Keating, neither matinee idol nor rock god

Keating, neither matinee idol nor rock god. A post for SBS Comment and Analysis.

Anatomy of a broken promise

Broken vaseWhether we like it or not, 2013 is going to be the year of the broken promise.

While it’s hard to believe there remains even one voter not yet reached by Tony Abbott’s campaign to brand Julia Gillard a venal oath-breaker, there still remain enough politically disengaged Australians to decide the election. And we can be confident that Abbott won’t leave their ultimate voting decision to chance.

An oft-quoted campaign idiom is that only once you’re sick of hearing your own voice can you be confident your message is starting to cut through. So even though political observers are heartily sick of the Opposition Leader’s mantra, he’ll keep chanting about the broken carbon tax promise confident in the knowledge that it has yet to lodge in the brains of the politically disengaged.

Whether this strategy will bring voters to Tony Abbott is another matter altogether.

Prime Ministerial broken promises are hardly a new phenomenon; throughout contemporary Australian politics they’ve often been considered a necessary evil. Promises made, particularly during election campaigns, have routinely been discarded as economic or political circumstances have changed.

In the 1970s Malcolm Fraser undertook to keep Medibank, then dismantled it. The 80s saw Bob Hawke vow that by 1990 no child would live in poverty. Paul Keating retracted his L-A-W tax cuts promise in 1993, resulting in the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister (now equal lowest with Julia Gillard), but still dragged that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders.

John Howard swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister successfully took one to the 1998 election. Howard also backtracked on commitments made during the 1998 campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises, but won the following 2001 election with an increased majority and prevailed again in 2004.

So when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to discard her vow to never have a carbon tax (as the price for securing minority government with the Greens and Independents), she could have been forgiven for thinking she’d get away with it. But in Australian politics one does not simply break an oath; one must play the game of expectations in order to get away with it.

Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, learned this the hard way in 2010 when he backed away from his election promise (made in opposition) to quickly establish an emissions trading scheme.

This change of heart shouldn’t have been as difficult for Rudd as it proved to be. Community support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was fading following the disappointing shemozzle that was Copenhagen and the Senate’s refusal to pass what the Greens considered to be a substandard trading regime. New Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s “great big tax” campaign had started to get traction. And business leaders were expressing doubt the CPRS would provide the certainty they needed.

Even having dubbed climate change as “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, Rudd could have emerged relatively unscathed from the CPRS back-down in April 2010 if he’d better managed the community’s expectations.

But if there was one thing Rudd proved singularly incapable of doing, it was to live up to the extraordinarily inflated community expectations that he’d created as Opposition Leader. Having cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Rudd initially proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. But people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be a better version of Howard ultimately proved to be empty.

In fact a defining feature of Rudd as Prime Minister was to promise big but deliver small. In February 2010 Rudd told his MPs there could be no backing away from the CPRS commitment. But in April, on advice from his kitchen cabinet comprising Gillard, Swan and Tanner, Rudd decided to postpone it. The clumsily leaked broken promise caught Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and other ministers unawares. Rudd then fumbled the explanation, and in doing so extinguished what little voter faith in him that remained. As it was later reported, the decision “galvanised the fastest collapse of support for a Prime Minister in the 20-year history of Newspoll and one of the two sharpest recoils from a Prime Minister in the 40 years of the Nielsen poll.”

Prime Minister Gillard should have heeded Rudd’s CPRS downfall when faced with having to disavow her pre-election rejection of the carbon tax. Voters were already unsettled by the coup and resented being denied the opportunity to cast Rudd out themselves. Gillard’s Rudd-like commitment to resolve priority issues such as asylum seekers, the mining tax and climate action proved to be equally Rudd-like in their emptiness. And a sense of anxiety and uncertainty overhung the minority government negotiations.

It’s little wonder that latent voter unhappiness fomented into outrage once the disavowed carbon tax was publicly re-embraced by Gillard. Abbott’s aforementioned sloganeering whipped that outrage into the phenomenon we know today as JuLIAR.

In contrast, the twilight hours of 2012 saw an exemplary display of how to break a political promise AND get away with it, when the Prime Minister and Treasurer deftly broke their Budget surplus commitment.

The government first created a community expectation that dropping the surplus promise was a sensible and necessary thing to do. This was done in stages, first by floating the possibility in off-the-record discussions with credible journalists and economists who in turn championed the need for the about-turn in the media. The next stage was to convert the “idea” into “a proposal” and leak it to an esteemed journalist whose credibility would provide reflected validation.

