Shorten needs to refine his brand of attack

Shorten needs to refine his brand of attack

Tony Abbott has often been referred to as the most successful opposition leader in contemporary Australian politics.

Never before had an opposition leader gotten away with such a negative campaign for so long. Never before had relentless negativity paid such rich dividends.

But what has often been overlooked in this narrative is that Abbott’s popularity and that of the Liberal Party were perversely symbiotic – Abbott’s personal approval ratings bore the brunt of his negativity while that of the Coalition flourished.

At the time, Abbott’s low personal approval ratings might have seemed a small price to pay for success on polling day. But while a prime minister doesn’t have to be loved to be successful, it does help to have some form of political capital in the bank – whether it be love or respect – to engender voter forgiveness when the inevitable stumbles or tough decisions occur.

Abbott had no such political capital when he became PM, which exacerbated the poor decisions he’s made, including the horror budget in 2014. The PM has had to buy his way back into favour – with the voters and his colleagues – with a magic pudding budget that will likely carry him through to an almost full-term election in March next year.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten currently finds himself in a similar situation to that faced by his predecessor. Shorten’s opposition style, while not as stridently negative as Abbott, has nevertheless resulted in his personal approval ratings taking a hit, while his party benefits.

Most of the published opinion polls show Labor continuing to hold an election-winning lead over the Government, yet Shorten’s approval rating has dropped and Abbott has retaken the lead as preferred prime minster.

Shorten certainly never intended to be a pale imitation of Abbott. Three months into his term as Labor Leader he told one media outlet:

We are not going to just say no to everything; we don’t believe our model of opposition has to be an imitation of Tony Abbott’s model of opposition.

But when the Abbott Government produced one of the harshest federal budgets ever, the decision to “go negative” was essentially taken out of Shorten’s hands. With so much material to work with, and Labor supporters calling for Abbott to be given a dose of his own medicine, the Labor Leader had no other choice but to go on the attack.

Granted, there have been limited occasions on which Labor has sided with the Government – such as national security, asylum seekers and metadata retention – but in each case the Opposition has been heartily criticised for being complicit in the Government’s perceived misdeeds. So the temptation to default to negative is considerably strong.

This year’s budget gives the Labor Leader much less material to work with. Packed with giveaways that would make even former PMs Rudd and Howard blush, it has enough winners to overshadow the inevitable losers.

Labor could continue to be obstructionist in the Senate, even to the extent that it blocks some of its own funding cuts from when still in government, but the Government could simply bypass the Opposition altogether and deal with the Senate crossbenchers.

The crossbench has fractured into eight individual votes, requiring considerable effort from the Government to negotiate the deals to secure the six votes needed to pass budget measures. But that’s preferable to Abbott having to beat his head against a Labor brick wall.

It’s an invidious choice for Shorten and Labor – between negativity and cooperation – particularly when the more constructive option receives little kudos from the voting public. But if Shorten concludes that Labor’s best bet is to remain on the attack, then he needs to refine his methods for doing so.

One of the success factors often overlooked from Abbott’s time as Opposition Leader was the way his three word slogans were crafted. His commitment to “stop the boats, scrap the taxes, and repair the budget” held a double meaning. It was not only a way of describing what he stood for, but in a reverse-fashion condemned the Labor government for “weakening our borders, increasing our taxes, and wrecking our budget”.

If Shorten is prepared to sell his soul (or personal approval ratings) for a Labor victory, he needs to ditch the corny dad jokes and zingers (for Shorten is no Keating), and find short, sharp dual-purpose messages like Abbott’s that resonate with actual voters (not just the political elite). He needs to repeat those messages until we’re sick of them (for that is when disengaged voters will only just be hearing them), instead of muddying the water by test-driving a new message every couple of days.

While Labor’s current slogan “a smart, modern and fair Australia” is a good start, it still feels like a platitude next to the Coalition’s efforts.

