.

No-one knew who would show a natural aptitude and who would wobble. The new Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, had an unexpectedly shaky start, ignoring Abbott’s concession on Monday that his new moniker for Bill Shorten would not be appropriate parliamentary language. In ruling that “Electricity Bill” could be used because it was a ‘descriptor’ and not a name Bishop failed an early test, if not of her impartiality, at least of her determination to raise the standards of parliamentary discourse.

The Speaker’s precedent was quickly tested in Question Time. Although Adam Bandt prefaced his question with the observation that the Greens had taken to calling Abbott “Typhoon Tony”, Madam Speaker did not demur. Undoubtedly Labor will also test the boundaries of Bishop’s tolerance on this.

While the new manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke clearly swotted up on parliamentary practice over the break, other recently ex-ministers had trouble grappling with the finer detail during Question Time. Several reasonable points of order were rebuffed by the Speaker for not being presented with the relevant clause of The Practice, as Bishop herself was famous for doing. Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek, whose repeated attempts to raise points of order were meek and unfocussed, will have to sharpen her game if she is to have any impact with this tactic.

The Government used the first Question Time to showcase the breadth of their agenda. One by one, new Ministers strode to the dispatch box to outline how they were righting the previous government’s wrongs, with Hockey likening Labor to a bad tenant who had had trashed the joint and was obstructing the clean up.

Curiously, the Opposition took a similar approach, peppering a range of questions at Abbott, Hockey and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison instead of pursuing one line of inquiry at depth.

First it was climate action and the scrapping of the carbon price, then the need for the Government to justify raising the debt ceiling, and finally the asylum seeker no-information policy. History has shown that sustained questioning of one minister tends to bear more fruit than a scattergun approach.

The Coalition looked self-assured, as one would expect of a party that had been returned to government with a strong result after only two terms in the wilderness. Abbott’s determination to keep former Howard ministers in his own ministerial lineup paid dividends, with most demonstrating workmanlike oratory skills and the capacity to reel out the approved slogans (toxic taxes, the boats are stopping, who can you trust?) while being berated from the Opposition benches.

Health Minister Peter Dutton was the weakest performer, at one point calling the former Minister for Health “nasty Tanya”, which he then guiltily withdrew even before the Speaker had directed him to do so.

Question Time ended with no real sense that the Opposition had identified the strongest line of attack. There were looks of relief on ministerial faces that they had survived their first day. And a growing realisation that the Speaker may not live up to the expectations of impartiality she had so recently created.

Overall, the Abbott Government got what it wanted out of its first ‘working day’: an opportunity to showcase its wares to the Australian people and limited scrutiny from the Opposition. In a moment of biting candour during the inaugural Question Time, Joe Hockey told the vanquished opposite him “this is your best day in opposition – trust me.”

Hockey might be right, but it’s going to take a better day than yesterday from the Opposition for Australian democracy to be fairly served.

This is the first of my regular posts on federal politics for The Hoopla.

No jackpot for Rudd at Rooty Hill

PokiesHere’s my take for Guardian Australia on last night’s Peoples’ Forum at Rooty Hill RSL Club and Kevin Rudd’s strategy to shorten Tony Abbott’s lead on economic competency.

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