Working on newspapers, you're writing to a certain length, often very brief pieces. You tend to look for easy forms of humor - women can't drive, things like that. That's about the level of a lot of newspaper humor. It becomes a form of laziness.Before last year's election Tony Abbott not only had the gall to not only make promises for this term of parliament but the next, or what he called "our second term". He assumed he would win government because the press gallery waved him through, and also polls. He assumed his government would get a second term because every government since Scullin has, and because there has traditionally been a residual loyalty to political parties that has limited the size of swings against them.
- Tom Wolfe
It was an article of faith at this blog that Abbott was so hopelessly contradictory that he'd never get into office at all, and never mind the polls. Having been mugged by reality it should surprise no-one that I'm death-riding Abbott but it is only fair that this blog continues to treat polls outside the last week of an election campaign as a waste of time. I wanted to believe this article by Waleed Aly but he has come to (almost) the right conclusion in the wrong way.
For now the popular focus is on whether or not Abbott can recover; whether this will be the fortnight that ultimately relegates him to a single term.Now the popular focus is on how we got ourselves done over by this dickhead whom the media said wouldn't be this bad. Now the popular focus is on how we reverse the doing-over; there are opportunities here for Labor and for Clive Palmer, but not Bob Katter nor Malcolm Turnbull nor even Christine Milne. Whether Tony Abbott lives or dies is of no importance but to the press gallery, whose assurances gave Abbott's the weight they would have otherwise lacked.
But in truth there are bigger questions here, and the Coalition faces a conundrum far tougher than merely figuring out how to win the next election. And it’s a conundrum created well before last Tuesday.Promising. Given Aly's well-received and earnest disquisition on the nature of conservatism you'd think he would go into the reasons why Abbott's government is starting to implode. He kind of does, but not really.
The reason the government broke so many promises in this budget is simple: the promises they made from Opposition were wildly contradictory ... A platform like that was always going to have its day of reckoning.Quite so. It's a real pity that the press gallery, and other journalists covering public affairs, didn't pick up on this. To do so might have returned a government that was policy-capable but personally and factionally riven, and where it and the press gallery were daily reinforced in their mutual disdain. Aly too could have explored this before last September, but he didn't.
The tragedy is that Abbott didn’t need to do it.Oh but he did. The only alternative was some sort of drawn-out examination of what it means to be conservative (or even liberal) in 21st century Australia, which would not necessarily have seen Tony Abbott as leader. He staked everything on shutting down debate and publicity-seeking stunts, and damn it if it didn't work.
He is the Prime Minister today because Labor had descended into an unelectable mess.This is to confuse cause and effect.
Labor did introduce policies that were not only popular but well-considered. They did what conventional wisdom would hope from a political party in government, consulting with stakeholders, making decisions and then selling, selling, selling. Abbott did not engage with those policies as policies, he rejected even the most basic premises necessary for a public debate. What Abbott did was throw policy babies out with Labor bathwater, pooh-poohing them on the basis of fiscal cost and Labor credibility.
Labor couldn't win a game where the rules of consultation and evidence-based policy counted for nothing, or only ever counted against them, which explains why they didn't. This is what Bruce Hawker never understood, looking for a new form of words when the old ones counted for nothing.
In this, Abbott was assisted by journalists who were (and are) ill-equipped to deal with policy issues. Their experience of policy was (and is) long, earnest and dull tomes written by public servants. They have no training or interest in policy issues, and do not engage with stakeholders except to extract "grabs" (quotations), which they do not examine but which acts as filler for their output.
What press gallery journalists understand is "message discipline" (where politicians use the same phrases and positions in interviews, press releases, parliamentary statements, and other forms of political communication) and its absence (e.g. the backgrounding that undermined Julia Gillard in favour of Kevin Rudd, or outbursts by Coalition 'mavericks' like Senator Ian Macdonald or Dennis Jensen). Waleed Aly thinks that Abbott is departing from some high point of principle in order to wallow in contradictory and self-defeating policy; the fact is that contradictory and self-defeating policy is all there ever was, or is, to this government.
