Leash the PUP and deal direct with Labor

It’s hard not to get the sense the Abbott Government’s budget strategy is spiralling out of control.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann insisted repeatedly yesterday in a television interview that he and his colleagues were “working in an orderly and methodical fashion” to implement the budget. Yet one only had to listen closely to pick up the quiet keen of panic underlying his rushed and automated responses to see that even Cormann does not believe his own lines.

The Minister’s weekend television appearance was in stark contrast to his interventions last week, when he had to mop up after Treasurer Joe Hockey’s unfortunate comment about poor people not driving cars.

Cormann was assured and confident at the time, dismissing Labor’s clunky allusions to the budget having more reboots than a Macintosh or Commodore 64.

He wrested back control of the budget debate, pointing out that “no government in recent political history had passed all of its budget measures through both houses of Parliament by the end of August”, and that “a number of the measures that are the subject of the most intensive post-budget debate are not due to take effect for some time”, which left ample time to keep engaging with the Senate crossbenchers.

This was necessary because voters not only think of the budget as unfair, they perceive the Government as having lost control of its implementation.

Coalition strategists would see the latter as far more troubling because the Government can ride through, or if necessary change, a tough budget but it is much harder to cast off the burden of perceived incompetence. Just ask members of the former Gillard government.

And yet yesterday, just one week later, Cormann had been reduced to the same gibbering mess as his Government colleagues, rapidly reeling off numbers, acronyms and other econo-babble and attacking Labor instead of reminding voters what “orderly and methodical” is supposed to look like:

If we stay on a spending growth trajectory that takes us to 26.5 per cent of the share of GDP, when tax revenue on average over the last 20 years was 22.4 per cent of the share of GDP and you don’t want to balance the books by reducing spending, then the only alternative to balance the books is to increase taxes.

The Finance Minister may be correct, but such an “explanation” would have caused most voters’ eyes to glaze over rather than win Cormann any new-found support or respect.

Cormann’s interview was an unfortunate conclusion to the five-week parliamentary break in which the Government was meant to consult and ideally negotiate with the crossbench on the more contentious elements of the budget.

Instead of doing this in a low-key fashion, the Government chose to accompany the negotiations with ham-fisted threats in the media, deploying an artillery of dud firecrackers in an attempt to soften-up the belligerent Senators.

Hockey’s threat to re-introduce legislation on asset recycling/privatisation as an appropriation bill, only gave Clive Palmer a free kick with a headline on being prepared to block supply.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s “speculation” that he may have to cut university research funding if the Government’s reforms to university fees are not accepted, will have gone down as well with Senators as his comment that university students are being asked to pay an additional 10 per cent of their course cost, not “donate their left kidney”.

And now tax increases are being threatened as the way of repairing the budget, which in itself is nonsensical and empty: if the Government can’t get any of its existing tough measures passed, how does it intend to get tax hikes through the same intransigent Senate? It’s certainly not the policy an unpopular Government would take to the next election either.

Very little seems to have been gained from all this tough talk. Palmer said a week ago that his Senators would not support the GP co-payment or the changes to university fees, although he has been known in the recent past to simply change his mind when presented with more information. It would seem this variability is the constant upon which the Government is depending.

Judging from the previous sitting of the new Senate, Palmer will deliver in spades his very own brand of parliamentary unpredictability and its attendant drama. His political viability and that of his party depends upon it.

And yet, there is another path that Abbott could take to dispel the sense of chaos that pervades the budget and his Government.

Instead of making empty threats in an attempt to arrest its ill-fated budget, the Government could make better use of its time working out which is the greater threat to its political survival. Labor may compete with the Coalition for the swinging vote, but Palmer and PUP are stealing the Coalition’s base.

On this measure, Labor is clearly the lesser evil and ironically the means by which Abbott could regain control of his careening budget.

By negotiating with Labor, the Prime Minister could secure Senate passage of mutually agreeable legislation. This would of course require some eating of humble pie and incorporation perhaps of uncomfortable changes into Government policies. It would also give the main opposition parties some brownie points in the eyes of voters.

