Here’s my weekly column for The New Daily. Enjoy.
Of the many words that could describe Tony Abbott and his Government, “bumbling”, “incoherent” and “embattled” readily spring to mind. Yet in recent days, the most apt description of all would have to be “desperate”.
Like a cat struggling to avoid a bath, Tony Abbott has been scrabbling for purchase; desperately latching on to anything within reach in the hope of escaping his dire situation.
Abbott knows he’s in for a beating at the Canning by-election in a few weeks. Voters are likely to accept Labor’s invitation to send the PM a message, knowing there’s no associated risk of throwing out the Government altogether.
With the vote said to be close at the commencement of the by-election campaign, and the Liberal candidate placed sixth on the ballot paper, there’s a chance Labor may even win the seat. But whatever the magnitude of the final swing against the Government – and there will be one – Abbott’s opponents will ensure the PM is held responsible for the outcome.
Abbott could almost be forgiven at this point for wondering what on earth he has to do to win favour with Australian voters. He repudiated the unpopular 2014 federal budget and followed it up with an expensive do-no-harm budget in 2015. He stopped the boats (arriving), and demonised asylum seekers enough to get majority community support for offshore detention.
And then there’s the succession of flag-based announcements that he made to heighten voter awareness of the terrorist threat the Government is apparently protecting them from.
And yet voters have not responded according to plan, consistently indicating to opinion pollsters that they remain steadfastly ungrateful for the PM’s beneficence.
Similarly, Government parliamentarians are not feeling particularly grateful, especially those defending marginal seats. Coalition MPs are becoming increasingly anxious about the ineffectiveness of the “budget, boats and terrorism” strategy. And since the non-leadership spill in February, the Prime Minister has in turn become increasingly anxious about their anxiety.
The Canning by-election threatens to bring this simmering restiveness to a boil.
Abbott is said to have once told country independent MP Tony Windsor that he’d do anything to become PM, other than sell his arse. Yet now that he’s Prime Minister, it appears Abbott will do anything to save his arse.
That apparently includes bombing Syria, because there’s nothing like a bit of military action to warm the hearts of voters. The emergence of news that the PM’s office actually asked Washington to ask us to join the air raids, and that Australia’s involvement would add little to the exercise, confirms this latest sortie in Abbott’s war on terrorism is little more than a desperate grab for patriotic votes.
The involvement of Border Force officers in last week’s aborted Operation Fortitude could easily be seen in the same vein, despite the PM’s protestations of “nope, nope, nope” when asked if he knew about the exercise, and Minister Dutton’s denial that he or his office had sighted the offending media release.
If the initiative had proceeded, the working and middle class voters of Canning may well have approved of visa-rorters being summarily dealt with by jackbooted customs officers.
Despite beating the drums of war in the air over Syria, the PM is also waving cash under the noses of voters just in case the flags don’t work. Or at least the Treasurer is, with Joe Hockey raising the prospect of tax cuts, apparently coincidentally with the by-election.
Troublesome details, such as how the tax cuts will be funded, will not be known before the Canning poll, which renders Hockey’s proposal another likely act of last resort, simply aimed at winning over voters.
Regrettably for Hockey, once the Canning outcome is known and Government MPs call for retribution, it appears the PM is prepared to put even the Treasurer’s job on the line to save his own.
In a last ditch attempt to head off any leadership manoeuvring by Malcolm Turnbull or Julie Bishop in the lead up to the Canning decision, the PM’s office leaked a suggestion to the media that the ministry could be reshuffled at the end of the year. This tactic was aimed at dousing talk of another spill, hopefully due to ambitious MPs assuming they had a better chance of promotion under Abbott than his competitors.
According to media reports, the PM is considering giving the Treasury portfolio to Scott Morrison, who is increasingly seen as the heir apparent by the dominant conservative faction in the Liberal Party. The idea of dumping Hockey for Morrison was leaked to the media on Friday, and the news was followed by a hatchet job on the Treasurer on Sunday in the PM’s favourite tabloid.
If Morrison were to accept the role, he would essentially be siding with Abbott and no longer available to team up with Turnbull or Bishop in any leadership contest. Conservative Liberals would stick with Abbott and Morrison, ensuring that neither Turnbull nor Bishop had enough votes to prevail.
To gauge how such a change would go down with voters, the prospect of Hockey being dumped for Morrison has been leaked again to the media today, this time with a suggestion that a double dissolution election could be held in March. This move is the political equivalent of Abbott putting all his money on black; it’s a high stakes gamble by a luckless man who has everything to lose.
If he can survive the aftermath of the Canning by-election, the PM has just over a year until he faces the voters again. Even though the latest date on which the federal election can be held is January 14, 2017, the deadline is mid-December in a practical sense because elections are never held during the summer holidays.
Poorly polling governments such as this one have been known to turn their fates around in the final 12 months of an electoral term. But looking at the PM’s track record to date, it is difficult to say whether he has the political smarts or capacity to do so.
The increasingly desperate ploys being used by Abbott only reinforce that perception. The more he clutches desperately at ways to bring voters back to the Government, the more Abbott appears unfit to lead it.
The Canberra lobbying world has a dirty little secret: business just doesn’t get politics, and the industry is built on that ignorance.
More often than not, the disconnect between business and political reality isn’t much of an issue. Lobbyists wheel their naïve clients through politicians’ offices and are paid handsomely for what is little more than glorified door-opening. In return, the business figures feel influential even though they’ve done little more than whinge to a marginally relevant MP.
Meanwhile the real lobbying work goes on elsewhere in Canberra, not in the shiny marble halls of Parliament House but in far less glamorous surrounds, where myriad departmental officials actually develop and implement policy for their political masters. Lobbyists who want to deliver real policy outcomes, rather than simply act as political matchmakers, focus their efforts at this level.
But because door-opening is a relatively easy and considerably lucrative business, lobbyists often do very little to dissuade their business clients from the delusion that a few words in a politician’s ear is all that’s needed to get a favourable policy.
This can lead to the business sector – particularly the big end of town – believing it can muscle in on a government’s agenda regardless of the political issues at stake.
A good example is the recent call by senior businessman Roger Corbett for a double dissolution electionto overcome the “obstructionist” Senate. One would think that as a member of the Reserve Bank board and chairman of Fairfax Media Corbett would have a workable grasp of our political system.
However, if he did, Corbett would know that a DD election would likely increase the fractured nature of the Senate. The reduced quota for election to the upper house could result in even more independent, micro and minor party candidates being elected. Not to mention, of course, that on current opinion poll ratings, an election at this time would also see the defeat of the Abbott Government altogether.
Even if we set aside Corbett’s politically impractical call as the wishful thinking of an overly enthusiastic Liberal Party member, there are significant other examples of the business community simply not coming to grips with political imperatives.
Take the blink-and-you-might-miss-it declaration from the “group of nine” business groups earlier this month, which essentially accused current political leaders of cowardice for backing off on economic reform, saying: “Past giants of economic reform did what was right for the long-term benefit of Australia and not because it was politically expedient – it rarely ever was.”
Like Corbett, the business leaders that put their names to the statement have either deliberately ignored or simply missed the point. It was at least partly at the business community’s behest that the Abbott Government’s first budget went in so hard on economic reform. But only the Government has had to shoulder the community’s opprobrium since for doing so.
Even now, as the Government continues to struggle in the opinion polls after delivering the most unpopular budget in recent history, business continues to push it for policy changes that would amount to nothing short of electoral suicide if adopted in the current political environment.
Top of their wish list is workplace relations reform, yet only a government comprised of madmen or fools would propose this at a time when the unions’ successful WorkChoices campaign is still relatively fresh in the minds of Australian voters.
The other key reform being sought by business is tax reform, namely a cut in the corporate tax rate. This is behind the business push for an increase or broadening of the GST, which would improve the Government’s budget bottom line and consequently make a corporate tax cut more palatable to the broader community.
One of the principal business lobby groups, the Business Council of Australia, has even gone so far as to commission market research from Liberal Party pollster Crosby Textor, suggesting that the 94 per cent of respondents who agree the nation needs a “better plan” for its long-term future means voters “accept the need for change”.
Even if that were true, the same research found 62 per cent “do not trust government to manage tax reform well enough to create a better system overall”.
This is the political reality that business must face: there is no point pressuring the Government to prosecute difficult reforms when the community either fears, distrusts or holds the Government in contempt.
As Crosby Textor co-founder Mark Textor explained in an interview over the weekend, political leaders like NSW Premier Mike Baird and NZ prime minister John Key are successful because they pass three threshold tests of trust with voters: Do I trust this person at his word? Can he do what he says in this political system? And, if this thing he wants to do goes wrong, is this person of a character that would care if someone slips through the cracks?
And in the absence of that trust? Textor says it needs to be co-opted from an unexpected but credible third party, such as when the Australian Council of Social Services backed the Howard Government’s campaign for the GST.