Abbott had the freedom not to promise a set of contradictions. He had the freedom to keep his options open and perhaps even to tell us some budgetary truth.Rubbish. The Coalition took a decade to develop a consistent response to Hawke and Keating, and that included being stuck with Medicare. In terms of "budgetary truth", Ross Gittins shows why neither Hockey nor Abbott could go there.
What you are seeing in the Abbott government is the sort of thing that happens to all jerry-rigged constructs; it looked fine so long as experienced people didn't look too closely, but was bound to collapse on the poor buggers who trusted (and who wanted to trust) the experts.
He told us budgetary fantasy as though he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to what would happen after the election.He hadn't. What he managed to do was convince members of the Coalition that he and his team would be clever enough to work it out once they got into government. He also convinced many members of the press gallery of this ability, who have all seen more than a few budgets and governments come and go, yet chose not to scrutinise Abbott's jerry-rigged construct too closely. They can only cover up their wilful blindness by pretending the government's stumbles were not obvious before the election, or (as Aly does) that it's all down to unfortunate choices on Abbott's part.
For new readers of this blog: I knew Abbott was bullshit and said so at the time. This is why I call bullshit on the press gallery and political commentators now, and why anyone who objects to such effrontery can and should piss off.
The result is that he brought the Coalition to government with a mandate for almost nothing. Repealing the carbon and mining taxes, sure. Stopping the boats by whatever militant means he could conceive, yes. Paid parental leave, arguably.Aly is right here ...
But what else? Nothing on education, nothing on middle class welfare and especially nothing on industrial relations. In short, nothing that might help repair a budget in “crisis”, real or imagined.... but wrong here:
- Abbott and Pyne promised to match Labor on education, which is one of those pre-election facts that excuse-makers for the Australian media need to and do overlook.
- In terms of middle-class welfare, there was a whole campaign by Abbott and the Murdoch press to persuade us that people on over $150k were doing it tough.
- On industrial relations - there was plenty on "productivity", and given the disdain for ICT and education as means to boost this, "industrial relations reform" is pretty much the only scope for action left. You'll note that Labor people who attempted to question Coalition policy in this area at the time were simply accused of "scaremongering", and that such accusations kyboshed further investigation by the traditional media.
But with this budget, the government was behaving as though it had the most monstrous of mandates.Waleed Aly has been lectured, and delivered lectures, on politics at uni. He knows that a government with 90 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives has a mandate all right, and that governments do things that may have escaped attention before the election. This is why you don't elect a government with "message discipline"; they're hiding something, and because the press gallery generally lacks investigative skills it can't tell us what they might be. Aly's earlier definition of what this government's mandate is/isn't was less than adequate, and is out of line with the government's own definition.
Abbott got where he is by being bold, yet here his boldness put him at a disadvantage rather than the advantage to which he is accustomed. Aly can't explain why this situation is different if he sticks to his line that Abbott had options, that he could have done better. Abbott's jerry-rigged, hang-the-consequences approach to the budget are the same as his approach to everything else in public life (heads up: they'll be his same approach to next year's budget).
The reason the government’s reckoning has been so brutal is not merely that the public clearly thinks the budget zeroes in mercilessly on the most vulnerable. It is that it seemed to come from nowhere, without the government even bothering to convince us of the virtues of this approach first.There are four core conservative beliefs which are coming to the fore in the way that Abbott and Hockey sell this budget. It is a shame that Waleed Aly, of all people, skates past them and treats them as somehow puzzling.
First, that people somehow know they have overindulged themselves, and accept that the day of reckoning must come. The Coalition believe that all their scaremongering about Labor debt and irresponsibility, every day for years and years, has made this case. They are surprised that it hasn't been made, and that the debate can move on. This failure gives rise to deep questions about the utility of "message discipline", and of the operating models for the press gallery and the Australian media more broadly.
