23 October 2011

Flick the switch

Tony Abbott fans freely admit that their boy is a bit of a boofhead (but isn't it having some fantastic results!), and that one day he'll just flick the switch to Prime Ministerial - and when the time comes there'll be none of this talk that the Coalition polls are just some protest against the incumbents, oh no, they'll be finished. When the appropriate time comes, when all the ducks are in a row and the sun is shining and the wind is at his back and everything's just perfect, then the idea of Prime Minister Abbott will be an inevitability.

Here at the Politically Homeless Institute, we've always regarded "Prime Minister Abbott" as a punchline in search of a joke. He's always lived by the idea that he can pull something off at the last minute, and it's always been bullshit. Nonetheless, we have more respect than you might imagine for the contrary view. Let's say there is a switch there, and that Abbott can flick it (unlike John Hewson, who insisted that Keating had a "glass jaw" but could never land the blow that sent him sprawling to the mat).

Abbott has until Easter to prove he's a real potential Prime Minister. If he's not coming across as the mature, thoughtful and stable soul his fans claim him to be, capable of bringing about the mature, thoughtful and stable Australia that has apparently eluded us so far, then he's pretty much finished in '12.

After Easter comes the Budget. The Treasurer will have a lot of money to play with, what with the carbon price mechanism and the mining tax. While (if he's still in the job) Swan will err on the side of caution, the Budget and the reality of the new economic environment brought about by these taxes will shift the whole debate about the Australian economy and what it means to participate in and run it. Journalists will be trapped in their "beer, cigs up" clich├ęs and will miss the sheer breadth and depth of the changes (and what might have been) in a way that their forebears in the 1980s didn't. Economist bloggers will get it and eventually journos will have to follow their lead, grudgingly and without attribution.

True, nobody will, as Shaun Carney helpfully points out, join hands and dance around in a circle when the carbon compensation comes in. Nobody did this when equivalent measures were introduced for the GST in 2000, either. Anyone who expected otherwise might be a valuable inside source for journalists, but they have little else going for them. The fact that the government will have shifted the whole economic debate will be the main issue.

Federal taxes in Australia have fallen heavily upon individuals and companies. A shift of the burden to miners and carbon polluters doesn't mean that we get a free government but it does alter our relationship to government and it to us. Having introduced all those taxes, Labor is in a position to show that they form part of some sort of coherent whole, a way forward. Yes, they'll do it in a cack-handed way and we're all getting used to that - but since when were Australians moved by silver-tongued oratory?

There is no Liberal response to that. The idea that they are going to cut $25b of carbon compensation and $70b or so from the new tax forms - together about a third of the Federal budget - has no credibility at all. It will have less credibility once the status quo shifts to the point where it simply will not do to insist that the new paradigm can be reversed.

The Liberals tried this with Medicare, which was introduced in 1985. They kept insisting that Medicare was a terrible burden on the nation which could be unwound; both notions were rubbish and they lost election after election trying to maintain otherwise. After a decade or so they made their peace with it. Howard gave the impression that he'd learned some lessons along the way rather than just waiting for his turn. When that happened voters started taking them seriously as a government.

Try Tony Abbott on what he's learned in opposition: nothing. He and his think the election of 2007, never mind 2010, was lost on technicalities and bullshit.

You could argue that the European meltdown might hit Australia, and that if/when that happens people will abandon what little support they have for the incumbents and flock to the Coalition. Again, this is bullshit. The Coalition have almost forfeited the once impregnable perception that they were sound economic managers. That perception is central to Liberal self-identity: an economically illiterate Liberal Party is a house that cannot stand, a sign that self-doubt has become panic, as John Howard learned when he saw his party riven by self-doubt on this very front during the 1980s and '90s.

Tony Abbott, stunt man and wrecker, is an economic illiterate: yes, he is. Nobody turns to an economic illiterate when there's economic trouble: that's when people end their dalliance with the alternative and go for The Devil You Know. Carping that the government has stuffed up didn't work for his brother-from-another-mother Latham, it didn't work for Beazley or Hewson or Peacock or Hayden or Snedden - especially when he has (like they had) no answers other than cuts. Nobody who isn't already rusted-on Liberal will want such a person to run anything. To believe that people will eventually love the carbon tax is no less silly than the idea that wacky, say-anything Tony Abbott is the man to lend gravitas and an even temperament to issues that are obviously too complex for him.

