Labor’s choice: chaos or kudos

In the post-Budget wash-up Labor must decide what is the right style of opposition to adopt: Tony Abbott’s grinding negativity or the Howard/Rudd model of selective differentiation.

With the delivery of the Abbott Government’s first Budget we move into the second stanza of the electoral cycle, where the Coalition’s main challenge is to convince Australians the Budget pain is worth it.

Opinion polls from Galaxy yesterday and Newspolltoday show the magnitude of the task, with about 70 per cent of respondents feeling worse off and only about 40 per cent believing the Budget is good for the country.

The Newspoll result is the worst for a first budget in more than 20 years.

Labor’s task is of a completely different nature but in some ways no less challenging – it must decide what sort of opposition it wants to be.

Since Labor was thrown out of office eight months ago the party has struggled not only with its identity but also with what is the “right” style of opposition to adopt: should it employ Tony Abbott’s grinding negativity or the Howard/Rudd model of selective differentiation?

These options were manifested in the two Labor leadership contenders. The pugnacious Anthony Albanese, champion of the Left and fighter of Tories who was ironically similar to Abbott in opposition, and the Right’s Bill Shorten who took a more nuanced approach and vowed not to oppose just for opposition’s sake.

Shorten’s victory in the leadership contest was by no means an endorsement of the less negative style, but that is nevertheless the approach he adopted. This led to some doubt and consternation among Labor supporters, as well as anxious whispers as to whether the leader was up to the job.

Last week’s feisty parliamentary response by Shorten to the Budget gave heart to the doubters.

The speech could also prove to be a pivotal moment for the Labor leader and his party. Shorten acknowledged as much in an address to party members on the weekend, saying the Budget had “defined the Labor Party”.

In his Budget reply Shorten highlighted the four “pillars of Australian society” that are being attacked by the Budget, which are also key Labor principles and differentiate the party from the Coalition: universal health care, education for all, fair pensions and full employment.

These issues – along with the cost of living – also happen to be the pitches on which Labor has chosen to fight the Coalition’s Budget: co-payment for GPs, cuts to education funding, changes to student loans and pensions, re-introduction of fuel excise indexation and measures to prevent people under 30 getting unemployment benefit.

It would be a mistake, however, to see this as Shorten emulating Abbott. Shorten may be emphasising the budget measures that Labor will block, but a closer inspection reveals Labor will support other measures such as the deficit levy on high income earners. The Labor leader has also indicated a willingness to discuss thresholds and means tests for certain welfare payments.

This is a smart move by Shorten. By basing his opposition on the best points of differentiation with the Coalition he is reinforcing in voters’ minds what the ALP stands for and what it will fight to protect. This tactic has been described as Labor choosing to fight on issues rather than making themselves the issue.

Selective differentiation also gives Labor more flexibility to adapt to the vagaries of the new Senate when it commences on July 1.

It’s true that the crossbenchers have the balance of power if Labor joins with the Greens to oppose legislation such as that to re-introduce the indexation of fuel excise.

Equally, though, Labor could negotiate with the Government to soften or delay certain Budget proposals in return for safe passage of others through the Senate. In doing so, Labor could deliver real improvements to affected voters.

Such an outcome would have the added benefit for both Labor and the Coalition of denying Clive Palmer or the Greens bragging rights for having caused the Government to back down on a Budget measure.

Such a denial is clearly on the minds of both major parties. It’s likely a proposal by the Greens to establish a national ICAC was thwarted by Labor and the Coalition to prevent the minor party getting any kudos for such an initiative. And Abbott is reportedly so determined to avoid any perception that he is beholden to Clive Palmer that he is willing to take voters back to another election if Palmer won’t let key legislation pass the Senate.

Labor supporters may be uncomfortable, however, with the Opposition siding with the Government to pass even the most sensible of Budget measures, particularly this early in the parliamentary cycle.

They’d rather see Shorten take more of an Old Testament approach, visiting as much havoc on the PM as Abbott did on Julia Gillard, and doing his best to create the perception of a chaotic and incompetent Government through obstructionism and negativity.

Chaos or kudos, these are the choices for Shorten. Only one will help him re-establish Labor’s links with its core supporters, grow that support base and build the party’s standing as a viable alternative government. The other will deliver delicious schadenfreude.

It’s a tough choice to make.