17 October 2011

Sweating blood

Tony Abbott's whole strategy has been based on toying with the government. Whenever Gillard has come to Abbott to cut a deal he has pretended to consider the idea, possibly with an amendment or two, before eventually declining to support. The idea behind this is to portray the incumbents as a do-nothing government so that by the next election it will offer no alternative to an Abbott government.

Last week that strategy failed. It failed publicly, and utterly. It will keep on failing as the government gets up off its hind legs and the measures proposed in the past week come into force, which reinforces the perception that this government is acting like a real government, which gives it more confidence (but hopefully not too much), etc.

Last week we saw three events that made the government look like a real government:
  • It consulted widely on tax reform;
  • It enacted a budget-sized raft of legislation to institute a carbon pricing mechanism, after years of talk and bluff; and
  • It settled, for better or worse, on a policy for dealing with asylum seekers.
In each case, the government broke from its standard practice of going cap-in-hand to the opposition and asking for their support. This had made the Coalition look like the determinant of what was legitimate and what wasn't, feeding the idea that the erratic and flaky Abbott could in fact lead a government committed to stability and security.

This is the lesson that the Liberals learned from the failed ETS deal in 2009. The Liberals engaged in a protracted negotiation process with Rudd, who was at the peak of his powers, and after stringing him along they eventually decided against a deal, which left him (as they say in Canberra) fucked and burnt. Naturally they are seeking to do the same again: all they need is a dumb Labor government that learns nothing.

A press gallery with the memory span of goldfish is also useful to Abbott, as Philip Coorey shows:
TONY ABBOTT has indicated he would have said no to a compromise asylum-seeker policy that included Nauru, vindicating Julia Gillard and others in the cabinet who argued against making such an offer.
Well, no kidding. If the government had proposed restoring the status quo of 2006 Abbott would have squealed that the government had stolen his policy, unfit to govern etc. When you've been involved with press gallery journalism for as long as I have you can pick patterns like that.

The government stopped whinging about Abbott, and got on with it. This is what it always should have done (and those of you who think I'm being wise after the event can go back through this site and see that my hitherto futile calls for same have been a recurring feature of the past two years or so).

Buried way down in this tendentious article is a real gobbet of news, with which your old-school newshound would have led their story:
Mr Abbott's approval fell 2 percentage points to 41 per cent and his disapproval rose 2 points to 54 per cent.

These are his worst ratings since becoming Opposition Leader on December 1, 2009, and are similar to numbers experienced by Mr Turnbull just before he was deposed.
And there you have it. Almost two years into the job, after hundreds of stunts and thousands of pointless words nobody is any more convinced that they ever were that they want this man to be Prime Minister. Why no ABBOTT LOSER CHALLENGE ANY DAY NOW SHOCK headlines?

Now you can see why Abbott went on with all that blood-oath stuff. Not because he's in a position of strength but because he's panicking. Over the weekend he sent out Greg Hunt to destroy what little credibility he had by swearing blind that the carbon mechanism was going to be repealed. It's highly likely that Opposition spokespeople responsible for the budget bottom line and productive relationships with business wouldn't have a bar of it (e.g. Hockey, Robb, Macfarlane) or have other issues on their plates right now (e.g. Mirabella). The Situation himself can only announce this and flit onto something else, trailing credulous journos in his wake.

Hunt is providing the textbook example of why you should resign rather than humilate yourself by selling a position that is so obviously bullshit. He's like the loyal soldier who gets sent by donkey superiors to charge the enemy machine-guns over open ground.
The poll finds 44 per cent of voters back Mr Turnbull as Coalition leader compared with 28 per cent for Mr Abbott and 23 per cent for Mr Hockey.

Mr Turnbull has much stronger support among Greens and Labor voters.
Depends what you mean by "Greens and Labor voters", really. If we're talking rusted-ons, those figures are pretty much irrelevant. If we're talking people who voted Labor in 2007 and '10 but might be persuaded to vote for a Liberal Party not led by Tony Abbott, that's significant.