And on the policy front, Shorten needs to ensure that consolidating the Opposition’s reputation as the champion of fairness and equity – as they seem likely to do in response to this year’s budget – is not done at the expense of rebuilding its economic credentials.

It could be argued that both the Coalition and Labor had a poll lead in opposition despite their leaders’ poor approval ratings, not due to their negative style of opposition. But to do so would ignore the fact that negative campaigning has been proven to be devastatingly successful – when it is done right.

By sharpening his campaigning style, Shorten has a good chance of emulating his predecessor Abbott. But as we have seen with Abbott, electoral success built upon negativity carries the risk of permanent unpopularity. Is that a Faustian price that Shorten is willing to pay?

Shorten’s timely transition from ‘no’ to ‘me too’

A funny thing happened on our way to war. After almost a year of trialling various iterations of the uber-negative stance taken by former opposition leader Tony Abbott, his successor Bill Shorten neatly pivoted from being “Mr No” to “Mr Me Too”.

It’s not unusual for a Labor opposition leader to support a conservative Australian government taking military action. Of course there are historical exceptions, such as the Vietnam War, as well as the more recent example of Simon Crean opposing the Howard government taking us into Iraq without proof of WMDs or the United Nations’ sanction.

However, being citizens of a fundamentally small “c” conservative nation, Australians are generally supportive of governments taking military action that is seen to “protect” us or our way of life. And we have little time for oppositions that criticise those actions in the name of political point-scoring.

Shorten’s Labor showed an early understanding of this political reality when MH17 was shot down.

No quibbles were made of the overtly muscular language used at the time by the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. No ironic jibes were levelled at Bishop as she headed forthwith to New York to exert pressure on Russia using Australia’s seat on the UN Security Council, despite her previously suggesting Rudd and Gillard’s campaign to acquire the seat was overly expensive if not indulgent.

Instead, Shorten took Abbott’s lead, also adopting the stance and words of a statesman, and even going so far as to pay tribute in the Parliament to the Government’s handling of the efforts to bring home the Australian victims of the MH17 tragedy:

The manner in which this has been conducted has made me proud to be Australian, and I congratulate the Government.

Shorten has also been swift to shut down any dissent within his own ranks, or any suggestion that Abbott is exploiting Australia’s domestic or international efforts against terrorism to deflect voter attention from the unpopular budget. (Although this is patently the result of those developments.)

As Australia has moved inexorably closer to returning to Iraq, Shorten has stood steadfastly by Abbott’s side, including last Friday when he joined the PM to farewell our first new troop deployment. As he notedjust days before that:

When it comes to fighting terror, we are all in this together. The Prime Minister and I are partners in national security…

The most interesting element of Shorten’s new-found bipartisanship is that it doesn’t appear to end with matters of national security.

The Labor leader reportedly met privately with Abbott before the PM travelled to Arnhem Land last week and resolved to work with the Government to give the best chance of success to the referendum that must be held in order for there to be constitutional recognition of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The outbreak of cooperation may also have extended to Labor support for the Coalition’s new security laws, which are to be debated in Parliament this week, and scaled-back versions of some of the changesto welfare payment arrangements proposed in this year’s federal budget.

To be fair, Shorten hasn’t signed on to the unity ticket for everything being done by the Government. Abbott’s budget is still “unfair”, the Government’s decision to buy submarines off-the-shelf will “imperil Australia’s national security“, and Labor has now developed a nuanced position on engagement in Iraq and Syria that identifies a number of conditions that must be met by the Government to maintain the ALP’s continued support.

And while Shorten may well have agreed to work cooperatively with Abbott on constitutional recognition for Australia’s first peoples, he was still prepared to put the boot into the PM for his lack of consistency on improving the lot of Indigenous Australians:

The Prime Minister is visiting Arnhem Land this week to see firsthand the issues confronting Indigenous Australians. I think that is a great idea and I welcome his visit … yet he has cut over half a billion dollars from Indigenous services funding. So there are children and family child care centres which are closing. Legal aid is falling; this is at a time when young Aboriginal men, when they finish school, are more likely to go to jail than university.

