Flicking the switch from opposition to alternative government

Flicking the switch from opposition to alternative government

It’s taken a while to sink in, but Labor appears to have finally worked out that it can’t depend on an accident-prone and self-absorbed Prime Minster to hand it government at the next federal election.

Thanks almost entirely to the Abbott Government’s badly misjudged first budget, the Opposition has until recently had a dream run in the opinion polls with a campaign focussing on fairness. According to Newspoll, Labor has almost consistently held an election-winning lead since December 2013.

However, the second Abbott budget is less obviously unfair than its predecessor, and the PM is doing whatever it takes to improve his own approval ratings. As a result, Labor has to find other ways to remain attractive to voters.

It would be an understatement to say Labor leader Bill Shorten hasn’t been particularly successful in mimicking the negativism that made Tony Abbott so successful as Opposition Leader. In fact, all Shorten has succeeded in doing is making himself similar to Abbott in the eyes of voters.

According to the latest Essential Poll, Abbott is unsurprisingly seen to be worse than Shorten on a range of leadership “attributes” such as narrow-mindedness, intolerance, arrogance, aggression and being out of touch with ordinary people. Yet the two men are considered to be about the same on other characteristics such as the extent to which they are more honest than other politicians, and whether they’re trustworthy, hard working, or capable.

On the last measure, the 13-point gap between the two men in February has been closed to just three points, and Abbott has retaken the lead as preferred PM in all of the published opinion polls.

In the absence of a compelling leader or a sufficiently self-destructive government, Labor is now taking the only option left to make itself competitive at the next election – policy differentiation. Yet as the annals of modern Australian political history show, this is a much more risky approach.

Ever since Liberal leader John Hewson took the detailed policy manifesto Fightback! to the 1993 federal election, and was beaten to a pulp with it by PM Paul Keating, opposition leaders have been reluctant to divulge policy detail before an election. This “small target” approach makes it more difficult for the government of the day to attack the opposition, but it also makes it harder for voters to discern what the opposition stands for.

A small target strategy is most effective when voters are looking for any reason to toss out the incumbent, such as in the recent state election in Queensland. Other than such times, voters tend to stick with the devil they know, and particularly if they still have bad memories of the last time the opposition was in government.

In those instances, an opposition must release enough policy detail to show they’ve changed, but not enough to scare off the voters who prefer the status quo.

Former Labor leader Kevin Rudd wrote the rule book on this approach in 2007, when he aligned with so many of the Howard government’s policies that he was accused of running a “me too” campaign. One political commentator at the time explained this as Rudd positioning himself close to PM Howard “on all those issues where the Liberals have the advantage and differentiating himself only on those issues where Labor has the advantage“.

As a result, Rudd was seen as the “other” safe pair of hands, but also the candidate that offered ratification of Kyoto, the scrapping of WorkChoices, and a different approach to asylum seekers. This was enough to convince voters to abandon Howard, who they had backed as the status quo option for more than a decade but had come to view as no longer having the best interests of Australians at heart.

Considering the current Labor leader was instrumental in the leadership coup that unseated PM Ruddless than three years later, it’s not without some irony that the Rudd approach is now being explored by Shorten and his team.

Labor is sticking to the Government on the issues where the Coalition has the advantage, particularly (and controversially) national security and asylum seekers. The Opposition supports the Government’s small business package, and even flagged that it will support a move to scrap a small tax cut (which would have modestly increased the tax-free threshold) that was supposed to occur this year as part of the carbon tax compensation package.

This latter move is particularly smart for Labor, which continues to suffer from a reputation for profligacy and economic incompetence. Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen took a step towards repairing that reputation by acknowledging on the weekend that “Labor had taken the ‘responsible view’ that the tax cuts were no longer appropriate” and “given the state of the budget deficit, the responsible thing for Labor to do is to give its support”.

The political challenge for Shorten and Labor is to successfully identify and prosecute the points of policy differentiation with the Abbott Government.

Rudd stuck to a few key points, for clarity and memorability, and Shorten would be advised to do the same. So far, the current Labor leader has set his party apart from the Government by taking a contrasting position on the tax treatment of superannuation and multinational corporations, and policies where Labor has a natural advantage such as marriage equality and climate action.