Thus, Laura Tingle revealed (the week after parliament concluded) that the surplus commitment would be dropped. Following months of public discussion about this being the right thing to do, Tingle’s article added a sense of legitimacy and urgency to the proposal.

From there it was simply a matter of announcing the decision in the week before Christmas, when most Australians were thinking more about barbeques and beaches than the state of the Budget. The few who had not entirely switched off might have thought “and about time, too”, having vaguely recalled calls for such action. Then Australians would have turned to the post-Christmas sales and the cricket.

Such is the anatomy of a broken promise. Tony Abbott would do well to study it as he deploys the next stage of his election strategy. Most likely he’ll rely heavily on the worst-handled of the Prime Minister’s broken promises – the carbon tax – and the best-handled, being the surplus. But as we have seen with the surplus, not all rescinded commitments generate outrage, and even those that initially inflame – like the carbon tax – can lose their volatility over time.

2013 will undoubtedly be the year of the broken promise: Tony Abbott will make sure of that. But Abbott should be wary of assuming the community will become indiscriminately outraged about any and all oath-breaking. If the Prime Minister has learned from the successful reversal of the Budget surplus commitment, and continues to deftly manage community expectations, it’s likely her broken promises will be seen as nothing more than a necessary evil and something that all Prime Ministers occasionally have to do. And in doing so, she will make redundant one of her opponent’s most valued pieces of artillery.

This post first appeared at the King’s Tribune.

If not love then, at least, respect

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

There’s an old fashioned quality that might be creeping back into Australian federal politics. I say old fashioned because you don’t hear it mentioned much these days. But I think it may well be the deciding factor in next year’s federal election.

I’m referring to respect. You know, that thing we used to hold for teachers, policemen, our parents and politicians. It was a sometimes begrudging acknowledgement that authority figures had our best interests at heart, even if we didn’t much like the way they went about protecting us.

I used to hear a lot about respect when John Howard was Prime Minister. While voters didn’t particularly like him, he was elected four times because they trusted him to do the right thing for the country, and for quite some time he delivered on that trust.

While it’s a truism to say that respect can only be earned, it can also be a fragile thing that is easily shattered. I’d suggest the community’s respect for Howard was his electoral strength and the loss of that respect, brought on by WorkChoices and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers, was the weakness that brought Howard down.

The Prime Ministers immediately before John Howard were more in the charismatic mold. Bob Hawke was the jovial larrikin while Paul Keating was the intellectual aesthete. In their own ways, both leaders had a George Clooney-like magnetism that made their respective supporters want to be like them. Their stock in trade was adoration, not respect. No such fan club existed for the tracksuit-wearing Howard.

Kevin Rudd brought even less charisma than Howard to the Prime Minister’s role. In fact he cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Ultimately, the creation of this expectation was Rudd’s downfall.

Initially, even despite his lack of animal magnetism, Rudd proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. However the public’s exuberance faltered when Rudd proved not to be like Howard at all, but an über bureaucrat who reserved all political and policy decisions to himself while setting up ever more labyrinthine committees and token consultation processes. Any respect the community might have had for Rudd arising from the apology to the Stolen Generations was quickly eroded by his seeming incapacity to deliver on anything much else.

Love or respect. Hearts or minds. That seems to be what it boils down to. Having failed to win the public’s respect with Kevin Rudd, Labor power-brokers then lurched in the other direction.

Click here to read more…

Abbott in a Zegna suit?

Shaun Carney’s recount today of former Treasurer Howard sending Treasurer Keating a congratulationary note on becoming the world’s greatest treasurer, caused me to ponder what sort of Opposition Leader Keating would’ve been.While no more than a fantastical imagining, I can’t help think he’d be more in the Abbott mould than the Turnbull one.

Because, when you think back, is there any other modern Australian politician who was more singularly negative in pursuit of their political quarry than Keating was?

My memory is a little dusty but I can’t recall Keating employing the Howard/Rudd tactic of agreeing with the other side’s policies when they had merit. Putting aside that this was a tactic to emphasise the points of difference, I can only remember Keating going for the jugular every time.

While Keating had more rhetorical flair to his parliamentary jibes, he never pulled his punches. Andrew Peacock was the soufflé that wouldn’t rise twice; John Hewson was the feral abacus who’d be done slowly; Alexander Downer was ole darlin’ and the salmon who jumps on the hook for you; and John Howard was a miserable political carcass.

