Windows of opportunity

A week might be a long time in politics, but two years mightn’t be long enough, writes Norman Abjorensen

21 July 2011

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Photo: nznationalparty/ Flickr

TWO YEARS out from the next scheduled federal election and Labor’s primary vote is in free fall, occupying the opinion poll equivalent of the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns. Can Labor’s stocks be revived, or has the prospect of impending doom so permeated the government that its fate is all but sealed, as was the case in New South Wales earlier this year?

A sober and realistic answer would have to be against resurrection, but a lot can happen in two years. Julia Gillard is not Kristina Keneally and nor is her government the self-sabotaging rabble that occupied the Treasury benches in Macquarie Street until voters had their emphatic say in March. Richard Nixon and John Howard demonstrably defied the odds with spectacular comebacks built on a combination of fortuitous circumstance and thoughtful makeover.

As Gillard said recently, democracy is more than a succession of opinion polls – but she is as keenly aware as anyone that the poll trend, abysmal for Labor whichever way one looks at it, needs to be reversed. Mission impossible it might be; but while the government and Gillard are clearly down, the count has a long way to run.

It is worth looking at the factors that are hurting the government, because identifying and diagnosing the ailments may well go some way towards suggesting a road to recovery, however fanciful that might be.

First, foremost and most formidable is the Abbott factor. The government – and the prime minister in particular – needs a strategy to counter the opposition leader’s dominance of retail politics. Relentless and tireless, Tony Abbott is the ubiquitous marathon man. In a sense he enjoys an unfair advantage over the prime minister: she has a country to run, he has merely a campaign. While he diverts her focus to the latter, he succeeds in setting the agenda, allowing tactic to take precedence over strategy.

Some years ago at the height of the Howard government’s ascendancy, a senior Liberal Party strategist was asked at an industry briefing for his views on why Labor kept losing election after election. His reply, as terse as it was cynical, was simply this: “No mystery. Fear trumps hope every time.”

Abbott, like Howard, reads and exploits the public mind well. He has played on fear of rising prices and job losses by skilfully reframing the issue of climate change not as an urgent ecological remedy but as a tax, a ploy that is as blatantly populist as it is disingenuous. The real effects of climate change are beyond dispute, and if anyone wants a sharp reminder of what awaits us, then look no further than the independent Climate Commission’s recent report, The Critical Decade. Abbott, who is on record as saying that climate change is “crap,” has managed to shift the focus from hope to fear, and Gillard has unwittingly abetted with her frequent affirmation of her “belief” in climate change, which, given the weight of evidence, is about as helpful as saying one believes in gravity.

Do Gillard and her government have the requisite political skills to counter Abbott’s campaign juggernaut? Given the way in which the mining tax and the carbon tax have been handled, one hesitates to answer in the affirmative. But if the government’s pulse is to be restored above flatline level, then this has to be the primary objective.

For all Abbott’s apparent dominance, he is vulnerable both in the electorate and among his own followers. He has made no secret of the fact that he will do whatever he can to bring about an early election, and one has to ask why. Is it merely impatience to move into the Lodge, or are there other factors at work?

Windows of opportunity do not stay open forever. Abbott is keenly conscious of the fact that public opinion can be volatile, and should the government manage to turn the tables and put him in the spotlight, things could change. Abbott is exposed on the policy front, especially when it comes to climate change and the old perennial of industrial relations.

How, for example, would he dismantle the carbon tax? And that in itself poses another imponderable – and one that Abbott will not address: how does he propose to deal with the Greens? That is a vital question because they are part of the political equation now and for the foreseeable future. They cannot be wished out of existence by demonising them as extremists. What would an Abbott government in the House of Representatives have to do to get any legislation at all through the Senate?

The spectre of an Abbott government – what it would look like, what it would do and, just as importantly, what it would not do – needs to be raised by Gillard, and she will. Two can play the fear game, but that might be a little further down the track.

Should Abbott come under sustained scrutiny, this will open up a second front of vulnerability – his own party. The Liberals have a very instrumental view of leadership: it’s about delivering the goods, and that is why John Howard was never in any danger from a Peter Costello challenge.

