Flicking the switch from opposition to alternative government

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.

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.

Shorten needs to refine his brand of attack

If Bill Shorten concludes that Labor’s best hope for electoral success is to remain on the attack, then he needs to refine his methods for doing so.

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?

Palmer gives Shorten a free ride

Clive Palmer’s antics not only provide Bill Shorten an opportunity to show his leadership credentials, but also give Labor the chance to promote its credentials as the alternative government.

How lucky is Bill Shorten? After mixed reviews of his performance over the past 10 months, the Labor Leader could soon benefit from the crossbench chaos enveloping the Abbott Government in the Senate by doing little more than standing around looking statesmanlike.

Shorten has struggled since becoming Opposition Leader to get the balance right between being the alternative prime minister and the ruthless oppositionist that four years of Abbott has brought the Australian voting public to expect.

The relative merits of strategic opposition compared with all-out obstructionism also sat at the heart of the competition between Shorten and Anthony Albanese when they campaigned last year to become Labor leader. This issue continues to be a source of contention between the two men, if well-connected political commentators are to be believed.

Yet the arrival of Palmer and his wreckers in the Senate have made Shorten’s inner tussle with negativity a moot point.

While Shorten must at least couch any opposition to Coalition Government initiatives within the parameters set by ALP policies and the expectations of Labor supporters, Palmer has no such boundaries. In fact the Member for Fairfax has shown an early willingness to eschew even consistency or logic to make life difficult for the Prime Minister.

Irrespective of the cause, the Abbott Government will ultimately be held accountable for the untidy way parliamentary business is being conducted and, by extension, how the government is run. This is the key political lesson learned from the Gillard years, and the reason why Government ministers are sounding particularly shrill as they try to apportion blame for the current shambles while recognising that such protestations are a pointless endeavour.

Palmer has essentially usurped Shorten’s role since he started messing with the Senate and Abbott’s mind, but he has also reduced pressure on the Labor Leader to emulate Abbott’s destructive style.

Shorten’s relief at this turn of events has been almost palpable. In a television interview yesterday he appeared relaxed and confident, and the singsong cadence that he’s adopted since becoming Opposition Leader was mostly missing. In the space of that one short interview, Shorten become a voice of reason that cut through last week’s parliamentary cacophony.

Incidentally, an appearance by Albanese on a rival network at about the same, in a suit and tie on a Sunday no less, was also good.

Even though it’s true that governments lose elections rather than oppositions win them, an opposition will not prevail unless it’s considered to be a viable alternative. Labor may be doing well in the opinion polls currently, but their primary vote is still low, which suggests voters will take some time to forget what they disliked about the Rudd and Gillard years.

Voters will also continue to be attracted to Palmer as long as his populism and conflicts of interest evade scrutiny. But on polling day they’ll choose the party they believe will best provide a responsible and competent government. That’s unlikely to be PUP if Palmer continues to claim he doesn’t care if the Government has to incur more debt to pay for the wholesale changes he’s making to the budget.

Palmer’s obstructionism not only provides Shorten with the opportunity to show his leadership credentials, but also gives Labor the chance to focus on developing and promoting its credentials as the alternative government.

While Shorten made a good start with the response to the budget, such an “alternative government” campaign would require Labor bringing forward plans to reverse the party’s reputation for poor economic management, whether it is deserved or not.

This would also be an ideal time for the ALP to sever any ties of complicity that it has with the Coalition Government on policies such as those that have led to the current inhumane treatment of asylum seekers.

Shorten can no doubt improve his approval rating by just standing back from the Senate fray and saying sensible things.

But by building on the perception that Labor is the only competent party left in the Australian Parliament, the Labor leader can do more – he can reconnect with lost voters, recapture the middle ground, and take his party closer to success at the next federal election.

Labor’s choice: chaos or kudos

In the post-Budget wash-up Labor must decide what is the right style of opposition to adopt: Tony Abbott’s grinding negativity or the Howard/Rudd model of selective differentiation.

