Shorten needs to refine his brand of attack

Shorten needs to refine his brand of attack

Tony Abbott has often been referred to as the most successful opposition leader in contemporary Australian politics.

Never before had an opposition leader gotten away with such a negative campaign for so long. Never before had relentless negativity paid such rich dividends.

But what has often been overlooked in this narrative is that Abbott’s popularity and that of the Liberal Party were perversely symbiotic – Abbott’s personal approval ratings bore the brunt of his negativity while that of the Coalition flourished.

At the time, Abbott’s low personal approval ratings might have seemed a small price to pay for success on polling day. But while a prime minister doesn’t have to be loved to be successful, it does help to have some form of political capital in the bank – whether it be love or respect – to engender voter forgiveness when the inevitable stumbles or tough decisions occur.

Abbott had no such political capital when he became PM, which exacerbated the poor decisions he’s made, including the horror budget in 2014. The PM has had to buy his way back into favour – with the voters and his colleagues – with a magic pudding budget that will likely carry him through to an almost full-term election in March next year.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten currently finds himself in a similar situation to that faced by his predecessor. Shorten’s opposition style, while not as stridently negative as Abbott, has nevertheless resulted in his personal approval ratings taking a hit, while his party benefits.

Most of the published opinion polls show Labor continuing to hold an election-winning lead over the Government, yet Shorten’s approval rating has dropped and Abbott has retaken the lead as preferred prime minster.

Shorten certainly never intended to be a pale imitation of Abbott. Three months into his term as Labor Leader he told one media outlet:

We are not going to just say no to everything; we don’t believe our model of opposition has to be an imitation of Tony Abbott’s model of opposition.

But when the Abbott Government produced one of the harshest federal budgets ever, the decision to “go negative” was essentially taken out of Shorten’s hands. With so much material to work with, and Labor supporters calling for Abbott to be given a dose of his own medicine, the Labor Leader had no other choice but to go on the attack.

Granted, there have been limited occasions on which Labor has sided with the Government – such as national security, asylum seekers and metadata retention – but in each case the Opposition has been heartily criticised for being complicit in the Government’s perceived misdeeds. So the temptation to default to negative is considerably strong.

This year’s budget gives the Labor Leader much less material to work with. Packed with giveaways that would make even former PMs Rudd and Howard blush, it has enough winners to overshadow the inevitable losers.

Labor could continue to be obstructionist in the Senate, even to the extent that it blocks some of its own funding cuts from when still in government, but the Government could simply bypass the Opposition altogether and deal with the Senate crossbenchers.

The crossbench has fractured into eight individual votes, requiring considerable effort from the Government to negotiate the deals to secure the six votes needed to pass budget measures. But that’s preferable to Abbott having to beat his head against a Labor brick wall.

It’s an invidious choice for Shorten and Labor – between negativity and cooperation – particularly when the more constructive option receives little kudos from the voting public. But if Shorten concludes that Labor’s best bet is to remain on the attack, then he needs to refine his methods for doing so.

One of the success factors often overlooked from Abbott’s time as Opposition Leader was the way his three word slogans were crafted. His commitment to “stop the boats, scrap the taxes, and repair the budget” held a double meaning. It was not only a way of describing what he stood for, but in a reverse-fashion condemned the Labor government for “weakening our borders, increasing our taxes, and wrecking our budget”.

If Shorten is prepared to sell his soul (or personal approval ratings) for a Labor victory, he needs to ditch the corny dad jokes and zingers (for Shorten is no Keating), and find short, sharp dual-purpose messages like Abbott’s that resonate with actual voters (not just the political elite). He needs to repeat those messages until we’re sick of them (for that is when disengaged voters will only just be hearing them), instead of muddying the water by test-driving a new message every couple of days.

While Labor’s current slogan “a smart, modern and fair Australia” is a good start, it still feels like a platitude next to the Coalition’s efforts.

And on the policy front, Shorten needs to ensure that consolidating the Opposition’s reputation as the champion of fairness and equity – as they seem likely to do in response to this year’s budget – is not done at the expense of rebuilding its economic credentials.

It could be argued that both the Coalition and Labor had a poll lead in opposition despite their leaders’ poor approval ratings, not due to their negative style of opposition. But to do so would ignore the fact that negative campaigning has been proven to be devastatingly successful – when it is done right.

By sharpening his campaigning style, Shorten has a good chance of emulating his predecessor Abbott. But as we have seen with Abbott, electoral success built upon negativity carries the risk of permanent unpopularity. Is that a Faustian price that Shorten is willing to pay?

