Parties prepare arsenal for jobs war

With three elections coming up and all the talk of jobs, jobs jobs, both major parties will engage in negative campaigning and try to pin the blame for unemployment on their opponent.

If you’re not yet tired of hearing about Australian jobs, you soon will be. Now the Western Australian Senate election re-run and two state electioncampaigns are under way, with several campaign launches taking place last week and on the weekend, voters are going to be inundated with allegations, innuendo and selective truths about which party is the greater job-wrecker.

Job security – or its proxy, economic management – consistently rates as one of the most important issues to Australian voters. And it’s a time-honoured rule of political communication that voters are more likely to believe a politician saying something negative about their opponent than something positive about themselves. That’s why negative campaigning is so effective.

So these elections will feature party messages about job creation, but the predominant narrative will be that the other lot will put your job at risk.

Granted, it’s not hard to evoke job anxiety in the current economic climate. The resources boom has finally come off the boil, the broader business sector is rationalising (read: laying people off) as the economy contracts, and thousands of job losses have been announced or occurred before and after the election of the Abbott Government. This has left the nation with the highest unemployment rate in more than a decade, which may go even higher if Treasury forecasts are accurate.

The two states going to the polls on March 15 currently have the nation’s highest unemployment rates(Tasmania 7.6 per cent and South Australia 6.6 per cent), while the state going back for a new Senate election has the lowest (5.1 per cent). So for quite different reasons, none of the voters in those states will likely be enamoured with a party that destroys jobs or prevents them from being created.

Yet that is the contention the major parties will attempt to pin on each other. Abbott will blame the carbon tax, mining tax, the renewable energy target, unnecessarily burdensome regulation (aka red and green tape), the unions and bad economic management by Labor. Shorten will say Abbott’s in the thrall of big business, making plans to strip away workers’ pay and conditions while throwing hard-earned taxpayers dollars at wealthy superannuants and executive mummies.

The outcome of the state elections is neither here nor there for Abbott. If Labor manages to retain either of the governments, it can do little more than be a minor irritant at COAG and slow down what is already a glacial pace of reform through that entity. Labor states could of course stymie any attempt to raise the GST – which needs the agreement of all states and territories to change the legislation – but it’s reasonably safe to assume Abbott won’t attempt that reform during this term.

The WA Senate election re-run is another matter. The fresh election brings with it new candidates, new preference deals and probably even new parties. It also provides WA voters with the opportunity to lodge the ultimate protest vote by potentially affecting the prospects of the Abbott Government’s signature reforms like the carbon tax, mining tax, Direct Action and Paid Parental Leave.

The voters of Tasmania and South Australia may rally against the Coalition because of jobs lost, but the comfortably prosperous in WA may lash out at Abbott’s Senate team because of concerns their jobs are under threat. It’s therefore no surprise the Coalition is already framing the Senate election re-run as a pseudo state election to elect “a strong Western Australia Liberal team … to get the best outcomes for Western Australia” rather than one that determines who holds the balance of power in the Senate.

Labor essentially created the unemployment bogeyman in 2007 when it, ably assisted by the ACTU, whipped job security concerns to a near frenzy when campaigning against PM John Howard’s WorkChoices. PM Kevin Rudd managed to avoid the lumbering monster during the GFC with an economic stimulus package aimed at keeping and creating jobs. Yet a darker aspect of job anxiety, which had existed since the Howard years, rose again with demands for PM Julia Gillard to place limits on foreign workers and to stop the boats.

And now the jobs war has turned full circle, with the Coalition Government placing job losses squarely at the feet of the Labor Party and a union movement that it intends to demoralise completely.

If the major parties’ state and WA Senate campaigns go to plan, we may see the proportion of people with job anxiety rise from the current level of 55 per cent to something closer to the 67 per cent who were concerned about job security in April 2009 during the GFC.

Will the parties be concerned about the heightened state of anxiety among Australian voters, or will they see it merely as a means to an end? It would pay both sides to consider the collateral damage that’s starting to pile up.

Like a criminal in the dock, Hockey insults our intelligence

Like a criminal in the dock: there’s no other way to describe how Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared at his press conference today, delivering the Coalition’s long-awaited policy costings.

Like a criminal in the dock: there’s no other way to describe how Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey appeared at his press conference today, delivering the Coalition’s long-awaited policy costings.

The man most likely to be in charge of the country’s finances next week showed all the telltale signs of a guilty party: sweating profusely, covering his mouth and constantly dropping his gaze to the floor as he devised his answers.

In a world where perception is fact, and appearance guides perception – particularly during an election when this is exponentially the case – Hockey epitomised the complete opposite of the economic competence he was trying to convey. And on which much of the Coalition’s campaign has been built.

Yet there was little wonder why Hockey looked guilty and ashamed, for he had just produced a mere eight pages of costings for the Coalition’s sixty policies and the means by which they would pay for them.

Eight pages.

What a slap in the face for the (admittedly small in number) Australian voters who are genuinely interested in what a policy might cost and how that cost would be offset elsewhere. I’m accustomed to voters being treated like ignorant fools by politicians, their staff and their campaign teams, but this tactic is one of the greatest insults to our intelligence that I can recall.