John Roskam's article in Friday's AFR about democracy was deeply silly. There is no future for the Liberal Party in mocking business, and people like Hockey and Bishop (J, not B) know it. Gillard and Rudd were getting similar messages about their party led by Latham in 2004, and like them back then, there's bugger-all they can or will do about it until time boxes them into a corner in the Death Zone (see below).

By Easter it will be clear that none of the independents will come across. If Abbott is to "flick the switch" to being the post-reno occupant of The Lodge, it is the six independent MHRs who will have to bear witness to it. If they all continue to think he's a dickhead, and they work with him, Abbott has no chance of convincing the rest of us that he's much chop.

After mid-year come the adjustment stories: and not just those in the media, or even online, but in people's lived experiences. Sure, there'll be stories about people genuinely disadvantaged by the new regime, and there'll be as much sympathy for that as there is for any other form of entrenched disadvantage really. Mostly, there will be a lot of grinning and bearing it through the adjustments and ingenuity in cutting emissions. Again, nobody is fooled by images of happy workers eating crap and loving it, but when everyone is getting on with it and making do, people will switch off endless carping; nobody will believe it can all be wished away. Rollback is rubbish.

Soon after that comes the vortex of September through which no politics permeates. Politicians would have to get shot to be noticed. Jeff Kennett thought he was terribly clever going to the polls just after before AFL Grand Final Day 1999 [thank you Linda], turns out he wasn't so clever after all. After September (i.e. a year from now), the Opposition Leader heads into the Death Zone.

The Death Zone culminates in the December of the year before the election is due. In the last four Parliaments, the Opposition Party has dumped their leader in the Death Zone. I reckon the Libs will dump Abbott because he won't magically convince any constituency that he's PM material while he will disappoint swathes of those who are today of that opinion. That said, even those with the most roseate view of Abbott would agree that the Death Zone is too late to persuade people if there's any doubt about your standing.

Abbott hasn't got a year to go before hitting the Death Zone, and it's less true to say that he's got months. To hit the pre-Budget period in Easter with any momentum he has to start turfing events organisers and press release wranglers now, and get on board the kind of serious staff that Howard assembled in 1995. This is not to say that shunting Arthur Sinodinos into the Senate is going to work for anyone. However much Howard indulged Abbott, Sinodinos spent a decade hosing down Abbott's ill-considered musings, ditherings and clangers on economics. He might have done so deftly enough, to the point where he and Abbott are clearly on better than speaking terms. The fact is that Sinodinos will spend the next year or so covering his eyes at Abbott's beef-witted forays into serious, nation-defining economic policy, like the Julie Andrews character in The Princess Bride Diaries.

Abbott, as I've said elsewhere, needs a serious staff and he needs it now. Trouble is, no such staff is available to Abbott. For any Liberal to swap state government (or the prospect thereof in Queensland) for a stint with Abbott would reflect political acumen so callow they could not possibly contribute anything toward the Coalition cause. He has to get rid of the stunt organisers and soundbitesmiths now, they've done their job; the next phase requires different skills. Like Richard III screaming for a horse, like that moment in Power Without Glory where John Wren realises he's surrounded by dills, Abbott faces the prospect of entering the Death Zone surrounded by grinning loyalists waiting by eerily quiet phones: the equivalent symptom in politics to the tide rushing out preceding a tsunami.

Now is the time for Abbott to drop the stunts: they've worked about as well as they are going to: polling numbers don't get any better than they are now, and as I've said Abbott himself is a prophylactic on the chances of a Coalition government. He'll also have to reconfigure his staff. That said, I say he will stick with the stunts as they've worked so far (if it ain't broke, remember). His fans will (increasingly stridently, but hoping to hide a growing sense of dread that they might be ignored) start urging Abbott to flick that switch to PM-material: Dennis Shanahan will be convinced that it's already happened, and will try to convince his readers likewise.

The last-minute thing didn't work in 2010 and it won't work next time either, people are awake to Abbott now. Politics is a messy business and the ducks never line up perfectly, especially for someone with attention-deficit issues. The idea that it is all moving to plan will not hold when the ground shifts underneath him, and will be trashed when the business community decides that it doesn't really want to go back to 2006 anyway. Abbott fans need to give their boy a nudge. He had his chance to protect us from the carbon thing, too late now. You can't expect him to be taken on trust any more.

