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

Relentless negativity isn’t the only path to electoral success, a fact that Bill Shorten appears to understand as he carefully picks his battles with the Abbott Government.

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.

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.

Anatomy of a broken promise

Broken vaseWhether we like it or not, 2013 is going to be the year of the broken promise.

While it’s hard to believe there remains even one voter not yet reached by Tony Abbott’s campaign to brand Julia Gillard a venal oath-breaker, there still remain enough politically disengaged Australians to decide the election. And we can be confident that Abbott won’t leave their ultimate voting decision to chance.

An oft-quoted campaign idiom is that only once you’re sick of hearing your own voice can you be confident your message is starting to cut through. So even though political observers are heartily sick of the Opposition Leader’s mantra, he’ll keep chanting about the broken carbon tax promise confident in the knowledge that it has yet to lodge in the brains of the politically disengaged.

Whether this strategy will bring voters to Tony Abbott is another matter altogether.

Prime Ministerial broken promises are hardly a new phenomenon; throughout contemporary Australian politics they’ve often been considered a necessary evil. Promises made, particularly during election campaigns, have routinely been discarded as economic or political circumstances have changed.

In the 1970s Malcolm Fraser undertook to keep Medibank, then dismantled it. The 80s saw Bob Hawke vow that by 1990 no child would live in poverty. Paul Keating retracted his L-A-W tax cuts promise in 1993, resulting in the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister (now equal lowest with Julia Gillard), but still dragged that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders.

John Howard swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister successfully took one to the 1998 election. Howard also backtracked on commitments made during the 1998 campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises, but won the following 2001 election with an increased majority and prevailed again in 2004.

So when Prime Minister Julia Gillard was forced to discard her vow to never have a carbon tax (as the price for securing minority government with the Greens and Independents), she could have been forgiven for thinking she’d get away with it. But in Australian politics one does not simply break an oath; one must play the game of expectations in order to get away with it.

Gillard’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, learned this the hard way in 2010 when he backed away from his election promise (made in opposition) to quickly establish an emissions trading scheme.

This change of heart shouldn’t have been as difficult for Rudd as it proved to be. Community support for the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was fading following the disappointing shemozzle that was Copenhagen and the Senate’s refusal to pass what the Greens considered to be a substandard trading regime. New Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s “great big tax” campaign had started to get traction. And business leaders were expressing doubt the CPRS would provide the certainty they needed.

Even having dubbed climate change as “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, Rudd could have emerged relatively unscathed from the CPRS back-down in April 2010 if he’d better managed the community’s expectations.

But if there was one thing Rudd proved singularly incapable of doing, it was to live up to the extraordinarily inflated community expectations that he’d created as Opposition Leader. Having cast himself as Howard-lite, with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices, Rudd initially proved to be one of the most popular Australian Prime Ministers ever. But people lost faith in Rudd because his promise to be a better version of Howard ultimately proved to be empty.

In fact a defining feature of Rudd as Prime Minister was to promise big but deliver small. In February 2010 Rudd told his MPs there could be no backing away from the CPRS commitment. But in April, on advice from his kitchen cabinet comprising Gillard, Swan and Tanner, Rudd decided to postpone it. The clumsily leaked broken promise caught Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and other ministers unawares. Rudd then fumbled the explanation, and in doing so extinguished what little voter faith in him that remained. As it was later reported, the decision “galvanised the fastest collapse of support for a Prime Minister in the 20-year history of Newspoll and one of the two sharpest recoils from a Prime Minister in the 40 years of the Nielsen poll.”

Prime Minister Gillard should have heeded Rudd’s CPRS downfall when faced with having to disavow her pre-election rejection of the carbon tax. Voters were already unsettled by the coup and resented being denied the opportunity to cast Rudd out themselves. Gillard’s Rudd-like commitment to resolve priority issues such as asylum seekers, the mining tax and climate action proved to be equally Rudd-like in their emptiness. And a sense of anxiety and uncertainty overhung the minority government negotiations.

It’s little wonder that latent voter unhappiness fomented into outrage once the disavowed carbon tax was publicly re-embraced by Gillard. Abbott’s aforementioned sloganeering whipped that outrage into the phenomenon we know today as JuLIAR.

In contrast, the twilight hours of 2012 saw an exemplary display of how to break a political promise AND get away with it, when the Prime Minister and Treasurer deftly broke their Budget surplus commitment.

The government first created a community expectation that dropping the surplus promise was a sensible and necessary thing to do. This was done in stages, first by floating the possibility in off-the-record discussions with credible journalists and economists who in turn championed the need for the about-turn in the media. The next stage was to convert the “idea” into “a proposal” and leak it to an esteemed journalist whose credibility would provide reflected validation.

Thus, Laura Tingle revealed (the week after parliament concluded) that the surplus commitment would be dropped. Following months of public discussion about this being the right thing to do, Tingle’s article added a sense of legitimacy and urgency to the proposal.

From there it was simply a matter of announcing the decision in the week before Christmas, when most Australians were thinking more about barbeques and beaches than the state of the Budget. The few who had not entirely switched off might have thought “and about time, too”, having vaguely recalled calls for such action. Then Australians would have turned to the post-Christmas sales and the cricket.

Such is the anatomy of a broken promise. Tony Abbott would do well to study it as he deploys the next stage of his election strategy. Most likely he’ll rely heavily on the worst-handled of the Prime Minister’s broken promises – the carbon tax – and the best-handled, being the surplus. But as we have seen with the surplus, not all rescinded commitments generate outrage, and even those that initially inflame – like the carbon tax – can lose their volatility over time.

2013 will undoubtedly be the year of the broken promise: Tony Abbott will make sure of that. But Abbott should be wary of assuming the community will become indiscriminately outraged about any and all oath-breaking. If the Prime Minister has learned from the successful reversal of the Budget surplus commitment, and continues to deftly manage community expectations, it’s likely her broken promises will be seen as nothing more than a necessary evil and something that all Prime Ministers occasionally have to do. And in doing so, she will make redundant one of her opponent’s most valued pieces of artillery.

This post first appeared at the King’s Tribune.