But such an approach would completely neutralise Palmer. It would negate his balance of power position and relegate his media stunts to irrelevancy. Most importantly it would rob the renegade MP of the kudos and increased support he gets every time he makes life difficult for Abbott.

Is the budget Palmer’s plaything no more?

Like a half-dead mouse, the Abbott Government’s first budget has so far endured seven weeks of being Clive Palmer’s plaything, arising timidly from one indignity only to be batted about by another.

Abbott has taken this fairly meekly until now, clearly preferring to minimise the opportunity for Palmer to take any more umbrage from him, the budget or the Liberal and National parties more generally.

But following the eponymous party leader’s outburst against the Chinese on Monday night, it appears this strategy is changing.

Protection of Australia’s crucial relationship with its number one trading partner has swiftly taken precedence over the need to save the budget, with a veritable conga-line of Coalition cabinet ministers denouncing Palmer for calling the Chinese government “bastards” and “mongrels” while claiming they “shoot their own people“.

Treasurer Joe Hockey may well have wondered at this point why he had even bothered taking his travelling supplicant show around the country.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop called the comments “abusive” and the airing of them on national television as inappropriate, while Treasurer Joe Hockey said they were “hugely damaging”. Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce was more circumspect, commenting that such “emotive and colourful language [is] not the way you do business”.

Even the Prime Minister has taken Palmer to task, describing the tirade on commercial radio in Palmer’s home state of Queensland as “over the top, shrill and wrong”.

Palmer has rallied his own troops in response. The former military police corporal and now Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie issued an impassioned press release warning against “the threat of a Chinese Communist invasion”, while Chinese-born PUP senator Dio Wang said Palmer had been “taken out of context”.

This is of course not the first time Palmer has made outrageous accusations against the Chinese, nor will it be the last as the miner continues to battle with his Chinese-government owned business partners Citic over royalties and other payments.

The altercation adds to the reasons why voters around the country, but particularly in Queensland, are now reassessing their perception of Palmer as an honest broker. It follows on from his sexist comments about the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, questions over his use of business funds for election campaign advertising, and what appears to be blatant nepotism in the pre-selection of candidates for the upcoming state election.

Meanwhile, the federal budget sits whimpering in the corner. What little hope the Government took from Palmer dithering over the past week or so over the GP co-payment and university fees dissolved on Monday night when the PUP leader declared:

I don’t want to destroy the values of this country and I assure all Australians that we will stand as the last sentry at the gate. There will be no co-payment. There will be no changes to the education establishments in Australia. There will be no deregulation of universities. That’s why people elect us and that’s what we’re going to do.

Treasurer Joe Hockey may well have wondered at this point why he had even bothered taking his travelling supplicant show around the country over the past few weeks to personally meet with Palmer and the PUP senators.

However, Hockey’s better half, the Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, has stepped in to stress the budget is not dead, but just resting.

Cormann essentially called for political commentators to take a chill pill, pointing out that “no government in recent political history had passed all of its budget measures through both houses of Parliament by the end of August”, the supply bills had already been passed, and “a number of the measures that are the subject of the most intensive post-budget debate are not due to take effect for some time”, leaving ample time to keep engaging with the Senate crossbenchers.

This may well be a message for Palmer, which when decoded from Cormann-speak means “we do not negotiate with terrorists”.

Hockey, Shorten: tongue-tied and in trouble

The language of politics is an art form which, if not quickly mastered, will consign a politician to obscurity if they’re lucky, and disrepute if they’re not.

This is most evident in the cases of Joe Hockey and Bill Shorten.

It turns out Hockey had a reasonable case to make yesterday when pointing out lower income households face a smaller cost increase because they buy less petrol than those with higher incomes. The Treasurer later produced numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and his department to back this up.

But the language Hockey used to make the point was completely wrong. He unnecessarily raised the hackles of genuinely low income earners (and those who think they’re doing it tough) by suggesting poor people don’t drive cars as much as rich people do.