With the delivery of the Abbott Government’s first Budget we move into the second stanza of the electoral cycle, where the Coalition’s main challenge is to convince Australians the Budget pain is worth it.

Opinion polls from Galaxy yesterday and Newspolltoday show the magnitude of the task, with about 70 per cent of respondents feeling worse off and only about 40 per cent believing the Budget is good for the country.

The Newspoll result is the worst for a first budget in more than 20 years.

Labor’s task is of a completely different nature but in some ways no less challenging – it must decide what sort of opposition it wants to be.

Since Labor was thrown out of office eight months ago the party has struggled not only with its identity but also with what is the “right” style of opposition to adopt: should it employ Tony Abbott’s grinding negativity or the Howard/Rudd model of selective differentiation?

These options were manifested in the two Labor leadership contenders. The pugnacious Anthony Albanese, champion of the Left and fighter of Tories who was ironically similar to Abbott in opposition, and the Right’s Bill Shorten who took a more nuanced approach and vowed not to oppose just for opposition’s sake.

Shorten’s victory in the leadership contest was by no means an endorsement of the less negative style, but that is nevertheless the approach he adopted. This led to some doubt and consternation among Labor supporters, as well as anxious whispers as to whether the leader was up to the job.

Last week’s feisty parliamentary response by Shorten to the Budget gave heart to the doubters.

The speech could also prove to be a pivotal moment for the Labor leader and his party. Shorten acknowledged as much in an address to party members on the weekend, saying the Budget had “defined the Labor Party”.

In his Budget reply Shorten highlighted the four “pillars of Australian society” that are being attacked by the Budget, which are also key Labor principles and differentiate the party from the Coalition: universal health care, education for all, fair pensions and full employment.

These issues – along with the cost of living – also happen to be the pitches on which Labor has chosen to fight the Coalition’s Budget: co-payment for GPs, cuts to education funding, changes to student loans and pensions, re-introduction of fuel excise indexation and measures to prevent people under 30 getting unemployment benefit.

It would be a mistake, however, to see this as Shorten emulating Abbott. Shorten may be emphasising the budget measures that Labor will block, but a closer inspection reveals Labor will support other measures such as the deficit levy on high income earners. The Labor leader has also indicated a willingness to discuss thresholds and means tests for certain welfare payments.

This is a smart move by Shorten. By basing his opposition on the best points of differentiation with the Coalition he is reinforcing in voters’ minds what the ALP stands for and what it will fight to protect. This tactic has been described as Labor choosing to fight on issues rather than making themselves the issue.

Selective differentiation also gives Labor more flexibility to adapt to the vagaries of the new Senate when it commences on July 1.

It’s true that the crossbenchers have the balance of power if Labor joins with the Greens to oppose legislation such as that to re-introduce the indexation of fuel excise.

Equally, though, Labor could negotiate with the Government to soften or delay certain Budget proposals in return for safe passage of others through the Senate. In doing so, Labor could deliver real improvements to affected voters.

Such an outcome would have the added benefit for both Labor and the Coalition of denying Clive Palmer or the Greens bragging rights for having caused the Government to back down on a Budget measure.

Such a denial is clearly on the minds of both major parties. It’s likely a proposal by the Greens to establish a national ICAC was thwarted by Labor and the Coalition to prevent the minor party getting any kudos for such an initiative. And Abbott is reportedly so determined to avoid any perception that he is beholden to Clive Palmer that he is willing to take voters back to another election if Palmer won’t let key legislation pass the Senate.

Labor supporters may be uncomfortable, however, with the Opposition siding with the Government to pass even the most sensible of Budget measures, particularly this early in the parliamentary cycle.

They’d rather see Shorten take more of an Old Testament approach, visiting as much havoc on the PM as Abbott did on Julia Gillard, and doing his best to create the perception of a chaotic and incompetent Government through obstructionism and negativity.

Chaos or kudos, these are the choices for Shorten. Only one will help him re-establish Labor’s links with its core supporters, grow that support base and build the party’s standing as a viable alternative government. The other will deliver delicious schadenfreude.

It’s a tough choice to make.