14 March 2011

The party of opportunity?

Labor's federal polling is dire - but not terminal. Voters doubt that they will introduce carbon abatement measures at all, or that they can introduce such measures that will both have a real impact on Australia's emissions while also promoting economic growth. People resent Julia Gillard for going back on her word - but they don't write her off like NSW has written off Kristina Keneally, or as South Australians are starting to write off Mike Rann.

In theory, the Coalition should be poised to take government any day. In practice, Labor has some scope to develop and introduce its carbon tax and ETS. It has some breathing room and goodwill (not much, but still something to work with) in order to implement that and its other policies.

The fact that the government is not now going the way of Keneally and Rann is because voter support for Tony Abbott has fallen further than that for Gillard. Sure, support for the Coalition remains high - but Labor recently went into three elections (1998, 2001, 2004) with higher poll ratings than the Coalition and still lost. The Coalition is led by people who had direct experience of those elections and seemed to have learnt little from them, apart from mocking Labor for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Despite having regularly bagged him, Michael Gordon is spot on here. What Gordon doesn't say is this: Tony Abbott is not leading the Coalition to government, Abbott is the Coalition's chief impediment to forming government. The cross-party MHRs won't have a bar of him as Prime Minister, which means the Coalition hopes of forming government are zero.

Abbott isn't a new Opposition Leader learning the ropes. He is a seasoned performer whose opinions and operating style are as fixed as the opinions that voters have about him (the undecideds are Liberal voters waiting to endorse any leader but Abbott). That cat is belled, he aint changing his spots. The whole idea that he was tough while the PM was weak only held while Rudd was PM, and then not very well: look how Rudd demolished Abbott on health policy this time last year. Gillard has more than held her own with Abbott. She will almost certainly be able to do so once the carbon price with associated modelling comes to light.

Crikey's Bernard Keane regards Abbott's poll decline as "bizarre", but to agree you need to both a) spend too much time in the Canberra press gallery and b) honestly believe that anything at all is achieved by "parliamentary theatre". Abbott promised to hold Gillard "ferociously to account", but it's now plain that way of operating is getting them nowhere. The account is overdrawn.

Here's how "parliamentary theatre" works:

  1. Government goes down in polls; then

  2. Great hoo-ha in Parliament, evening news showing confected outrage, Leaders Of Our Community jumping around like monkeys, and futile shouts of "Or-dah!" from the ref; then

  3. Public revulsion for politics, politicians, and politicking; then

  4. Journalists expressing how thrilling parliamentary theatre is, without really explaining why they like it, which distances them from their audience (a bit like people who rhapsodise over modern art or some obscure hobby); then

  5. Public impression of "a pox on both your houses"; then

  6. Public opinion hardens to the point where, regardless of how individuals voted or how highly they regard them, the belief forms that the incumbent government should just be left to get on with it and we the public will sort it out at the next election; then

  7. Government goes up in polls.

Governments win parliamentary theatre in the same way that "the house always wins" at a casino. Incumbent governments love "parliamentary theatre": that's why Hawke and Keating played it up (particularly when they were sagging at the polls), as did Howard and Costello in their day.

For Abbott and Chris Pyne to engage in "parliamentary theatre" from opposition is immeasurably stupid. The only other explanation is that they are trying to focus Coalition MPs away from the failings of their own leadership. When Rudd had it over Howard in 2007, he wasn't playing up "parliamentary theatre"; the government did that (Manager of Government Business in the House: Tony Abbott) and because Labor refused to play along, it only made the government look desperate as well as disgraceful, which reinforced poor public opinion of them and then one day they weren't the government any more. Labor looked calm and assured, like a proper government, and eventually they passed the audition.

The Coalition's path to office lies over the (politically) dead body of Tony Abbott. The Liberal Party could change the game by dumping Abbott in favour of a new leader. It won't, it can't, because it still thinks of Abbott as the solution rather than the problem and can't snap out of it.

Julia Gillard had Tony Abbott's measure when he was health minister and she the shadow; she has it still. John Howard had the measure of every Labor leader he faced except the two who beat him (Hawke in 1987, Rudd 20 years later).

Malcolm Turnbull has the credibility on environmental and economic issues to be able to pull off the kind of balance that people are seeking on this issue. However, Turnbull still creates the impression of waiting it out rather than applying lessons learned. Howard got a lot of credit for creating the appearance of a changed man - Lazarus with a bypass, wandering through the wilderness, a prophet without honour in his own land, all that Biblical stuff. Like the Bourbons, Turnbull seems to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing: at the risk of lapsing into Eastern Suburbs stereotypes, it appears he simply doesn't do ashes and sackcloth, darling.

