Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

Tony Abbott’s high-stakes expectations game

After four years of watching the Rudd and Gillard governments do it so badly, it’s morbidly fascinating to see the Abbott Government play a particularly high-stakes expectations game with the Australian public.

While often portrayed in more simplistic terms, as promises kept or broken, the compact sealed between Australian voters and the government they have installed is more fundamentally about the expectations of what values and principles will be upheld. By confusing the two, political observers run the risk of misunderstanding which of the Abbott Government’s “broken promises” will be ignored or forgiven and which could be politically toxic.

Rudd learned that unfulfilled public expectations can bite badly when he squibbed on the self-proclaimed “great moral challenge of our generation“. By postponing any further efforts to establish an emissions trading scheme, Rudd effectively repudiated the need for urgent and effective climate action, which was one of the few principles he’d highlighted as distinguishing himself from John Howard in what was otherwise a me-too election campaign in 2007. The ease and speed with which Rudd discarded the commitment added the public’s concern to those already held by the business community and public service that there was a vast gap between the expectation created by Rudd (that he was a man of vision and action) with the perceived reality (that he was an obsessive micro-manager gridlocked by the unworkable need to make every government decision).

Julia Gillard also fell foul of an expectations shortfall. As deputy prime minister, she was a vibrant, articulate and engaging member of the Rudd government, as well as a beacon to the feminist movement. Yet this credibility was eroded by the apparently inexplicable knifing of PM Rudd; early bumbling on the mining tax, asylum seekers and people’s forum on climate action; an unnerving Stepford PM performance during the 2010 federal election campaign; and the need to go back on a clumsily worded carbon price commitment in return for securing minority government. While much was made of Gillard breaking her “carbon tax promise”, the real damage from this announcement was that it crystallised the public’s growing realisation that she was not the capable and honest politician they had expected.

As opposition leader, Tony Abbott ruthlessly exploited the public’s fractured expectations of Gillard. But in continually drawing a contrast between her government and his alternative, Abbott constructed a whole new expectations edifice for himself to uphold. However, he’s been much more strategic, creating expectations in broad brush strokes that give the Coalition Government a lot more room to move, including the occasional backdown on promises and commitments.

Hence Abbott’s constant referral to high level descriptors of his government when deflecting questions about backflips and reversals. They will “build a stronger economy”, “do what we said we will do”, and “be a no surprises, no excuses government”. Many sins can be dismissed or ignored under the cover of these generalities: for example, eliminating the debt ceiling can be framed as being in the interests of a stronger economy, and “re-profiling” of funding for the NDIS can be “doing what they said they would” but in a way that is “appropriately targeted and … sustainable“.

Even so, there are limits on the extent to which voters are prepared to have their expectations massaged by the Abbott Government. This was clearly demonstrated when Education Minister Christopher Pyne flouted the voter expectations of school equity under the Coalition’s version of Gonski that he and Abbott had deliberately encouraged during the election campaign. Despite protesting that they were keeping the commitments they had made but not necessarily those that people “thought they had made”, Abbott moved quickly to contain the disillusionment outbreak, forcing Pyne to perform a triple, double backflip with pike to placate the wailing hordes of teachers and parents.

When it comes to asylum seekers, we are yet to see which of the expectations created by Abbott and his Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will prevail. Considering that “we will stop the boats” was a core component of Abbott’s favourite election mantra, and that it’s shorthand for the broader principle of “protecting your jobs and your way of life”, it’s fair to say it will take priority over Abbott saying his government will be “transparent and open” and that “the last thing we want to do is to hide anything from the Australian people“.

As the billboard says, human rights abuse starts with secrecy, but in the case of boat-borne asylum seekers, many Australians seem prepared to accept being treated like mushrooms, lest they start to feel complicit in the atrocity.

It would be foolish however for the government to think this is a default position. As we saw during the Gonski shambles, voters won’t turn a blind eye to actions that “hurt” them or their nearest and dearest directly. If voters start to sense the government is being silent on a decision that affects them, particularly the hip pocket nerve, there will be electoral hell to pay.

This post originally appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

Who should we blame when politicians lie?

Here’s my latest piece for the King’s Tribune…

Late in August, the Canberra Press Gallery awoke from a collective slumber and simultaneously concluded that Tony Abbott hadn’t been entirely honest with them. Or with the Australian people.

Well at least that’s one way of interpreting the political news at the time, following on from Leigh Sales’ challenging of Abbott’s relationship with the truth in one of the Opposition Leader’s all too rare appearances on a “serious” current affairs program.

Those of us whose cognitive capacities haven’t been entirely reduced to that of goldfish by the Age of Twitter can vaguely remember that at different times last year the media had similar revelations.

In March there was a searing piece in which Bernard Keane positioned 11 Abbott statements with another 11 that contradicted them. Annabel Crabb noted in July, “Mr Abbott’s one-man battle against demonstrable logic has entered a new and compelling phase”.

The cycle repeated in October, with Laurie Oakes reminding us, “while he lambasts Gillard over her broken “no carbon tax” promise, Abbott has form on the broken promise front himself”. Lenore Taylor questioned the veracity of both leaders, noting that “politicians have always gilded the lily, spun the message — in effect, stretched the truth. But lately they seem to feel free to take things one step further and ignore facts altogether.”

Then, as if an invisible hypnotist had snapped his fingers, the Press Gallery again fell into a snooze and Tony Abbott’s cursory relationship with the truth was almost entirely dropped by the mainstream media.

That is, until last month, when the revelation was experienced all over again.

What was different this time was the media’s collective conscience had been pricked by a non-journalist challenging them to acknowledge that they could no longer simply observe Abbott’s deceptive tactics. Journalists were embarrassed into exposing those lies and reporting what their consequences would be.

It was The King’s Tribune writer, Tim Dunlop, who called the Press Gallery to account. He described the Gallery’s theretofore admiration for Abbott as a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, with senior journalists like Laurie Oakes giving Abbott points for being the most negative Opposition Leader ever, Phil Coorey judging him “wise” for refusing to answer questions on funding, and Lenore Taylor publicly acceding to the Coalition’s tactical avoidance of the media on a “tricky policy issue”.

Click here to read more…..

Voters don’t care about political lies

The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.

These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.

Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.

The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.

While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.

During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.

Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.

Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.

Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.

Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”

The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”

Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.

Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)

An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”

This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.

The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”

This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.

This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed