Putting aside all the electoral complications, an unseemly rush to the ballot box without an adequate explanation of Malcolm Turnbull’s plans for economic repair would seriously test the public’s trust.
The Political weekly: The federal election should be held in August or September this year. If it is called for any time before that, particularly the first half of 2016, voters will have no choice than to think PM Turnbull is taking us for fools.
A popular Prime Minister leading a party praised for its economic management wants to have a national conversation about expanding the GST. This leaves the Opposition Leader in an invidious position.
It may be true, as one columnist noted on the weekend, that it was Peta Credlin who drew up Abbott’s successful strategy in opposition, and that the perception in “the prime minister’s office” right now is that a panicking party has forgotten “who put it in power”. But a great strategist in opposition does not necessarily make a competent Chief of Staff in government, or one that is able to adequately perform all of its functions.
Those listening carefully last Friday may have almost caught Treasurer Joe Hockey humming a few bars from “Sadie the cleaning lady” as he announced his innovative infrastructure deal with state and territory treasurers.
For it was left to the Government’s chief budget spruiker to mop up the political detritus left by his colleagues over the preceding week and get the budget expectations campaign back on track.
The Treasurer, formerly known as Sloppy Joe, is painfully aware that his own credibility as well as that of the Abbott Government is vested in how well the public and the media receive his first budget.
That reception is reliant on a campaign of softening up the voters to expect decisions that are tough but fair, and to build acceptance even before the budget is handed down by creating a sense of momentum and inevitability.
Traditionally, the government uses the final week of Parliament before the six-week break leading up to the budget to create that sense of momentum. So a week playing Knights and Bigots was a distraction Hockey could ill afford.
Nevertheless, Hockey took to the clean-up task with relish. On Friday he threw the states and territories a juicy incentive to sell off their assets, under the guise of an almost too clever euphemism “asset recycling“, thereby effecting a workmanlike attempt to draw our eyes away from the car crash that was last week’s Parliament and refocus our gaze on matters economic.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rolled up his sleeves and joined in on Sunday, authoritatively re-establishing the narrative about “Operation Repair the Budget”. He attended to a few stray splashes by reaffirming the Coalition had committed only to the first four years of Gonski funding and that the NDIS would be implemented in a way that was “efficient and as well-targetted as possible”.
Cormann devoted considerable elbow grease to the troublesome Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms, hoping to dispel concerns over what he claimed to be inaccurate depictions of the changes. He repeated, again, that he developed the reforms as the shadow minister for financial services and superannuation after extensive consultation and a series of parliamentary inquiries that looked at financial products and services.
This appeared to be as much an effort to distance the reforms from the standing-aside Assistant Treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos, as they were to calm citizens concerned about rampaging financial advisers. The former Australian Water Holdings chairman is due to give evidence to the ICAC on Wednesday, at which time Sinodinos’s many fans may be confronted with uncomfortable truths about the fallibility of their man’s widely-regarded political acumen.
Sinodinos has undoubtedly opened a chink on the Government’s flank, causing them to be at least temporarily circumspect when it comes to dodgy deals and corruption. This became clear when, amongst the many dramas unravelling in Parliament last week, barely a peep was heard about the sentencing of former Labor MP Craig Thomson and former ALP President Michael Williamson, for misusing union funds.
Had Sinodinos not been in the picture, Thomson and Williamson would have been brandished by the Government as further justification of the need for the royal commission into union corruption and used to wedge Opposition Leader Bill Shorten from his union support base.
Instead, the Parliament was subjected to the Prime Minister’s twin indulgences, a Racial Discrimination Act retrofitted to accommodate Andrew Bolt and the reintroduction of an archaic honours system.
Perhaps Liberal voters in Western Australia, who are required to attend a polling booth this weekend for the fourth time in 12 months, consider these relics attractive. It’s more likely they’re interested in jobs, health and education, all of which were barely mentioned by the Government last week.
Ironically, Shorten was more on-song with Hockey than the Prime Minister. In his first address to the National Press Club since becoming Leader of the Opposition, Shorten contributed Labor’s threads to the budget narrative by defending his party’s economic record while in government and helpfully nominating four criteria by which the opposition would (and the media “should”) judge the budget.
Shorten also sounded a curious dog whistle to conservative voters, who are traditionally wary of change, warning that a government’s priorities determine whether people are the victims or beneficiaries of change. Shorten cautioned that Abbott’s “bleak, hopeless brand of Darwinsim” means adapting to economic change will require “deep cuts to services, longer unemployment queues, lower wages and lower levels of government support.” We can expect to hear more of that refrain in the coming weeks.
