Abbott’s survival relies on knowing when to fold’em

Political longevity comes, in no small part, from a government’s ability to survive its mistakes – the self-inflicted stumbles, dramas and crises that diminish it in the eyes of voters.

The key to survival is often a matter of knowing the right time to stick to one’s guns and when to cut one’s losses and move on.

The third approach is to create a diversion. A well-executed diversion can take the heat out of an issue by drawing the attention of the media and public away from the troublesome matter at hand. This creates space in which to find the necessary course corrections.

The trick of course is to know what is the right approach to take at any one time.

Over the past week the Abbott Government executed these tactics with varying degrees of success. In what is anticipated to be the first in a series of concessions over the coming months, the Prime Minister cut adrift the proposed amendments that would have watered down the Racial Discrimination Act.

The extent of the loss for supporters of free speech was writ large on the face of the Attorney-General, George Brandis, as he stood stonily beside the Prime Minister at the media conference announcing the backdown.

Both men knew this was undeniably a big win for the progressive side of politics, which had campaigned in concert with the representatives of ethnic communities for the retention of curbs on hate speech. Pairing the announcement with the declaration of new counter-terrorism measures was therefore meant to be a diversionary tactic to convince the media that the security changes were a bigger news story than the progressives’ win on 18c.

This manoeuvre proved more distracting than likely expected when it transpired the new measures also included the mandatory retention of information on Australian citizens’ telephone and internet use. Progressives who were one moment celebrating the overturn of the 18c changes, were then raging about the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In effect Tony Abbott swapped one leftist soapbox for another, and while it’s true the Coalition’s core voter base enjoys seeing the Left prodded into outrage every now and then, they will have marked Abbott down on the anti-terrorist measures because of the associated “spine-weakening” on free speech.

So by the end of the past week, Abbott was getting no credit for taking the hard decision on 18c or protecting the nation with the new security measures. And following what looked very much like self-sabotage on Brandis’s part when he botched the explanation of metadata retention during a media interview, there was a growing need to stem the flow of outrage exacerbated by the exceedingly poor marketing of the security initiative.

A Machiavellian might be forgiven for thinking it was at this point the Government decided it needed a diversion from its diversion. Indeed, can there be any other explanation for the Liberals’ dour arch-conservative, Senator Eric Abetz, agreeing to appear on the commercial light-news program The Project on Thursday night?

Abetz’s subsequent comments on the link between abortion and breast cancer provided just the circuit-breaker needed to reset the outrage machine on social media and provide a whole new story arc for its limpet media.

This theory is not so far-fetched if one considers the times when other members of the Liberals’ extreme right have also seemingly been wheeled out to perform distraction duties. Senator Cory Bernardi’s comments on same-sex marriage and bestiality, albeit in opposition, are a particular case in point.

The added benefit of extremists like Abetz and Bernardi taking the stage in this way is that their behaviour and views tend to normalise those of less extreme conservatives, thereby dragging the “centre” of politics even further to the right.

As the past week closed, it could be argued that Abetz’s intervention had succeeded: it certainly seemed as if the mainstream media had moved on to other fare. And so as the new week begins, the polity awaits the arrival of the next bandwagon to clatter through the echo-chambers of Twitter.

What does seem clear is that the Prime Minister will have to cut his losses on a range of other measures if he is to get some semblance of the budget through the Senate. The time for stubbornness or diversion is well past.

This means finding ways to accommodate the crossbench’s opposition to changes to payments for families, eligibility requirements for welfare recipients, the GP co-payment, and changes to higher education charges.

In reality, the best way to demonstrate his willingness to negotiate on the budget would be for Abbott to formally set aside or scrap his paid parental leave scheme. Having already justified his broken promise on the 18c changes as being in the national interest, this would be the logical next step.

Hockey steps in to clean up the mess

Those listening carefully last Friday may have almost caught Treasurer Joe Hockey humming a few bars from “Sadie the cleaning lady” as he announced his innovative infrastructure deal with state and territory treasurers.

For it was left to the Government’s chief budget spruiker to mop up the political detritus left by his colleagues over the preceding week and get the budget expectations campaign back on track.