Reform-minded business leaders need to accept that it is pointless – if not counterproductive – to pressure a government to implement change that will result in electoral defeat. Even if such a government chose unpopular policy purity over political expediency, it’s likely a new incoming government would simply overturn the change to garner public support.
Calling Government MPs cowards for backing away from reform is not telling them anything they didn’t already know, but it’s still as useless as shouting into the wind. Business must accept that reform needs a level of trust in government that is currently missing, and that new coalitions of interest, involving sections of the community outside of business, must be formed to re-establish that trust.
It may make business leaders feel important and influential to berate the Government and grandstand for the media. But like lobbyists opening politicians’ doors for a living, doing so is nothing more than a pointless and hollow charade.
The Coalition and conservative media might as well stop flogging the dead horse known as JuLIAR. They’re wasting their breath because the public just doesn’t care if a politician is accused of, or even found to be, lying.
These days, lack of truth is what voters expect from all politicians: there’s no political capital to be gained or lost from one MP pointing an outraged finger at another.
Politicians are, however, taking a big political risk if their behaviour suggests they can’t be trusted to do what’s right for the country.
The public’s inoculation against political dishonesty seems to have started in the Howard years.
While voters were considerably unhappy with Keating’s broken L-A-W promise on tax cuts in 1993, and sent him to the lowest ever approval rating for a modern Prime Minister, PJK was still able to drag that rating up enough to dispatch two Opposition Leaders during his term. It’s clear this breach of faith nevertheless contributed to the wave of anti-Keating sentiment that swept him from office in 1996.
During the Howard years, however, it’s as if voters became accustomed to, and then unfazed by, political deceit. John Howard first swore as Opposition Leader in 1995 that he would “never, ever” introduce a GST; then as Prime Minister he successfully took such a tax to the 1998 election. Some would say Howard was not actually “successful”, having only secured 49% of the vote, but I’d argue that his success was measured by the two election wins that followed the GST. Howard also backtracked on numerous commitments made during the 1998 election campaign, dismissing them as “non-core” promises.
Even more memorable are the claims made against the PM in 2004 that he lied about children being thrown overboard by boat-bourn asylum seekers in 2001.
Political observers were puzzled at the time that this revelation did not cause voters to desert the Coalition. Newspoll’s tracking of how voters perceived Howard’s trustworthiness found that his rating had dipped only slightly from 60% in 1995 to 57% at the height of the furore.
Howard’s trustworthiness rating dropped further, to 51% at the time of his election win over Opposition Leader Mark Latham, whose own trustworthiness rating at the time was 61%.
Almost counter-intuitively, Howard fought that election on a platform of trust. He announced the election with a direct call to voter values: “Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?” “Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?”
The ALP clearly thought they had an edge over the PM in the trustworthiness stakes. Latham’s response was to claim: “We’ve had too much dishonesty from the Howard Government.” “The election is about trust. The Government has been dishonest for too long.”
Unfortunately for Latham, he and the ALP did not differentiate between a voter’s trust in a politician to tell the truth and their faith in that politician to run the government responsibly.
Politicians as a group haven’t been trusted by voters for a very long time. The Roy Morgan “Image of Professions Survey”, conducted over the past 16 years, ranks state and federal politicians 22nd and 23rd out of 30 professions when it comes to perceived honesty and ethical standards. (Union leaders rank 24th and newspaper journalists 27th.)
An interesting print article on honesty in politics and the children overboard issue in 2004 quotes a pollster explaining the contrast between voters believing politicians and actually trusting them to do their job: “We have total faith in almost nobody, but we put conditional trust in each of our institutions to perform their function. We trust the bank enough to move our money from one account to another; we trust the politicians enough to run the country. It’s only when we think they are not taking any notice of us at all that we rebel and invent something like One Nation to get their attention. We basically trust them just enough.”
This argument applies equally today and goes some way to explaining the popularity of the Greens.
The article concludes by suggesting that “while leaders deliver on our core demands, it seems that we are prepared to live with their dishonesty ….. [yesterday’s poll] found 60% believed Howard had deliberately lied over children overboard, [but] only half that level – 29% – thought he should lose his job over it.”
This is why PM Gillard can privately dismiss current accusations of deception over the carbon tax. As long as she can convince Australian voters that she is running the government responsibly and making the right decisions on behalf of the whole community, as opposed to conceding to the whims of a few (that is, Green voters), she is inoculated against this attack.
This post also appeared at The Drum / Unleashed