Turnbull’s new political strategy channels Rudd

One of the recent criticisms being levelled by supporters of Tony Abbott against Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is that the government relinquished a political advantage by moving closer to Labor with this month’s budget. According to the delcons, “politics is about maximising differences”.

This blunt interpretation of the political maxim is unsurprising. Abbott’s reputation as a formidable opposition leader was based on him maximising the difference between the Coalition and Labor by opposing much of the Rudd and Gillard governments’ policy agenda.

Abbott convinced voters to distrust and despise the Labor government and promised to be whatever Rudd and Gillard were not. However, voters eventually tired of hearing what Abbott was against and wanted to know what he was for. That was when the wheels started to fall off the Abbott wagon.

It’s now 10 years since another successful opposition leader used a more nuanced product differentiation to defeat the government of the day. In what was an audacious move at the time, Labor leader Kevin Rudd deliberately positioned himself as an ideological extension of the prime minister, John Howard, on economic issues.

Rudd was accused of “me too-ism” and being Howard-lite, but the strategy was an effective one. Instead of maximising the differences, Rudd reduced the points of difference between himself and Howard, particularly those that were negatives for Labor, so that he could distil the focus onto the remaining few.

As a result, the opposition leader offered voters the same safe pair of hands as Howard, but with the bonus of ratifying the Kyoto Protocol and scrapping WorkChoices.

This approach wasn’t about making voters despise and distrust Howard (although there were people who certainly felt that way about the PM), but giving them comfort that it was reasonable and responsible to replace the old warhorse with new stock from a reliable bloodline. This would allow the nation to continue to prosper while getting on with important issues like climate action.

Of course, after defeating Howard, events conspired against Rudd to prove the new PM was neither a climate champion nor the fiscal conservative he had claimed to be.

Both Abbott and Rudd’s experiences suggests successful product differentiation might win elections but it might not be enough to hold government.

Nevertheless, this month’s budget could be seen as an attempt by Turnbull and Morrison to emulate Rudd’s 2007 campaigning success. Like Rudd, Turnbull and Morrison have attempted to reduce and therefore distil the points of difference between Labor and the Coalition.

By trying to close off arguments over points of difference that traditionally are negatives for the Coalition — health, education, and the NDIS — the PM and Treasurer hope to keep the focus on the difference that is in their favour: superior economic management.

Just as Rudd offered sound economic management plus the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Turnbull and Morrison are arguing they’re the safe pair of hands to keep the economy strong while also delivering Labor goodies such as Gonski and NDIS.

That’s where the Treasurer’s favourite zinger comes into play. Ever since budget night, Morrison has been claiming the difference between a Liberal and a Labor budget is the Liberal budget is fully paid for. Meanwhile, Bill Shorten is doing his best Abbott impersonation by simply saying nope, nope, nope.

There’s no doubt voters are put off by Tweedledum politics and want to be presented with real choices. That doesn’t mean, however, they won’t respond positively to parties that agree on important policy matters such as health, education and the economy.

Nevertheless, the Turnbull government has undoubtedly taken a risk adopting a Rudd-like approach to product differentiation, given it’s based on hope rather than distrust and fear.

Healthy policy difference should always be a good thing to have in Australian politics. And fear in politics is something we can definitely do without.

Originally appeared at Crikey.

Credlin’s feminist posturing rings hollow

Regrettably, it’s standard operating procedure in politics, business and the media to respond to criticism by trying to destroy the credibility of the critic. Attack is almost always considered the best form of defence — just ask Gillian Triggs.

So it should come as no surprise that only days after Abbott proxy Peta Credlin was essentially accused of undermining another Liberal woman, Credlin in turn lashed out at PM Malcolm Turnbull with the claim that female Liberal supporters were deserting him.

Interestingly, Credlin used the Australian Election Study (AES), the nation’s only longitudinal survey of voters, to justify her claims. The AES is an imperfect tool — as are all surveys — with one of its limitations being that its data is collected straight after each federal election, when the news media is brimming with post-fact analysis and attempts by political players to frame the outcome in their favour.

According to Credlin’s interpretation of the most recent AES, which shows a lower proportion of women saying they voted for the Coalition in 2016 than 2013, Malcolm Turnbull has a worse “women problem” than Tony Abbott.

