Coalition needs a better budget, not better PR

Slick media strategies and strong narratives are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

It’s hard to know why some of the Abbott Government’s biggest and most vocal media supporters have chosen the past week to complain about its abysmal performance.

Other than the Government’s abysmal performance, of course.

Last week’s Newspoll shows Labor has a 10-point lead on the Coalition once notional preferences are distributed, and that any increased approval rating for the Government from the national security issue has been short-lived.

This deterioration confirms the trend highlighted by polling analyst Andrew Catsaras on yesterday’s Insiders program, in which the Abbott Government is consistently faring less well than it did at the federal election. This is in stark contrast to the first-year polling performance of the previous Howard and Rudd governments:

… for the first 15 months the Howard government averaged a vote of 55.5 per cent, 2 per cent higher than the election. The Rudd government averaged a vote of 57 per cent, over 4 per cent higher than the election. Whereas the Abbott Government has averaged a vote of 48.5 per cent, 5 per cent lower than the election.

Catsaras also emphasised that polls are reflective, not predictive, so it’s curious why members of the Government’s conservative media cheer squad have turned into nervous nellies two years out from the next federal election.

Yet rightwing shock jock (and staunch Coalition supporter) Alan Jones berated the PM last week for failing to meet the “pub test” on the free trade agreement with China. Conservative blogger (and arguably the nation’s biggest Coalition fan) Andrew Bolt followed swiftly with a 19-point deconstruction of the Government’s woes entitled “The Abbott Government must now change or die”. And then The Australian newspaper, which has unambiguously nailed its colours to the Coalition mast, joined the lament with an editorial insisting that “The Abbott Government is doomed without narrative”:

Limply, the Prime Minister is losing the battle to define core issues and to explain to voters what he is doing and why. At stake is his political credibility, no less. Mr Abbott risks becoming a “oncer” if he allows his opponents to constantly control the agenda.

Amongst this litany of complaints, the common thread is that the Abbott Government’s problem is one of poor communication; that the Coalition’s less than sterling performance would be remedied with better media staff, a more strategic approach to communications, and a narrative.

These could help, but as former prime ministers Rudd and Gillard could attest, a slick media strategy or strong narrative are of no help to a flailing government if its political decisions are flawed and its policies untenable.

The Abbott Government is not lacking a narrative, as claimed by The Australian, but saddled with one that is not of its choosing. Having been presented with the Government’s weasel words and black-is-white recasting of commitments and lies, voters have taken a lead not from its rhetoric but the Coalition’s actions to identify its narrative.

In its own words, The Australian’s editorial best encapsulates that narrative:

Voters are left with the impression that Mr Hockey’s May budget was a litany of broken promises, designed to inflict severe pain on low-income workers and the poor, and that the deficit crisis was not as acute as the Coalition presented it.

Well, yes.

And there is next to nothing, in the Government’s words or deeds, to suggest that voters should think otherwise.

Voters did feel more receptive to the Prime Minister when he was fulfilling his “protector of the realm” role after the MH17 tragedy and in response to the heightened terrorist threat from Islamic State, but that perception took a hit at the G20 when Abbott ended up looking cowardly and weak through no-one’s efforts but his own.

This has increased the pressure on Treasurer Joe Hockey to successfully “sell” the budget and the Government’s broader economic reforms in order to protect its only remaining perceived strength – that of superior economic management. Hockey’s next best chance to retrieve this sales job is the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook report, which is due in December.

The Government could roll out a shiny new narrative at that time, which more successfully pitches the prosperous Australian future that will emerge as the result of everyone taking on their “fair share” of the burden created by the necessary economic reforms.

And Coalition MPs could refrain from foolishly drawing attention away from that message with political self-indulgences like cigars, Knights and Dames awards, whining about being unloved, or Gonski-type triple backflips.

But none of this will be enough.

As Abbott’s mentor, former PM Howard, made clear when he spoke at the National Press Club earlier this year, the community will only respond favourably to the type of change envisioned in the Coalition’s budget if it is satisfied the reforms are in the national interest and fundamentally fair.