The potential spoiler will be Labor’s national conference next month. Debates on marriage equality and asylum seeker boat turn-backs could confuse the points of comparison between Labor and the Coalition, making it less easy for voters to differentiate between the two. Invariably in such cases of confusion, voters default to the devil they know.

As this writer pointed out a fortnight ago, political negativity is easier and can be considerably effective, but Shorten seems to be incapable of doing it well. And in reality, all voters really want is a competent, responsible government. With the next federal election only a year away, Labor’s best bet may be to flick the switch from being an ineffectual opposition to becoming a compelling alternative government.

Voters forgive leadership change, but not disunity

Only days since returning from a short summer break, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is struggling with the issue he left unresolved before Christmas – the Government’s litany of policy disasters, its rejected budget, and his own failure to deal with his increasingly alarmed ministers and backbenchers.

Admittedly, the PM made some half-hearted attempts to ‘reset’ matters at the end of last year. He reshuffled the ministry without offloading most of the dead wood, held a press conference in which he failed to nominate any policy for resetting, and then went on to ‘give ground’ on policies such as the Medicare rebate and the paid parental leave scheme without actually giving any real ground.

Not surprisingly, this fooled no one, leaving ABC 730’s Leigh Sales to be the first to ask the PM whether he would consider stepping aside in order to give the Coalition the best chance of holding on to power. Abbott’s response was to evoke the deposing of Rudd as justification for his retention, arguing “the one fundamental lesson of the last catastrophic government was that you don’t lightly change leaders”.

This rationale has become almost an invocation, most recently uttered by the PM today in response to questions about the viability of his leadership:

“If there is one lesson to be learned from the fate of the former government in Canberra – maybe even the former government in Victoria – is you do not change leaders. You rally behind someone and you stick to the plan, and we’ve got a good plan.”

To make matters worse, the PM was then treated to a serve by a talkback caller describing himself as a Liberal voter, who said Abbott was “on the nose with Liberal voters” and “the world’s worst salesman”, and that “people don’t know where you are going and business is saying there are roadblocks because there is no direction and no leadership”.

Once one gets past the irony of Prime Minister Tony Abbott citing the coup against Kevin Rudd as the main reason not to dispense with him, it’s worth examining whether it’s actually true that voters don’t like parties who change leaders midstream.

In fact, several Australian governments have changed leaders and gone on to win the following election.

After stalking and then knocking off Australia’s once most popular PM Bob Hawke, Paul Keating went on to beat Opposition Leader John Hewson at the 1993 federal election.

At the state level, a leadership transition was made from Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to Anna Bligh, who despite losing seats at the next state election still retained government. And after losing the confidence of his party room, South Australia’s Premier Mike Rann stood aside for Jay Weatherill, who scraped through the following election to form a minority government.

Sure, each of the governments took a hit in the polls, but they still managed to retain office.

And let’s not forget that despite PM Abbott using Rudd’s political demise as a cautionary tale, Julia Gillard actually managed to form government after the subsequent election, albeit a minority one, despite Rudd’s best efforts to sabotage Labor’s election campaign.

That’s not to say Labor voters weren’t unhappy with the way Rudd was treated. Firstly, they were shocked at the seeming swiftness of the rebellion, and then mystified when it became clear neither Gillard nor those who backed her would give a valid explanation for the coup.

That emotion later intensified to anger when Gillard failed to deliver on the fresh start she had promised voters, demonstrating the same political tin-ear and poor judgement that had plagued Rudd. Gillard’s perceived broken oath on the carbon tax combined with her various political mishaps and pratfalls had more influence on her poor electoral standing than the way she became prime minister.

Despite PM Abbott’s protestations to the contrary, there is no golden rule in Australia politics damning a governing party that changes leaders mid-stream to eternal political opprobrium.

Most of those that did manage to retain office after a leadership change occurred late in the life of long-running governments looking to extend their incumbency. And while some of the changes were orderly handovers, a couple were so well telegraphed they became inevitable.

There are messages in these facts for the current prime minister: governments that have an orderly transition of leadership can survive to fight and win another election. And the removal of a prime minister will generate less voter anger if it’s clear why the change is being made.

