Weekly column for The New Daily.
Pretty much everything said and done in the Parliament over the next fortnight will be done with an eye to how it plays out in the Canning by-election.
It’s an understandable preoccupation, given the poll is being depicted as the ultimate test of Tony Abbott’s leadership. And if the voters of Canning remain as unimpressed with the PM and his Government as the rest of the nation appears to be, Abbott is headed for turbulent times.
The PM won’t go down without a fight, quite literally, and will ask Cabinet this week to sign off on Australia joining the US air strikes against Islamic State in Syria.
This chest-beating exercise would normally be a vote-winner for the Government, but it has become complicated by the response of the Australian community to the plight of the Syrian people fleeing the death and destruction that wracks their nation; the very same devastation to which Australian fighter jets will soon contribute.
Even with the emergence of the heart-rending imagery of the Syrians’ flight, the PM might have been tempted to stall any decision to accept more refugees from the region until after the Canning poll, given that Australians have recently shown more antipathy than empathy to asylum seekers.
But Abbott was left with little choice once Australia’s most popular politician, NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird, and other Liberals made it clear that Australia needed to do more. So the PM has done some fancy footwork, accepting the need for Australia to take in more asylum seekers from Syria, but emphasising this will not increase the overall number of refugees resettled in Australia.
In case the voters of Canning missed the nuance of this commitment, which is to avoid offending voters who oppose any increase in Australia’s refugee intake, the Western Australian newspaper made it clear, stating:
Tony Abbott is unwilling to increase Australia’s overall refugee intake beyond an already planned rise, instead of just making more places available for Syrians at the expense of other nationalities under the existing 13,750 cap.
Abbott will be hoping this commitment, along with sending Immigration Minister Peter Dutton to the United Nations to offer “assistance”, will neutralise (or at least quieten) voters’ humanitarian concerns about Syria so that they can focus instead on the terrorism-busting benefits of blasting the nation to smithereens.
This is because the war on terror is pretty much the only thing left going for the Abbott Government as it prosecutes its case in Canning. The Coalition’s only other natural strength, a reputation for superior economic management, has taken a beating in the West following the economic downturn that occurred there under the state Liberal Government’s watch.
And while much of Western Australia has an unemployment rate less than the national average, the Mandurah region in Canning has almost double the national unemployment rate at 10.8 per cent. This has created the unusual situation where federal Labor is campaigning in the by-election on an issue that has traditionally been the Coalition’s strength, namely jobs.
Along with the union movement, to which Labor Leader Bill Shorten owes a few favours, the Opposition is using foreign worker permits under the yet-to-be-ratified free trade agreement with China to whip up voter anxiety about job availability and further undercut the Abbott Government’s standing with voters.
Some of Shorten’s colleagues are disconcerted, however, by the Opposition Leader’s apparent willingness to trash an important trade deal for political expediency.
Labor-aligned columnist Troy Bramston writes in The Australian today that former Labor PM Bob Hawke said opposing ChAFTA was “against Australia’s best interests”, and that these sentiments had been echoed by most of the Labor state premiers. Bramston also lists other Labor supporters of the trade deal, which include Bob Carr, John Brumby, Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson, Luke Foley and Peter Beattie.
Nevertheless, it is unlikely Shorten will back down from this xenophobia-tinged campaign until the Canning poll is decided.
His colleagues may feel, as Bramston suggests, that this approach puts Labor “at risk of trashing its legacy on free trade and forging the modern Australia-China relationship” but Shorten’s priority is clearly to deliver support for the unions who delivered for him at national conference, and to give Abbott a mighty scare in Canning.
And with the parliamentary vote to ratify CHAFTA not expected until after the by-election, there is scope for the Labor Leader to come back to the fold if he so chooses.
Clearly, the Prime Minister has more to lose from the Canning outcome than the Opposition Leader, but both men have stooped to either whipping up foreigner-anxiety or appeasing xenophobia in order to maximise their party’s vote.
Western Australian voters will have been observing this at close range for the past fortnight, and now it is our turn to see the unedifying spectacle writ large on the national stage. Regrettably only those who live in Canning have the chance to do something about this sorry state of political affairs. The rest of us must wait until next year’s election.
The Political Weekly: Voters are more likely to believe a politician if they say something negative about their opponent than if they say something positive about themselves.
This week, the Prime Minister will visit a number of remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia. According to media reports, the PM’s entourage will include cabinet and junior ministers as well as senior departmental officials.
No doubt a small battalion of support staff will be there as well, if only to marshal the journalists brought along to document the PM’s annual outreach campaign.
If this year’s week in the north is anything like the last one, it will be hard to identify what benefit, if any, this travelling road show brings to the local communities that feature as backdrops for prime ministerial pic-facs.
As Fairfax journalist Michael Gordon wrote last week, there has been little progress on Indigenous issues since the PM last went bush in 2014. Instead, Indigenous Australia has experienced:
…budget cuts, a growing shift away from Indigenous to mainstream organisations for service delivery, a Closing the Gap report card showing no progress in some areas and regression in others, and some ill-chosen remarks about “lifestyle choices” that were seen as provocative and utterly ill-informed.
There is little reason to doubt the PM’s good intentions when it comes to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians; he has been an advocate for change since visiting remote Indigenous communities as health minister during the Howard years.
Abbott’s visit to the grave of Eddie Mabo this week also suggests he is determined to be more than just another white fella PM who passes through before the wet season commences.
Since the 2013 federal election, the PM and his Government have squandered a handsome electoral lead in the state, which no doubt contributed to the decision by WA MPs Luke Simpkins and, ironically, the former member for Canning, Don Randall to call the leadership spill vote against Abbott in February.
And now, at the commencement of the by-election campaign following Randall’s death, the new Liberal candidate for Canning faces a 10 per cent swing against him (or more accurately his party). If this threatened backlash persists until polling day, it could potentially wipe out Randall’s previously strong margin of 11.8 per cent. And if the Greens continue to grow their vote in the west, their preferences could even push Labor over the line, making life for PM Abbott considerably more difficult.
This makes Abbott’s decision to go north this week even more curious.
Everything the Government does in a communication sense over the next four weeks should be targeted at the voters of Canning. This is because the convergence of mainstream media paired with the adoption of social media ensures everything said and done on the east coast is transmitted to the west coast in real time.
So even if the PM thought it wise to physically stay distant from the Canning campaign (other than to appear at the launch), his advocacy of Indigenous issues this week simply muddies the campaign narrative.
Like most Australians, the voters of Canning are more interested in jobs than they are about constitutional recognition. A recent poll by the Australian National University found that 82 per cent of Australians supported removing clauses from the constitution that “discriminate on the basis of race”.
But when asked to nominate the two most important problems facing Australia today, only 1 per cent of respondents nominated Indigenous affairs. The top three issues were the economy/jobs, immigration and terrorism.
The Canning by-election is all about jobs, and Labor has wasted no time in staking out the “jobs” territory. This is somewhat ironic given “jobs and growth” is meant to be the Prime Minister’s latest mantra; at least it is according to twice-leaked Coalition talking points last week.
And it certainly seems to be the case given the numerous press conferences (read: picture opportunities) held by Abbott in past days, during which he apparently focused on jobs while variously climbing a fence, looking determinedly at cattle, surveying a shipyard, posing with cafe staff wearing pink uniforms, and looking at machinery while wearing a hard hat.
So if “jobs and growth” is the Coalition’s overarching theme at the moment, and if “jobs and growth” are so important in Canning, it is simply poor communication strategy for the Prime Minister to be on the opposite side of the country talking about Indigenous health, education and constitutional recognition.
Yes, it is important for Abbott to fulfil his commitment as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians”. But given his need to do well in Canning – not to mention improve the Government’s poll standing more broadly – Abbott’s boys’ own adventure in Cape York seems like self-indulgence at a time when discipline in communication is particularly needed.
The Political Weekly: Coalition in-fighting, Julie Bishop’s tactical move and cries of racism.