So Tony Abbott, it is great that you are visiting – but actions count more than words. It’s about time we actually started standing up for Aboriginal Australians, not just visiting them.

Although it is early days with this multi-dimensional approach, Shorten appears to be finding the right balance between “no” and “me too”.

If he were to seek guidance on refining the method, the Labor leader would need look no further than the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd for inspiration.

Rudd ran the perfect “me too” campaign against then PM John Howard. He assuaged any voter concern about tossing out an aged and hubristic government for a TV-celebrity politician by saying he was just the same as Howard, but better. He agreed with Howard on many aspects of policy except for the key points of differentiation: climate change, asylum seekers and WorkChoices.

Rudd knew this tactic would work, because he had observed Howard use it against the tired and hubristic Hawke/Keating Government in 1996. Howard offered the same economic competence as Keating, but promised to govern “for all of us” to differentiate himself from Keating who was seen as having lost touch with everyday Australians.

History tells us the diametrically different style of oppositionism adopted by Tony Abbott was also successful, but that its personal cost was high. It is unlikely Abbott will ever be a popular politician in the traditional sense, nor is it likely he will attain a high level of community respect.

Luckily for Shorten, there is another possible path to electoral success, and it appears to be one that he is exploring.

If Shorten is successful in establishing a more “constructively-negative” approach to opposition, it might not quite lead to peace in our time, but it may well lead to the kinder, gentler polity that until recently has been little more than a wistfully muttered ideal.

To be (negative) or not to be – that is the question

Here’s the last of my 2013 election campaign weekly columns for ABC’s The Drum.

Once Labor gathers together the detritus of its parliamentary wing following the federal election and selects a new leader, it will need to decide what kind of Federal Opposition it is going to be.

For even though Tony Abbott’s Coalition can be considered a successful opposition – in that it won the election – it was also the most negative in Australia’s modern political history.

The consequences of those four years of sustained political warfare, initiated when Abbott first became Leader of the Opposition, remain with us today. Most notably, it has set the tone for much of our nation’s political discourse, be it on social media, talkback radio or television talking head panels, in newspaper headlines or at political rallies.

The ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Bob Brown’s Bitch’ placards, for example, held aloft at the infamous anti-carbon tax rally would have been considered more shocking and perhaps been more widely condemned if the broader community hadn’t already become desensitised to epithets being hurled at Julia Gillard as a matter of course during the daily political debate.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for vigorous exchanges within Australia’s political conversation, but this type of brutal discourse has moved from being the exception to the rule. As a result, those in the Australian community who are interested and engaged in politics now seem to approach any related discussion from a state of constant combat-readiness instead of a willingness to listen and explore other perspectives.

It may not have occurred yet to the new Labor Federal Opposition, but it has an opportunity to change the tone of our national political conversation to something that is, dare I say, kinder and gentler. Labor knows Australian voters are tired of negativity but the party may well be tempted to adopt an approach similar to Abbott’s uber-opposition as an easy way of scoring early points against the new Government.

While it is clearly legitimate for an Opposition to “oppose” the Government and hold it to account, this does not necessarily require the transformation of parliament into a combat zone. Previous Leaders of the Opposition, namely John Howard, Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd, all took a more positive approach that welcomed sensible policy initiatives from the Government while emphasising the key points of differentiation. The benefit of this approach was that it not only helped position the Opposition as a scrutineer of the Government but also as a credible and viable alternative.

Undoubtedly, the new Labor Opposition has a great deal to work through in the coming weeks and months. Not only does it have to convince one of its young and talented remaining parliamentarians to take on the leadership, which traditionally is a poisoned chalice after a government-changing election loss, but it also has to work out what to do about Kevin as he lurks like Banquo’s ghost on the parliamentary backbench.

Nevertheless, there is one more difficult question that Labor should tackle, for the good of the party as well as the nation.

