Abbott has six months to get it right

There’s a question that’s been rolling around the minds of political pundits over the summer break: can Tony Abbott make it through 2015 to argue the case for his Government’s re-election in 2016? Or has the Prime Minister squandered the political capital gained from scrapping the carbon tax and stopping the boats, leaving him with an irretrievable credibility deficit in the eyes of voters?

Trade Minister Andrew Robb – who as federal director of the Liberal Party ran the losing campaign in 1993 for John Hewson and then the winning one in 1996 for John Howard – was at least putting on a brave face in November last year, saying there’s still a long way to go until polling day.

And indeed that’s true. At this point there’s almost two years until the next federal election. And if we’ve learned anything this past year it’s that political fortunes can turn on a dime – just ask former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell or his Labor counterpart John Robertson.

Robb’s words imply Abbott has time to turn his political fortunes around, yet the voting public seems far less confident; 51 per cent of respondents to an Essential Poll in December indicated they didn’t believe Abbott would be PM at the next federal election. While this result was due in large part to the non-Coalition supporters in the survey sample, even only 50 per cent of Coalition supporters thought Abbott would survive as PM to the next election.

Abbott’s lowest approval rating* so far is 30 per cent, recorded in the weeks after the federal budget. He is yet to sink to the depths of Paul Keating in August 1993 (17 per cent), Julia Gillard in September 2011 (23 per cent) and Bob Hawke in December 1991 (27 per cent). While Hawke and Gillard were replaced as PM, in Hawke’s case immediately after that poll, Keating battled on until the 1996 election, which he lost to John Howard.

On this measure, the portents don’t speak well for Abbott. So it is perhaps not surprising that in an end-of-year interview he essentially argued against a change in PM, citing voters’ apparent punishment of Labor for the Rudd coup.

What Abbott conveniently forgot to note is that the Gillard ascension came as a complete surprise to the broader community, and there was no understanding of the need to remove Rudd. Gillard’s perceived illegitimacy, paired with party instability caused by Rudd’s campaign of revenge, were as much to blame for Labor’s poor polling as the initial ruthless removal of the presiding PM.

This scenario has no analogue with the hypothetical removal of Abbott. If it were to happen, the voting public would be under no illusion as to why the Coalition ditched an unpopular and accident-prone PM who failed to listen to his colleagues or make a connection with voters.

Of the four prime ministers with higher disapproval ratings than Abbott’s 62 per cent – Keating with 75 per cent, Gillard with 68 per cent, John Howard with 64 per cent and Hawke with 64 per cent – only Howard went on to win the next election (with a little help from the Tampa incident and the September 11 attacks).

Does this mean Abbott is doomed to the ex-prime ministerial scrap heap?

Well, not yet. The man does have the capacity to transform himself if he puts his mind to it. We saw this after the summer break in 2013, when Abbott emerged resplendent in trust-me navy suits and regulationpale blue tie. This was following months of media and commentator speculation about whether the opposition leader could drop the brawler persona that had served him so well in opposition for the more statesmanlike approach that voters expected of their alternative prime minister.

Abbott started the new year in 2013 with an address to the National Press Club, reminiscent of the “headland” speeches that John Howard favoured to refresh or reset a political or policy agenda. Having unveiled a “fresh” approach at the NPC, Abbott’s new wardrobe was matched with a different tack in parliament too, in which he remained above the fray and delegated the attack dog duties to shadow ministers instead.

This approach worked, and by March Abbott took the lead as preferred PM. That is, until Gillard was replaced by Rudd in June 2013.

So Abbott has demonstrated the capacity to change his approach, but the transformation he must undergo this summer to secure his political survival will necessarily involve much more than getting new designer duds. Regrettably, it’s a challenge to sort through the inches and hours of advice being gratuitously provided to identify which is well meant and which is ideologically driven.

For mine I will offer only one suggestion: repair the Government’s relationship with voters before trying to prosecute any reform agenda.

In reality it’s too early to tell whether Abbott will make it through 2015 as Prime Minister but there are three – maybe four – upcoming tests of his survival.

The first will be a likely “headland” address to the National Press Club later this month. The second and third will be the state elections in Queensland (expected by end of March) and NSW (on March 28). And the last will be the budget in May.

Each of these events provides Abbott and his Government with the opportunity for political success as well as the seeds of their own destruction. The NPC address can kick off the Government’s apparent new focus on jobs and children, but if Abbott uses it to tell voters they must listen or don’t understand the importance of budgetary reform then it will entrench voter resentment.

Such antipathy will be compounded if Abbott shows the same disregard for his colleagues in the Liberal heartlands of Queensland and NSW as he did for Victorian premier Denis Napthine in November. Unrest within the federal Coalition’s party room is also at least partly due to the impact that Abbott’s poorly timed petrol tax announcement had on the Victorian election, and similar misjudgements in the other two state elections could foment the unhappiness of MPs with marginal seats in those locations.

And finally, there is the budget, of which little needs to be said other than it must be seen to be fair. The chances of that happening are minimal if the Government’s aforementioned relationship with voters is not first repaired.

Abbott is by no means Australia’s most unpopular prime minister, but it would be unwise of him to assume Labor’s Rudd experience will stop the Coalition party room from removing him if he becomes a political liability. There are enough former Howard ministers in that party room to remember the cost of not moving on him before they were subjected to electoral oblivion in 2007 – and it’s not likely to be an experience they want to repeat.

The next election is indeed two years away, but Abbott’s reckoning will take place within the next six months. He has only until then to repair his relationship with voters and turn his electoral prospects around.

*All opinion poll results are from Newspoll, except for the Essential Poll result where noted and linked.

Squealing may mask a hidden GST agenda

Plenty of Australians are suckers for embarrassing overacting in daytime soaps and semi-scripted reality shows. But even those faux drama queens pale into insignificance next to the Liberal state leaders’ unconvincing collective dummy spit in response to the federal Budget this week.

The Budget revealed cuts to health and education funding for the states and territories commencing in four years’ time (which is conveniently after the next federal election).

By 2024-25, the Federal Government plans to be spending $25 billion a year on schools (compared to $30 billion) and $25 billion a year on hospitals (compared to $40 billion). This is an $80 billion cut on the amount previously promised by Labor.

State and territory leaders lined up to express their considerable displeasure at being raided to improve the feds’ bottom line in 10 years’ time.

Queensland LNP Premier Campbell Newman, who’s down in the polls and facing a state election in the first half of next year, says the cuts will not “be taken lying down”.

Victoria’s Liberal Premier Denis Napthine, who has an even more imminent election on November 29 this year, vowed “to absolutely shake the Federal Government from their top to their bottom so that they understand their responsibility to meet their share of public hospital payments”.

And newbie NSW Liberal Premier Mike Baird accused the feds of outsourcing their budget problems to the states. Baird will convene an emergency meeting of the state and territory leaders this weekend to discuss the cuts. Incidentally, his state election is on March 28, 2015.

Tasmania’s Will Hodgman and Western Australia’s Colin Barnett appear much more sanguine about the cuts. This may be a product of their next elections being some way off.

Depending on whether one buys their amateur theatrics, the states are either being wedged by the Federal Government to initiate a national conversation about increasing the rate or coverage of the GST, or the state Liberal governments are in on the act.

The smart money is on the latter explanation. Exactly two weeks ago state and territory leaders were in Canberra for the latest Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting with the Prime Minister.

At that meeting the leaders considered the draft terms of reference for a white paper on Reform of the Federation and draft themes for a white paper on taxation reform. Through these processes, Tony Abbott wants to see “sensible adjustments” to funding arrangements, while Joe Hockey wants to “realign” the federation.

This is clearly code for revisiting the GST and perhaps repatriating some other revenue-raising powers back to the states and territories.

It’s not too long a bow to imagine Abbott holding a private meeting with the Liberal premiers – outside of COAG – to advise that they’d take a haircut in the Budget but would be the beneficiaries of federation and taxation reform. That is, play along and you will be rewarded.

The other clue to this being the true state of play is the states protesting that they only want a fairer share of the existing GST pie. This is an unsustainable position if the pie remains static.

For every state that gains more GST revenue there will be another that gets less, so the only way for all states to get more (in actual terms) is for the overall pie to grow. And to do that the GST must be increased or broadened.

The states and territories know this. They also know they must play the reluctant bride if they are to avoid the worst of the opprobrium for requesting that the GST be increased.

Just the right amount of squealing will make everyone look good, even Abbott.

For Tassie and SA, it was all about the jobs

While the parties vie with each other to favourably spin the results of the weekend’s state elections – where one Labor government was routed and another may yet cling to victory – one clear lesson is the Greens can become collateral damage when elections are fought over jobs.

For whether the results are attributed to local issues or national ones, seen as a message for the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader, or simply a matter of a government’s time being up (or not), both election outcomes were predominantly about jobs, or lack thereof.

Protection and growth of employment prospects was always going to be a pivotal issue in both campaigns. Tasmania and South Australia have the nation’s highest unemployment rates, and the apple isle also has the lowest weekly wage. Job insecurity is high across Australia and jobs have become the major parties’ chosen battleground.

So the two considerably divergent election outcomes could generally be explained as being due to local issues, but more specifically the result of voters holding certain parties to account for the poor state of employment.

If there’s a message that Prime Minister Tony Abbott should take from the South Australian election outcome it’s that SA voters don’t take lightly to their slightly dodgy but still famous car manufacturing industry being abandoned and then run out of town by the Federal Government.

Successive industry ministers have recognised over several decades that the perceived importance of car manufacturing jobs extends beyond the directly affected electorates. They threw money at the increasingly unviable industry not out of the goodness of their hearts but to hold off the dire electoral consequences. And now Abbott knows what it’s like to release that particular beast.

