Abbott’s survival relies on knowing when to fold’em

The key to political survival is knowing when to hold ’em or fold ’em, or creating a distraction when needed. The Government tried all three last week, to varying degrees of success,.

Political longevity comes, in no small part, from a government’s ability to survive its mistakes – the self-inflicted stumbles, dramas and crises that diminish it in the eyes of voters.

The key to survival is often a matter of knowing the right time to stick to one’s guns and when to cut one’s losses and move on.

The third approach is to create a diversion. A well-executed diversion can take the heat out of an issue by drawing the attention of the media and public away from the troublesome matter at hand. This creates space in which to find the necessary course corrections.

The trick of course is to know what is the right approach to take at any one time.

Over the past week the Abbott Government executed these tactics with varying degrees of success. In what is anticipated to be the first in a series of concessions over the coming months, the Prime Minister cut adrift the proposed amendments that would have watered down the Racial Discrimination Act.

The extent of the loss for supporters of free speech was writ large on the face of the Attorney-General, George Brandis, as he stood stonily beside the Prime Minister at the media conference announcing the backdown.

Both men knew this was undeniably a big win for the progressive side of politics, which had campaigned in concert with the representatives of ethnic communities for the retention of curbs on hate speech. Pairing the announcement with the declaration of new counter-terrorism measures was therefore meant to be a diversionary tactic to convince the media that the security changes were a bigger news story than the progressives’ win on 18c.

This manoeuvre proved more distracting than likely expected when it transpired the new measures also included the mandatory retention of information on Australian citizens’ telephone and internet use. Progressives who were one moment celebrating the overturn of the 18c changes, were then raging about the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In effect Tony Abbott swapped one leftist soapbox for another, and while it’s true the Coalition’s core voter base enjoys seeing the Left prodded into outrage every now and then, they will have marked Abbott down on the anti-terrorist measures because of the associated “spine-weakening” on free speech.

So by the end of the past week, Abbott was getting no credit for taking the hard decision on 18c or protecting the nation with the new security measures. And following what looked very much like self-sabotage on Brandis’s part when he botched the explanation of metadata retention during a media interview, there was a growing need to stem the flow of outrage exacerbated by the exceedingly poor marketing of the security initiative.

A Machiavellian might be forgiven for thinking it was at this point the Government decided it needed a diversion from its diversion. Indeed, can there be any other explanation for the Liberals’ dour arch-conservative, Senator Eric Abetz, agreeing to appear on the commercial light-news program The Project on Thursday night?

Abetz’s subsequent comments on the link between abortion and breast cancer provided just the circuit-breaker needed to reset the outrage machine on social media and provide a whole new story arc for its limpet media.

This theory is not so far-fetched if one considers the times when other members of the Liberals’ extreme right have also seemingly been wheeled out to perform distraction duties. Senator Cory Bernardi’s comments on same-sex marriage and bestiality, albeit in opposition, are a particular case in point.

The added benefit of extremists like Abetz and Bernardi taking the stage in this way is that their behaviour and views tend to normalise those of less extreme conservatives, thereby dragging the “centre” of politics even further to the right.

As the past week closed, it could be argued that Abetz’s intervention had succeeded: it certainly seemed as if the mainstream media had moved on to other fare. And so as the new week begins, the polity awaits the arrival of the next bandwagon to clatter through the echo-chambers of Twitter.

What does seem clear is that the Prime Minister will have to cut his losses on a range of other measures if he is to get some semblance of the budget through the Senate. The time for stubbornness or diversion is well past.

This means finding ways to accommodate the crossbench’s opposition to changes to payments for families, eligibility requirements for welfare recipients, the GP co-payment, and changes to higher education charges.

In reality, the best way to demonstrate his willingness to negotiate on the budget would be for Abbott to formally set aside or scrap his paid parental leave scheme. Having already justified his broken promise on the 18c changes as being in the national interest, this would be the logical next step.

Political dissenters a romantic diversion

We might enjoy the odd politician crossing the floor, but the deep-seated need for stability leads voters ultimately to relegate political dissenters to nothing more than a romantic diversion.

Last week, outgoing Liberal Senator Sue Boyce became the latest poster child of politicians with principle.

With a clumsy clarification that Prime Minister Tony Abbott is more an old-style sexist than a misogynist, and having crossed the floor in the past to vote against her party on same-sex marriage and an emissions trading scheme, Boyce is now recognised and celebrated as a politician who has remained true to her own (progressive) values in an increasingly right-wing party.