And there’s the rub. The Abbott Government won’t be able to satisfy this fundamental requirement. The budget is neither in the national interest nor fair, and no compelling narrative or fine media strategy will be able to fix that.

How we’re exploiting the terrorism threat

When it comes to exploitation of the terrorism threat, nobody’s hands are clean: not those of politicians, the media, or even our own.

According to our Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, this is likely to be the week in which Australia formally decides to re-engage in the War on Terror.

With the Prime Minister still transiting home from his first mission to the UN Security Council, it was left to Bishop to flag during a weekend television interview that a series of meetings this week would determine whether (or more likely, when) Australia would join the US-led air strikes over Iraq.

Bishop advised that a final decision would be taken by the Cabinet “presumably during the course of this week”, following a meeting of the National Security Committee.

It’s not known whether these discussions will canvass the ramifications of Australia’s willingness to use military force against an extremist group that brandishes elements of Islam to justify its barbaric actions.

It would be fair to say Muslims have had an uncomfortable existence in Australia since the influx of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran began in 1999. A general antipathy towards people from the Middle East was exacerbated by the Tampa incident in August 2001 and then the Al Qaeda attacks in September of the same year.

Not long after, then defence minister Peter Reith made the first connection in Australians’ minds between boat-borne asylum seekers and terrorists, saying in a television interview “security and border protection go hand in hand”.

By the time of the federal election, the Howard government was shamelessly hinting that asylum seekers could be terrorists trying to slip into Australia through the back door.

Since that time, it has been in successive governments’ interests to maintain voters’ perception that asylum seekers, and particularly those of the Muslim faith, are a “threat” to our nation’s security and “our way of life”. A para-military edifice has been constructed around Australia’s border “protection” regime to simultaneously heighten our anxiety about apparent hordes of maybe-terrorists lingering off our northern shores, while giving assurance that Operation Sovereign Borders will protect us from those same barbarians.

It’s the classic political sleight of hand: create a problem and then provide the solution in order to look like a hero.

This tactic has inflicted a high price in terms of Australia’s social cohesion. The irresponsible branding of asylum seekers as potential jihadists has so infected our collective psyche that we now feel threatenedby the mere presence of Middle Eastern men or Islamic accoutrements like the Burqa.

It’s hardly surprising then that some young Muslims have felt marginalised and been drawn to the siren call of extremists offering a community in which to belong.

Whether Australia is responsible or not for the eventual rise of Islamic State, along with the other prosecutors of the War on Terror, it is responsible at least in part for the radicalisation of its local Muslim population.

No matter how warranted this latest military intervention into Iraq is, there is a responsibility incumbent on all concerned to ensure the “campaign for the campaign” does not exacerbate the isolation already being felt by Australian Muslims or antagonise any antipathy towards them.

It’s one thing for the Government to describe the need for enhanced security measures in terms of the increased threat from which they’re designed to protect us; it’s quite another to create unnecessary anxiety to pressure the community into acquiescence. The latter course simply provides a platform for bigotry and hate-mongering such as that expressed by the Liberals’ Cory Bernardi and Palmer United Party’s Jacqui Lambie.

It doesn’t help either to simply dismiss the Government’s talk of heightened threat levels as a mere shadow under the bed, or nothing more than an attempted deflection from its other woes. This does nothing to placate those members of the community who feel real anxiety about the threat of terrorism, or validate the good intentions of the vast majority of Australian Muslims.

Similarly, hyperbole should have no place in this discussion. It serves no good purpose for the Greens’ Leader Christine Milne to say Tony Abbott’s decision to go to war in Iraq is “tearing apart the fabric of Australian society” and that some parts of Australia are racist and should just give Muslims “a fair go”.

In essence, Milne is no less exploitative of the issue than the Government, by being divisive in the name of inclusiveness.

Any discussion of those exploiting the current terror threat debate would not be complete without a mention of the media.

In the true spirit of the “if it bleeds, it leads” edict, Australia’s media has had a field day reporting the latest campaign in the War on Terror with must-buy front pages and click-worthy headlines. In the rush to secure an exclusive, the print media in particular has presented readers with factually anorexic stories and unedifying headlines such as “Police Kill Abbott Jihadi” and “Jihad Joey”. Another newspaper identified the wrong man altogether on its front page as an alleged terrorist.