I’m not suggesting the Coalition’s costings are material to the election outcome. Voters have pretty much decided to choose the Liberal brand and at this stage it would require something like Abbott being caught with the proverbial goat for them to be persuaded otherwise.

I’m not even particularly fazed by the last minute release of the costings, considering the tactic has been employed by Opposition Leaders from both sides for at least the past four federal elections.

No, what gets MY goat is the contemptuous lack of anything that appears to be detail in the costings document – there’s not even a superficial attempt to satisfy those of us who want more than lowest common denominator information.

I wasn’t expecting the Coalition to produce an alternate version of the Federal Budget Papers, but I did expect a greater breakdown of the spending initiatives and the savings. How hard can it be to slap all the policies together in one publication accompanied by their costings? (That’s a rhetorical question – I know it’s not that hard).

The Coalition missed an opportunity today to shake the cynicism of a few doubting Thomases. A professional-looking publication showing a costings breakdown for every policy and the accompanying savings would have set the tone for the first week of a new Abbott Government, conveying: they’re professional and they’re competent.

Today’s exposition by Joe Hockey from the witness box has done just the opposite, conveying: they’re shonky and they’re hiding something.

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…

Exposing Rudd camp’s attempt to rewrite history

Australians have witnessed considerable rewriting of the political rulebook over the past decade.

Mark Latham ran an unconventionally hokey campaign in 2004 that almost got him elected. He focussed on populist issues such as MPs’ superannuation and reading to children, when the rulebook says that oppositions should stick to the big policy issues like the economy and health.

That same election, John Howard unashamedly and un-ironically used “trust” to beat Latham. The rulebook says he should have avoided this political battleground when the community clearly had their own trust issues with the then-PM.

New rules were written in 2007 when Kevin Rudd barnstormed the election with his “me too” campaign, promising to be Howard-lite with added features like the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. Never before had a politician offered to be “the same, but better” than his opponent. It was however the perfect pitch for Howard-weary voters looking for another safe pair of hands to run the economy.

And now, Tony Abbott is defying all known rules on negative campaigning by running the longest anti-campaign any of us have ever witnessed. The success of that strategy is yet to be borne out.

Perhaps the most “bent but not broken” rule in the political playbook to date, is that which says history is written by the victor. I mention this because of the concerted effort being made by the Rudd camp to re-play the Howard trust card, and claim that Julia Gillard lost the trust of the Australian community by wresting the Prime Ministership from Kevin Rudd in 2010.

This narrative might suit the combatants’ purposes, but it’s not backed by the facts.

Support for the Labor Government increased after Julia Gillard became leader, from 52% before the change in Prime Ministership, to 53% after the change and 55% two weeks after that. Similarly, support for PM Rudd as preferred Prime Minister was 46% prior to the change, and then for PM Gillard was 53%, increasing to 57% two weeks later.

So, up to three weeks after the “coup”, the Australian people were swinging back to the Labor Government and Julia Gillard as PM. Surely if there was outrage or resentment about the way in which Kevin Rudd was dispatched, it would have emerged in the opinion polls. But no, it did not.

The polls did dive three weeks after the change in leadership, but not because of any perceived poor treatment of Rudd. The polls dived because the Australian community realised they’d be sold a pup. Not once, but twice.

I’ve written before that people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be Howard-lite proved to be empty. Rudd created the expectation but did not deliver. While he promised to be a man of action, he proved to be a man of indecision, committees and reviews.  Rudd proved to be nothing like Howard, showing none of the former PM’s ability to provide a narrative to give meaning to the government’s efforts. Nor could he speak like Howard to the community, in a language they understood.

So, in June 2010 the Australian community were well on the way to understanding that they’d been conned by Kevin Rudd. That’s why there was no uproar when he was deposed. Instead there was a cautious optimism that maybe the Labor Party had made a necessary course correction.

The shattering of that optimism is the reason why Julia Gillard no longer has the faith of the Australian people.

Julia Gillard became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne asylum seekers.

On 2 July PM Gillard announced a resolution to the mining resource tax that was reported by the media as being a backdown. Then on 6 July 2010 the PM made a strong speech to the Lowy Institute committing to solve the issues relating to boat-borne asylum seekers. Even though her asylum-seeker solution was scuttled shortly after, the public remained optimistic and the PM registered her highest approval rating (57% on 16-18 July 2010).

But on 23 July 2010 PM Gillard announced that her government would create a citizens’ assembly of ”real Australians” to investigate the science of climate change and consequences of emissions trading, under a plan to build a national consensus for a carbon price. This proposal was widely derided as setting climate policy by public opinion instead of science, and a further repudiation of the emissions trading scheme shelved by Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.

This was the point at which the penny dropped. Voters realised that they’d not only been gypped by Rudd, but also by Gillard, and so the opinion polls began to fall.

At the time of the citizens’ assembly announcement, PM Gillard’s rating as preferred Prime Minister fell from 57% to 50% (23-25 July) and the Government’s standing from 55% to 52%. A week later, the parties stood at 50% each.

The rest, as they say, is history. On this occasion, the facts are borne out by the numbers and can’t be bent to show anything other than the truth. Attempts to recast them for political purposes should be exposed for what they are – blatantly misleading and condescending to all of us.

(All opinion poll data is sourced from Newspoll).

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum