Labor’s getting squeezed out of the market

Despite its lofty principles, politics at its most basic is a battle in the electoral marketplace of product A against product B.

Some voters scrutinise the label (policies) before selecting a product (party or politician) on election day. Some choose the product they think will be kindest on their budget, while others go for the most attractive packaging. There are voters so loyal that they’d never contemplate a change from their current brand. And yet there are others who like to mix it up, selecting a different product at each election.

As a result, political strategists strive to find ways to differentiate their product/party/politician from the rest – to make their product stand out and be reassuringly familiar to loyal customers while also presenting an alternative for those potentially looking for a change.

This differentiation strategy worked reasonably well for Bill Shorten when Tony Abbott was prime minister. Presented with the choice between the increasingly belligerent prime minister and the slightly goofy but mostly harmless Opposition Leader, and voters unsurprisingly favoured the innocuous option.

However, Shorten’s strongest selling point was that he wasn’t Abbott. Unfortunately for him, the Labor alternative suddenly became less attractive to voters once the Liberal product was upgraded to Turnbull 2.0.

At this early stage, Turnbull also is benefiting from product differentiation. Shorten amusingly pointed out this past week that he “shares in the national relief that Abbott is no longer prime minister” that undoubtedly is reflected in the new PM’s stellar opinion poll ratings.

Clearly conscious of the need to be more than not-Abbott, Turnbull has charted a perilous course between the firm commitments he gave conservative Liberals and Nationals when he became leader, and the progressive expectations of the voters that he also needs to retain government.

As a result Turnbull has maintained Abbott’s firm line on combating terrorism – albeit with more inclusive, less inflammatory language – while decrying the need to be hairy-chested. And he’s continued to justify the use of offshore detention to deter boat-borne asylum seekers, while scrapping some of Abbott’s sops to the right such as the ill-considered reintroduction of knighthoods.

Ultimately, Turnbull won’t allay suspicions that he’s Abbott in a nicer suit until he and the Treasurer Scott Morrison hand down their first federal budget. As we learned before the first Abbott/Hockey budget, it’s one thing to talk about fairness and quite another to produce a fair budget.

Shorten’s differentiation challenge is different altogether. In the past Labor stuck fast to PM Abbott on national security issues such as terrorism and asylum seekers but was able to provide a contrast to the Coalition on progressive issues, as well as economic fairness and being in touch with voters’ everyday concerns.

If Turnbull and Morrison deliver a budget that is not only fair but also seen to be so, Shorten is left with the choice of differentiating himself from Turnbull on national security or progressive issues.

Either option is as fraught for Shorten as Turnbull’s delicate dance between his own party’s conservatives and moderates. With the Australian community in a state of high anxiety over national security – and despite the dubious connection between terrorism and asylum seekers – the Labor leader knows he can’t afford to be seen to go soft on either.

That leaves the leader of the ostensibly progressive Labor Party to grapple for the left-of-centre vote with the ostensibly progressive leader of the Liberal Party. In order to differentiate himself from Turnbull as the PM shuffles leftwards to the centre of the political spectrum, Shorten is forced to move further left and into what is traditionally the Greens’ territory.

As a result, voters are now presented with a Labor Party that seems to have adopted a caricature of the Greens’ agenda – whacking high-income earnersdemonising multinationalstaking a nanny-state approach and adopting an overly-ambitious environmental agenda.

Interestingly, as the Coalition has gained in the opinion polls since Turnbull’s return, the Greens’ vote has remained relatively unchanged. This suggests soft Labor voters have shifted to the Coalition, while soft Green voters have not (yet) been persuaded to change to the Shorten’s Green-lite Labor.

Even more concerning for Shorten is the news that Turnbull’s return to the Liberal leadership has increased the number of undecided union members by almost 10 per cent. According to the ACTU, this has “been at the expense of soft progressive voters”, meaning the Labor movement would be “targeting all previously identified ‘soft Labor’ and ‘soft Greens’ voters in (their) persuasion efforts”.

It may make sense for Labor to take on a greenish tinge, given that a number of their key Opposition MPs are at risk of losing their seats to Green candidates at the next election. However, the 2016 federal election will be won and lost in the centre, from which Bill Shorten seems to be exiting at speed to make way for a rampaging Malcolm Turnbull.

The revival of Ashbygate threatens Turnbull’s ascent

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull heads back to Parliament today, refocusing on domestic political issues after a whirlwind overseas tour that took in five nations and meetings with world leaders.

As he canvasses the news of the day, the PM won’t be particularly happy to see certain media organisations agitating for greater religious profiling of the 12,000 Syrian refugees being vetted for resettlement in Australia, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks.

Turnbull will be relieved to note the absence of at least one messy political issue from the front pages – an issue that, if handled poorly, could be as damaging for Turnbull as “Choppergate” was for his predecessor.

“Ashbygate” is the highly unoriginal moniker given to the tawdry political saga that involved former staffer James Ashby and his one-time employer, the previous Liberal MP for Fisher and then independent speaker, Peter Slipper.

Ashby revealed, when he laid sexual harassment charges against his former boss, that he’d consulted a number of Liberals about his complaints while still employed by Slipper. This included the former Howard government minister, Mal Brough, who was challenging Slipper at the time for Liberal preselection in Fisher.

Ashby also disclosed in media interviews that he’d had discussions with Queensland Liberal MP Wyatt Roy and the then leader of opposition business, Christopher Pyne.

The discussion with Pyne was particularly pertinent, given Slipper’s defection from the Liberal Party helped strengthen the precarious hold PM Julia Gillard had on minority government at the time.

Within this context, Ashby’s allegations looked suspicious and politically motivated, and the federal court found accordingly.

There were subsequent legal manoeuvres, with Ashby successfully challenging this ruling, and then dropping the case, while Slipper was separately found guilty, and then successfully overturned the charge, of misusing taxpayer-funded taxi vouchers.

By the time the Abbott government was elected in 2013, many thought Ashbygate to be well and truly over. However, there was no resolution of the questions raised about the role played by Liberal MPs.

In his finding against Ashby’s original complaint, the Federal Court judge, Justice Steven Rares, described the case as an abuse of political process. Rares pointed the finger squarely at Brough, concluding that Ashby and fellow staff member Karen Doane had worked with Brough “to cause Mr Slipper as much political and public damage as they could inflict on him”.

Brough also admitted in a media interview that he’d asked Ashby to make copies of the then speaker’s diary, apparently to prove Slipper’s suspected abuse of travel allowances.

It has been a point of considerable speculation since then how Brough’s actions avoided any further political or legal scrutiny. After securing preselection for Fisher, he was elected in 2013, but was not returned to the ministry until Turnbull became leader in 2015.

Curiously, out of all the portfolios options available to him, Turnbull made the former assistant treasurer and families and community services minister, his new Special Minister of State. That is, the minister responsible for parliamentarians’ entitlements.

So it’s unsurprising there have been mutters about the appropriateness of putting an MP with a shadow hanging over his own integrity in charge of the same quality in other MPs.

Those mutters turned to chatter last week when the Australian Federal Police conducted a search of Ashby’s homeapparently due to a renewed complaint from Slipper about his diary being illegally procured by Brough. The search warrant reportedly also named Wyatt Roy, now a junior minister in the Turnbull team, as well as Christopher Pyne.

This is a doubly bad development for PM Turnbull. It’s not just a bad look to have dodgy-looking ministers in one’s handpicked frontbench; it’s even more potentially damaging when the very same MPs are one’s key lieutenants and supporters, which is the case for Turnbull with Brough, Roy and Pyne.

Conspiracies abound as to why Slipper has chosen now to refresh his charges against Brough, with the net potentially widening to ensnare additional Turnbull ministers. One theory even has former PM Abbott encouraging Slipper to tear down Turnbull supporters in the hope of hobbling the ever-ascendant PM.

John Howard cut a swathe through his ministry to keep good faith with the voting public when it was discovered that some ministers had misused their entitlements. In contrast, Abbott resisted booting speaker Bronwyn Bishop until it was too late, even though her use of entitlements was not in keeping with community expectations.

PM Turnbull will no doubt be looking to find a happy medium between the two responses. He won’t want to be unnecessarily punitive, but equally he cannot afford to simply take Brough and co. at their word.

Whatever the reason for its resurgence, the revival of Ashbygate is not something Turnbull should take lightly. The PM needs to take a brutally dispassionate look at the evidence that could be levelled against Brough, Roy and Pyne, and make a clear-headed decision – does the political cost of keeping them outweigh the cost cutting them loose?

Responding to Paris: How a different PM changed the tone

Just days after imploring others not to do so, I find myself writing about Tony Abbott. That’s because it’s impossible to write about Australia’s response to the past weekend’s events in Paris without noting what the former prime minister had to say about the apparent terrorist attack – or perhaps more importantly, what he declined to say.

In the short time since Malcolm Turnbull wrested the Liberal leadership from Abbott, there’s been a discernible difference in the way the Government talks about key issues. In particular, Turnbull has made a point of trying to raise the level of political discourse.

Admittedly, the PM’s intentions aren’t completely altruistic. By refusing to “play the rule in, rule out game”, for example, Turnbull manages to avoid some scrutiny. However, when it comes to the way we discuss terrorism, the new PM appears to genuinely have the national interest at heart.

During his time as PM, Abbott resorted to whipping up fear and presenting a tough-guy persona in an effort to cleave voters to the Government. Turnbull has taken a different tack, moving to neutralise the former PM’s divisive approach, which reportedly was causing alienation in the Muslim community.

No longer are we subjected to Abbott’s anxiety-inciting references to the Islamic State death cult, lurking in our own backyards, patiently waiting to delivers us from our “way of life”.

Gone too are the references to those of Muslim faith not doing enough about extremists committing atrocities in the name of Islam. And there are less underhand efforts to encourage voters to equate asylum seekers with terrorists.

Just weeks after becoming PM, Turnbull reversed the onus imposed by Abbott on the Muslim community, flagging instead that he wanted the Government to work cooperatively with Muslim leaders to combat home-grown extremism.

Turnbull put this commitment into action at the time of the Parramatta police station shooting, participating in a phone hook-up with Muslim leaders soon after the event.

In stark contrast to the blame-laying Abbott, Turnbull emphasised the Muslim community was our “necessary partner” in “combating this type of violent extremism”, and stressed that “we must not vilify or blame the entire Muslim community with the actions of what is, in truth, a very, very small percentage of violent extremist individuals”.

Following the terror attacks that occurred in Paris late last week, it would have been fair to expect the disparity between Abbott and Turnbull’s responses to continue.

It was the former PM’s tendency to seek out sympathetic media and make Rudd-like appearances to remind supporters that he still existed, that led this writer to plead on social media just hours before the Paris attack for journalists to stop writing about Abbott.

The logic behind the plea was the quicker we relegated the former PM’s divisive views as irrelevant, the better chance Australia had of having a mature discussion on controversial issues such as terrorism and border protection.

As expected, PM Turnbull made all the right noises in response to the Paris attacks. Voicing solidarity with the people of France, the “home of freedom”, Turnbull stressed that free societies such as our own “will not be cowed by terrorism, no matter how shocking”.

Instead of inciting fear, the PM sought to reassure Australians that “we have the finest security agencies in the world” and “a government that is utterly committed to protecting the safety of Australians at home and so far as we can abroad”.

And instead of blaming Muslims – either directly or indirectly – the PM laid responsibility for the attacks at the feet of those who use religion to justify violence. Stating that protecting Australians and their freedom was a global battle, Turnbull said those who “seek to assert some form of religious tyranny” were posing “a threat in the name of God” but were “truthfully the work of the devil”.

The PM also downplayed the link between terrorist threats in Australia and asylum seekers, noting that “the history of terrorist activities in Australia and people of concern in this area is very much, for the most part, second and third-generation Australians”.

Even so, a small number of conservatives have called for Australian borders to be closed in response to the Paris attacks, and for the Immigration Minister to be reinstalled as a permanent member of the cabinet national security committee.