An equity war could stifle the post-budget glow

An equity war could stifle the post-budget glow

Two post-budget opinion polls have thudded onto our electronic doorsteps this morning, heralding good news for the Prime Minister and Treasurer on their “save our jobs” budget.

Yet the man feted only a week ago as the master budget salesman, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison, has suddenly gone missing in action.

According to the Newspoll and Ipsos surveys, voters are considerably happier with this year’s budget than they were with the 2014 economic omnishambles.

Newspoll found 46 per cent of voters believed the budget would be good for the economy, compared with 28 per cent who thought it would have the opposite effect. Last year only 39 per cent thought it would be good, while a whopping 48 per cent denounced it as bad for the economy. This year’s Newspoll approval rating is the also highest for a federal budget since the first brought down by Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan in 2008.

Fairfax’s Ipsos poll reflects similar voter sentiment, finding 52 per cent of voters are satisfied with this year’s budget, with the same number also judging it as fair, compared to 33 per cent on both counts last year. The proportion of voters who perceived the budget as unfair dropped from 63 per cent last year to 33 per cent.

This will undoubtedly come as a relief to PM Abbott and Treasurer Hockey, who have both had to abandon any attempt at budget repair to restore the Government to voters’ good graces and thereby drag their political futures back from the brink.

The kicker in this morning’s polls however is that the budget doesn’t appear to have been embraced by women.

In the Newspoll, 44 per cent of women believe the budget will be good for the economy, compared with 48 per cent of men. Analysis of the Ipsos poll shows that while the Government’s primary vote from men has improved by six points to 46 per cent over the past month, the shift from women has only been two points to 41 per cent.

However, until pollsters ask specific questions about Minister Morrison’s vaunted “jobs and families” package, it’s difficult to judge the extent to which it has (or hasn’t) been well-received by Australia’s women.

Some commentary has laid the blame for Morrison’s paid parental leave missteps to the all-male Expenditure Review Committee. This observation neatly ignores the fact that one of the three departmental secretaries involved in delivering the budget was Finance Secretary Jane Halton, and of course there was the uncredited involvement of the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

Setting aside the question of whether the ERC needs to be representative of any group in order to effectively do its job, the committee’s real failure in developing the budget was that it placed too much store in Morrison’s unwavering self-belief. It let Morrison’s hubris override what should have been the group’s sound political judgement.

Admittedly, the Minister hadn’t made a wrong step in the lead up to budget week. It’s even understandable that he and other ministers may have been concerned that voters would not accept public servants and employees with generous employer-paid parental leave schemes also having access to the minimum wage safety net. Let’s face it, the campaign against Tony Abbott’s PPL was aimed squarely at such women getting more than their lower income-earning sisters.

However, Morrison’s mistake was not to restrict parents to only having access to one PPL scheme. The extra money for child care had to come from somewhere. The Minister’s error was to turn the issue into an equity war where parents who lawfully accessed the taxpayer-funded scheme on top of an employer-provided one were depicted as having an unfair advantage over those who only got the taxpayer-backed minimum-wage version.

Morrison compounded this poor judgement by labelling those who could legitimately get two payments as rorters.

The Minister should have known Australians don’t respond well to confected class wars. They didn’t like it when Labor opposition leader Mark Latham tried to invoke one against John Howard in 2004. Nor did they take it well when Labor treasurer Wayne Swan did something similar in 2012.

Former Liberal leader John Howard did have some success with a class war against Paul Keating in 1996, eschewing Keating’s interests as elite and esoteric while vowing to govern “for all of us”. But Morrison is no Howard, and neither is Abbott. Neither man has the political capital necessary to generate the esteem voters had for Howard at that time.

Since stumbling with the rort-gate comments in the immediate aftermath of the budget, Morrison has gone unusually quiet. He’s posted a couple of happy snaps on Twitter and issued a couple of media releases, but otherwise the Minister is keeping a low profile. Despite this, it’s clear the Minister has convinced the Government to push on with the equity war.

Using an interview in the Government’s preferred Sunday tabloid, the Treasurer highlighted yesterday the disparity in disposable income between taxpayers and welfare recipients. Hockey said this year the budget papers provided information on different households’ disposable income, tax contribution and welfare bill because:

People need to know where their taxpayer money is going. This gives them the chance to see – and if they are receiving payments, it doesn’t come from a money tree in Canberra, it comes from someone else’s taxes.

Hockey later denied the information was provided to build resentment between taxpayers and welfare recipients. Yet it’s hard to see how it would serve any other purpose, particularly given the Government’s already disclosed tendency to demonise some welfare recipients.

