05 July 2010

The bifurcated message

Americans refer to the process of uncritically believing one's own PR as "drinking the Kool-Aid", a reference to hippy activist Ken Kesey offering his followers soft drink spiked with hallucinogenic drugs. The Liberals are drinking their own Kool-Aid, not only by leaking their own research to Milney but allowing themselves to be as carried away as Milney is about the results.

First, the community has been deeply "unsettled" by the manner in which Julia Gillard became Prime Minister at the behest of faceless factional and union power brokers. Even among those who did not particularly like Kevin Rudd, there was the feeling that "this is not the way things are done in Australia".

The bifurcated message to emerge was: "I'll decide who is our prime minister, not these f..kwits."

Then the subtext that the "NSW disease" - as Rudd called it at his last caucus meeting - had now arrived in Canberra.

Sure they would, if this wasn't politics as usual. Labor have changed leaders once since the last election: the Liberals are on their third leader since John Howard led the Liberals to defeat. Only people outside NSW believe is something called "NSW disease" - one in three Australians is not a disease, a state that is and has always been pivotal to Australian politics is not a disease.

When Keating and Richardson were exercising what they saw as their birthright in taking over the federal ALP, nobody was gibbering on about "NSW disease". When the NSW Labor Right were firmly locked in behind Beazley, when they shifted to Rudd is late 2006, there was no "NSW disease". If there was such an ailment Rudd would be a symptom, a carrier rather than a sufferer. It might be a State of Origin thing but it's dumb politics to apply the antics of Bill Shorten and David Feeney to the country's largest state. That said, state politics is a predicament and we voters of NSW will deal with the NSW ALP in ways that will reshape Australian politics. The point is, however, treating NSW as less than integral to the national body politic is an indulgence for those not serious about understanding how this country is governed.

Abbott will get absolutely nowhere with crocodile tears about poor Kevvie-wevvie. Firstly, he has form in his own party (in NSW, as it happens) that would make him look hypocritical: the Liberals are no more One Big Happy Family than is Labor. Secondly, now that Rudd has committed to staying in Parliament, and given the magnanimity of his exit, it is highly likely that Rudd will publicly commit to the wider Labor cause even while admitting to a little disappointment - thus elevating his own public standing without vindicating Abbott at all. If Rudd had spat the dummy the Liberals might be in with a chance with this idea. If you like Kevin Rudd and admire what he stood for, then you'll have to vote against Tony Abbott.

I live in Bennelong, where local MP Maxine McKew was a Rudd loyalist to the end: Rudd will almost certainly campaign for McKew in this area, particularly among the electorate's large Chinese community. Nobody will vote Liberal on the basis of what happened to Rudd, and this is a must-win seat for the Liberals. Nobody who lives outside Bennelong will vote Liberal on that basis either. If there was anyone who voted Liberal in 1983 because they felt sorry for Bill Hayden, who cares?

The second, and probably most important, message from the Liberals' research is that Gillard's approval is only "top of mind". In other words most people, including Liberals, wish her well as Australia's first woman prime minister. But that does not necessarily mean they'll vote for her.

Well, that's always been the case with "approval rating" - there was never any correlation between approval rating for a leader and actual vote received by that leader's party. An experienced politics reporter has a duty to point this out rather than getting carried away with the spin, or examining the self-delusion involved in believing that Gillard's popularity will have no bearing on tight races.

Doesn't Milney's second point negate his first? If people were genuinely aggrieved by Gillard supplanting Rudd, wouldn't her approval ratings be in the doldrums? If she was some sort of evil Lady Macbeth figure, or the kind of bonnet ornament that Kristina Keneally is, her approval ratings wouldn't be that high. Focus groups can send mixed messages and political savants flatter their ability to find consistent messages in these bull sessions, but Milney hasn't done that here. Skull that Kool-Aid, Milney.

The third area of vulnerability to emerge from the Liberals' focus groups is that whatever she does, she has been irrevocably "branded" by the debacle of the Building the Education Revolution. Voters simply will not forget the gross mismanagement of funds involved in a multi-billion program that now seems more about electoral advantage than economic stimulus. "It is red hot out there," says one senior Liberal familiar with the party research.

Politicians waste public money, it's what they do. It would be hilarious for any Howard government veteran to work themselves into a lather over this. The BER was hit and miss and for every expensive balls-up there's a much-needed facility that's being used effectively. I'd be surprised if any marginal seats feature a million-dollar fiasco with BER signage acting like Liberal how-to-vote cards. Keep in mind that the Liberal education spokesperson is Christopher Pyne, a suited-up King Charles Spaniel with no real vision for school education.