While the parties vie with each other to favourably spin the results of the weekend’s state elections – where one Labor government was routed and another may yet cling to victory – one clear lesson is the Greens can become collateral damage when elections are fought over jobs.
For whether the results are attributed to local issues or national ones, seen as a message for the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader, or simply a matter of a government’s time being up (or not), both election outcomes were predominantly about jobs, or lack thereof.
Protection and growth of employment prospects was always going to be a pivotal issue in both campaigns. Tasmania and South Australia have the nation’s highest unemployment rates, and the apple isle also has the lowest weekly wage. Job insecurity is high across Australia and jobs have become the major parties’ chosen battleground.
So the two considerably divergent election outcomes could generally be explained as being due to local issues, but more specifically the result of voters holding certain parties to account for the poor state of employment.
If there’s a message that Prime Minister Tony Abbott should take from the South Australian election outcome it’s that SA voters don’t take lightly to their slightly dodgy but still famous car manufacturing industry being abandoned and then run out of town by the Federal Government.
Successive industry ministers have recognised over several decades that the perceived importance of car manufacturing jobs extends beyond the directly affected electorates. They threw money at the increasingly unviable industry not out of the goodness of their hearts but to hold off the dire electoral consequences. And now Abbott knows what it’s like to release that particular beast.
While the South Australian count is not yet concluded, there are enough trends evident in the vote counted so far to draw a few conclusions. The SA Liberals achieved a modest swing in their primary vote, but failed to draw a similar amount away from Labor in order to secure enough seats to form government. This suggests some of the 60 per cent of voters who thought the Liberals would win stayed with Labor in protest.
Granted, this protest vote may not have done as much damage if the South Australian Liberals had run a half decent marginal seats campaign, but that is another matter altogether.
Interestingly, according to the ballots counted so far, the Green vote in South Australia increased by almost half a per cent. This trend runs counter to the slew of state, territory and federal elections since 2010 where their vote dropped. The status quo vote for the Greens in South Australia suggests they were neither blamed nor particularly acclaimed for their contribution since the previous state election. For good or bad, the election was about the major parties and the Greens survived by keeping off the jobs radar.
In contrast, on the same day as the South Australian election, the Tasmanian Greens and one-time partners in a Labor minority government lost eight percentage points from their vote and three of their five seats in the state’s lower house.
Undoubtedly many factors combined to produce that result, but there’s no denying that jobs played a significant part. Abbott and the Tasmanian Liberals ran strong on reinvigorating the forestry industry; essentially putting jobs before the environment.
It’s clear from this strategy that the Liberals’ private market research showed voters were ready to seek retribution for what they perceived to be a weak Labor Party rolling over to the Greens’ environmental demands instead of protecting jobs. Labor’s vote dropped by about 10 per cent in the Tasmanian poll, thereby ceding majority government to the Liberals for the first time since the Groom Liberal government was elected in 1992.
If the Greens are perceived to be thwarting jobs in Western Australia they may suffer a similar fate to their Tasmanian colleagues in the WA Senate election re-run that will be held on April 5. Western Australia doesn’t face the same job pressures that bedevil South Australia and Tasmania, though the downturn in the mining boom would be causing some employment anxiety.
Additionally, the Australian Greens no longer have a power sharing arrangement with the incumbent federal government and cannot be held directly responsible for jobs in the way the Tasmanian Greens were.
Yet there’s no doubt the Abbott Government will assist WA voters in recalling that the Greens were responsible for Julia Gillard’s broken carbon tax vow and the “job destroying” impost that resulted from it. The Coalition will likely lay the mining tax at the Greens’ feet too, now that Shorten has conveniently blurred his stance on the failed profit sharing mechanism.
So while the Greens will be campaigning to be given a balance of power position in the Senate to keep the Abbott Government from the worst of its excesses, the Government will press for the Greens to be prevented from being able to block the repeal of “job destroying” laws. Meantime, Labor will quietly do its best to harvest votes away from the Greens with selective preference deals.
The Greens may believe that every time Abbott opens his mouth “the Green vote goes up“, but the opposite effect is more likely.