We should expect to hear much more of the equity war from now until the next election.

The political fortunes of the main players in the Coalition have shifted in the past week, not only due to the bounteous budget but also the political acuity of the protagonists.

PM Abbott and Treasurer Hockey are back in the voters’ good books for handing out the largesse and not making any obvious gaffes. The biggest turnaround, however, has been for Minister Morrison. He now sits chastened in the background, counting his regrets over ill-chosen words, and plotting the next move in what will prove to be an ill-advised equity war.

Government rolls dice on “Labor-lite” budget

Government rolls dice on “Labor-lite” budget

The conservative Abbott Government is poised to bring down a Labor budget. At least that’s how some political commentators are depicting tomorrow’s “we’re sorry, how about this one?” budget from the contrite Prime Minister and his team.

It’s a fair assumption, given what’s been leaked from the budget to date. However, trying to crowd Labor out of the budget debate could be a risky move.

Last year’s budget was the Abbott Government’s first; the one that traditionally doles out the tough measures early, in the hope voters will have forgotten the pain by the time the next election is held. Treasurer Joe Hockey spent the appropriate amount of time preparing Australians for a budget that would bring an end to the “age of entitlement”, but stumbled when it became clear the economic statement tried to do precisely the opposite.

Twelve months later, Hockey hasn’t managed to live down his badly misjudged budgetary reforms, or his role in making matters worse by being caught on camera puffing stogies and complaining to anyone who’d listen that he was misunderstood.

This year Hockey is on a warning, and he has relinquished much of the budget sales job to the Prime Minister and the unlikely candidate for the 2015 Mr Congeniality award, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison.

Since attaining the welfare portfolio at the end of last year Morrison has reminded his colleagues – and the voters – how a competent minister operates; he’s kept an open mind on solutions to vexed policy issuesbrought the public into the discussion, and constantly explained what he is doing next and why.

The true test of Morrison’s competence of course will be how successfully he shepherds his reforms through the Senate. With this in mind he’s shaped the “jobs and families” component of the budget to mimic Labor policy, with proposed reforms to the aged pension and childcare support that essentially take from the rich and give to the poor, in accordance with what could be seen as Labor values.

Even the most recent budget leak, foreshadowing that parents with two possible sources of paid parental leave will be prevented from drawing on both, looks more like a Labor equity measure than a Liberal funding cut.

Just to help us connect these dots, Morrison pointedly told a journalist “a truly reforming Labor government, in the Hawke-Keating mode, would approve of this budget”.

In doing this, Morrison is presenting Labor with a conundrum similar to that which challenged the Greens over fuel tax excise – whether to support a Government proposal that is more aligned with their own values than the Coalition’s, or oppose it for fear of being seen to be complicit.

This has left Labor a little flat-footed, to say the least.

Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen said yesterday that Labor welcomed any package focussed on making it easier for parents to participate in the workforce, but that linking it to cuts in family payments was “disingenuous and cruel” given that “children don’t get cheaper when they turn six”. Bowen seems to have conveniently forgotten that it was his government that moved parents from the Parenting Payment to the lower-paying Newstart when their youngest child turned six (incidentally on the same day as PM Gillard’s famed misogyny speech).

Bowen was also reduced to criticising the Government’s previous proposal on the aged pension, not the current one, which has the support of the welfare sector and some crossbench Senators. Labor’s families spokesperson, Jenny Macklin, similarly hedged her bets, lamely noting in response to the proposal to stop “double dipping” on parental leave that “you would never believe anything they say about paid parental leave” instead of addressing the actual policy.

No doubt the Government is finding it all very amusing to watch the Opposition grapple with this policy wedge, but there’s an attendant risk in offering up a Labor-lite budget to Australian voters.

It’s true that after last year’s omnishambles, voters have a high expectation that this year’s economic statement will be fair. But just as importantly, they will also expect the budget to be economically responsible. And thanks to years of the Abbott opposition chanting the debt and deficit mantra, voters now measure economic competency in these oversimplified terms.

This is a huge risk for the Government, exacerbated by the new spending on childcare and perhaps other initiatives in tomorrow’s budget.

Last year, Hockey claimed he would be able to deliver a balanced budget in four years, but this is now unlikely in the foreseeable future. Yet the Government has adjusted its message from the need to deal with a “budget emergency” to the budget being “manageable”, despite an anticipated blowout in this year’s deficit to $45 billion. Notably, the budget emergency was initially based on Labor’s projected deficit in 2013 of $18 billion.