Second, that people somehow accept the authority of Big Daddy to come in and set things right. If you dismiss the credibility of the previous government it follows that the credibility of its opposition must be higher than is healthy for any group of politicians; the Coalition basked in the credibility radiating from the press gallery and came to believe it, and can't quite believe it's gone. Abbott still tries his folksy homilies and winky refusal to get caught up in other people's dramas, but though Aly notes it doesn't work he can't really explain why. This failure gives rise to deep questions about abuse of trust, not only for politicians but also for the co-dependent media.
Third, conservatives can't tell the difference between a fad and a fundamental shift. They assure themselves that all will be well when they don't really understand what's going on. The idea of the "dole bludger" is a 1970s idea, arising from times of full employment which are long since past. Chances are you know someone who's unemployed and/or who's likely to become so, and they are probably not out surfing or smoking dope. As far as Kevin Andrews is concerned, people wouldn't know about dole bludgers unless Alan Jones and Neil Mitchell told them (see authority, above). In the 1970s nobody was taking money from dole bludgers to give to Lang Hancock, no matter how much he bellyached; today his daughter plays a lesser public role, but the flow of money has been successfully reversed.
Fourth, Waleed Aly has written extensively about multiculturalism and different voices defining what it is to be Australian.
It's traditional for the Finance Minister to do the media rounds in selling the Budget - certainly Penny Wong, Nick Minchin and Peter Walsh were lifters-not-leaners in this regard. Yet, though he was active in pre-budget media, less has been heard from Senator Matthias Cormann than one might expect. Nobody, apart from Abbott and Hockey, is more across the Budget, yet Cormann is relegated to wonky interviews out of prime time where he appears in the media at all. Always be suspicious when a media tart goes to ground. Why is the Finance Minister so conspicuously absent in the wake of the Budget?
Cormann has used his leaden Belgian accent to denounce opponents as "economic girly-men" in the manner of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Canberra Times cartoonist David Pope draws Cormann with a red light where his right eye should be, like the eponymous character from Terminator. A tough-guy persona is usually no disadvantage in politics and it works for Cormann among WA Liberals. However, a Budget is all about the values and priorities for Australia; Australians resent foreigners messing in such debates, and even the Royals tiptoe gingerly around them. Cormann is Australian, by law and in spirit, but not in the accent of his speech. The government is not using Cormann to full effect because they feel his accent would detract from the message they are trying to get across.
Joe Hockey, a man who just wants to be loved, is obviously gutted by the hatred for a work that has gone out under his name. By contrast Abbott cares too little: suck it up bitches, I'm king of the castle. They need someone who knows this budget inside out, who's not a softie but who's not completely insensitive. They need someone like Labor's John Faulkner. Maybe Kelly O'Dwyer or Little Jimmy Briggs might step up in future years, but none are ready now. What they've got is Cormann.
They're not using him because that relentless, carefully cultivated Terminator persona is the exact opposite of what this government needs right now. Again, what looked like a strength is now a weakness for this government, and again Waleed Aly (nor any other commentator, to be fair) isn't explaining why.
The political calculation here is obvious. This was the tough, axe-wielding budget you get out of the way early in your first term, banking you will have plenty of time to win people back.Again, there comes a point where the oft-used gambit fails, and we are clearly at the point where the axe-wielding budget has joined the ranks of dead tactics.
The other thing about this is that it assumes a political environment where there are only two dimensions to go, where a swing away from the Coalition can only be a swing toward Labor, and that support swinging back is as easy and natural as it was in swinging away. With the rise of independents, Clive Palmer and others, a decline in support for the government is less a swing than a shattering of something brittle and irreplaceable. Abbott is by nature an oppositional figure, an iconoclast; how will such a man win back support for an incumbent government? Culture-war wittering simply isn't working, but it's all Abbott has.
So it’s not that the Coalition cannot be re-elected in 2016. It’s that now it can only be re-elected via a parade of sweeteners. Precisely what these could be is unclear. For John Howard it took the form of family benefits and tax cuts. Abbott has already trashed the former, and might find the latter difficult in the short term if he really cares at all about the budget. Whatever Abbott finds, it will go against the course he has charted so far.He's trashed his credibility. Admit it, he's buggered. Let us have no more jibber-jabber of second terms, 2016 and all that.