In doing so Hockey totally ignored the point that, like food and utility bills, fuel costs take a greater proportion of low income earners’ pay packets than those of high income earners.

This clumsy performance demonstrates the failure of Hockey – and just as importantly those who advise him – to grasp the basics of political messaging. Hockey is a bumbler who’s easily left flailing for an answer, at which time he usually resorts to throwaway lines that are sometimes amusing and at other times an inadvertent insult.

The Treasurer should never be left in that position. He should be pre-prepared with a water-tight response to every question imaginable about the contentious matters in the budget. And Hockey should be so well versed in each response that he could recite them in his sleep.

So instead of banging on about rich people paying more, and losing the majority of voters who really don’t give a fig about the comparative burden of those in the upper percentiles, Hockey could have said something like this:

We Australians love our cars. We need them to get around our sprawling cities and vast rural communities. And we’ve kept driving them even when the cost of petrol went past a dollar a litre years ago. This change asks motorists to pay just one cent a litre more this year, which is about 40 cents a week for the average household. Even if we don’t notice the increase as the price of petrol fluctuates each week, we will notice the new, improved and safer roads that will result from the extra $550 million raised each year.

Such a message recognises the necessity of private transport, doesn’t try to make people feel guilty for liking to drive their gas-guzzlers, and puts the increase in context. Most importantly, it makes taxpayers feel good for making a modest contribution towards solving a national problem, that is, the quality and safety of our roads. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that we like people who make us feel good about ourselves.

So if Hockey had been prepared with such a response it could have earned him a few brownie points and would likely have saved him from a day of scathingly bad press.

Regrettably for Australian voters, such ineptitude is not limited to the Coalition’s ranks. Much of Labor Leader Bill Shorten’s inability to connect with voters can also be attributed to his poor political language skills.

Unlike Hockey, Shorten at least learns his lines, and these can often be spied among the jumbled rhetoric and mangled logic the Leader of the Opposition is wont to deliver during interviews.

These include clumsy allusions to Tony Abbott such as having “made himself the patron saint of being the politician who would not break promises“, or “This guy has just won the Olympic gold medal of great big new taxes.”

Using the “more is better” approach, Shorten also resorts to kitchen-sink denunciations such as “The whole GP tax is a clunker, it’s rotten, it’s unfair, it’s a broken promise” while some of his other statements, such as this Yoda-ish example, simply make little sense at all:

But what we also believe is that Medicare, and attacking universal health care, free and affordable, is a line that we won’t let the Abbott Government cross.

If this isn’t enough to confuse and discourage voters, there are two other elements of Shorten’s political communication that are letting him – and Labor – down.

As much as we grew to hate the repetitious nature of then opposition leader Abbott’s “stop the boats” mantra, it was resoundingly effective with disengaged voters. Abbott stuck to a few key messages that explicitly conveyed positives about his alternative government while implying negatives about the Rudd and Gillard governments.

These messages connected with concerns that voters already held, and Abbott expertly repeated them until they became undisputed “truths”.

In contrast, Shorten is all over the shop, seemingly unable to find a slogan that works or be able to stick to one. That’s partly because the slogans appear to be crafted by a zealous marketing intern and not a battalion of astute political operators. (#DebtSentence is tendered as Exhibit No. 42).

But most of all, Shorten’s communications Achilles heel is the affected way in which he speaks. Not since Julia Gillard transformed into a Stepford prime minister during the 2010 federal election campaign (before deciding to reveal The Real JuliaTM), has the Australian voting public been subjected to such an annoying bedtime-story voice as the one Shorten uses in press conferences and media interviews.

No one likes to be treated patronisingly, least of all by a politician, yet this is the impression Shorten gives when he speaks to us in this insincere and dissembling way. It’s little wonder then that the Labor Leader is travelling so poorly in the opinion polls when the Coalition Government remains deeply unpopular.

Effective communication is not an optional extra when it comes to political success; it’s the key to establishing the trust and confidence needed to secure precious votes.