The Treasurer, formerly known as Sloppy Joe, is painfully aware that his own credibility as well as that of the Abbott Government is vested in how well the public and the media receive his first budget.

That reception is reliant on a campaign of softening up the voters to expect decisions that are tough but fair, and to build acceptance even before the budget is handed down by creating a sense of momentum and inevitability.

Traditionally, the government uses the final week of Parliament before the six-week break leading up to the budget to create that sense of momentum. So a week playing Knights and Bigots was a distraction Hockey could ill afford.

Nevertheless, Hockey took to the clean-up task with relish. On Friday he threw the states and territories a juicy incentive to sell off their assets, under the guise of an almost too clever euphemism “asset recycling“, thereby effecting a workmanlike attempt to draw our eyes away from the car crash that was last week’s Parliament and refocus our gaze on matters economic.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann rolled up his sleeves and joined in on Sunday, authoritatively re-establishing the narrative about “Operation Repair the Budget”. He attended to a few stray splashes by reaffirming the Coalition had committed only to the first four years of Gonski funding and that the NDIS would be implemented in a way that was “efficient and as well-targetted as possible”.

Cormann devoted considerable elbow grease to the troublesome Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms, hoping to dispel concerns over what he claimed to be inaccurate depictions of the changes. He repeated, again, that he developed the reforms as the shadow minister for financial services and superannuation after extensive consultation and a series of parliamentary inquiries that looked at financial products and services.

This appeared to be as much an effort to distance the reforms from the standing-aside Assistant Treasurer, Arthur Sinodinos, as they were to calm citizens concerned about rampaging financial advisers. The former Australian Water Holdings chairman is due to give evidence to the ICAC on Wednesday, at which time Sinodinos’s many fans may be confronted with uncomfortable truths about the fallibility of their man’s widely-regarded political acumen.

Sinodinos has undoubtedly opened a chink on the Government’s flank, causing them to be at least temporarily circumspect when it comes to dodgy deals and corruption. This became clear when, amongst the many dramas unravelling in Parliament last week, barely a peep was heard about the sentencing of former Labor MP Craig Thomson and former ALP President Michael Williamson, for misusing union funds.

Had Sinodinos not been in the picture, Thomson and Williamson would have been brandished by the Government as further justification of the need for the royal commission into union corruption and used to wedge Opposition Leader Bill Shorten from his union support base.

Instead, the Parliament was subjected to the Prime Minister’s twin indulgences, a Racial Discrimination Act retrofitted to accommodate Andrew Bolt and the reintroduction of an archaic honours system.

Perhaps Liberal voters in Western Australia, who are required to attend a polling booth this weekend for the fourth time in 12 months, consider these relics attractive. It’s more likely they’re interested in jobs, health and education, all of which were barely mentioned by the Government last week.

Ironically, Shorten was more on-song with Hockey than the Prime Minister. In his first address to the National Press Club since becoming Leader of the Opposition, Shorten contributed Labor’s threads to the budget narrative by defending his party’s economic record while in government and helpfully nominating four criteria by which the opposition would (and the media “should”) judge the budget.

Shorten also sounded a curious dog whistle to conservative voters, who are traditionally wary of change, warning that a government’s priorities determine whether people are the victims or beneficiaries of change. Shorten cautioned that Abbott’s “bleak, hopeless brand of Darwinsim” means adapting to economic change will require “deep cuts to services, longer unemployment queues, lower wages and lower levels of government support.” We can expect to hear more of that refrain in the coming weeks.

Parliament may be over until the budget is brought down in May, but Hockey shouldn’t put his mop and bucket away just yet. This time next week, he’ll have to contend with another distraction from the budget as parties and commentators alike paw through the entrails of the WA Senate election re-run.

Depending on the election outcome, political strategies and budget narratives may have to be adjusted. Hockey may have to kickstart the budget expectations campaign yet again to create the momentum needed to consolidate public acceptance. And with less than five weeks to go to the budget, there will be little or no time left to mop up after any further prime ministerial acts of self-indulgence.