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?

New polls but same old pain for Abbott

New polls but same old pain for Abbott

Two opinion polls have emerged this morning, with results that suggest Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Government have improved somewhat in the opinion of voters but not enough to take an election-winning lead from Labor.

While Newspoll found an increase in support for the Government, the Ipsos poll claims a decrease. Nevertheless, both polls have arrived at about the same overall result – albeit from different directions– measuring the Coalition’s primary vote at 39-41 per cent with 38-36 per cent for Labor. On these numbers, after preferences are allocated, Labor remains in the lead.

Both polls also found the gap closing between Abbott and the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten on approval ratings. However, Newspoll suggests Abbott has closed in on Shorten as preferred PM (at 40 per cent compared to Shorten’s 41 per cent) but Ipsos found the opposite with Shorten at 46 per cent and Abbott at 38.

Even with the Government’s preferred opinion poll, Newspoll, showing a more favourable result for the Coalition, Government MPs would understandably be frustrated with the incremental nature of the improvement. PM Abbott has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at voters, ditching a wagonload of unpopular policies while hitching himself to populist causes such as food labelling and curbs against foreign ownership.

Unfortunately for the Government, the wholesale abandonment of tough budget measures may have been counterproductive. According to the Ipsos poll, 58 per cent of respondents said they want the budget deficit addressed as a high priority, but only 41 per cent saw the Coalition as better economic managers. That’s not to say Labor was considered any better: only 32 per cent of respondents saw the party of the former Rudd and Gillard governments as superior in managing the economy.

Agitators within the Government could seize on the Ipsos results to rekindle leadership speculation. According to the poll, Treasurer Joe Hockey’s approval rating has dropped to 33 per cent, with 58 per cent disapproving of his performance. This is an almost complete reversal of the Treasurer’s standing in March last year, just weeks before he delivered one of the most unpopular budgets ever.

Now the advocates for change might promote a 2-for-1 offer, suggesting the only way to offload the deadweight Treasurer is to dispense with the Prime MinisterA similar line has been used in the past about the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin.

It’s likely too that the antipathy Government MPs hold for Credlin will resurface in light of news on the weekend that NSW Liberal state director Tony Nutt will not be joining the Prime Minister’s Office as first suggested.

Nutt’s addition to the PMO would have been good for Abbott. If the experienced fix-it man had replicated the role he played in former PM John Howard’s office, Nutt could have taken on the enforcer part of Credlin’s all-encompassing responsibilities and provided another way for backbenchers to communicate with the PM. This would have freed up Credlin to concentrate on political strategy and policy.

However, according to well-connected conservative columnist Niki Savva, Nutt was unable to obtain assurances of access – presumably to the PM – and responsibilities, which is code for Credlin being unwilling to accede to a power-sharing arrangement.

Nutt joins a growing line of experienced and respected political or policy talent that has either been rebuffed or shown the door by Credlin and Abbott since the Coalition regained Government. Well-credentialed departmental secretaries such as Andrew Metcalfe, Blair Comley and Martin Parkinson were given the axe early onHockey reportedly wanted to keep Dr Parkinson as head of Treasury but was over-ruled by the PM and his CoS. Next month’s budget will therefore be in part a measure of the new Treasury head, John Fraser, who is said to have been Abbott’s preferred candidate for the role, as well as a test for Treasurer Hockey.

In total, eight departmental heads have been sacked or resigned since the change of government.

Such personnel changes, and arguable losses of vital experience and knowledge, have not been restricted to the public service. A recent media profile on Credlin claimed she had directed that Tony O’Leary, Abbott’s director of communication while in opposition, be escorted from a private election night victory party as his services were no longer required. Like Nutt, O’Leary is another former long-time Howard staffer, and both men are highly respected by the vast majority of Government MPs.

Those MPs will no doubt be wondering to what extent the Government’s electoral standing could have been improved if those two “old hands” had been in the Prime Minister’s Office over the past year or so, directing political and media strategy. This is particularly the case given Credlin’s charm offensive following the failed leadership coup in February has had only limited success.

Since the Coalition’s election 18 months ago, valuable corporate memory has been either eschewed or discarded by Abbott and his most senior adviser to shore up their power base. Given that today’s opinion polls will be used to recast a negative light on the PM and the Treasurer, it would be fair to conclude that power base remains fractured and in danger of being shattered.

Next month’s federal budget is the next leadership test for PM Abbott, but there is no guarantee it will be his last. Particularly if he continues to be saddled with a Treasurer who’s seen to be incompetent and an adviser who’s seen to have too much power.