Boyce joins other moral malcontents such as Sharman Stone, who stood up to the PM and Treasurer on Government assistance to SPC Ardmona; Judi Moylan and Mal Washer who campaigned for more humane asylum seeker policy; and even Malcolm Turnbull who continues to challenge the Coalition’s orthodoxy on climate change.

Labor MPs Melissa Parke and former speaker Anna Burke also joined the ranks of MPs with morals last week when they (ultimately unsuccessfully) attempted to get their party to withdraw support for the processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

So it seems political principles have become the new black.

Voters appear to be rejecting consensus-based political parties as too scripted and poll-driven, and are instead embracing political outriders who resist party group-think and put their own strongly-held values ahead of established policies.

The trouble with the celebration of these political insurgents is their influence can cut either way. Politicians who take a stand according to their core beliefs are not limited to the progressive side of politics.

For every Sue Boyce trying to drag the Coalition back the political centre, there’s a Cory Bernardi trying to heave it further to the right. And to the voters who share Bernardi’s world view, he is no less a rebel to be championed and celebrated than Boyce, Stone or Washer.

The same could be said of other Coalition MPs such as John Williams and Ian Macdonald or any other Government member who’s taken to speaking out against Government policy such as the proposed paid parental leave scheme. Or former Liberal senator Nick Minchin, who campaigned against climate action within the Coalition when Malcolm Turnbull was leader.

And then there are the MPs who are not from mainstream parties, whose whole reason for being is to dissent from or provide an alternative to the status quo. Libertarian David Leyonhjelm, who will soon take a decisive seat in the new Senate, firmly believes schools and hospitals should be privatised. He’ll join the DLP’s John Madigan and Family First’s Bob Day, both of whom are anti-abortion.

These men make the party consensus that often takes the edge off such extreme views suddenly look a lot more attractive.

Finally, there are the practical consequences of being a principled political dissident. Both the Democrats and the Greens discovered the hard way that there’s a political cost to relinquishing their moral malcontent role for real influence in government policymaking. One simply cannot keep the bastards honest while also being one of them.

The Greens appear to have learnt this lesson and reverted to their predominantly spoiling role with gusto. While their dissent is not always based on core values, as will likely be seen in the Greens’ opposition to the fuel excise increase and paid parental leave, they’re at least taking a principled stance on most matters.

The Greens’ experience should also be instructive for Clive Palmer and the assortment of MPs who will hold the balance of power in the Senate in a week’s time.

Palmer has run interference until now, demonstrating an absence of consistent values as he’s tried to leverage concessions from the Government before having to declare his own intentions.

On Wednesday Palmer will apparently announce how his party will vote in the Senate on key issues, ahead of a meeting with the PM on Thursday. Voters may at this time finally get an indication whether Palmer intends to be anything other than a spoiler.

And this will likely set the course for PUP’s political future.

While moral malcontents and principled revolutionaries may be inspiring, entertaining and able to tap into dissatisfied voters’ need for retribution, there is still a point at which they will either have to reach a compromise or fail.

Without consensus is it impossible (within a democracy at least) to make and implement decisions for the good of the nation.

Voters might like the idea of principled insurgents but they seek consensus-driven politics as an assurance that somebody is in charge. The deep-seated need for political stability leads voters ultimately to relegate political dissenters to nothing more than a romantic diversion.

For one person’s rebel can easily be another person’s traitor – which is why disunity is death in politics. The adage may apply more to political leadership than policy, but it remains a potent one nevertheless.

Were we trolled by Bernardi today?

There’s an episode of the politico-drama television series Boss where Chicago Mayor Tom Kane must deal with evidence of his involvement years before in the cover-up of a chemical spill. Kane’s political enemies have leaked the documents to link him with the cancer-riddled cluster of children living unknowingly near the spill site.

Kelsey Grammer, previously the master of grown-up tv sitcoms, deftly plays the deadly-serious, saurian Kane. He wields his political might like a grandmaster: strategically placing, threatening and if necessary sacrificing and removing his opponents, allies and even family members to maintain his dominant position.

Tim Dunlop aptly described Boss the other day on Twitter as being “unSorkin”, lacking as it does Sorkin’s “optimistic, uplifting approach to politics”.

Uplifting it’s not, but Boss is certainly mesmerising. And while it’s merely a dramatisation of the grubby political world, its depiction of that world is still close enough to make me uncomfortable, in the same way that The Hollow Men or The West Wing makes me cringe or laugh or sigh.