Parliament may be over until the budget is brought down in May, but Hockey shouldn’t put his mop and bucket away just yet. This time next week, he’ll have to contend with another distraction from the budget as parties and commentators alike paw through the entrails of the WA Senate election re-run.
Depending on the election outcome, political strategies and budget narratives may have to be adjusted. Hockey may have to kickstart the budget expectations campaign yet again to create the momentum needed to consolidate public acceptance. And with less than five weeks to go to the budget, there will be little or no time left to mop up after any further prime ministerial acts of self-indulgence.
It’s six months into the Abbott Government’s first term and there is a growing sense the Labor Opposition just hasn’t been able to lay a blow on the other side.
Apart from struggling to adjust to the uncomfortable but necessarily edifying transition from government to opposition, Labor has seemed singularly unable to capitalise on the panoply of stumbles, gaffes, backflips and dubious decisions that Abbott and his team have manifested in such a short time.
Granted, the ALP is laying claim to the shiny scalp of the sidelined Assistant Treasurer. But in reality, The Australian newspaper’s call for Arthur Sinodinos to stand aside likely had more impact on the Senator’s decision to do so than any of the edicts hurled at him in Parliament.
Without the intervention of Uncle Rupert’s paper, there’s a good chance Abbott would have attempted to ride out the controversy, just as he did when the Assistant Minister for Health, Fiona Nash, was accused of breaching the ministerial code. Abbott held tight, secure in the knowledge that Labor had enough dirt on its hands to be cautious when pointing out the Coalition’s misdemeanours.
The Nash episode was a clear-cut case of whether she did or did not breach the code or mislead the Senate. The Sinodinos matter was, however, anything but straightforward for Labor, with the Opposition having to tread a very fine line when accusing the junior minister of being naïve, foolish or dodgy while chair of Australian Water Holdings.
By implication, Labor risked lapsing into the claim that Sinodinos should have known better than to be even indirectly associated with Eddie Obeid, a mover and shaker in the NSW Labor Party who was later found to be corrupt by the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
In short, saying that Sinodinos was dodgy for associating with a corrupt Labor politician is a bit like smacking oneself in the face.
Corruption in its own ranks is a significant limitation on the Labor Opposition’s capacity to credibly hold the Abbott Government to account on this issue, but it’s only one factor taking the edge off their attack.
Rorts in the union movement is another. The Government has a strategy to hobble the unions, cut off the flow of union funds to Labor, and reform wages and conditions, which spans across this parliamentary term and the next. Part of that strategy is to tarnish the reputation of unions and make Labor guilty by association.
Voters who pay attention to such issues would recall that PM Gillard vouched for the integrity of former Health Services Union head and Labor MP, Craig Thomson, who was subsequently found guilty of using his work credit card to pay for sexual services and make cash withdrawals.
One of the unstated aims of the Royal Commission into union corruption recently launched by the Abbott Government will be to ensure a broader range of voters associate Labor with unlawful activity within unions – regardless of whether that activity is sanctioned by the union in question.
This places Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, a former head of one the unions under investigation, in the invidious position of being seen to protect dodgy union activity whenever he defends the labour movement from what is patently a political witch-hunt. As a result, he keeps such protestations to a minimum and will be constrained in the assistance he can provide.
Similarly, Shorten limits his exhortations on the plight of asylum seekers, placed on Manus Island by way of an agreement struck by the re-ascended Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd to out-bid Abbott on “toughness” and win the anti-asylum seeker vote.
Even now the “toughness as a deterrent” tactic has devolved into terror, Labor’s role in bringing about the sorry situation has left them impotent and unable to fight for a more humane approach.
The ALP’s propensity to pull its punches may make sense within those politically sensitive contexts. But it makes Labor look like a weakling, particularly now that Australian voters have become accustomed to an opposition bristling with fight and negativity.
This is a particular problem for Shorten who has consciously rejected Abbott’s Mr No style and adopted an opposition leader model closer to that of Labor’s Kim Beazley (which itself was modeled on the Liberal, John Howard).
This model involves giving due recognition to sensible government decisions and eschews opposition for opposition’s sake. Inconveniently for Shorten, this moderate stance sits uncomfortably with his union leader past and could unintentionally suggest to voters that he’s not genuine. If that perception takes hold, it could create a whole new world of hurt for the opposition leader.
Labor can’t lay a punch on the Coalition because it is hopelessly implicated in some of the Government’s greatest sins and has shown no inclination to renounce that involvement.
This weakness is one of Abbott’s greatest strengths, and it may well be the key to his Government’s enduring political dominance in the foreseeable future.