To be (negative) or not to be – that is the question

Once Labor gathers together the detritus of its parliamentary wing following the federal election and selects a new leader, it will need to decide what kind of Federal Opposition it is going to be.

Here’s the last of my 2013 election campaign weekly columns for ABC’s The Drum.

Once Labor gathers together the detritus of its parliamentary wing following the federal election and selects a new leader, it will need to decide what kind of Federal Opposition it is going to be.

For even though Tony Abbott’s Coalition can be considered a successful opposition – in that it won the election – it was also the most negative in Australia’s modern political history.

The consequences of those four years of sustained political warfare, initiated when Abbott first became Leader of the Opposition, remain with us today. Most notably, it has set the tone for much of our nation’s political discourse, be it on social media, talkback radio or television talking head panels, in newspaper headlines or at political rallies.

The ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ placards, for example, held aloft at the infamous anti-carbon tax rally would have been considered more shocking and perhaps been more widely condemned if the broader community hadn’t already become desensitised to epithets being hurled at Julia Gillard as a matter of course during the daily political debate.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for vigorous exchanges within Australia’s political conversation, but this type of brutal discourse has moved from being the exception to the rule. As a result, those in the Australian community who are interested and engaged in politics now seem to approach any related discussion from a state of constant combat-readiness instead of a willingness to listen and explore other perspectives.

It may not have occurred yet to the new Labor Federal Opposition, but it has an opportunity to change the tone of our national political conversation to something that is, dare I say, kinder and gentler. Labor knows Australian voters are tired of negativity but the party may well be tempted to adopt an approach similar to Abbott’s uber-opposition as an easy way of scoring early points against the new Government.

While it is clearly legitimate for an Opposition to “oppose” the Government and hold it to account, this does not necessarily require the transformation of parliament into a combat zone. Previous Leaders of the Opposition, namely John Howard, Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, all took a more positive approach that welcomed sensible policy initiatives from the Government while emphasising the key points of differentiation. The benefit of this approach was that it not only helped position the Opposition as a scrutineer of the Government but also as a credible and viable alternative.

Undoubtedly, the new Labor Opposition has a great deal to work through in the coming weeks and months. Not only does it have to convince one of its young and talented remaining parliamentarians to take on the leadership, which traditionally is a poisoned chalice after a government-changing election loss, but it also has to work out what to do about Kevin as he lurks like Banquo’s ghost on the parliamentary backbench.

Nevertheless, there is one more difficult question that Labor should tackle, for the good of the party as well as the nation.

To be (negative) or not to be – that is the question.

Latham’s ghost will hover over Abbott

And so today Tony Abbott has launched an attempt to reinvent himself, in an effort to convince voters he’s more than the extraordinarily successful wrecker he’s portrayed since becoming Opposition Leader in November 2009.

That means Abbott plans to dispel over three years of entrenched negativity in only seven to ten months*. Coalition spinmeisters are already hard at work, backgrounding senior journalists on the transition secure in the knowledge that if the media can be convinced about its effectiveness then so can the public.

Early results of this strategy are not particularly encouraging. Despite being quite comfortable telling the Prime Minister last year to resign, Michelle Grattan is currently more circumspect about Abbott. With an initial cursory nod to the likeliness that he will be in the PM’s office by the end of the year, Grattan then goes on to qualify this by questioning whether Abbott can successfully make the metamorphosis to Mr Positive:

He is obsessed with discipline though seemingly unable to avoid periodic lapses. He knows he can be his own biggest risk.

His deep personal unpopularity and his negative branding are problems to which he will apply his usual diligence. But can he change his image? And how much will it matter in the end?

The social researcher Hugh Mackay believes Abbott’s brand – being negative, destructive and dismissive – has been unchanged for so long that it has become ”indelible” and it’s hard to see him being able to break out of it.

But one of Abbott’s senior colleagues argues: ”He’s strong on the tangibles. He’s an Alpha male. Alpha males are runners, jumpers. They build things.” He believes Mr Positive will be convincing.

I heard a ghost of leaders past rattle its chains as I read those words: an echo of another Opposition Leader who successfully buried his past reputation as a thug and a bully, only to have it lurch from the grave at the election campaign deathknock and pull him back into electoral oblivion.

Gary Ramage, Daily Tele 6 Feb 2013
Photo: Gary Ramage, Daily Telegraph

The moment we saw Mark Latham aggressively shake the hand of the smaller, frailer John Howard we knew Latham would not prevail at that election. The gesture pushed other memories to the surface of our consciousness: allegations of punch-ups at the Liverpool Council, images of a taxi driver’s broken arm, and echoes of pugnacious language such as arse-licker and conga-line of suckholes.