Whether its formulation and delivery takes on the repetitive staccato of a Pollock or the inspiring cadence of a Monet, a successful political message will always connect with the audience in a genuine and meaningful way.

And until Hockey and Shorten realise this, and rectify their communication issues, both men will fail to prosecute their respective political cases.

Abbott’s survival relies on knowing when to fold’em

Political longevity comes, in no small part, from a government’s ability to survive its mistakes – the self-inflicted stumbles, dramas and crises that diminish it in the eyes of voters.

The key to survival is often a matter of knowing the right time to stick to one’s guns and when to cut one’s losses and move on.

The third approach is to create a diversion. A well-executed diversion can take the heat out of an issue by drawing the attention of the media and public away from the troublesome matter at hand. This creates space in which to find the necessary course corrections.

The trick of course is to know what is the right approach to take at any one time.

Over the past week the Abbott Government executed these tactics with varying degrees of success. In what is anticipated to be the first in a series of concessions over the coming months, the Prime Minister cut adrift the proposed amendments that would have watered down the Racial Discrimination Act.

The extent of the loss for supporters of free speech was writ large on the face of the Attorney-General, George Brandis, as he stood stonily beside the Prime Minister at the media conference announcing the backdown.

Both men knew this was undeniably a big win for the progressive side of politics, which had campaigned in concert with the representatives of ethnic communities for the retention of curbs on hate speech. Pairing the announcement with the declaration of new counter-terrorism measures was therefore meant to be a diversionary tactic to convince the media that the security changes were a bigger news story than the progressives’ win on 18c.

This manoeuvre proved more distracting than likely expected when it transpired the new measures also included the mandatory retention of information on Australian citizens’ telephone and internet use. Progressives who were one moment celebrating the overturn of the 18c changes, were then raging about the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In effect Tony Abbott swapped one leftist soapbox for another, and while it’s true the Coalition’s core voter base enjoys seeing the Left prodded into outrage every now and then, they will have marked Abbott down on the anti-terrorist measures because of the associated “spine-weakening” on free speech.

So by the end of the past week, Abbott was getting no credit for taking the hard decision on 18c or protecting the nation with the new security measures. And following what looked very much like self-sabotage on Brandis’s part when he botched the explanation of metadata retention during a media interview, there was a growing need to stem the flow of outrage exacerbated by the exceedingly poor marketing of the security initiative.

A Machiavellian might be forgiven for thinking it was at this point the Government decided it needed a diversion from its diversion. Indeed, can there be any other explanation for the Liberals’ dour arch-conservative, Senator Eric Abetz, agreeing to appear on the commercial light-news program The Project on Thursday night?

Abetz’s subsequent comments on the link between abortion and breast cancer provided just the circuit-breaker needed to reset the outrage machine on social media and provide a whole new story arc for its limpet media.

This theory is not so far-fetched if one considers the times when other members of the Liberals’ extreme right have also seemingly been wheeled out to perform distraction duties. Senator Cory Bernardi’s comments on same-sex marriage and bestiality, albeit in opposition, are a particular case in point.

The added benefit of extremists like Abetz and Bernardi taking the stage in this way is that their behaviour and views tend to normalise those of less extreme conservatives, thereby dragging the “centre” of politics even further to the right.

As the past week closed, it could be argued that Abetz’s intervention had succeeded: it certainly seemed as if the mainstream media had moved on to other fare. And so as the new week begins, the polity awaits the arrival of the next bandwagon to clatter through the echo-chambers of Twitter.

What does seem clear is that the Prime Minister will have to cut his losses on a range of other measures if he is to get some semblance of the budget through the Senate. The time for stubbornness or diversion is well past.

This means finding ways to accommodate the crossbench’s opposition to changes to payments for families, eligibility requirements for welfare recipients, the GP co-payment, and changes to higher education charges.

In reality, the best way to demonstrate his willingness to negotiate on the budget would be for Abbott to formally set aside or scrap his paid parental leave scheme. Having already justified his broken promise on the 18c changes as being in the national interest, this would be the logical next step.