More than one message in SPC decision

Not one but three messages reverberated from the Abbott government’s cabinet decision yesterday to reject a request from iconic Australian fruit-processing company SPC Ardmona for $25 million assistance.*

Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane stated in no uncertain terms that the decision was a message for business that the days of government being a crutch for business were over. Labeled “an important marker” by Abbott and a “defining point” by Macfarlane, the rebuff signaled that industry restructuring should be led (and, by extension, resourced) by business alone.

Doing as much as possible to deflect any inferred responsibility for jobs lost through the decision, Abbott made a big play on the size, profitability and social conscience of SPC’s parent company, Coca-Cola Amatil. He expressed confidence that the multinational would do the right thing by the canning company and its workers.

And for the second time this week, the government also drew attention to the responsibility of companiesto strike wage agreements with unions that do not threaten their business’s sustainability over time. This is part of a strengthening government homily that companies must take more responsibility for their actions.

However, the big dose of tough love for the ever-demanding Australian business community will likely give little comfort to the recipients of the second message. Taken together, the Cadbury and SPC Ardmona decisions starkly tell voters one thing: some jobs are more equal than others.

Yesterday the Prime Minister rationalised the Coalition’s 2013 election campaign decision to support Cadbury with $16 million in assistance as development of “regional tourism infrastructure” and not simply propping up another struggling business. But at the time he seemed particularly focused on the continuing viability of Cadbury in Tasmania and the 200 jobs that the factory upgrade would add to state’s depressed economy.

The key to this apparent contradiction lies in votes – or more precisely seats in the federal parliament. The SPC Ardmona facility is nestled in the very safe Liberal seat of Murray, which Sharman Stone holds with a whopping two party preferred vote of 70.87 per cent. This healthy margin gives Stone some latitude to be a rebel at times, but it also means the Coalition can treat Murray’s voters with impunity without risking a backlash that bites. In fact the Abbott government could probably slay every first male child in the electorate and still retain the seat.

In contrast, the Cadbury factory is located in Andrew Wilkie’s Tasmanian seat of Denison, and is supplied by the dairy industry in the adjacent seat of Lyons. Not coincidentally, Liberal candidate Eric Hutchinson went on to take Lyons at the 2013 election from Labor’s big man Dick Adams with an almost 14 per cent (two party preferred) swing in his favour.

So the SPC Ardmona decision revealed that if you live in a marginal seat or one represented by a potentially influential independent MP, your job is important to the Coalition. Otherwise, not so much.

Finally, the decision not to protect the jobs of canners and, by extension, their fruit-producing suppliers, sent a decisive message to the Nationals: you can’t always get what you want.

Even though it remains perennially puzzling why this rural rump of agrarian socialists wields greater influence on Coalition decisions than its total vote or number of seats in parliament, they continue to do so. Most recently they were successful in convincing Treasurer Hockey to reject the $3.4 billion foreign takeover bid by US agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland for local grain-handler GrainCorp. The “national interest” grounds on which he did so were spurious at best and sent a ripple of unease through the business community.

But now a similar public campaign in support of assistance for SPC Ardmona by Agriculture Minister (and deputy leader of the Nationals) Barnaby Joyce has failed. It may be that the Nationals expended their political capital on keeping the Yanks’ hands off our grain-handling infrastructure, or that any preparedness by the free traders in Cabinet to countenance further protectionist assistance for Australian businesses was consumed entirely by the GrainCorp decision. Perhaps it was simply because there are more marginal votes in the grain belts of rural Australia than in Murray.

Either way, the messages conveyed by yesterday’s SPC Ardmona decision may prove counterproductive for Tony Abbott. While he sees them as “an important marker” and a veritable line in the political sand, the message recipients may see them more as a challenge, an ultimatum and a call for retaliatory action.

2014 with a bang!

That almost imperceptible whirring sound is not your imagination. It’s the wheels of politics grinding back into motion. Before we know it, they’ll be spinning at breakneck speed and the summer break will be no more than a fast-fading memory.

There’ll be no comfortable transition to political discourse in 2014, no gradual incline from February sittings to May budget and the still-as-yet-undetermined new Senate in July. Politics in 2014 is going to be like waking up on a rollercoaster: one day we’ll be taking our usual summer afternoon siesta and the next we’ll be hurtling full speed towards political turns and descents so unpredictable that even the strongest of constitutions will be unsettled.

We’ll probably still be packing away our Australia Day paraphernalia when the by-election for Kevin Rudd’s old seat Griffith gets underway – it’s expected in late January or early February. The Liberal candidate, former AMA President Dr Keith Glasson, looks like a shoo-in: after all, he rated more primary votes than Rudd and clipped the ALP’s margin by 5.4% to a much more achievable 3% in the 2013 election. Yet only one federal government has ever taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and that was Kalgoorlie in 1920. So Glasson’s path to victory may be more turbulent than first thought – particularly if dissatisfied Queensland voters use the by-election as an opportunity to whack the Federal Coalition over the knuckles.

Around the same time we’ll be thrown headlong into the continuing saga of the lost WA Senate votes. The High Court’s Justice Kenneth Hayne flagged in December that challenges to the result (one from the Australian Electoral Commission, and one each from the Palmer United Party and Labor) would not be heard until late January. The AEC wants a new WA Senate election and has asked the court to rule by 18 March so the poll can be held in April. Conversely, PUP and Labor want the court to revert to the first count of the vote, which allocated the 5th and 6th WA Senate positions to them. This would give Clive Palmer’s party the balance of power in the new Senate.

Continue reading “2014 with a bang!”

Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

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.

2013 in politics: the power of three

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.