Abbott's a tough guy or he's nothing. The Senate looks set to maul the budget, ripping out the savings while leaving the costs in place, leaving the government looking dithery. Abbott won't look dithery. Cormann won't look dithery. It will be Hockey who looks dithery, especially in the face of unexpected events like a Chinese downturn or comatose consumer confidence.
This is what John Howard's budgets were like in the 1970s. Howard could only salvage his reputation by broadly supporting the reforms of the Labor government which saw him replaced as Treasurer, but because he made harsh reforms bipartisan Labor went easy on Howard until his silly comments on race meant they couldn't save him. Hockey is not the next Prime Minister, but does that mean he's finished?
... Abbott might already have brought his government’s reform phase to an end. What industrial relations policy, for instance, could he possibly risk taking to the next election? How well placed is he to hold a mature debate on raising GST revenue? ... Abbott simply has no political capital to spend on these things.Abbott doesn't do drawn-out consultation. Abbott does high-intensity, short-term, pig-in-a-poke stuff. State governments will lose $80b starting in five weeks unless GST is jacked up fast; 'mature debate' my arse. It was silly to pretend he would be different just because other politicians are.
Labor need only rail against Medicare co-payments and petrol prices, now.Everyone and no-one is in favour of lower petrol prices, but Labor are pretty reliable when it comes to a public health system. They should have implemented it in the late 1940s (and Menzies would have left it in place if they had), but twice since then they came out of opposition and built a national public health system. Chances are they will do so again if they have to.
Labor should frame the $7 co-payment as a red-tape imposition on small business. This would mess with Liberal heads and only their rusted-on supporters would laugh at it. GPs are not renowned for Labor sympathies but a focus on their corner of the medical profession is long overdue from a policy perspective, and would give that party a grass-roots focus it currently lacks.
Abbott’s conduct in Opposition meant he came into government with little mandate. His conduct in government ensures next time around, he won’t be able to seek one.The Liberal Party as an organisation should have thought of that. The whole idea of modifying the leader's stances is not to bring him down a peg for its own sake, but to give a government longevity through flexibility. This is the job for which people like Brian Loughnane get paid. The prospect of contributing to this once enticed hundreds of thousands of Australians to join the party. This is the sort of thing that Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull could once have been relied upon to do as a matter of course, but those guns are silent. This leaves Cory Bernardi and Frydenberg puddling up the shallow end of the political gene pool, but it's taken many choices over many years to lead the Liberals to this bereft, infertile place.
The press gallery won't wave Abbott through, but given that they can't distinguish policy gold from policy mud they will only focus on personality and stale ideas (blaming you and me and the pollies for the low standard of debate, never themselves). The residual loyalty that has limited the size of swings has almost gone; as with floods and bushfires, extreme political events are becoming more regular (but still shockingly unexpected, apparently).
For the Liberal Party, Abbott has done his job; like one of those creatures that lives only to reproduce, having won his election and with no real policy commitment Abbott may now be discarded. They had a challenge to develop post-Abbott (or meta-Abbott) flexibility - but the win was enough, so stuff them as they try to reap the whirlwind.
This doesn't inversely mean that Shorten is assured of becoming PM, but his negotiation skills are streets ahead of Abbott's. Shorten is better suited to the current and anticipated political environment than Abbott. It is becoming clearer why the Federal ALP caucus voted against their membership to install Shorten. As hung parliaments become the norm (and the decline of the major parties leads to no other conclusion), the accumulated knowledge of those journalists and pundits who know only huge majorities will quickly become redundant.
Waleed Aly should see the predicament the Coalition is in and call it, rather than letting the headline do it for him. It is not true that Abbott had other courses to take the nation or his party in other than the one he took. The traditional media have no right to be surprised by the intellectual and moral poverty of this government, having observed it up close and being complicit in its current predicament. That said, I have no doubt the surprise is genuine, but to be honest it induces contempt rather than sympathy.
This sort of thinking arises from a discredited media insisting that the public give it more credit than it is due, and a government which is doing likewise. Aly's pulled punches and unconvincing excuses are symptomatic of too much time in the declining media - no good can come from that.