Update: Drag0nista.


  1. I'm not sure that the Coalition _have_ lost the popular perception of being sound economic managers, AE. I mean yes those of us who pay attention hear exactly the content of what they're saying but IIRC the last couple of preferred-economic-manager results the Coalition's comically in front.
    That it's not true doesn't stop it from being, well, true.

  2. An article of intense confidence. I find it so hard to see this scenario happening from Labor's current position.

    And it's the Princess Diaries that had Julie Andrews, not the Princess Bride.

  3. Hate to be picky, but Julie Andrews wasn't in 'The Princess Bride'.

  4. Liam, I think it's one of those anti-govt rather than pro-Coalition things.

    Oliver, mehitabel - fixed, thank you.

    Oliver, to maintain your position you have to believe that Labor's weakness must be inverse to Coalition strength.

  5. Lachlan Ridge23/10/11 12:58 pm

    With Grog now in recess, this is the best political blog in Australia. Full stop. If you're not reading Andrew Elder you're simply not attuned to Australia's political reality.

  6. alan kennedy23/10/11 1:28 pm

    Did you catch Insiders? Savva's comments about business having to sit around for years waiting for Tone to roll back the carbon price and her insistence that direct action won't see tax hikes, and that roll back will not involve taking away compensation from those who have it. And her understanding of how long it would take to get the carbon laws repealed, gives you an idea of the sort.of idiots advising Abbott.

  7. Even if Abbott were surrounded by serious people, what would he do with them? Serious people wouldn't last a day in Abbott's office or his company. He's repellant to thinking people everywhere. This "strategy" is all he knows and it must appear (at least to him) to be working.

    Given the damage he does in opposition, watching Abbott go down in flames would be very satisfying and hopefully a lesson to future opposition leaders that this vacuous approach should be rejected.

    Another good (and hopefully prophetic) read, Andrew.

  8. I agree with Liam, the orthodoxy that the Coalition are good economic managers and Labor inherently bad is an item of faith amongst the voting public, I've heard it even from economically literate people who should know better. The media repeats it in meme-like fashion. The masses think that a government that hands out tax cuts and benefits is a good government, which is why few realise John Howard was an awful economic manager, especially in his last years of office.

    I also don't think Tony Abbott is headed for certain downfall. I think Labor is so unpopular that people would vote for anybody but them. The media delights in the drama, not the policy, so they're not going to point out that the emperor wears no clothes. Remember, most voters aren't 'thinking people' - they're simple folk intent on looking after family & no.1 in the short term, even if it had negative implications for them in the longer term (if they're aware of it). Lofty issues such as policy are of zero interest to them.

    BTW on a totally unrelated note, I follow keenly your regular vivisections of journalists. I have become deeply cynical of just about everything I read in the MSM. However, I've been noticing one journalist (because I'm an economics junkie) who seems to be better than most - Michael West at Fairfax. I don't know how long he's been around or where he came from because I only notice his name a couple of weeks ago, I'd read a couple of articles of his on current issues that deviated from journalistic status quo, which is so rare that it made me stop and have a look at who the journalist was, so I went back to look at his previous articles and was impressed.

  9. Lachlan, love a bit of hype on a Sunday! Thank you.

    alan, I didn't but it does reinforce questions asked on this blog as to what Savva has learned from all her years in Canberra. Does she think it's atractive for business to be mucked around like this? Why is it clever of Abbott to propose such a thing?

    Balanda, the pressure on Abbott comes from money. If the donations have dried up (as they apparently did during the Stockdale-Reith Lib presidential election) then that is business' best way of getting through to the Libs. It's sugar-rush politics, can't last.

    Cantbeeffed, I think your second par is lazy and patronising built on a set of false assumptions (OK, I need to believe that). Abbott might be the authentic voice of morons but I don't believe he's the authentic voice of the nation.
    The first sentence in your third par contradicts the paragraph above it. West, eh?

  10. I was one who doubted you - predicting Abbott's demise while at the peak of his polling seemed crazy (and still does, a little). But your logic makes sense, and I can see how it would happen. I'm coming around to your way of thinking.