Joe Hockey has no more credibility on environmental issues than he does on any other non-economic issue, except immigration (Turnbull was quite craven on immigration as leader). Hockey is well read and I have no time for the meme that he's stupid and/or lazy: it will be easier than many imagine for Hockey to demonstrate a firm grasp of policy debates across a wide range of issues. The longer Abbott's poll numbers stay down, the more you can expect him to stretch his wings policy-wise. If Hockey can demonstrate his resolve by taking down a minister, much like Costello did by taking down Ros Kelly in 1995, he will be the frontrunner for the Liberal leadership by July.

Mal Brough is a private citizen but he carries a lot of goodwill from his time as Family & Community Services Minister, particularly regarding the Northern Territory Intervention. You could argue that the Intervention was flawed from the start, or you could argue that Jenny Macklin has botched it; if you argue the former you have to accept that Macklin could have turned things around but hasn't, so either way Macklin is the problem (as is her dull-witted shadow, Kevin Andrews, in failing to show her up). That said, Brough's can-do reputation is intact and if he knocks off Peter Slipper he comes to Canberra with real momentum as a circuit-breaker, just like John Hewson was the circuit-breaker for the Liberals in the Howard-Peacock conflict of the 1980s and early '90s, after the next election.

The difference between an Opposition and a prospective government is that they change the game. Incumbents have all the advantages but sometimes they can be, and are, wrongfooted - occasionally at the worst possible time. Mark Latham changed the game on Howard a couple of times in 2004 but Howard changed it back in time for the campaign. Kevin Rudd changed the game for Howard again in 2007 and Howard never regained the initiative: Rudd did to him what he had done to Keating in 1996. Tony Abbott changed the game on the ETS in 2009-10, but by election day Labor had changed it back with a new leader who was able to negotiate some breathing space.

The Liberals have to decide whether they're going to keep giving Gillard that breathing space, or whether they steadily and decisively snuff her out (like Rudd did to Howard, like Ted Baillieu did to Brumby and like Barry O'Farrell has done to successive NSW Labor Premiers): all successful Oppositions turn lame-duck leaders into dead ducks. Abbott is not the man to do that, for all his swagger and niggle. Gillard will go to the 2013 election with a perceived record of achievement and leadership if Abbott remains as Liberal leader. He is predictable, she can and does get around him.

The smarter Liberals must realise this. Some may be wringing their hands over whether they are going to spill blood, and whose. All political hard-heads know that the more you indulge a poor leader, the more likely it is that the blood to be spilled will be your own. If the Liberals change the game by changing their leader, they will be in government.

If the Liberals do not change the game, the question must be asked: do they really want to be in government right now? They can't agree on the economic or environmental questions of the day, so like the Liberals of 1983-96 perhaps they should wait it out until some of the questions they find most painful are settled. If they want to take the initiative, however, they will have to start grasping some nettles.


  1. Labor has some goodwill left? Your kidding right. Plus if this was the same result for the Coalition, the left would be digging it's grave.

  2. Not sure I agree with your theory on "parliamentary theatre", Andrew, but I can't fault it. Your words ring depressingly true. The other depressing element is, even if the Libs did twig to their current leader being a carcass, the extreme right wing hyenas would be at the front of the line. A leadership change will only result in a TA-lite heading the party.

  3. It's not watertight, drag0nista, but if it causes one "strategy session" to be re-evaluated it will be worth it.

    Agree about the rightwing hyenas (great expression, must pinch that), a party that can't get out of its own way can't govern.

  4. Wasn't there a survey last year that showed 40% or so of the parliamentary liberal party did not believe in climate change?

    Add in the nationals and I can't see any of the current leaders – or aspirants – being able to lead the coalition to a coherent position on climate change, so they will probably have to sit it out until the membership of the parliamentary party changes instead.

    It could be a while, as many of the old guard think they are in with a chance of returning to government with Abbott leading them. They'll need a few serious losses to disabuse them.

  5. YOu asked via Twitter which part of the Mal Brough scenario was wrong. I don't believe he's a potential circuit breaker and indeed might be an additional destablising element. He has many enemies within the coalition and not an inconsiderable amount of baggage from the past. Plus it would polarise conservative politics in queensland, where they are bound to lose seats as people come back to Labor after the Rudd coup.Otherwise, I thought it an excellent piece which I have shared with some of the more blinkered in Canberra.

  6. Being from the left I quite like having Abbott there as leader,what the ALP don't want is a new LNP leader to reinvigorate the opposition 12 months from an election.