There could be many reasons for the drop in female voter support for the Coalition under Turnbull, not the least of which is the national trend of women moving away from the Coalition since the days of John Howard, and which is in line with the global trend of women moving away from right-of-centre parties.

Then there’s the fact that Turnbull has proven to be the most disappointing prime minister since Kevin Rudd — perhaps even more so.

Whatever the reason for the Coalition falling out with women, it suited Credlin to emphasise the change to deflect criticism of her being involved in a challenge against cabinet minister and new mother, Kelly O’Dwyer.

Credlin works hard to cultivate the impression that she’s an advocate and supporter of the advancement of women. So it was a very bad look for her to be associated — even if it was only in name — with a plot to bring down O’Dwyer.

The women Credlin did support during her time with Abbott, in the workplace and in the media, are steadfastly loyal. And Credlin reportedly repaid that loyalty with patronage. She was known to provide favoured female journalists with click-worthy leaks and exclusive stories, and over-rule ministers to appoint her own female friends and supporters to ministerial offices.

However, there’s another cohort of women whose careers Credlin thwarted during her time in Abbott’s office. One doesn’t have to look too far to find the stories of female Coalition staffers whose appointments or promotions were blocked by Credlin, as well as those who clashed with her, only to suddenly go on leave and then quietly disappear altogether.

And then there are the female MPs, who, under Credlin and Abbott, were not “good enough” for the junior ministry or cabinet, but who miraculously qualified for promotion once Turnbull became PM.

Even the women who managed to get into Abbott’s ministry were reportedly given rough treatment by Abbott’s gatekeeper. One well-connected female journalist wrote that Credlin’s relationship with Julie Bishop was “toxic”, and that “younger women, including Victorian Liberal frontbencher Kelly O’Dwyer, seemed to spend years in the deep freeze”.

Credlin also demanded the sacking of a female journalist who was close to O’Dwyer, for having the temerity to write that the chief of staff had snubbed Julie Bishop by not inviting her to the launch of a mentoring program for female Liberal staffers.

The genesis of the mentoring scheme also points to the mixed feelings women had about Credlin during her time with Abbott. Credlin reportedly created the support program for conservative women after noting “the sisterhood” failed to come to her defence when Clive Palmer launched a sexist attack against her. (For the record, this writer was one of several women who did criticise Palmer for the attack.)

As is often the case with Credlin, there were different views as to whether this was the real reason for her starting the scheme. She may have also been attempting to address Abbott’s “women problem” by cultivating female staffers, or perhaps even trying to build a network of supporters to kickstart her own political career.

We’ll never know for sure, given the mentoring program barely lasted a year after the man who launched it — then-minister for women Tony Abbott — was removed from the Liberal leadership by his colleagues.

Speaking of Tony Abbott, the vengeful former PM obviously didn’t get the memo that he was meant to take the high moral ground on women this week. Credlin may have been more interested in settling scores with the Turnbull camp over the alleged O’Dwyer smear, but Abbott was busy repelling women voters by dog-whistling to the MRA-types who’ve shifted to One Nation.

Abbott used his new fortnightly slot with tabloid radio host Ray Hadley to take another whack at the Human Rights Commission, which would be scrapped under Abbott’s five-point plan to make the Coalition Great Again.

This time, Abbott took aim at the Turnbull-appointed Sex Discrimination Commissioner who’d proposed the government could help to promote women in the workforce by requiring “contracted organisations to demonstrate efforts to improve gender balance, with an ultimate goal of reaching a 40:40:20 gender balance”.

According to Abbott, proposals such as this were PC rubbish and “anti men”. The former PM apparently forgot his own administration retained the previous Labor government’s 40:40:20 policy (40% men, 40% women and 20% unspecified “to allow for flexibility”) for women on government boards, although it seems to have only paid lip service to the policy given the proportion of women on government boards dropped under Abbott’s watch.

That situation was reversed under Malcolm Turnbull and his cabinet-level Minister for Women Michaelia Cash who also strengthened the policy to 50:50 across all government boards with a minimum of 40% women for each board.

Unsurprisingly, Credlin dropped the “women’s problem” line of attack against Turnbull after Abbott flaunted his unreconstructed chauvinism to lure male voters away from Pauline Hanson.

She’s already framing the next battle with the Turnbull camp, suggesting Scott Morrison’s “good debt/bad debt” approach makes the government look “dodgy”.

Originally published at Crikey.