However, in an appearance on his good friend Andrew Bolt’s Sunday morning television program, Abbott was far less antagonistic than any of us anticipated. At times, his not so gracious host appeared considerably frustrated with the former PM’s disinclination to indulge in inflammatory language.

Only once reverting to his favourite term, the Islamic State “death cult”, Abbott admittedly warned “this vicious, evil entity is getting stronger,” and that “it has to be defeated at home. It has to be defeated abroad”.

But then Abbott declined Bolt’s invitation to encourage a “fatwa” to condemn Islamic State, and when pressured by his host to condemn Muslim leaders for inaction, Abbot surprisingly echoed Turnbull, lamenting “the tragedy for Islam, Andrew, is that the people who are doing these horrible, evil things claim to be doing it in the name of God. They claim to be doing it in the name of Islam. And that’s the difficulty.”

Abbott also waved away an opportunity to criticise his successor after Bolt complained that two of the first four Syrian refugee families to be resettled in Australia were Muslim. Stating he was “in the business of supporting the Government of which I am a very junior member,” Abbott then told Bolt he “shouldn’t rush to judge the Turnbull Government based on the first four families who arrive”.

He also avoided criticising Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for her suspected role in the Turnbull leadership challenge, and continued to defend his decision not to water down the Racial Discrimination Act.

Abbott’s unwillingness to pander to Bolt’s prejudices and predilections has left political observers scratching their heads.

Has the former PM seen the light and decided to join his successor’s campaign for more mature political discourse? Or is Abbott’s motivating force more material than spiritual – perhaps there is the promise of a cushy diplomatic posting to the UK if he can manage to play nice.

Perhaps the reason for Abbott’s newfound diplomacy is irrelevant. While Australia continues to face a terrorist threat that is at least partly driven by the alienation created by divisive language, our nation can only benefit from the ex-PM finding his inner statesman.

Voters treated like goldfish

Voters treated like goldfish

The Political Weekly: If the past week in politics is any indication, politicians have no idea whether voters pay attention to politics. Are we the political equivalent of goldfish, needing to be constantly reminded about what is good and bad about politicians and their policies? Or are we more like elephants, never forgetting the vices and virtues of the passing political parade?

For The New Daily.

Shorten’s union troubles aren’t over yet

Shorten’s union troubles aren’t over yet

Late last Friday the royal commission into union corruption quietly slipped out a media release, essentially declaring it had given up the chase on Labor leader Bill Shorten.

The statement advised that, following the examination of Shorten’s former union, the inquiry’s counsel believed a number of AWU officials may have had a conflict of interest when “causing the union to enter into lucrative side deals that were not disclosed to the members”.

There was however “no submission that Mr Bill Shorten may have engaged in any criminal or unlawful conduct.” Unsurprisingly, Shorten and Labor moved swiftly to depict the Labor leader as vindicated by the announcement.

However, it would be a mistake to see the union royal commission’s waving of the white flag as taking the pressure off Shorten. In fact, it effectively tightens the screws on the Opposition Leader.

Now the TURC dogs have be called off, Shorten is no longer in a position to dismiss the inquiry as simply being Tony Abbott’s very expensive personal vendetta against him and Julia Gillard. With that convenient deflection no longer available (even if true), Shorten has no choice other than to confront the evidence of union thuggery and corruption that has been uncovered.

In short, the Labor leader and his party will face increasing political pressure to deliver on Shorten’s declaration that they have “zero tolerance” for union wrongdoing and corruption.

It’s no coincidence that one of the early political manoeuvres by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was to call for Shorten to change Labor’s opposition to the Government’s proposal to create a union watchdog and reintroduce the building and construction industry commission.

Calling the “appalling cases” unearthed by TURC “a very sorry tale”, Turnbull pointedly stressed that “anyone who had the interests of the labour movement at heart” should see the royal commission “not as an opportunity for political point scoring but as … a watershed event we should use to clean up the act for the benefit of members”.

In presenting this “test” for the Opposition Leader, the Prime Minister was also gauging the Australian public’s appetite for a political tussle over the need to clean up the unions.

This is partly because Turnbull has a double dissolution trigger at his disposal on the issue – even though he has all but ruled out using it. However, the Government also needs to find a way to counter the union movement’s strong grassroots campaigning capability, which will be rolled out to support Labor at the federal election.