When it comes to exploitation of the terrorism threat, nobody’s hands are clean: not those of politicians, the media, or even our own.

Home-grown extremism is a multifaceted and complex issue, fraught with the vagaries of the human condition. It’s a diabolical problem that cannot easily be addressed.

Yet like most incendiary situations, the first step is clear: we need to take the heat out of it. The main players need to resist the temptation to exploit the terror threat discussion by exaggerating, scoring political points, sensationalising or using stereotypes.

This would make a strong first step towards repairing the damage caused by more than a decade of having demonised Australian Muslims. By putting social cohesion first, we could do more for national security than fighting a foreign war ever could.

This is a budget for the true (Coalition) believers

For the Coalition, this Budget isn’t about fulfilling every little pre-election commitment, it’s about convincing its loyal base that it is still a better economic manager.

The gap between political observers and mainstream voters is never more obvious than during election campaigns and at budget time.

In the lead-up to a budget, political pundits obsess over pet issues and project their reactions onto everyday Australians. Yet most voters’ interaction with the Budget will be little more than a scan of the news on Wednesday to find out if cigarettes are up or family benefits are down.

Much of the rhetoric will simply pass them by, despite Christine Milne’s best efforts to suggest the Budget will contain Tony Abbott’s JuLIAR moment and Bill Shorten’s line about the trust deficit.

These voters’ attention deficit won’t change even if 100 talking-head economists were wheeled out across the different media platforms to intone that Australia really doesn’t have a budget emergency.

This is because these voters still believe the Liberals are better economic managers than the other lot. They believe a changed position (or broken promise) is justified if it’s in the interests of good economic management. And they’ll give Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

The Essential Poll did a good job last week of dissecting this view. The poll found respondents rated Labor as being better than the Liberals in representing the interests of working families, standing up for the middle class, and being more concerned about the interests of working families than those of business.

Yet 40 per cent of the same respondents judged the Liberals to be better at handling the economy overall, compared with 26 per cent for Labor. This has barely changed from the 15-point difference between the two parties when voters were asked who they trusted most to manage the economy just before the election last year.

One of the strongest drivers of Coalition support at the 2013 election was this perception of economic competence. When asked just before the election what would be their main reason for voting for a certain party, 69 per cent of Coalition voters said they would vote Liberal or National because these parties were better at handling the economy.

This focus remains, with 75 per cent of Coalition voters stating last month that economic competence was one of the three most important issues that would decide their vote.

While the Coalition is being jostled by opinion poll turbulence as it exposes potential budget nasties to gauge public reaction, a strong majority of Coalition supporters appear to be nevertheless keeping the faith: only 24 per cent of them see Abbott’s proposed deficit tax as a broken promise, and 61 per cent consider it is more important to reduce the deficit than stick to pre-election promises. This is mostly unchanged from the 62 per cent of Coalition voters who said in December it was reasonable for politicians to change their positions as situations change.

This is in contrast to the people who didn’t vote for the Coalition – they’re protesting loudly about broken promises but essentially preaching to the choir. This was never going to be a Budget that they would support, and the Government is essentially sidelining them from the debate by communicating only with the Coalition heartland.

As long as Abbott and Hockey can continue to convince Coalition supporters that the shared pain is for the good of the economy, they will suffer little long-term damage from the cuts inflicted in this year’s Budget. The real test will be in how Coalition voters choose to measure “good economic management”.

In his long campaign to subvert Julia Gillard, Abbott managed to form a connection in voters’ minds between the rising cost of living and perceived economic mismanagement. These days, while most voters may have little time for the CPI, GDP, current account deficit or cash rate, they’re quick to blame government incompetence for interest rate hikes, utility bill increases and their burgeoning grocery bills.

Cost of living remains the economic issue that most worries voters (56 per cent), with the second highest concern being unemployment (11 per cent).

