Voters forgive leadership change, but not disunity

Only days since returning from a short summer break, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is struggling with the issue he left unresolved before Christmas – the Government’s litany of policy disasters, its rejected budget, and his own failure to deal with his increasingly alarmed ministers and backbenchers.

Admittedly, the PM made some half-hearted attempts to ‘reset’ matters at the end of last year. He reshuffled the ministry without offloading most of the dead wood, held a press conference in which he failed to nominate any policy for resetting, and then went on to ‘give ground’ on policies such as the Medicare rebate and the paid parental leave scheme without actually giving any real ground.

Not surprisingly, this fooled no one, leaving ABC 730’s Leigh Sales to be the first to ask the PM whether he would consider stepping aside in order to give the Coalition the best chance of holding on to power. Abbott’s response was to evoke the deposing of Rudd as justification for his retention, arguing “the one fundamental lesson of the last catastrophic government was that you don’t lightly change leaders”.

This rationale has become almost an invocation, most recently uttered by the PM today in response to questions about the viability of his leadership:

“If there is one lesson to be learned from the fate of the former government in Canberra – maybe even the former government in Victoria – is you do not change leaders. You rally behind someone and you stick to the plan, and we’ve got a good plan.”

To make matters worse, the PM was then treated to a serve by a talkback caller describing himself as a Liberal voter, who said Abbott was “on the nose with Liberal voters” and “the world’s worst salesman”, and that “people don’t know where you are going and business is saying there are roadblocks because there is no direction and no leadership”.

Once one gets past the irony of Prime Minister Tony Abbott citing the coup against Kevin Rudd as the main reason not to dispense with him, it’s worth examining whether it’s actually true that voters don’t like parties who change leaders midstream.

In fact, several Australian governments have changed leaders and gone on to win the following election.

After stalking and then knocking off Australia’s once most popular PM Bob Hawke, Paul Keating went on to beat Opposition Leader John Hewson at the 1993 federal election.

At the state level, a leadership transition was made from Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to Anna Bligh, who despite losing seats at the next state election still retained government. And after losing the confidence of his party room, South Australia’s Premier Mike Rann stood aside for Jay Weatherill, who scraped through the following election to form a minority government.

Sure, each of the governments took a hit in the polls, but they still managed to retain office.

And let’s not forget that despite PM Abbott using Rudd’s political demise as a cautionary tale, Julia Gillard actually managed to form government after the subsequent election, albeit a minority one, despite Rudd’s best efforts to sabotage Labor’s election campaign.

That’s not to say Labor voters weren’t unhappy with the way Rudd was treated. Firstly, they were shocked at the seeming swiftness of the rebellion, and then mystified when it became clear neither Gillard nor those who backed her would give a valid explanation for the coup.

That emotion later intensified to anger when Gillard failed to deliver on the fresh start she had promised voters, demonstrating the same political tin-ear and poor judgement that had plagued Rudd. Gillard’s perceived broken oath on the carbon tax combined with her various political mishaps and pratfalls had more influence on her poor electoral standing than the way she became prime minister.

Despite PM Abbott’s protestations to the contrary, there is no golden rule in Australia politics damning a governing party that changes leaders mid-stream to eternal political opprobrium.

Most of those that did manage to retain office after a leadership change occurred late in the life of long-running governments looking to extend their incumbency. And while some of the changes were orderly handovers, a couple were so well telegraphed they became inevitable.

There are messages in these facts for the current prime minister: governments that have an orderly transition of leadership can survive to fight and win another election. And the removal of a prime minister will generate less voter anger if it’s clear why the change is being made.

If there is a lesson for anyone in the Rudd-Gillard saga, it is actually for Abbott. Voters are more concerned about political disunity, incompetency and unmet expectations than they are about changes in the Government’s leadership.

Anatomy of a broken promise

Broken vaseWhether we like it or not, 2013 is going to be the year of the broken promise.

While it’s hard to believe there remains even one voter not yet reached by Tony Abbott’s campaign to brand Julia Gillard a venal oath-breaker, there still remain enough politically disengaged Australians to decide the election. And we can be confident that Abbott won’t leave their ultimate voting decision to chance.

An oft-quoted campaign idiom is that only once you’re sick of hearing your own voice can you be confident your message is starting to cut through. So even though political observers are heartily sick of the Opposition Leader’s mantra, he’ll keep chanting about the broken carbon tax promise confident in the knowledge that it has yet to lodge in the brains of the politically disengaged.

Whether this strategy will bring voters to Tony Abbott is another matter altogether.

Prime Ministerial broken promises are hardly a new phenomenon; throughout contemporary Australian politics they’ve often been considered a necessary evil. Promises made, particularly during election campaigns, have routinely been discarded as economic or political circumstances have changed.

In the 1970s Malcolm Fraser undertook to keep Medibank, then dismantled it. The 80s saw Bob Hawke vow that by 1990 no child would live in poverty. Paul Keating retracted his L-A-W tax cuts promise in 1993, resulting in the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister (now equal lowest with Julia Gillard), but still dragged that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders.

John Howard swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister successfully took one to the 1998 election. Howard also backtracked on commitments made during the 1998 campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises, but won the following 2001 election with an increased majority and prevailed again in 2004.

So when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to discard her vow to never have a carbon tax (as the price for securing minority government with the Greens and Independents), she could have been forgiven for thinking she’d get away with it. But in Australian politics one does not simply break an oath; one must play the game of expectations in order to get away with it.

Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, learned this the hard way in 2010 when he backed away from his election promise (made in opposition) to quickly establish an emissions trading scheme.

This change of heart shouldn’t have been as difficult for Rudd as it proved to be. Community support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was fading following the disappointing shemozzle that was Copenhagen and the Senate’s refusal to pass what the Greens considered to be a substandard trading regime. New Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s “great big tax” campaign had started to get traction. And business leaders were expressing doubt the CPRS would provide the certainty they needed.