The potential strength of that capability can be seen in seemingly incongruous data that emerged just last month. While the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that union membership continues to be low, the union-aligned Essential Poll found two thirds of voters still think unions are important “for Australian working people today”.

It’s a little known fact beyond those who closely follow politics that the major parties tend to treat the Australian Senate more as a reward for loyal foot soldiers than a forum for talented community representatives.

Shorten’s challenge is to balance this apparent high public esteem for unions with the need to respond to the troubling findings from TURC. And he must do this while managing the often contentious role of unions within the Labor Party itself.

Like any Labor leader, Shorten owes his position at least in part to the factions that put him there; factions that are loosely arranged according to the unions that make up the party’s membership.

With the help of dominant unions, Shorten kept philosophical divisions to a minimum at Labor’s national conference earlier this year. But the price he paid for such peace was to accede to demands that unions maintain their power over key party decisions such as the preselection of Senate candidates.

It’s a little known fact beyond those who closely follow politics that the major parties tend to treat the Australian Senate more as a reward for loyal foot soldiers than a forum for talented community representatives.

Long-serving unionists, in Labor’s case, or senior office holders in the Coalition parties, almost exclusively populate the upper house along with former political staffers and party apparatchiks from either side.

While no political party has an exclusive right to stupidity, Labor’s union-based factions have made Shorten’s life difficult by demonstrating a lack of political smarts when it comes to exercising their power of Senate preselections.

Echoing the selection of antediluvian Joe Bullock over gay rights advocate Louise Pratt in Western Australian before the last federal election, and an attempt in South Australia to do something similar to Penny Wong, the unions and their factions have a done a deal in Tasmania to relegate the talented (and factionally-unaligned) young shadow minister Lisa Singh to the unwinnable fourth place on Labor’s Senate ticket in that state.

Of the three women only Wong was spared, and then only when senior Labor MP Anthony Albanese threatened to get the original decision overturned by the national executive.

Most recently, Shorten had to deal with unions trying to oust former Labor minister Gary Gray from his seat, an attempt that was apparently abandoned after the now familiar threat of national intervention.

Commenting after the preselection battle smoke cleared, Shorten claimed he supported Gray’s calls for reform of the Labor Party, and that he wanted to give “more voice to rank and file members”.

This ambition unambiguously translates into a reduction of union influence, thereby placing the Opposition Leader in a position where he appears to be acceding to the unions’ demands for their power to be retained (if not increased) while promising the opposite to Labor’s grassroots members.

As a result, Shorten has double trouble when it comes to the unions. Not only is he exposed by his own double-talk on union power within Labor, the Opposition Leader will be under pressure from what is anticipated to be a fresh attempt by the Government to wedge him on union corruption.

Shorten should therefore savour any relief he may feel from being “excused” by the union royal commission. His attempts to be all things to all people when it comes to unions will ensure the reprieve is considerably short-lived.

GST reform: Bill Shorten has a tough decision to make

GST reform: Bill Shorten has a tough decision to make

To paraphrase a certain former prime minister, Australia seems poised to have a conversation it apparently needs to have. This conversation – at least in the Government’s view – will be about convincing voters to accept an increase to the GST.

The weekend tabloids carried a shock, horror story about the Government’s “secret” plans to hike or broaden the nation’s consumption tax.

Except this expose isn’t exactly a revelation, given the Coalition Government has made various attempts since being elected in 2013 to create momentum for tax reform – including changes to the GST – in a way similar to that initiated by former PM John Howard in 1997.

Howard created a national discussion about Australia’s “broken” tax system, and how it could be “fixed” by scrapping a bunch of inefficient taxes and replacing them with just one.

The campaign started with a comprehensive report from a taxation taskforce (similar to the Government’s current tax reform white paper process), followed a year later by a package of initiatives that included the GST as well as personal income tax cuts, increases in the tax-free threshold and pensions, and the scrapping of wholesale sales tax.

Just weeks later, Howard took the GST to an election that he won – but only by the skin of his teeth. Political pundits still disagree about whether the tax helped or hindered Howard’s re-election chances, but in Coalition ranks Howard’s GST campaign is considered to be the gold standard for “visionary” politics.