  7. Hillbilly Skeleton15/3/11 2:48 pm

    Apropos the point Dragonista was making, I can't see Hockey snuffing out Chris Pyne's obvious ambition in the race for the Brass Ring of Opposition leadership. He's already had the sympathetic weekend magazine article ginned up by his office, he's all the time in the electorate's face with an opinion on everything and, as Manager of Opposition Business he is strutting his stuff regularly in front of his colleagues, who think he is most effective for disrupting the government's flow in Question Time, I'm sure. Oh, and did I mention he's ruthlessly ambitious as well? Prepared to be the best small 'l' Liberal when currying favour with Costello and Turnbull, then able to turn on a dime and morph into the Conservative's Conservative in order to please his new Master. I think he's the Tony-Lite the Coalition might just end up with.
    As for Mal Brough, don't make me laugh. It's obvious you've bought his self-generated publicity. He was a woeful Minister, which is why his electorate threw him out. He siphoned off department money to pork barrell his own electorate, the Intervention was a draconian, jack-booted affair redolent of a solution motivated by his Army experiences, which, actually, Jenny Macklin has successfully turned around, quietly and determinedly, since becoming Minister of Indigenous Affairs. She has kicked out Brough's overpaid FIFO Whitefella Tradie mates and put in place Skills Training in the Building Trades for local Indigenous lads and lassies. The homes for their Blackfella brothers and sisters are rolling off the production lines, and everyone seems genuinely happy up there now. I mean, have you heard any complaints from there recently, or just Brough's braying? Oh, and Brough has been sniffing around the Pitjinjarra lands in order to curry favour with the elders to get the inside running on their Mineral deposits to exploit.
    Although, now that I think about it, that might make him perfect Liberal leadership material. The Coalition and Brough deserve each other. Scumbags all.
    I agree with you about the polling. When you get among the weeds of it, it's not as bad as it seems for the ALP. Thanks, Tony. :)

  8. Yeah yeah, but what with the dinosaurs (e.g., Bishop the elder, Ruddock, Abbott) and the yummy chummies (e.g., Bernardi, Morrison, Frydenberg) there is no way that the rightwing hyenas (thank you drag0nista - I shall appropriate your excellent term as well) will ever ever contemplate diverging from the line set by their charming éminence grise, soon-to-be ex-Senator Minchin (only 107 more sleeps, kiddies...).

    To do so would be to deny the RWHs' very Raison d'être.

  9. pjlogue: as Paul Kelly said of Malcolm Fraser: "They hate him, they fear him, but sooner or later they are going to vote for him". The crossed-out bit about Hewson was meant to be ironic in terms of the need for a circuit-breaker. As for conservative politics in Qld, I'm not sure what you can do to help them.

    Anonymous: you've made my point.

    Fiona: None of the people you describe are half as effective as Minchin. BBishop is flat out fighting for her own survival and I'm not sure Ruddock ha another five years in him. Those other guys are going to get awfully tired of being in opposition (apart from gimlet-eyed fanatics like Cormann and Bernardi). The hyenas need leadership.

  10. HS: Hockey would beat Pyne any day of the week. Any day. Pyne, like McMahon, would have to wait until all his contemporaries die. I'm not convinced that Macklin has the runs on the board, but I defer to those who have and will look into it further.

    I actually think Labor will go to the 2013 election in quite a strong position. Saying no all the time is a lousy place to start in building a comeback.

  11. PeterH: the same applied to Medicare, it took them a few losses to realise that it's here to stay - and the guy who won in '96 had been there since '83.

  12. HS: Macklin's handling of the intervention is indefensible. You could could the number of houses the SIHIP program has provided in the territory on your fingers and toes. I highly recommend reading Paul Toohey's latest effort in the Monthly for an insight into how the Intervention has made systemic problems even worse. The entire pretence of Indigenous consultation and community empowerment was admittedly jettisoned a long time ago, but there is nothing to indicate that a couple of underfunded skills programs are reviving this policy ideal. It's all very well to criticise Brough for sucking up to a few elders for his resource spiv mates, but let's not forget Martin Ferguson's nuclear waste dump.

  13. Andrew, I was at law school with the Honourable Senator (albeit a couple of years his junior). If only I had known then what I know now.

  14. I should have made my point more sharply, Andrew: I think that Minchin's pernicious hold upon the erstwhile Liberal Party will persist long after his retirement. To the Party's detriment.

    Nevertheless, the NSW election may yet be a game-changer. Just wait until the Premier State rediscovers what it's like to have religious fanatics gripping it by the throat.

  15. Sean: I knew it! Thanks, wasn't sure about HS's pollyanna position but lacked the facts to back it up.

    Fiona: law school, the first resort for the sort of people for whom patriotism is often the last refuge ;)

    I agree with you about Minchin, but there is something to be said about how quickly roosters become feather-dusters. I've always said that the injuries to his son might change his mind about Medicare.

    If the NSW Libs had won the last election I'd agree with you, but Clarke is a shadow of his former self (he was screwed repeatedly on preselections for the last Fed election and this State one). They'll have a few minor wins but nothing like the jihad there would have been in 2004-8.

    To be effective you've got to be smart, and for the most part they aren't.

  16. Ha, that should be the motto of Indigenous Affairs policy: "if in doubt, assume it's worse".

  17. Hillbilly Skeleton16/3/11 8:22 am

    Aaarrrggghhh!!! OK, OK already, I'll dig up some hard data myself. 'Polyanna'. Harrumph! :)