I was reminded of Kane today when I witnessed my corner of Twitter having a meltdown over Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi suggesting last night that marriage equality could lead to bestiality. Being the type who tends to suspect conspiracy over stuff-up, I wondered why Bernardi would say that at this particular point in time.

Sure, it was straightforward on the face of it: parliament would vote today on proposed same sex marriage laws, but Bernardi’s intervention would make no difference to the bills’ passage. There was little chance the bills would pass with the Coalition voting in a bloc against them and the Government’s vote being split through a conscience vote.

It was then I recalled the episode where Mayor Tom Kane managed to transform himself from a villain to a hero by playing sleight of hand with the media. Now, I know, television is not real but what occurred in that plotline was reasonably plausible.

The main objective of the Mayor’s team was to reframe media coverage of the chemical spill cover-up so that it no longer focussed on Kane but on the crisis being faced by the affected community. They provided individual journalists with various off-the-record leads that diverted attention from the Mayor to the local community’s (orchestrated) bottled water drought and (confected) housing value slump. The journos rushed to publish the stories, giving the details minimal scrutiny in the name of the all-important exclusive. Other media outlets were forced to play catch up and cover the same story. One by one, as each media organisation’s news cycle clicked over, Mayor Tom Kane’s role disappeared from the day’s headlines and lead stories.

Before long, the community and media had whipped themselves into a frenzy of outrage fed by powerlessness and fear. Mayor Tom Kane re-entered the fray as their leader and protector, offering clean water and a speedy restoration to the spill site. He went from villain to hero purely by exploiting the speed and ravenous nature of the media cycle.

Which brings me back to Cory Bernardi… well actually it brings me to Tony Abbott. Today was going to be the Leader of the Opposition’s first real public appearance (other than attending military funerals) since last week when Treasurer Wayne Swan accused him of “going the biff” and being a thug, on the back of David Marr’s wall-punch expose. Abbott has mostly avoided the media since then, minimising his safety-vest photo opportunities and sticking to interviews on soft news programs.

No doubt Swan’s jibes were an attempt to tap into the unease that voters felt about another pugilistic Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, almost a decade ago. It would seem Labor strategists are confident that if enough people say enough times that Abbott has a problem with women, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A possible return to the “Abbott is a thug” theme at Question Time today could well have been on the minds of the Opposition’s leadership team last night. While Abbott was given a period of grace during his funeral attendances, the Government could have generated considerable momentum between this morning’s early doorstops and Question Time – with the willing complicity of the drama hungry media – thereby preventing Abbott from regaining the political advantage he so desperately needs right now.

So I’m sure Abbott must have secretly been relieved when Cory Bernardi unleashed his inner Tea Party Animal in the Senate last night. The combined disgust and rage of free speech-loving tweeps, equality-loving MPs and scandal-seeking journalists created a torrent of condemnation that swept all mention of Abbott’s thuggery from our tweetstreams, RSS feeds and tv screens.

At the crescendo (and not coincidentally at exactly the same time Penny Wong was speaking on marriage equality in the Senate), Abbott re-entered the fray as the Liberal Party’s voice of reason and moderation. Abbott ameliorated our sensibilities by extracting Bernardi’s resignation from the Shadow Ministry as penance. While by most measures Abbott had been a villain for the past few weeks, at this moment he was the upholder of principles and morality. Like Kane, Abbott turned his own fortune around within a few short media cycles.  Whether Bernardi’s role in that turnaround was deliberate, we’ll never know.

Bernardi is nothing if not a loyal Liberal foot-soldier with one eye steadfastly locked on the main game: that is, the election of an Abbott Government in 2013. He’s lost nothing more than a fancy title in resigning as Shadow Parliamentary Secretary due to there being no additional staff or remuneration attached to the position. And now that he’s a backbencher, Bernardi is arguably less constrained to speak out than he was before today. Perhaps he’ll become Abbott’s equivalent of Howard-era henchman, Senator Bill Heffernan, whose controversial behaviour was privately considered to have more benefit than it had drawbacks.

For mine, I’m sure Bernardi deliberately trolled us last night to upset any momentum the Government hoped to gain with its “Abbott goes the biff” campaign. Today ended with Bernardi enjoying the pointy end of an international airplane, Abbott getting positive media coverage, and the marriage equality bill being soundly defeated in the Parliament.

All in all, not a bad day’s work if you’re a Tea Party Animal.

Postscript: This article notes that Bernardi has since been quietly appointed by the Coalition as a temporary Chairman of Committees, a role which attracts a 3% salary loading.