Would Keating have traipsed into misogyny to score a few points? Maybe. The PM who implemented a number of progressive policies for women, was nevertheless known to universally address them as darl’ and sweetheart.

Would he mercilessly court the media to support his policies to the exclusion of all others? Well, yes, because that’s exactly what he did. There was nary a journalist or news organisation that did not support his tilt against Bob Hawke, his destruction of Hewson and the Fightback package, and his ill-fated run against Howard.

Would Keating have abandoned ALP philosophies and overturned public promises to get back the political advantage? Of course! Do the sale of the Commonwealth Bank or “L.A.W. tax cuts” ring a bell?

As astute political observer Malcolm Farnworth said recently on a related topic,

… politics in 2011 may be lively but it barely rates against some of the great upheavals in our history. Those who see the nation beset by crisis really should do some reading.

Perhaps the same observation applies to our perception of Tony Abbott as the most negative politician to have ever walked Australia’s democratic stage.

Love to hate, but don’t love the haters


Why do we love to hate someone when vigorous disagreement should be enough? In competitive arenas such as sport why do we get so much joy from seeing the object of our hatred not only lose, but also be smashed into oblivion?

Perhaps even more curiously, why is it that we love to hate but we don’t love the haters?

I’m not sure why, but I suspect Tony Abbott should be thinking very carefully about this curly question.

One could argue that it’s harmless to hate in sport; some might even say it enhances our enjoyment. As the saying goes, nothing builds team spirit more than a common foe (such as Collingwood, for example).

That may be true, but the increasingly gladiatorial nature of Australian politics has led us to bring our sporting hatred into the political arena.

Thirty years ago, political allegiances were reasonably straightforward: 40% voted for Labor, 40% for the Coalition, and elections were fought over the 20% swinging voters who remained undecided. Labor’s strength came from its blue collar foundations, the Liberals from their white-collar and small business supporters, and the Nationals from the bush.

In those days, people tended to vote the same way their parents did; much the same as they would follow the same footy team.

Today, it’s an entirely different story. We are less, but strangely more, tribal. No longer do we naturally gravitate to the party our parents supported. Mainly this is because we cast our votes more on values than political philosophy.

But we do love to hate politicians and we do it in a visceral, tribal way, just like we do with our footy adversaries.

I can’t pinpoint the time I realised that hatred of politicians had become a sporting event for Australians. Perhaps it was Treasurer Keating and the “recession we had to have” that started it all. Maybe it was PM Keating’s revoked L-A-W tax cuts, or his “get a job” election campaign jibe that caused voters to wait patiently for him on their porches with baseball bats.

Then there were the Howard haters, who made vilification of the then Prime Minister a national pastime. Their rejection of Howard’s positions on climate change, asylum seekers and IR was blisteringly intense then and still lingers, with references to the rodent still echoing today in the public discourse.

And now, we have not one but two new villains to heckle and abhor. Both Prime Minister Gillard and her opponent Tony Abbott are perfect lightning rods for our prejudices, resentments and hatred.

Gillard knifed her predecessor, robbing voters of the chance to punish him, and now courts the Greens to get her government’s initiatives through parliament.

Abbott also knifed his predecessor, shattering the hopes of progressive Liberals and giving succour to the extreme right edge of the party.

So I guess there’s no surprise that we love to hate either one or both of them.

But the irony, and the warning for Tony Abbott, is that we may love to hate our sporting and political opponents, but we seem much less inclined to embrace the haters themselves. While a little jovial sledging on the field is acceptable, we give short shrift to those who indulge in racism or other forms of bigotry.

Admittedly, we did have a soft spot for Paul Keating, arguably the best hater that Australia’s black-Irish population has ever produced. The ferocious beauty of his recently “re-released” note to NSW Labor MP (now opposition leader) John Robertson exemplifies the man’s ability to render abuse more finely crafted than the curlicues of any antique clock.

Having said that, it must also be remembered that Keating’s highest ever approval rating was 40%, the second lowest on record for a modern-era Australian Prime Minister. Keating also holds the record for the lowest Prime Ministerial approval rating at 27%.

Putting Keating to the side for a moment, I’d argue that we dislike, even abhor, politicians who are haters. We certainly don’t make them Prime Minister; with Mark Latham being the perfect example.

Latham was reported as having told The Bulletin in 2002, “I’m a hater … Part of the tribalness of politics is to really dislike the other side with intensity. And the more I see of them the more I hate them. I hate their negativity. I hate their narrowness.”