Now Labor will attempt to return the favour, doing its best in the post budget wash-up to untangle its own economic credibility from the debt and deficit albatross so that it can be lashed around the current Treasurer’s neck.

Scott Morrison may have capably performed the role of budget whisperer in past weeks, but when the focus moves to the health of the economy on Tuesday night only the Treasurer will be in a position to explain why the burgeoning deficit is not a cause for voter concern. If Hockey fails, we may get to see if Morrison is up to this task. If he is not, then it will likely be Chris Bowen and Labor’s turn.

Was Christine Milne pushed or did she jump?

Was Christine Milne pushed or did she jump?

When Christine Milne unexpectedly announced her resignation as leader of the Australian Greens on Wednesday, many political observers had the same thought – did she jump or was she pushed?

The veteran conservationist politician hasn’t had the easiest of times since succeeding the iconic Bob Brown as leader of the party three years ago.

At the time, then Senator Brown had built the party into a clear alternative for voters at the progressive end of the political spectrum.

As a result, Labor voters defected in droves, giving the Greens its biggest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election.

Following Mr Brown’s departure in 2012, Ms Milne faced the challenge of maintaining that vote at a time when the Greens were variously being blamed for dragooning Prime Minister Julia Gillard into bringing in a carbon tax, risking the lives of boat people by refusing to support the Malaysia solution, or putting protest before principle.

The Green vote had started to drop even before Mr Brown had retired, but a number of poor state and territory election results for the Greens sparked speculation that Ms Milne’s leadership was at risk.

This speculation did not abate in early 2013, despite Ms Milne using a National Press Club address to end the relationship forged between the Greens and Labor, that allowed Ms Gillard to form government.

The Greens leader hoped the very public divorce would reduce the criticism levelled at the party for supporting the Gillard minority government.

The tactic did not work.

While the Greens famously prefer to keep their dirty laundry to themselves, recriminations and other destabilising comments were fed to the media after the party’s vote dropped from 11.8 to 8.6 per cent at the 2013 federal election.

Along with news that six of the party’s “most senior staffers” had left, rumours swirled that the party’s Adam Bandt had been planning to challenge Ms Milne for the leadership.

Another notably ambitious Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, told journalists after Ms Milne was re-elected as leader that her party had “just returned a leader that would see the party marching to a slow death”.

One of the staffers who left at that time was Ms Milne’s former chief of staff Ben Oquist, who cited “fundamental differences of opinion in strategy” for his departure.

During his time as chief of staff to Ms Milne, and before that in the same role with Mr Brown, Mr Oquist was on the board of the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank originally established by Clive Hamilton.

Mr Oquist is now a strategist with the organisation, which is headed by another former Greens staffer, Richard Denniss, who hasn’t held back in his public criticism of Ms Milne or in suggesting the need for generational change in the party’s leadership.

Although not an extension of the Greens, by any measure, Mr Oquist and Mr Denniss have since the federal election articulated the concerns about Ms Milne that Greens MPs will not for fear of being seen to be no better than the destabilisers in the “old” parties.

When the leader decided not to negotiate with the Abbott government on increasing the petrol tax excise, it was Mr Denniss who was reported echoing the words of the Greens MPs who wondered why an anti-pollution party wouldn’t support increasing a tax on petrol.

Mr Denniss went even further, criticising Senator Milne for essentially cutting the Greens out of having any influence and giving the balance of power to Clive Palmer, because her “political strategy is to oppose things that Tony Abbott introduces” even when “Abbott proposes things that Greens support” such as “petrol taxes, increasing taxes on high-income earners, the PPL”.

Of course, the Australia Institute head would know, because Mr Oquist facilitated the Mr Palmer/Al Gore press conference that led to the PUP leader committing to save the renewable energy target.

Behind the scenes, under the cover of the Greens’ fabled solidarity, Mr Bandt is said to have been the main leadership agitator, while Ms Hanson-Young’s frequent attempts at challenging for leadership roles have made her intentions patently clear.

To many observers, it was merely a matter of time before Ms Milne acceded to the combined forces of internal pressure from her colleagues and external pressure from critics like those at the Australia Institute, and declared an end to her time as leader.

However, as word emerged that some Greens MPs, such as Mr Bandt, had not known that Ms Milne was going to resign, and therefore had no time to do the numbers, it became clear that the wily conservationist had got the jump on her detractors.

The election of two Milne supporters, Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlam, as co-deputy leaders, also made it clear that the Melbourne MP’s confidence in becoming the next Greens’ leader was not shared by the majority of his colleagues.