To be (negative) or not to be – that is the question.

Will Abbott’s ‘campaign of no’ make him PM?

For political analysts and pundits alike, Tony Abbott is the Impossible Opposition Leader. Never before have we seen an alternative prime minister run such a relentlessly negative campaign for so long.

Big on three-word slogans but small on policy detail, Abbott has single-mindedly focused on running Labor into the ground since he beat silvertail Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull by one vote in December 2009. With this slender mandate, Abbott lurched the Liberal party to the right of the middle ground, being uncomfortably straddled by Labor as it tried to appease not only its labour antecedents, but also an idealistically progressive rump.

Since then, certainty and competency have been the names of Abbott’s game. At a time when voters are unsure who the Labor leader will be tomorrow morning, or which promise they will break next, Abbott offers them a beacon of dark light with simple pledges of negativity that do little more than emphasise the government’s key failings.

The “stop the boats” rhetoric not only dog-whistles the community’s xenophobes and bigots, but signals that Labor can’t protect the nation’s borders. “Scrap the carbon tax” comforts not only those who think climate change is crap, but reminds how Julia Gillard broke a promise to form a devilish pact with the Greens to secure A minority government. Perhaps most transparent is Abbott’s new pledge, “no surprises and no excuses”, which paints the government as chaotic and irresponsible.

The consequences of Abbott’s “campaign of no” are all too clear. Political discourse in Australia has descended into megaphone territory, with partisans using any and all platforms to besmirch, ridicule and aggressively denounce those who don’t agree with their party’s line. Skirmishes and biffs constantly break out on social media and talkback radio, while confected conflict masquerades as news on tabloid television and in the print media. We are all the poorer for it.

Meantime, Abbott has also paid a price. Not since the Liberal’s twice-risen soufflé, Andrew Peacock, has a leader of the opposition had such a high disapproval rating while simultaneously delivering a strong primary vote for their party. Granted, with a disapproval rating higher than Abbott’s worst (67% compared with 63%), Peacock still took the Coalition to within a bee’s ding of victory at the 1990 federal election, securing 20,000 more votes but nine seats less than Labor. We’re much further out from the election than Peacock was when he scored that career-high disapproval rating just two weeks before polling day, but it’s instructive to note the Coalition enticed back 4.5% of voters in those last few days.

Support for the Coalition is much stronger today, but there are still enough soft voters currently “parked” with the opposition to change the election outcome if they decided their disillusionment with Gillard was insufficient justification to vote for Abbott.

Abbott and his strategists know this, and are determined to avoid the Pox On Both Your Houses effect that delivered the balance of power to a motley collection of Greens and Independents at the 2010 federal election.

Recognising this, Abbott has thrown the switch to Statesman. The daily Question Times rants have disappeared, or been relegated to shadow ministers. The look is more polished, the language more considered, and the message has evolved from one-dimensional chants about stopping the boats and scrapping the tax to incorporate a positive element with pledges of hope, reward and opportunity.

It’s too early to tell whether a navy suit (which is meant to engender trust) and a less hectoring tone will be enough to convince us that Abbott is prime minister material.

The transformation is at least entrancing the federal parliamentary press gallery. In a celebration of “savviness” that would make Jay Rosen’s head spin, the gallery’s breathless reports of Abbott’s budget reply focussed less on the substance of his budgetary measures than the audacity of him outlining them at all. We’re yet to see whether the transformation to Statesman Tony™ has even registered with the voting public, let alone whether they buy it.

Strategically deploying new suits, blue ties and slogans, Abbott is making this federal election about certainty and competency. Some days, the government seems to be doing everything it can to help him.

The last time an opposition leader took such firm control of the election agenda, it was Kevin07. Rudd masterfully shaped the entire election campaign by pledging to be just like John Howard, but with bonus features like the ratification of Kyoto and scrapping of WorkChoices.

And hey, that worked out so well, didn’t it?

This post first appeared at Guardian Australia.