Another proficient hater, tabloid columnist Miranda Devine described Latham this way when he was Opposition Leader in 2003-04: “The more we see of Mark Latham the more it seems that underneath some admirable qualities seethes the heart of a hater, consumed with a clotted class envy that will be his downfall.”

Latham’s hatred and self-proclaimed appointment as class-warrior were key factors in his federal election loss. Women voters in particular deserted him in droves. Many of us were unnerved when Latham attacked private schools and other elements of the “privileged classes”. We needed little more encouragement than his bully-handshake with Howard to walk away altogether.

The 2004 federal election tally speaks for itself: the Howard/Liberal first preference vote of 40.5% was 3.4 percentage points higher than the previous election. This was the party’s highest first preference vote since the landslide of 1975 (41.8%), and only the fourth time since its creation that the party had secured 40 per cent of the national total.

Latham/Labor’s first preference vote of 37.6% per cent was its lowest vote since the elections of 1931 and 1934.

An even more fascinating parallel is that, despite an overall trend in the other direction, at both Keating’s 1993 election and Latham’s 2004 election, women were more likely than men to vote for the coalition (44%-37% in 1993 and 47%-42% in 2004).

It’s little wonder that Kevin Rudd did his very best during the 2006 federal election to avoid the mistakes made by Latham.

Rudd deftly positioned himself as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd may have been a hater behind the scenes (he certainly seems to have been a tantrum-thrower), his diplomatic training or political instinct ensured that it was kept securely behind closed doors.

As a result, Rudd equalled the highest ever approval rating achieved by an Australian PM, namely Bob Hawke, at 75%. It’s worth noting that Hawke wasn’t much of a public hater either.

And now we have Tony Abbott, who should be taking note of both Latham and Rudd’s experience as Opposition Leaders.

It’s no mystery that, while the Federal Opposition is polling better than the Government at present, Abbott still trails behind Julia Gillard as the preferred PM and in the approval stakes.

Many of us have our doubts about Abbott, just as we did about Latham. This doubt has the potential to harden into distrust and dislike if Abbott is seen to have crossed the line from gentlemanly sledging to encouraging, if not publicly using, hate-based language.

Obviously Abbott is capitalising on the fact that voters love to hate. But does he realise that we are simultaneously repulsed by politicians and others who are haters?

Perhaps not, and if that is the case then someone should draw this idiosyncrasy to his attention. This small detail may yet prove to be Abbott’s undoing.

This article originally appeared at The King’s Tribune.

Julia’s tenet – no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry

Zombies vote often, vote late


John Howard was pilloried during his time as Prime Minister for saying he wanted the Australian people to be relaxed and comfortable. It was, said the commentariat, evidence of Howard’s singular lack of vision, particularly when compared to his predecessor the vaudevillian Paul Keating.

No doubt Howard saw himself more in the mold of political warhorse than political visionary. He knew that an electorate generally satisfied with its lot would unlikely countenance the risk of changing its government.

It appears that Julia Gillard is deploying a version of Howard’s strategy, which is to keep the electorate bored, somnolent and disengaged. In the same way that Howard felt secure with a comfortable electorate, Gillard is depending on the tenet that no government has ever fallen to a bored citizenry.

Consider the limited number of times that federal governments have been thrown out in recent decades. Fraser, Keating and Howard all incited considerable wrath within the community before they were ousted at the ballot box.

The Prime Minister’s strategy is observable in her public demeanour and utterances. While some have likened her new cadence to PM Thatcher, it strikes others as more a cross between our current Queen Betty and a pre-school teacher; soothing but protective, reassuring but authoritative. At times during the Leaders’ debate I recalled late-night horror movies where people were hypnotised through their crystal sets and wondered if this time it was for real.

It may well be that this strategy will pay dividends for the PM, but I suspect it will backfire because Tony Abbott is also trying to bore the electorate. Clearly he is not doing it for the same reason as Gillard. Abbott is using the small target strategy that worked so well for Rudd and Howard when they were both opposition leaders. It is the “I am a safe pair of hands and I don’t have the other lot’s nasty policies” strategy. Abbott too is trying to be reassuring but authoritative, so as not to alarm the electorate into reverting to the incumbent government.

So how will this play out on polling day? Taxi drivers all over Australia will tell you that their fares think this is the most boring election in memory. Will voters shuffle to their polling station like zombies or somnambulists and vote for the status quo because it is the path of least resistance?

Or will they rebel, mutter a pox on both houses, and vote green or not at all?

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