Originally published at The New Daily

Political leaks leave voters in the dark

Political leaks leave voters in the dark

To say the relationship between journalist and politician is symbiotic is to describe a fundamental truth; one could barely function without the other.

This mutual need defines the deeply problematic nature of the relationship, particularly when it comes to “anonymous” leaks.

Leaks to the media play an important part in the transactional world of politics, where the journalist who receives the exclusive information gets kudos for the coveted scoop while the leaker achieves their objective without leaving any fingerprints.

Doyen of the Canberra press gallery, Laurie Oakes, claims democracy “can’t work without leaks”. That may be so, but when a politician leaks to the media only the MP knows the true purpose of the subterfuge, while the journalist accepts being an unwitting accomplice in return for the exclusive.

Oakes has over past decades made an art form of getting political leaks. And he’s never shied from this clandestine form of journalism, noting that “people use me and I use them. It’s the way reporting has always worked.”

As a result, a number of modern political history’s turning points have been the result of a surreptitious drop to Oakes.

In 1980 he was given 15 minutes in a car park to go through confidential budget papers, the contents of which he revealed the night before the budget’s official release. In 1991 it was Oakes who blew the lid on then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s failure to deliver on the secret “Kirribilli agreement”, which was a promise to stand aside for Treasurer Paul Keating after the 1990 federal election. And in 1997 it was Oakes again who used leaked material to expose Howard Government ministers who were rorting their travel allowances.

More recently, Oakes used information leaked from a confidential cabinet discussion during the Rudd era, which undermined then Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s stance on paid parental leave and the aged pension and delivered a killer blow to her 2010 federal election campaign.

While on this occasion political observers were fairly sure about Oakes’s source, and why the information was leaked, the purpose of other leaks is not always so clear.

This is particularly the case during leadership stoushes, when one side can issue leaks ostensibly from their opponents in an attempt to cow or destabilise them. The most recent likely example of that tactic was when the Prime Minister’s supporters were said to have leaked that leadership contender Malcolm Turnbull had the numbers, but Turnbull supporters said this was merely an attempt to pressure him to declare his candidacy.

Given that nothing may actually be as it seems when it comes to political leaks, what are we to make of Oakes’s column on the weekend suggesting PM Abbott may bring on an election soon after this year’s budget?

Oakes claimed in his weekly offering that the PM is “itching to hit Bill Shorten” and has been boasting the Government could win even if the Coalition started the election campaign four points behind Labor.

Quoting “colleagues”, a “Cabinet minister” and “a bureaucrat involved in the Budget process”, Oakes speculated whether a double dissolution election would be held soon after the anticipated good-news budget, particularly given the Government could hardly afford to deliver another voter-friendly budget (with no spending cuts) before the scheduled election in 2016.

The telltale indication whether this is Oakes idly connecting the dots or a concerted leak from the Government can be found in the words of the quoted Cabinet minister. According to Oakes, the senior minister had “sneered at the idea only a few weeks ago” but has recently said a DD election is “not beyond the realms of possibility”.

Yet without knowing who encouraged Oakes with such information, it is impossible to know its true purpose.

The proposition could be as simple as it looks, with the Government floating the idea through a respected journalist in an attempt to gauge the voting community’s appetite for an early election.

It could be a veiled threat to the independents and micro party representatives on the Senate crossbench, signalling that if their cooperation is not forthcoming the Government will implement reforms to Senate voting before holding a DD election that would bring about their defeat. Oakes notes this is a consideration, and that “to avoid angering Senate crossbenchers while it still needs them, the Government would probably only legislate those reforms just before an election”.

Then again, this leak could be about the PM’s still-tenuous hold on the Liberal leadership, with Oakes noting an election held shortly after the budget would head off any challenge. The prospect of an early election might also motivate a leadership contender to move swiftly after the budget to bring on another spill vote.

If so, the leak to Oakes might not be about Abbott trying to shut down Turnbull, but an attempt by Turnbull supporters to gird his loins, or even by the Bishop camp to flush him out.

Who knows? This is the rub when it comes to the mutually-dependent relationship between journalists and politicians. Leaks to the media can ensure that politicians and governments are held to account, but when politicians leak for tactical reasons their objectives are hidden by the same cloak of anonymity that protects whistle-blowers.

The pact of secrecy that allows politicians to use journalists for political means, and rewards those journalists for being little more than a cipher, does not strengthen democracy – as Oakes suggests – but belittles it.

Collusion between politicians and the media might help to meet their objectives, but it goes nowhere towards meeting the transparency needs of the voting public.