On April 5, a Greens Senator will be elected (or not) predominantly because of what WA voters perceive their party has done (or not) to protect and foster jobs in that state. Other factors such as climate change, asylum seekers, health, education and sharks may play a role, but it will simply come down to jobs.
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.
ALP: Take a good look in the mirror. Latest post for The Hoopla.
Not one but three messages reverberated from the Abbott government’s cabinet decision yesterday to reject a request from iconic Australian fruit-processing company SPC Ardmona for $25 million assistance.*
Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane stated in no uncertain terms that the decision was a message for business that the days of government being a crutch for business were over. Labeled “an important marker” by Abbott and a “defining point” by Macfarlane, the rebuff signaled that industry restructuring should be led (and, by extension, resourced) by business alone.
Doing as much as possible to deflect any inferred responsibility for jobs lost through the decision, Abbott made a big play on the size, profitability and social conscience of SPC’s parent company, Coca-Cola Amatil. He expressed confidence that the multinational would do the right thing by the canning company and its workers.
And for the second time this week, the government also drew attention to the responsibility of companiesto strike wage agreements with unions that do not threaten their business’s sustainability over time. This is part of a strengthening government homily that companies must take more responsibility for their actions.
However, the big dose of tough love for the ever-demanding Australian business community will likely give little comfort to the recipients of the second message. Taken together, the Cadbury and SPC Ardmona decisions starkly tell voters one thing: some jobs are more equal than others.
Yesterday the Prime Minister rationalised the Coalition’s 2013 election campaign decision to support Cadbury with $16 million in assistance as development of “regional tourism infrastructure” and not simply propping up another struggling business. But at the time he seemed particularly focused on the continuing viability of Cadbury in Tasmania and the 200 jobs that the factory upgrade would add to state’s depressed economy.
The key to this apparent contradiction lies in votes – or more precisely seats in the federal parliament. The SPC Ardmona facility is nestled in the very safe Liberal seat of Murray, which Sharman Stone holds with a whopping two party preferred vote of 70.87 per cent. This healthy margin gives Stone some latitude to be a rebel at times, but it also means the Coalition can treat Murray’s voters with impunity without risking a backlash that bites. In fact the Abbott government could probably slay every first male child in the electorate and still retain the seat.
In contrast, the Cadbury factory is located in Andrew Wilkie’s Tasmanian seat of Denison, and is supplied by the dairy industry in the adjacent seat of Lyons. Not coincidentally, Liberal candidate Eric Hutchinson went on to take Lyons at the 2013 election from Labor’s big man Dick Adams with an almost 14 per cent (two party preferred) swing in his favour.
So the SPC Ardmona decision revealed that if you live in a marginal seat or one represented by a potentially influential independent MP, your job is important to the Coalition. Otherwise, not so much.
Finally, the decision not to protect the jobs of canners and, by extension, their fruit-producing suppliers, sent a decisive message to the Nationals: you can’t always get what you want.
Even though it remains perennially puzzling why this rural rump of agrarian socialists wields greater influence on Coalition decisions than its total vote or number of seats in parliament, they continue to do so. Most recently they were successful in convincing Treasurer Hockey to reject the $3.4 billion foreign takeover bid by US agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland for local grain-handler GrainCorp. The “national interest” grounds on which he did so were spurious at best and sent a ripple of unease through the business community.
But now a similar public campaign in support of assistance for SPC Ardmona by Agriculture Minister (and deputy leader of the Nationals) Barnaby Joyce has failed. It may be that the Nationals expended their political capital on keeping the Yanks’ hands off our grain-handling infrastructure, or that any preparedness by the free traders in Cabinet to countenance further protectionist assistance for Australian businesses was consumed entirely by the GrainCorp decision. Perhaps it was simply because there are more marginal votes in the grain belts of rural Australia than in Murray.
Either way, the messages conveyed by yesterday’s SPC Ardmona decision may prove counterproductive for Tony Abbott. While he sees them as “an important marker” and a veritable line in the political sand, the message recipients may see them more as a challenge, an ultimatum and a call for retaliatory action.