Those memories dispelled the positive views we’d developed about Latham’s suite of hokey but popular policies, and brought into sharp relief the doubts we’d already harboured about his economic credentials.

That’s all it took, just one handshake, to finally shatter the public’s faith in the strongest electoral alternative produced by Labor at that point against John Howard. Despite starting the election behind the Labor Opposition, and trailing them at various stages in the six-week campaign, the Government was then re-elected with an increased majority in the House of Representatives and a slim majority in the Senate (the first since 1981).

The Coalition’s current attempt to paper seven months of positivity over three years of Abbott negativity is a highly fraught endeavour. Recent political history suggests that Abbott’s Mr Positive will prove as brittle and short-lived as Latham’s Mr Congeniality. All it will take for the facade to be shattered will be an ill-considered remark or an unguarded moment.

Mark Latham’s despair will hover over Tony Abbott this election like the ghost of Banquo, providing an insubstantial but insistent reminder of past misdemeanours and their potential to bring ambitious leaders down. Whether Abbott heeds this salutary warning or dismisses it as the mere rattling of chains may well determine the outcome of the 2013 election.

*3 August 2013 is the earliest possible date to hold an election for both the Senate and the House of Representatives. An election for the House of Representatives only can be held at any time up to 30 November 2013.

A surprising omission from Tingle

I was disappointed by Laura Tingle on Friday. Tingle is one of the few journalists writing from the Canberra Press Gallery that we usually can depend upon to be consistently rigorous in research, forensic in analysis and objective in reporting.

There was however a piece of information missing from her Canberra Observed column that surprised me.

Tingle was commenting on the poor prospects for long-term policy debates due to distractions such as the obsession with “process” or insider stories rather than “outcomes” stories.

She held aloft as an example the case of Jillian Broadbent AO, the esteemed business woman who chaired an expert panel looking into investment for clean energy.

An eminent panel headed by Jillian Broadbent reported to the government this week on the structural problems of getting investment in clean energy.

Broadbent is a member of the Reserve Bank board (appointed by the Howard government), and a director of ASX Ltd and Woolworths. Such an obvious Labor stooge, in fact, that the Coalition accused her of engaging in “partisan activity and partisan criticism” simply for observing that the Coalition “haven’t been very interested in speaking to me, despite my preparedness to brief them”.

Anyone trying to contribute to the current public policy debate, as opposed to anticipating where political fortunes might go next, is smeared in the process.

Any reasonable reader would conclude from this analysis that the Coalition had snubbed and smeared an experienced and independent business leader simply because she wanted to brief them on clean energy investment.

However, Broadbent has an important and relevant role that Tingle did not include in her column. Broadbent is in fact Chair of the Government’s $10bn Clean Energy Finance Corporation, an entity that the Coalition has vowed to scrap on the attainment of government. So why would the Coalition agree to a briefing from the head of such an organisation?

Broadbent chaired the expert review in her capacity as chair of CEFC. In fact, it is called the Chair’s Review in the media release which announced it:

The establishment of the Chair’s Review is intended to assist the Government in framing the enabling legislation, associated instruments and determining what operational issues can be left to the CEFC’s Board after the corporation has been established. Following consideration of the Chair’s Review, the Government will introduce legislation for the establishment of the Corporation in sufficient time to allow the CEFC to fully develop its systems and products before it commences operations from 2013-14.

Amongst other things, the Chair’s Review ultimately recommended ways to prevent, or at least make extremely difficult, the Coalition’s scrapping of the CEFC. It’s hardly surprising then that the Coalition would be disinclined to receive a briefing from Broadbent.

So, in reality, that which was depicted by Tingle as the smearing and snubbing of a dispassionate expert was in fact pragmatic politics.

Politically, there was nothing for the Coalition to gain from meeting with Broadbent. Any such meeting would have sent mixed messages and could have been beaten up by the media as hypocrisy or potential wavering on the part of the Opposition.

By agreeing to chair a government entity, Ms Broadbent has, in fact, “taken a side” and opened herself to reasonable criticism of being partisan. Other business leaders who’ve taken on government-appointed roles have suffered the same fate; although I hasten to add, not all have been tarred with the partisan brush.

None of this was mentioned by Tingle yesterday. In fact the additional contextual information would have diminished the impact of the example she was making of the Coalition’s treatment of Broadbent.

I raised this omission with Tingle on Twitter. She said I was being deliberately obtuse and missing her broader point. In fact, I agree with Tingle’s broader point – that political inside gossip and smears attract more attention and divert resources from considered reporting of political outcomes. It was the selective information used to illustrate a point that troubled me.

The prickly nature of our Twitter exchange prevented me from asking Tingle why she did omit the fact that Broadbent is chair of the CEFC.