  11. I reckon a few Liberals' eyebrows were raised this morning after hearing Tony Windsor hinting that he could support the Coalition if it were led by Malcolm Turnbull.

  12. So every Labor MP should be out there saying to business.
    Tony Abbott, be afraid , be very afraid.

  13. The MSM is asking whether the US is ready for a Morman President. We need someone to hammer the issue of whether we are ready for an ADHD Prime Minister next time around.

  14. Kymbos, stranger things have happened.

    Ikeshut, the Coalition have run hard after Windsor in his own seat, this is his way of getting back.

    Sue, they'd be mad if they didn't.

    Casablanca, this is a guy who is more effectively beaten by a steady rain than by hammering. Ever since the carbon tax passed he's started to rust.

  15. Yes it's patronising but it's true, I just look at my family who are affixed to their respective political parties like they are to their football teams. It's got nothing to do with policy and everything about tribalism. It's really driven home when I am watching something like 7.30 and my partner says 'do we have to watch this shit, it's boring' (and not because Leigh Sales and her sidekick are terrible journalists). And when a party supports a policy that is manifestly at odds with that party's founding principles, they don't notice because ... as long as it's popular, it's good. That's what does my head in.

    I'm an ideology person, my head explodes when I hear the Liberal party and its supporters cheering on policies like first-home owners grants and baby bonuses, in the same way as I can't believe Labor governments privatise critical public assets.

    People Like Us (who read blogs about politics) are are tiny minority in a sea of indifference. That's why politicians and journalists can do what they do with impunity. What makes me tick politically is vastly different from most people, so I'd never take my views as being in accord with the mainstream.

  16. Like your work it paints an interesting picture, one that may never actually take place but i live in hope. The last thing this country needs after having JG as PM would be TA.

  17. Mate Yer dreamin!
    As some one else pointed out the biggest factor in Tony's favour is that he is NOT Labor, frankly the second coming of Jesus is going to happen before Labor gets re-elected to the national government, and I say that as a life long atheist.

  18. I suspect the commentariat is underestimating the amount of damage Abbott has done to his credibility with the people who voted for him. In choosing to not "Stop the boats" when the government gave him the chance, he broke his word about what he stood for.
    (Promises do count even if you didn't win: just ask Julia).

  19. Enjoyed the article but MUST point out that Vic elections in which Kennet lost power were held 18th Sept 1999 - the day of the Essendon v Carlton Preliminary Final (NOT "just after AFL Grand Final Day"). Its burned into my memory forever - only the delicious spectacle of Kennet's defeat allowed me to bear the one point victory by the cheating navy blues

  20. Also being an ardent atheist I'm praying that you are right Andrew but so far I haven't seen any evidence that Tony is losing the publics support. Being a politics junkie (to a degree) I don't trust my own opinions to be the same as the majority but I have my own focus group as I work in a Haemodialysis Unit and discuss issues with the clients who come from diverse backgrounds. Unless something has changed over the last two weeks while I've been out of the country the overwhelming concensus is that TA is a shoo in. malcolm

  21. Cantbeeffed, that exceptionalism is all very well but it's easy to feel exclusive about it. With Abbott I just feel like a person watching a drunk get behind the wheel of a car and roar off into the night: some might be impressed at the speed and power but I can't help thinking things will come to a bad end.

    Anon, it won't happen.

    iain, that's all he's got, and it's all you've got too by the look of it.

    Anon2, he buckles under pressure. That's what his fans don't and cant understand.

    Linda, I stand corrected. Thank you.

    malcolm, trends in politics are never constant and the reason Abbott is so frantic is because everything depends on winning sooner rather than later. He won't go into the Death Zone in a good state.

  22. Andrew, I totally agree with you on that one. I'm pretty confident Abbott will win, I'm also pretty confident that it won't take long for the nation to realise what an incredibly stupid idea it was after he manages to put his foot in it not as opposition leader but as PM - a very, very different equation.

    I think the only hope we have is that leading into an election the media suddenly realises that they really need to examine the policies of the man who is most likely to become PM. If they did their job like they should, it could cause all manner of mischief - TA's best policy is no policy, because if he starts talking people won't like what he has to say.He gets flustered easily and that is not prime ministerial.