If there is a lesson for anyone in the Rudd-Gillard saga, it is actually for Abbott. Voters are more concerned about political disunity, incompetency and unmet expectations than they are about changes in the Government’s leadership.

Abbott must learn from the PMs of old

At first blush, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has very little in common with his Labor analogue Kevin Rudd.

But as one looks closer, the similarities emerge and the lessons for Abbott from the Rudd years become clear.

The athlete-turned-almost-seminarian trod a very different path to federal politics than the bookish nerd. Both were unlikely prospective leaders of their parties, and yet both suddenly found themselves in the top job.

Both men had run destabilising campaigns to get to that point, but mainly they owed their ascendancy to the pragmatism of right-wing colleagues. In both cases it was the Right who adjudged Rudd and Abbott to not necessarily be prime ministerial material but able to get their parties back onto the Treasury benches.

Their colleagues’ desperate determination to win afforded both opposition leaders displays of party loyalty and discipline they had been incapable of showing their own leaders. And as a result, the voting public perceived the alternative governments offered by the two as benign enough to limit the risk of throwing out the incumbents.

As it turned out, neither the Rudd nor Abbott alternative governments were what they promised to be.

Prime minister Rudd’s seeming determination to oversee every government decision while at the same time initiating a plethora of new reviews, studies and reports, ground his office into political and policy gridlock.

Prime Minister Abbott’s style is no less command and control, although more focused on political and media strategy. This is evidenced by the much grumbled-about edict that all media requests for ministerial appearances must be coordinated (and by inference, approved) by the Prime Minister’s office.

Perhaps in an extension of the command and control model, both prime ministers surrounded themselves with a Praetorian guard of close confidants, through which parliamentary colleagues find it impossible to penetrate.

For Rudd this was the Gang of Four (or Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet) comprising Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner, as well as his coterie of young-gun staffers such as Alister Jordan and Lachlan Harris. For Abbott, the chosen few are Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, and his chief of staff, Peta Credlin.

John Howard signaled a very public warning to Abbott last week about the political perils of selective deafness, and its cousin, the presumption of knowing what’s best.

Rudd’s inability to listen to colleagues beyond his inner circle was one of the factors that contributed to his eventual downfall. His political deafness to a broader range of political voices almost certainly resulted in Rudd effectively abandoning the commitment to an emissions trading scheme rather than taking it to a double dissolution election.

And now Abbott is showing the same limited receptiveness, demonstrated perhaps most starkly by the federal budget, which is turning out to be a wholesale misjudgment of what the community is prepared to accept for the sake of national economic health.

The admirable fidelity and restraint shown by Coalition MPs while in opposition is now becoming tenuous as they face the possibility of a one-term Abbott Government. Rumours and leaks are emerging as the various players seek to deflect blame either from Abbott, or towards him, and fanciful putative alternatives like Malcolm Turnbull suddenly begin to look a tad more realistic.

Some MPs are using political commentators in the media to warn Abbott that he needs to be more consultative.

Even former prime minister John Howard signaled a very public warning to Abbott last week about the political perils of selective deafness, and its cousin, the presumption of knowing what’s best.

Without alluding directly to the Abbott Government’s first budget, Howard noted that politicians had sometimes “lost the capacity to respect the ability of the Australian people to absorb a detailed argument”.

Howard emphasised that the community would respond to an argument for change and reform if they’re satisfied it’s in the national interest and that it’s fundamentally fair.

He also stressed the importance of having a dialogue with the public, which he pursued mainly through talkback radio in his day.

You never presume that you have an elite capacity to say what’s good for people … I think constant dialogue with people is fundamentally important – listening to people.

Perhaps the biggest single difference between Rudd and Abbott is the former was once Australia’s most popular prime minister while the latter remains among the most unpopular.

Rudd’s fate was determined once he squandered much of his political capital on a dysfunctional government, over-ambitious talkfests like the 2020 summit and the ETS backflip.

Abbott has significantly less goodwill to work with, and it is vested almost entirely in his assurances that the Coalition is a competent and adult government with the best interests of all Australians at heart. But with the budget, ongoing political stumbles and Abbott’s own indulgences, it won’t take long for the well to run dry.

