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?