Fourth, Liberals have been heartened from their research by evidence that despite the media over-hype that has accompanied Gillard's ascension, voters still have not made up their minds.

This overestimates the Liberals' ability to put a sufficient case to get people to vote Liberal this time, especially those who did so up to 2001 but probably didn't in 2004 and definitely didn't in 2010. These are people who aren't averse to voting Liberal but who need a reason to justify why they should not give Labor another go.

This is where Gillard could be really vulnerable. Consider the three major policy problems facing Labor, which Gillard claims to have either fixed or says she will fix; the mining tax, a new emissions trading scheme and boatpeople. The optics of the so-called deal on the mining tax were good for Gillard. But the fact is it was a backdown and Abbott says he'll rescind it if he becomes prime minister. Gillard's "new" policy on climate change is likely to resemble much more closely Abbott's "direct action" model. And if she does toughen Labor's policy on boatpeople, she will have moved substantially in Abbott's direction.

The fact is the mining tax deal was a compromise and that's what politicians do. If the miners agree to the tax, who is Abbott to rescind it and why would anyone who has voted Labor vote for that?

Why would Gillard's ETS be like Abbott's? Given that Labor was elected to do something about climate change, given that it is haemmorrhaging votes to the Greens - votes that matter, in Melbourne and in the Senate - and given that it lost a Prime Minister over the decision to defer the action for which he was elected, why would Labor offer less than John Howard did in 2007? Why wouldn't Gillard offer more than Rudd offered - having stared down the mining companies she's in a position to sell a more stringent carbon reduction target, reinforcing that idea that she's doing what Rudd can't (and Abbott won't)? If she said that she's going to give it the focus it deserves, that it's the focus of the next term in office, she'd romp it in.

A bit like the Liberals, but not quite: this has been the ALP mantra for the past 15 years, and it has worked in terms of winning and holding office. This drives Labor stalwarts crazy as well as the smarter Liberal strategists (the dumber Liberal strategists, such as Loughnane and almost everyone in NSW except Barry O'Farrell, don't think it's an issue), but only because they can't beat it.

I cringe in anticipation with what they're going to propose over boatpeople. It will be expensive and it will be bullshit, but there's hope for a more considered time in her refusal to countenance turning the boats around.

Meanwhile in the key battleground states of NSW and Queensland, they've seen it all before and don't like what they see.

Yawn! the state-federal blurring thing. Honestly, no body who's been through more than one electoral cycle has any excuse for that. Consider also that the Coalition's candidates in five of the eight most winnable seats are outright duds such that your dull union-organiser Labor MP/candidate from central casting will walk all over them. When Peter Dutton gets politically secure to the point where he can put out policy documents that aren't just dot-points, then we'll talk about Queensland. As far as NSW goes, send Kristina on holiday for a month to give federal Labor clear air, and no problems.

Says one Liberal: "If the voters had the baseball bats out for Rudd, don't think they'll just automatically put them away because there's a new face in town. It will take more than that."

Wait a minute, aren't people sorry for Rudd? Isn't that the whole point of Gillard's flurry of activity, to differentiate herself? Aren't the finest minds in the Liberal Party snookering themselves and rendering victory impossible? Isn't that the story you should be telling Milney, ringing the alarms and - if not forestalling Liberal defeat - making sure your party learns the right lessons?

The real issue here is not Milney himself, but the extent of self-delusion within the Liberal Party that Milney has transcribed without really analysing it - or without the Liberals effectively analysing what the focus groups - and their party's own recent experiences of defeat - are really saying. You can have all the research you like, but if you're too stupid to analyse it properly then you've got no chance.


  1. I've always thought "Drinking the Kool-Aid" refers to the mindless mental slavery of the people who died in the Jonestown massacre after Jim Jones ordered them to drink poisoned Kool-Aid.

  2. I always thought drinking the Kool-Aid was a reference to Jim Jones? The metaphor stands either way I guess.

  3. Kesey and Timothy Leary did this with their Merry Pranksters in the early '60s and the phrase was in the language by the early '70s. Jonestown was 1979, a reversal of Marx's notion with farce first then tragedy.

  4. Expensive and bullshit, no doubt. Whatever my reservations about what's been announced today, it was at least edifying to see Gillard at the Lowy Institute trying to reframe and transcend the current debate about asylum seekers. On the other hand I've lost count of the number of times I've heard Morrison and Abbott use the word 'boatpeople' today.