Also being rather fond of the vision thing, new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is likely keen to try his hand at something similar. Considering an increased or broadened GST could help fix the Government’s current “revenue problem”, it shouldn’t come as a shock if Turnbull is found to be testing the waters of public opinion with his own tentative plan to take an increased GST to the next federal election.

Some of the groundwork has already been done, with former treasurer Joe Hockey having done some early spadework on the state and territory governments, who’ll be the major beneficiaries of any increased GST revenue.

Admittedly, Hockey was not particularly subtle, essentially trying to extort state and territory governments into acquiescence by flagging in the 2014 federal budget that there would be a $80 billion cut to future funding for schools and hospitals by 2024-25.

Yet this manoeuvre had the planned effect, with NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird holding a “crisis” meeting to discuss the cuts straight after the budget, and then 12 months later leading the charge to increase the GST.

In a video posted on social media in July this year, Baird argued:

We need revenue. I know that’s not popular, I know that’s not something people want to talk about, but unfortunately, we must. And as I look at it, it’s quite clear. The best way of dealing with this is to increase the GST.

Baird’s move was vital, given he was the most popular politician in the country at the time. PM Abbott needed the support of a leader with the stellar levels of political capital and voter trust that Baird possesses (and Abbott lacked) to calm voters feeling anxious about such proposals.

It would be fair to say that now Baird has been joined by an even more popular politician advocating tax reform, there is an even greater chance that an increased GST will be taken to the next election.

Former Howard chief of staff and now Turnbull Minister, Arthur Sinodinos, admitted as much over the weekend when he responded to the Murdoch tabloids’ non-expose.

“If you’re someone like Malcolm” and “want to do something substantial,” Sinodinos said, “you’ve got to do it quickly and upfront and you’ve got to do it when you’re in a capacity to maximise the use of your political capital to sell a story to the Australian people.”

“But,” the Minister warned, “you need their consent, so you have to do it soon in the context of putting stuff to an election rather than seeking to foist something on people before an election.”

This was also important in regaining the trust of the Australian people as a government, Sinodinos said, “because you can’t get on with reform or anything else unless you have their trust.”

Trust will be a factor for Labor too as it reiterates the party’s broad but not unanimous anti-GST stance. It will be considerably tempting for Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to try to emulate former PM Paul Keating’s attack on John Hewson’s GST, former Labor leader Kim Beazley’s denunciation of Howard’s tax, or even Tony Abbott’s “big new tax” campaign against the Gillard Government’s carbon tax.

But Shorten should keep in mind that opinion polls suggest voters are starting to come around to the idea that a GST increase is needed to fix the budget, while only 23 per cent of voters trust Labor the most when it comes to economic management.

The other complicating factor for Shorten is that the Labor state and territory governments need the money.

South Australian ALP Premier Jay Weatherill has expressed frustration with the extended stalemate on the GST, giving conditional support for an increase and saying “somebody has to step up and be honest about the size of the problem and actually be prepared to advance some positive ideas for solving it”.

Weatherill also warned his Labor colleagues not to play politics with the issue, dismissing Bill Shorten’s strident rejection of any GST increase by noting federal Labor was in opposition, “and I don’t have the luxury of just opposing for the sake of it.”

And while the Queensland and Victorian Labor state governments are still sounding hairy-chested in their opposition to any GST increase, a media report today suggests the Queensland Government could be “open to a broader reform package that included a change to the base or rate, provided it did not leave Queenslander’s worse off” and that the Victorian Government would respect the Turnbull Government’s mandate if it won an election with the GST.

This leaves the federal Opposition Leader with an invidious choice.

If PM Turnbull has his way, Australia is about to embark on a grand adventure involving a national conversation and a mutually-agreed way to fix the budget.

However, if Shorten continues his blanket campaign against the GST, he risks further damaging Labor’s already poor economic record. And if he joins the conversation on tax reform and secures wins for lower-income voters who can’t afford the GST increase, he’ll face accusations of enabling the Government as the Democrats did in 1999.