As long as Abbott has his party on track for government he is safe, but any sign of faltering and that could change. It is no secret that there are many in his party who have deep misgivings about him, mostly in regard to political style. He can, and does, say silly things at times, and a close reading of the polls suggests there is deep ambivalence towards him. It also needs to be remembered how he won the leadership – that is, by a single vote after three people in the party room who had voted to put Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership to the test promptly returned to Turnbull after Joe Hockey was eliminated and the only challenger was Abbott.

Julia Gillard might yet be the tortoise to Tony Abbott’s hare. Not improbable, not impossible, but still highly unlikely. •

Norman Abjorensen teaches public policy in the Crawford School of Economics and Government at ANU. He is co-author of
Australia: The State of Democracy.

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  1. Alan Brown added this comment on 24 July 2011 | Permalink

    I share your small sliver of hope, Norman. But I worry that your senior Lib strategist source was right, and that fear will always triumph.

    When I trained as a journalist, I was told by a wizened sub-editor that when their eyes scan a newspaper, 50 per cent of readers do not read the entire headline of any given article. Of those who do, only 50 per cent proceed to reading the story’s introduction, and only half of that 25 per cent of readers goes on to the second paragraph.

    This analysis has been employed by partisan newspapers for several centuries, and is still very much in use. And all the banner headlines lately echo Opposition fear-mongering and distortion.

    Despite their dwindling circulations, press media are often considered the agenda-setters of Australian political news reporting. And while our press media is so dominated by News Limited publications, with their anti-government agenda, I can’t see Ms Gillard’s government ever getting fair coverage of its policies and programs.

    It is so much easier to splash “Great Big New Tax” across a page than it is to engage in a reasoned debate about a complex carbon pricing package.

    My one hope for Australia’s future -free of the havoc Mr Abbott threatens- lies with the native naked greed of our populace. I hope that by the time the next election is held, most of us would have realised that we are materially better off under the carbon pricing policy, and be voting with our wallets.

    If the sky hasn’t fallen and the government is giving us more money, maybe enough of us will feel sufficiently grateful to re-elect Ms Gillard?

  2. wilma western added this comment on 25 July 2011 | Permalink

    Not long ago Abbott was predicting one of the Independents would defect to the Coalition. Barnaby Joyce recently commented that wouldn’t happen. More recently Abbott’s said he’d go to a double dissolution if the Senate refused to vote to annul carbon pricing legislation . He’s even foreshadowed the possibility of ALP backbenchers crossing the floor. All this sounds pretty wild. The govt sensibly ignores these provocations and so far Abbott’s statements , for example deriding the bipartisan 5% GHG reduction policy and claiming you can’t measure CO2 , (also the previous remarks)don’t seem to be harming the Coalition’s poll figures. Abbott loves to work a blokey audience , to show he’s on the side of blue collar workers he claims will be threatened by carbon pricing. And they respond to the feeling he’s on their side , but most also know very well things must change- for example in the Latrobe Valley where people have been exploring the alternatives to Hazelwood for years . It’s well known that a modern cleaner coal- fired generator requires much more capital and would take twice as long to be constructed as a gas-fired plant. Qualified tradesmen know you can measure a colourless odourless gas .While they might applaud Tony they’d also acknowledge he’s being political and not offering solutions.

    If the polls do trend down by a significant amount Liberals who are unhappy with Abbott’s reversal of previously agreed policies might just take action . I like the hare and tortoise reference . Perhaps the best answer Gillard has made to repeated questions about the polls is “we are acting in the nation’s interest.”

  3. James Grenfell added this comment on 26 August 2011 | Permalink

    As an ex-trade union official (before I got educated) I couldn’t agree more. The issue is that the Labour Party was rooted in the trade union movement but has moved further and further to the political Right *indeed, further to the Right than the Fraser Government). This, in turn, has resulted in the Coalition moving even further to the Right (for product differentiation purposes). Clearly with this movement, the Labour Party has moved from its basis of being (i.e. the protection of the working classes aka trade unions) though they still are a major influence on membership and funding. Now is the time for the Labour Party to say “We represent all peoples not just a select few.” Meanwhile, the Libs might like to revisit the ideals of the Menzies era and move more to the Political Left. Turnbull, in this context, would seem the logical choice.

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