This could be a problem for Abbott if the Government reintroduces indexation of the fuel excise. Although the increase will mostly be hidden within the ebb and flow of daily petrol pricing, it will also raise the price of any goods that are transported by road and push up the overall cost of living.

In order to neutralise this weakness, the Government appears to be attempting to reframe voters’ measure of economic management from being about the cost of living to being about job creation.

This ties in with Abbott’s strategy of reinvigorating the economy, left languishing by the end of the mining investment boom, with a bonanza of infrastructure projects and associated jobs. By assuaging the 57 per cent of voters concerned about job losses in the next year or so, Abbott hopes to retain the mantle of good economic manager and keep the Coalition voter base loyal.

Abbott and Hockey’s first budget will undoubtedly be the biggest political test either man has faced; it is not, however, the test of truth that their opponents claim it will be. The budget will instead fulfil both men’s promise to Coalition supporters to be superior economic managers. And this oath has pre-eminence over everything else.

Coalition eases us into tough love policies

My very first weekly column for ABC’s The Drum.

Given the option, most politicians would prefer to do what the community wants instead of what it needs. But governments that configure their policies to meet only the voter popularity test inevitably will be faced with a humongous bill and the twin terrors of debt and deficit.

The solution to this conundrum is surprisingly straightforward: Simply convince the public to support an otherwise unpopular but necessary government action. While not quite an act of sorcery, this ability to transform public opinion can help a politician or government lead a relatively charmed life. And it is often seen as the measure of a truly effective government.

Kevin Rudd once had the knack, being able to turn public opinion 180 degrees in his favour. His most audacious prestidigitation was as opposition leader in 2007 when he told Australians made comfortable by years of middle-class welfare under John Howard that “this reckless spending must stop“. Capturing the public’s imagination as well as that of the media and political commentators, Rudd made fiscal responsibility the new black and thereby relegated Howard to the Whitlam and other Profligates’ Hall of Shame.

It’s a matter of record that Rudd’s eventual successor as prime minister, Julia Gillard, did less well in convincing Australians to bear a little carbon price pain for some climate action gain. Gillard did, however, prove to be a more adept apprentice as time went on, transforming both the potentially unpopular increase to the Medicare levy for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the scrapping of the surplus into actions widely welcomed by the media, commentariat and broader community as sensible and appropriate.

And now Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are proving to be keen acolytes, converting what could have become public opprobrium into widespread support for scrapping assistance to the car manufacturing industry.

Abbott and Hockey did this by slowly but persistently chipping away at the locally-based but foreign-owned operations’ credibility, questioning their intentions, and undermining their grass-roots support by implying they were nothing more than spivs and carpet-baggers.

The Productivity Commission inquiry into the domestic car manufacturing industry, the results of which were never in doubt, was meant to be the final piece of damning evidence against car industry subsidies. But events moved more quickly than the government expected after Hockey clumsily called Holden’s bluffin December.

Despite Hockey’s over-reach, public opinion has moved from supporting the local manufacturers to the government. Back in January 2012 an Essential poll found 68 per cent of Australians supported the current levels of assistance to the car manufacturers and 58 per cent supported giving them even more. Public approval of subsidies was still high at 58 per cent in October last year, but by December only 45 per cent approved of subsidies to Holden (and even less of increased subsidies to keep Toyota in Australia). The latest poll by Essential finds support has now dropped to 36 per cent*.

This change of sentiment suggests Australians can see the broader merit of some tough decisions being made by the government, which is admittedly easy to do if it’s not your own pay cheque on the line. The next test of whether Abbott and Hockey have mastered the alchemy of public opinion transformation will come when the federal budget is handed down in May.

By all accounts, the first Abbott/Hockey budget is going to be a harsh one – for households, businesses and marginal seat holders.

Having talked tough on fiscal responsibility since being elected (although not consistently walking that talk), the government’s gestures and incantations – from MYEFO and the Commission of Audit to keynote speeches and feature articles – are all crafted to shape voter expectations into acceptance, if not support, for a budget that shares the pain around. The age of entitlement, according to Hockey, has become the age of responsibility. In short, he’s trying to recreate the Rudd magic of 2007.

Expectations management for the budget is just the beginning. The many reviews and inquiries, accompanied by thought-bubble debates in the media suggest the government is also trying to frame the debate, shape views and normalise unpopular reform plans for a range of contentious matters including welfare payments, privatisation of government assets, the unions, and the ABC.

The government may see these also as a simple matter of convincing the Australian public to want what the country needs. But the latter point – what the country needs – might well become hotly contested ground.

* The Essential poll questions on subsidies for the local car manufacturing industry vary, but nevertheless indicate a downward trend over time.

Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

After four years of watching the Rudd and Gillard governments do it so badly, it’s morbidly fascinating to see the Abbott Government play a particularly high-stakes expectations game with the Australian public.

After four years of watching the Rudd and Gillard governments do it so badly, it’s morbidly fascinating to see the Abbott Government play a particularly high-stakes expectations game with the Australian public.

While often portrayed in more simplistic terms, as promises kept or broken, the compact sealed between Australian voters and the government they have installed is more fundamentally about the expectations of what values and principles will be upheld. By confusing the two, political observers run the risk of misunderstanding which of the Abbott Government’s “broken promises” will be ignored or forgiven and which could be politically toxic.

Rudd learned that unfulfilled public expectations can bite badly when he squibbed on the self-proclaimed “great moral challenge of our generation“. By postponing any further efforts to establish an emissions trading scheme, Rudd effectively repudiated the need for urgent and effective climate action, which was one of the few principles he’d highlighted as distinguishing himself from John Howard in what was otherwise a me-too election campaign in 2007. The ease and speed with which Rudd discarded the commitment added the public’s concern to those already held by the business community and public service that there was a vast gap between the expectation created by Rudd (that he was a man of vision and action) with the perceived reality (that he was an obsessive micro-manager gridlocked by the unworkable need to make every government decision).

Julia Gillard also fell foul of an expectations shortfall. As deputy prime minister, she was a vibrant, articulate and engaging member of the Rudd government, as well as a beacon to the feminist movement. Yet this credibility was eroded by the apparently inexplicable knifing of PM Rudd; early bumbling on the mining tax, asylum seekers and people’s forum on climate action; an unnerving Stepford PM performance during the 2010 federal election campaign; and the need to go back on a clumsily worded carbon price commitment in return for securing minority government. While much was made of Gillard breaking her “carbon tax promise”, the real damage from this announcement was that it crystallised the public’s growing realisation that she was not the capable and honest politician they had expected.

As opposition leader, Tony Abbott ruthlessly exploited the public’s fractured expectations of Gillard. But in continually drawing a contrast between her government and his alternative, Abbott constructed a whole new expectations edifice for himself to uphold. However, he’s been much more strategic, creating expectations in broad brush strokes that give the Coalition Government a lot more room to move, including the occasional backdown on promises and commitments.

Hence Abbott’s constant referral to high level descriptors of his government when deflecting questions about backflips and reversals. They will “build a stronger economy”, “do what we said we will do”, and “be a no surprises, no excuses government”. Many sins can be dismissed or ignored under the cover of these generalities: for example, eliminating the debt ceiling can be framed as being in the interests of a stronger economy, and “re-profiling” of funding for the NDIS can be “doing what they said they would” but in a way that is “appropriately targeted and … sustainable“.

Even so, there are limits on the extent to which voters are prepared to have their expectations massaged by the Abbott Government. This was clearly demonstrated when Education Minister Christopher Pyne flouted the voter expectations of school equity under the Coalition’s version of Gonski that he and Abbott had deliberately encouraged during the election campaign. Despite protesting that they were keeping the commitments they had made but not necessarily those that people “thought they had made”, Abbott moved quickly to contain the disillusionment outbreak, forcing Pyne to perform a triple, double backflip with pike to placate the wailing hordes of teachers and parents.

When it comes to asylum seekers, we are yet to see which of the expectations created by Abbott and his Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will prevail. Considering that “we will stop the boats” was a core component of Abbott’s favourite election mantra, and that it’s shorthand for the broader principle of “protecting your jobs and your way of life”, it’s fair to say it will take priority over Abbott saying his government will be “transparent and open” and that “the last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people“.