  23. I'm very cautious about polls 2 years out from an election. However, I will point out that NewsPoll has the Coalition 54-46, Essential at 55-45 and the other pollsters have all recorded a Labor bounce.

    If this trend continues back to 53-47 or 52-48, Tony Abbott's position as leader of the Liberal party simply will not be secure.

    Before the announcement of the Carbon Tax, Labor and Liberal were almost tied in the polls. There were serious questions being asked about Tony Abbott's leadership from within the Liberal party.

    If he loses that huge lead in the polls...

  24. Cantbeeffed: "I'm pretty confident Abbott will win ... He gets flustered easily and that is not prime ministerial". See, you've talked yourself around to my position. Didn't hurt, did it?

    Bobalot, I'm more than cautious. Does a relatively warm June mean a relatively cool February? Polls pretend to more than they know, methinks. As for Abbott, the journey is on from hubris to nemesis and it's going to be a wild ride for Libs - not a matter of 'if'.

  25. Third time trying to post (unless you completely hate me, Andrew).

    Your rational analysis is spot on. My emotional analysis is that I want to curl up and go to sleep until it's all over. First time that I've ever felt like that so far out from an election in about 40 years.

  26. Fiona, if I'd seen your posts I would have published them. Thank you.

  27. Andrew,

    I'm cautious about who will actually win and I make no predictions. Speculating two years out from an election is really just some media circus bullshit.

    However, in the short term, if Tony Abbott can't maintain these huge leads, I think he will be in real trouble. It's all he has got. Tony Abbott has openly made these circus polls HIS strength. He has even used them as the basis of his governance TWO years from now. I honestly have never seen such hubris in Federal politics.

    As you pointed out he's got nothing other than a ridiculous stunt each week and he is not that popular within the Liberal party...

  28. Bobalot, I'm not interested in horse race journalism either. My point is that the current mob haven't got what it takes to govern. Standard bullshit journalism assumes the Libs are more competitive than they actually are. Couldn't agree more about how early it is, and the fact that independents disdain Abbott means an election is further away then they'd hope.

  29. It is not relevant to Abbott whether or not he repeals the Carbon Tax. He is merely seeking the short-term advantage of saying that he will.

    In govt. he may or may not seek a Double Dissolution; may or may not receive legal advice saying that he is permitted to annul the permits - whatever.

    All he will do is say "I tried" and then blame the Greens or the ALP.

  30. Good article Andrew. The past few weeks have been good for Gillard in ways that may not show up in polls for sometime if ever. But I think the Liberal Party would recognise some danger signs. Finally Gillard had some luck. The first bit was that softenining up attack by Tony Windsor on Abbott. MSM didn't make much of it but I think Abbott's colleagues didn't like it. They know Windsor should be their leader not Truss and it was only their stupidity that drove Windsor to the cross benches . Same really for Oakeshot who left the Nats as well. Then after weeks of being attacked in the Australian and the loony cybershpere over her time at Slater and Gordon two aces fall in her lap. Abbott gives an astonishing interview on the 7.30 report and he became a figure of fun among the twitteratai and then the Australia makes a blunder and has to apologise. Gillard then did what she does best,shoots from the hip in an hour long gun fight with the media which then ran out of bullets and had no questions to ask proving her point she had nothing to answer. In the end they were asking questions about the mineral boom. Her eloquence and grasp of subject matter was a stark contrast to Abbott. Not sure if you watched question time but they asked her a few questions and she was so ferocious that after two or three they left her alone. And then Abbott the great ummmer and aaaaher goes for the soft interview on Channel Nine breakfast show and gets his arse handed to him by Lisa Wilkinson. Knowing the press gallery and journalists as I do this is bad news for Abbott. Journos are pack animals who sniff blood in the water. When the killing frenzy is on they all pile in. Ask Gillard. But she bashed them up yesterday and they are not sure what to do next. The bad news for Abbott is they would have noticed the comments on twitter about what a bunch of pathetic wimps they are in the way they let him getaway with stuff. Now they have been shown up by a couple of journos just doing their jobs I am predicting it will be game on for Tony in the next months. This will make his party uneasy. They looked a dispirited lot in question time yesterday. Gillard was almost daring them to ask a question abut Slater and Gordon but I think they weren't game enough to chance their arms. Tony's slogans have hit a brick wall not sure what else he's got.