As Abbott moves into the negotiation stage with senators over the budget, he has the opportunity to heed Howard’s warning and learn from Rudd’s mistakes.

Abbott must broaden the scope of advice that he seeks, and listen to what the Australian people really have to say, if he is keep the Right’s next political contender from tapping on his door.

Coalition eases us into tough love policies

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.

Ignore, deny, reframe – but never, ever fess up

One of the challenges faced by politicians in the digital age is that it’s just not as easy to lie as it used be. Before the advent of pesky internet search engines and inconvenient fact-checking units, politicians could generally rely on minimal scrutiny from overworked or lazy journalists to get away with audacious claims or surreptitious backflips.

But not these days: now anyone with a keyboard and access to the uber-database that is the internet can pin a lie on a pollie. And it’s ghoulishly fascinating to observe the strategies our elected representatives have developed to cope when they’re caught telling porkies.

Some, like the re-ascendant Kevin Rudd during the 2013 federal election campaign, carry on regardless, blithely peddling the lie even once it’s been exposed. This was the case when the ABC’s Fact Check unit found Rudd’s claim of a $70 billion black hole in the Coalition’s costings to be ‘not credible’ and Fairfax’s FactChecker deemed it ‘false‘. Yet Rudd continued to use the $70bn figure throughout the campaign.

Other MPs, like the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Treasurer Joe Hockey in Parliament this week, appear to prefer the oral sleight-of-hand to fend off any accusations of duplicity.

Challenged by the opposition on a supposed false promise to spend his first week as PM in north-east Arnhem Land, Tony Abbott claimed he actually said the first remote community he would visit for a week would be in that region. That may well be what he meant, but rather than further embellishment, Abbott should have stuck to what he actually said to participants of the Garma Festival at the time:

That’s what I want to do … And why not, if you will permit me, why shouldn’t I, if you will permit me, spend my first week as Prime Minister, should that happen, on this, on your country?

Meantime, Joe Hockey danced around a challenge from Labor about whether he or senior Toyota executives were lying about the role of unions in the decision by the local automotive manufacturer to shut up shop in 2017. Toyota had publicly denied a media story claiming its CEO had privately told the Treasurer that unions were the reason for leaving, while Hockey claimed it was true.

Demonstrating a liberal dose of what he is fond of calling ‘chutzpah’ when he observes brazen behaviour in others, Hockey said both he and Toyota were telling the truth:

The report as it related to the content of the discussion between myself and Toyota was correct, and Toyota’s statement today is also correct … Toyota did not blame the unions because at that time Toyota wanted to stay in Australia, they wanted to stay in Australia.

If unsuccessful with this feint, Hockey may have to revert to the less common response to being pinged when lying: dropping the lie and making it verboten, never to be acknowledged again. Whether based on a lie or just shoddy research, Abbott’s claim that SPC Ardmona was hobbled by overly generous worker entitlements has quickly been relegated to this category.

And then there are the MPs who create an alternate reality to defend their honour, claiming a lie was the truth as they knew it at the time. This tactic has also been known as the ‘John Howard defence’ and the ‘Julia Gillard concession’.

Clive Palmer deployed this tactic at the National Press Club this week, defending his false claim that all officials of the Australian Electoral Commission were former military because he had no evidence to the contrary. Having discovered the AEC returning officer in his electorate was ex-military, as well as the deputy commissioner in Canberra, and some AEC staff in other states, Palmer told the assembled media at the NPC he had not lied because:

That was my understanding, because [in] 100 per cent of the divisions that I checked … that was the case…

Ignore, deny, reframe and obfuscate; the only thing our parliamentarians don’t seem to do when caught lying is to fess up. That’s because the electoral consequences would be dire. Despite many voters thinking politicians have only a passing acquaintance with the truth, they’d nevertheless be extraordinarily confronted by a politician who admitted to lying, and would see it as a breach of faith with the electorate. Admitting to a lie would be a career limiting move for any politician.

So it’s no surprise our elected representatives have developed all manner of ways to wriggle out from accusations of lying.

Perhaps the real surprise, in this world of increasing transparency and scrutiny, is that they still tell lies at all.