Even having dubbed climate change as “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, Rudd could have emerged relatively unscathed from the CPRS back-down in April 2010 if he’d better managed the community’s expectations.

But if there was one thing Rudd proved singularly incapable of doing, it was to live up to the extraordinarily inflated community expectations that he’d created as Opposition Leader. Having cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Rudd initially proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. But people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be a better version of Howard ultimately proved to be empty.

In fact a defining feature of Rudd as Prime Minister was to promise big but deliver small. In February 2010 Rudd told his MPs there could be no backing away from the CPRS commitment. But in April, on advice from his kitchen cabinet comprising Gillard, Swan and Tanner, Rudd decided to postpone it. The clumsily leaked broken promise caught Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and other ministers unawares. Rudd then fumbled the explanation, and in doing so extinguished what little voter faith in him that remained. As it was later reported, the decision “galvanised the fastest collapse of support for a Prime Minister in the 20-year history of Newspoll and one of the two sharpest recoils from a Prime Minister in the 40 years of the Nielsen poll.”

Prime Minister Gillard should have heeded Rudd’s CPRS downfall when faced with having to disavow her pre-election rejection of the carbon tax. Voters were already unsettled by the coup and resented being denied the opportunity to cast Rudd out themselves. Gillard’s Rudd-like commitment to resolve priority issues such as asylum seekers, the mining tax and climate action proved to be equally Rudd-like in their emptiness. And a sense of anxiety and uncertainty overhung the minority government negotiations.

It’s little wonder that latent voter unhappiness fomented into outrage once the disavowed carbon tax was publicly re-embraced by Gillard. Abbott’s aforementioned sloganeering whipped that outrage into the phenomenon we know today as JuLIAR.

In contrast, the twilight hours of 2012 saw an exemplary display of how to break a political promise AND get away with it, when the Prime Minister and Treasurer deftly broke their Budget surplus commitment.

The government first created a community expectation that dropping the surplus promise was a sensible and necessary thing to do. This was done in stages, first by floating the possibility in off-the-record discussions with credible journalists and economists who in turn championed the need for the about-turn in the media. The next stage was to convert the “idea” into “a proposal” and leak it to an esteemed journalist whose credibility would provide reflected validation.

Thus, Laura Tingle revealed (the week after parliament concluded) that the surplus commitment would be dropped. Following months of public discussion about this being the right thing to do, Tingle’s article added a sense of legitimacy and urgency to the proposal.

From there it was simply a matter of announcing the decision in the week before Christmas, when most Australians were thinking more about barbeques and beaches than the state of the Budget. The few who had not entirely switched off might have thought “and about time, too”, having vaguely recalled calls for such action. Then Australians would have turned to the post-Christmas sales and the cricket.

Such is the anatomy of a broken promise. Tony Abbott would do well to study it as he deploys the next stage of his election strategy. Most likely he’ll rely heavily on the worst-handled of the Prime Minister’s broken promises – the carbon tax – and the best-handled, being the surplus. But as we have seen with the surplus, not all rescinded commitments generate outrage, and even those that initially inflame – like the carbon tax – can lose their volatility over time.

2013 will undoubtedly be the year of the broken promise: Tony Abbott will make sure of that. But Abbott should be wary of assuming the community will become indiscriminately outraged about any and all oath-breaking. If the Prime Minister has learned from the successful reversal of the Budget surplus commitment, and continues to deftly manage community expectations, it’s likely her broken promises will be seen as nothing more than a necessary evil and something that all Prime Ministers occasionally have to do. And in doing so, she will make redundant one of her opponent’s most valued pieces of artillery.

This post first appeared at the King’s Tribune.

If not love then, at least, respect

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

There’s an old fashioned quality that might be creeping back into Australian federal politics. I say old fashioned because you don’t hear it mentioned much these days. But I think it may well be the deciding factor in next year’s federal election.

I’m referring to respect. You know, that thing we used to hold for teachers, policemen, our parents and politicians. It was a sometimes begrudging acknowledgement that authority figures had our best interests at heart, even if we didn’t much like the way they went about protecting us.

I used to hear a lot about respect when John Howard was Prime Minister. While voters didn’t particularly like him, he was elected four times because they trusted him to do the right thing for the country, and for quite some time he delivered on that trust.

While it’s a truism to say that respect can only be earned, it can also be a fragile thing that is easily shattered. I’d suggest the community’s respect for Howard was his electoral strength and the loss of that respect, brought on by WorkChoices and his government’s treatment of asylum seekers, was the weakness that brought Howard down.

The Prime Ministers immediately before John Howard were more in the charismatic mold. Bob Hawke was the jovial larrikin while Paul Keating was the intellectual aesthete. In their own ways, both leaders had a George Clooney-like magnetism that made their respective supporters want to be like them. Their stock in trade was adoration, not respect. No such fan club existed for the tracksuit-wearing Howard.

Kevin Rudd brought even less charisma than Howard to the Prime Minister’s role. In fact he cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Ultimately, the creation of this expectation was Rudd’s downfall.

Initially, even despite his lack of animal magnetism, Rudd proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. However the public’s exuberance faltered when Rudd proved not to be like Howard at all, but an über bureaucrat who reserved all political and policy decisions to himself while setting up ever more labyrinthine committees and token consultation processes. Any respect the community might have had for Rudd arising from the apology to the Stolen Generations was quickly eroded by his seeming incapacity to deliver on anything much else.

Love or respect. Hearts or minds. That seems to be what it boils down to. Having failed to win the public’s respect with Kevin Rudd, Labor power-brokers then lurched in the other direction.

Click here to read more…