As the billboard says, human rights abuse starts with secrecy, but in the case of boat-borne asylum seekers, many Australians seem prepared to accept being treated like mushrooms, lest they start to feel complicit in the atrocity.

It would be foolish however for the government to think this is a default position. As we saw during the Gonski shambles, voters won’t turn a blind eye to actions that “hurt” them or their nearest and dearest directly. If voters start to sense the government is being silent on a decision that affects them, particularly the hip pocket nerve, there will be electoral hell to pay.

This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

2013 in politics: the power of three

Considered the holiest of numbers by Christians and Wiccans alike, the number three has eerily presided over our past political year. From people to politics and policies, the rule of three was ubiquitous.

Considered the holiest of numbers by Christians and Wiccans alike, the number three has eerily presided over our past political year. From people to politics and policies, the rule of three was ubiquitous.

The most obvious triumvirate was Gillard, Rudd and Abbott, three prime ministers in one year, which is not as uncommon as one might think. In fact, this was the fifth time that we have had three PMs within one calendar year: the others were in 1904, 1939, 1941 and 1945.

Not only did the nation have three leaders in quick succession, so did the Labor Party. Kevin Rudd’s dark revenge fantasy played out to its inevitable end, with Rudd finally stalking Julia Gillard to ground and Bill Shorten arising from the bloody remnants of the party to bring Labor’s tally to three party leaders in four months. The worst the Liberals could do was three in eight months when the party shifted from Hewson to Downer and then Howard, the then-touted ‘Lazarus with a triple bypass’, in the 1990s.

But even before we were graced with our third PM for the year, Australians were well-familiar with the rule of three in political communication. Not a day had passed without us being bombarded with the Coalition’s three word slogans, vowing on the attainment of government to stop the boats, axe the tax and eliminate the debt. Apparently the necessary caveat – but only if the Senate will let us – couldn’t be condensed into three words and had to be ditched as a non-core slogan.

Rudd’s quest to be a thrice-anointed PM – after his elections by the Australian people in 2007 and the Labor caucus in 2013 – was thwarted. For yes, the man’s ego was so immense that he thought he might actually win. But he was prevented from doing so by three not insignificant matters: voter concerns about Labor’s unity, competency, and adherence to core Labor values such as equality and social justice.

The dominant factor was competency, though, and in electing the Abbott Government, voters quite justifiably assumed they were getting the grown-up government they were promised.

In the gloomy days that followed the not-as-much-of-a-landslide-as-expected, Labor dusted itself off and for the first time in history had not one but three leaders simultaneously. While the two contenders for election to the Labor leadership, Albanese and Shorten, traversed the country doing and saying leadership things, acting Labor leader Chris Bowen was doing and saying leadership things too. Labor members loved the new-fangled ‘democracy’ imposed on the party by Rudd (to prevent any further coups like the one he’d just pulled on Gillard), while the rest of Australia’s political classes looked on in bemusement.

And then finally, over 60 days since being elected and after early stumbles on women in Cabinet and the wedding-rorts saga, the members of the Abbott Government placed their shiny arses on the green leather benches and showed us they could do chaotic and incompetent just as well as the previous mob.

Since then the carbon tax has not been scrapped, the boats haven’t stopped, deficits have become an acceptable necessity and debt is no longer a dirty word. Public service cuts may or may not continue because they may or may not have already been counted. It’s become acceptable to say sorry to pretty much every nation in the region unless it’s one that Australia has been caught spying on. And a broken promise is not broken even if there’s physical evidence that you made it and that you broke it.

Even amongst the detritus of this incompetence, the power of three continues to rule. Australian businesses have faced the challenge of keeping up with three climate action policies (Gillard’s carbon price, Rudd’s ETS and Abbott’s Direct Action). The combined wrath of the nation’s teachers and education ministers brought about an extraordinary triple-backflip from Pyne on Gonski. And those who don’t have the cojones to take responsibility for unpopular decisions establish a Commission of Audit, Productivity Inquiry or Royal Commission to take the flak for them.