While the South Australian count is not yet concluded, there are enough trends evident in the vote counted so far to draw a few conclusions. The SA Liberals achieved a modest swing in their primary vote, but failed to draw a similar amount away from Labor in order to secure enough seats to form government. This suggests some of the 60 per cent of voters who thought the Liberals would win stayed with Labor in protest.

Granted, this protest vote may not have done as much damage if the South Australian Liberals had run a half decent marginal seats campaign, but that is another matter altogether.

Interestingly, according to the ballots counted so far, the Green vote in South Australia increased by almost half a per cent. This trend runs counter to the slew of state, territory and federal elections since 2010 where their vote dropped. The status quo vote for the Greens in South Australia suggests they were neither blamed nor particularly acclaimed for their contribution since the previous state election. For good or bad, the election was about the major parties and the Greens survived by keeping off the jobs radar.

In contrast, on the same day as the South Australian election, the Tasmanian Greens and one-time partners in a Labor minority government lost eight percentage points from their vote and three of their five seats in the state’s lower house.

Undoubtedly many factors combined to produce that result, but there’s no denying that jobs played a significant part. Abbott and the Tasmanian Liberals ran strong on reinvigorating the forestry industry; essentially putting jobs before the environment.

It’s clear from this strategy that the Liberals’ private market research showed voters were ready to seek retribution for what they perceived to be a weak Labor Party rolling over to the Greens’ environmental demands instead of protecting jobs. Labor’s vote dropped by about 10 per cent in the Tasmanian poll, thereby ceding majority government to the Liberals for the first time since the Groom Liberal government was elected in 1992.

If the Greens are perceived to be thwarting jobs in Western Australia they may suffer a similar fate to their Tasmanian colleagues in the WA Senate election re-run that will be held on April 5. Western Australia doesn’t face the same job pressures that bedevil South Australia and Tasmania, though the downturn in the mining boom would be causing some employment anxiety.

Additionally, the Australian Greens no longer have a power sharing arrangement with the incumbent federal government and cannot be held directly responsible for jobs in the way the Tasmanian Greens were.

Yet there’s no doubt the Abbott Government will assist WA voters in recalling that the Greens were responsible for Julia Gillard’s broken carbon tax vow and the “job destroying” impost that resulted from it. The Coalition will likely lay the mining tax at the Greens’ feet too, now that Shorten has conveniently blurred his stance on the failed profit sharing mechanism.

So while the Greens will be campaigning to be given a balance of power position in the Senate to keep the Abbott Government from the worst of its excesses, the Government will press for the Greens to be prevented from being able to block the repeal of “job destroying” laws. Meantime, Labor will quietly do its best to harvest votes away from the Greens with selective preference deals.

The Greens may believe that every time Abbott opens his mouth “the Green vote goes up“, but the opposite effect is more likely.

On April 5, a Greens Senator will be elected (or not) predominantly because of what WA voters perceive their party has done (or not) to protect and foster jobs in that state. Other factors such as climate change, asylum seekers, health, education and sharks may play a role, but it will simply come down to jobs.

2014 with a bang!

That almost imperceptible whirring sound is not your imagination. It’s the wheels of politics grinding back into motion. Before we know it, they’ll be spinning at breakneck speed and the summer break will be no more than a fast-fading memory.

There’ll be no comfortable transition to political discourse in 2014, no gradual incline from February sittings to May budget and the still-as-yet-undetermined new Senate in July. Politics in 2014 is going to be like waking up on a rollercoaster: one day we’ll be taking our usual summer afternoon siesta and the next we’ll be hurtling full speed towards political turns and descents so unpredictable that even the strongest of constitutions will be unsettled.

We’ll probably still be packing away our Australia Day paraphernalia when the by-election for Kevin Rudd’s old seat Griffith gets underway – it’s expected in late January or early February. The Liberal candidate, former AMA President Dr Keith Glasson, looks like a shoo-in: after all, he rated more primary votes than Rudd and clipped the ALP’s margin by 5.4% to a much more achievable 3% in the 2013 election. Yet only one federal government has ever taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election, and that was Kalgoorlie in 1920. So Glasson’s path to victory may be more turbulent than first thought – particularly if dissatisfied Queensland voters use the by-election as an opportunity to whack the Federal Coalition over the knuckles.

Around the same time we’ll be thrown headlong into the continuing saga of the lost WA Senate votes. The High Court’s Justice Kenneth Hayne flagged in December that challenges to the result (one from the Australian Electoral Commission, and one each from the Palmer United Party and Labor) would not be heard until late January. The AEC wants a new WA Senate election and has asked the court to rule by 18 March so the poll can be held in April. Conversely, PUP and Labor want the court to revert to the first count of the vote, which allocated the 5th and 6th WA Senate positions to them. This would give Clive Palmer’s party the balance of power in the new Senate.

Continue reading “2014 with a bang!”