Meantime, the indignities wrought on asylum seekers defied even the rule of three and became almost too horrifyingly numerous to count.

Kevin Rudd may have entertained the fantasy that he could win the 2013 election by sheer force of will and popularity. Tony Abbott would have never suffered from such a delusion. He knows full well his success was more dependent on voters being sick of the other side than them preferring him and his policies.

In the end it came down to perceptions of competency – Labor was seen (whether fairly or not) as chaotic and ineffectual while the Coalition was seen as holding the promise of a dependable and competent government.

So, as the remainder of 2013 is measured in long summer evenings and the ruling triumvirate is the beach-barbie-cricket, Prime Minister Abbott would do well to ponder one last three word slogan. Without delivering “a competent government” in 2014, Abbott’s own days may well be numbered.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

There’s nowhere to hide in Question Time

What will Prime Minister Tony Abbott do if the Opposition runs a concerted Question Time campaign against a weak minister? A post for ABC’s The Drum.

Next week, while most of Australia is already counting the hours until the first ball of the Ashes, political aficionados will be tuning in to watch the Abbott Government’s first parliamentary session.

Some will do so for the pomp of the official opening. Others will be looking for a bit of biffo during Question Time. And those with the acquired taste will settle in for the often surprisingly entertaining Senate Estimates proceedings.

But mostly, these democracy diehards will be looking for evidence that the weeks since the September federal election were merely a disappointing hiatus and not a disconcerting sign of things to come.

Of principal interest will be how the Coalition adapts its low/no information approach to the demands of parliamentary scrutiny. It’s no revelation that very few of the new ministers are strong parliamentary performers. While it’s one thing for the Prime Minister to keep newbie ministers away from the risks of media events and other public appearances, it’s more difficult to protect them from a brace of ex-ministers on the opposition benches bristling with knowledgeable questions.

What will Prime Minister Tony Abbott do if the Opposition runs a concerted Question Time campaign against a weak minister? How would Environment Minister Greg Hunt cope, for instance, under sustained and systematic questioning from Labor MPs on the impacts of climate change and his previous support for an emissions trading scheme? Being not that great a debater himself, the PM may see more risk in stepping in for his minister than leaving him to fend for himself.

This then raises the question of the extent to which Abbott will willingly expose himself to scrutiny while Parliament is sitting. On the basis that he would only hold press conferences when he had something to say, Abbott has considerably reduced the frequency from Rudd’s daily epistles since the election. His interviews with the ‘serious’ media have pretty much ceased altogether.

And there is no indication the Cameo Appearance Prime Minister has any intention of veering from this approach during the parliamentary session. Considering that Question Time is the only period when Abbott is moderately exposed to scrutiny, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility the Coalition will shorten its duration or revert to the roster system once favoured by Paul Keating, which saw him face questions only a couple of days each week.

Political observers will also be watching next week for reassurance that Coalition reform agendas indeed hold ‘no surprises’ as Tony Abbott vowed before the election. Like the monster under the bed, the longer the reforms remain unseen the greater their beastliness will grow in the imagination of voters. Glimpses of the reform elements during the post-election period have only made things worse, leaving those voters who are paying attention to wonder what the Business Council of Australia’s role in the Commission of Audit might mean for unions and workers or the GST, how the nation can afford tax cuts when there is a deteriorating budget bottom line, and what happens if electricity prices don’t go down when the carbon price is scrapped?

In the absence of ministerial answers or statements next week that comprehensively explain these reforms, it will be fair for voters to assume the Government intends to proceed with the post-information regime it established immediately after the election. Any unwillingness on the part of the Prime Minister to be subjected to questioning or provide illuminating answers will be taken as confirmation.

What then of Labor? Political observers look to the first sitting of the new Parliament to witness the emergence of the revitalised, united and democratised Labor that candidates Albanese and Shorten promised during the leadership campaign. The appearance of such an entity will dispel fears that opposition MPs have been missing in action over the past month because they’ve been collaborating on a strategy to systematically deconstruct the Abbott Government, and not just squabbling over office space and staffing allocations.

Clinically astute performances by shadow ministers in Question Time and opposition senators in Estimates will consolidate that view.

But perhaps most importantly of all, an opposition brought into full battle mode for Parliament next week could quickly and effectively fill the information vacuum deliberately created by the Government.

This would disrupt not only the Coalition’s efforts to manipulate the media cycle but thwart their efforts to accustom Australians to expect less information – and explanations – from their elected representatives.

This post first appeared at ABC’s The Drum. 

Labor in limbo fails to hold Abbott to account

Instead of indulging in empty theatrics to bolster its own membership books, the opposition should be exploiting the government’s weaknesses in strategy and judgement right now.

Canberra’s parliament house has become the political equivalent of purgatory. The sprawling edifice is currently home to scores of lost souls stuck in political limbo since the government changed hands.

In the raw days after an election defeat, these staffers would normally be adjusting to the rhythms of life in opposition – measuring the ebb and flow of contrarianism and scrutiny instead of riding the highs and lows of governing.

But instead the bulk of the new opposition’s staff is sitting and waiting, with next to nothing to do until the ALP’s leadership is resolved. Aside from those working for the interim leader and two leadership aspirants, and the personal staff of each parliamentarian, the rest have no idea whether they will have jobs until the new leader is elected on 15 October, followed by a shadow ministry announcement and the government allocating the requisite staffing resources.

As a result, the people best equipped with the policy and political know-how to exercise scrutiny on the Abbott government are simply missing in action. Without portfolios to shadow and, in many cases, even functioning email addresses or access to basic office equipment, one of the principal cogs of our parliamentary system is simply spinning in neutral.

Our democracy is the poorer for it. An opposition that actually intended to deliver a one-term Abbott government rather than just mutter about it would be resisting every attempt by the government to lull the public into a false sense of security. Instead of indulging in empty theatrics to bolster its own membership books, the opposition should be exploiting the government’s weaknesses in strategy and judgement right now.

For it’s clear the government has lost some strategic and political clarity in the past few weeks, since the locus of control shifted from the Coalition’s campaign team to the prime minister’s office. Within hours of that transition, political smarts were being traded for political whims, even on an iconic issue like the number of women in the ministry. Without even a blink of shame, previous Coalition articles of faith were turned on their heads: stopping information to the public on asylum seeker arrivals took priority over action to deter them, the budget emergency dissipated overnight with the possible deferral of the mid year economic and financial outlook (normally delivered between October and December) to January, and the nemesis of travel rortersproved to be an adept manipulator of the travel allowance rules himself.

Each poor decision and stumble has rated barely a mention in the media, kicked along like an empty can by disheartened shadow ministers “sans portfolio” and treated with disinterest by journalists ironically transfixed by the incredible vanishing prime minister and his low/slow/no media strategy.

By the time parliament resumes, at best guess in November and only for a short time, the Coalition will have had two months to prepare and Labor will have had two weeks. It will be almost impossible for the opposition to bring the Abbott government to account on any shortfallings before the Christmas hiatus.

That leaves a lot of time between now and the next sitting of parliament in February 2014 for Abbott, his strategists and his ministers to get away with making bad or sloppy decisions, mis-counts or mis-speaks, and delivering the unpopular actions that most new governments jam into the early days of their parliamentary terms – such as Paul Keating dumping the second part of his L-A-W tax cuts, John Howard backtracking on election commitments by designating them as non-core promises and Campbell Newman cutting the number of public servants as part of his new government’s austerity drive.

Whether voters remember these early fumbles and flaws at the next election depends entirely on the ability of the opposition to hold the government to account – from day one, not two months after the government wins office.

Labor has embraced Rudd’s leadership election legacy like a vampire’s bride – succumbing to the mesmerising attractiveness of the members’ vote while choosing to ignore the danger that lurks beneath. It will be potentially destructive for the party if the caucus decision does not align with the popular vote.

But perhaps even more damaging for Labor will be a broad voter perception that the opposition vacated the field in the early days of the Abbott government, when opposition scrutiny and protection of the community was needed the most.

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.