There are few articles more ridiculous than Labor isn't getting its message out because the press gallery is in thrall to Abbott, and this is Labor's fault, because the herd mentality of the press gallery is never ever wrong.
But in Tony Abbott it is facing the most skilful retail politician in recent memory, a leader with a proven ability to slice up solid arguments with sound bites.
Only if you think a sound bite is sharper than a solid argument, or even real policy with actual results to show for it. This was all very well if you just treat leading politicians as duelling windbags, but in the past week we've seen real policies put in place with real costs and real outcomes. This would be the perfect opportunity for a journalist to ask some searching questions about what a rollback might look like - but then you'd have to ask someone other than Lenore Taylor:
But the Coalition leader has already skipped on ...
And who's more happy to let him skip than Lenore Taylor? She could examine the way that Australian politics has changed and how Abbott is adapting to the new environment we find ourselves in, but she'll just let Abbott skip, skip, skippety-skip.
The factional system, which always provided structure when Labor was in crisis, is broken. "They broke it themselves," says one senior Labor figure. The overthrow of Kevin Rudd, sprung on the caucus by factional bosses at a stage when it was almost a fait accompli, is a process that poisoned its own outcome. The party is now inherently wary of any organised leadership challenge.
That looks like the sort of solid journalism you can usually expect from Lenore Taylor - but then she falls straight off the wagon and spends the rest of her story insisting that something broken is not only functional but powerful enough to knock off a Prime Minister. It's one thing for pollies to contradict one another but when a journalist doubles back on her own story she is only making a spectacle of herself.
Often a "source close to" a politician is the bloke himself.
Thanks for the tip. Shame the journo thinks they're being clever in not just quoting "the bloke himself".

Then there's the thousand words in the Rudd-Gillard kiss last week that the News Ltd papers couldn't write: Rudd saw that Gillard got the carbon mechanism through, in a way that he couldn't. Didn't you see that as an act of contrition, if not capitulation?

Tony Abbott is doing what he's always done and this past week it stopped working. His fanclub just assume he can switch gears to becoming Prime Ministerial, but this just isn't possibler. There is no calm and measured authority, only jumping from one stunt to the next. His only way out is more maxxxtreme stunts that makes Lenore Taylor ooh and aah - and that's what we'll be seeing, until The Situation gets so pathetic that they yank him off stage.

In a week where the government did what it gets paid to do, nobody should expect a grateful populace to cheer from sheer gratitude. We're just doing our jobs, and now the government is too it would be nice if journalists and the Opposition would do theirs.


  1. Until we get to the point where hand-wringing lefties stop reading the likes of Andrew Bolt so that they can smugly dismantle his rhetoric on twitter, the press gallery have no chance in hell of doing their job. To easy to prey on their angst for page views

  2. Each time I read your analyses, I feel vindicated - I keep waiting for the press to 'do their job', as you say. The more I wait, the more despondent I feel. Political journalism in this country is 'broken' and the only ones who refuse to acknowledge this are the journalists themselves. I am really sick of the line 'the government has failed to get its message out.' Who are they kidding?

  3. Thanks for that article. I thought the government was just getting on with the job but did not see that written anywhere in the press.
    I saw in "the kiss", congratulations, as opposed to the press who were slapping themselves on the back saying the challenge by Rudd was on.

  4. This suggests that Abbott's strategy does work if the commentariat doesn't weigh into him more forthrightly. http://afr.com/p/business/companies/abbott_stand_sparks_power_price_o5mfTzto0uZjD4c2b7BRlK

    If Hockey, Robb et al can't stop this from happening, who in the Coalition can? And what can Labor do if more main stream commentators don't come out and blast Abbott and Hunt as they should?

  5. “Buried way down in this tendentious article is a real gobbet of news, with which your old-school newshound would have led their story:”

    A few thoughts
    The approval rating of a political leader in the polls doesn’t say much by itself. It needs to be balanced against ‘Preferred PM’ and ‘Voting Intentions’ before any useful inferences can be made. Howard’s popularity with the voters was frequently low during that interminable decade.

    Under preferred PM: Essential Media shows Gillard sliding inexorably from 53% at the 2010 election to 38% now. It shows Abbott rising from 26% to 39% now. 23% are still undecided. Hardly a ringing endorsement of either but Abbott is headed steadily north with Gillard crashing.

    Under Voting Intentions: Over the same period Essential shows Labor Primary vote sliding from 38% (50.1% 2pp) to 33% (45% 2pp). LNP Primary vote increases from 43.6% Primary vote (49.9% 2pp) to 48% (55% 2pp). Abbott’s blitzkrieg strategy is working.

    For comparison Essential shows Abbotts approval disapproval moving slowly from 37/37 (26% undecided) in January 2010 to 40/51 now (9% undecided).
    It shows Gillard approval/disapproval moving from 52/30 (18% undecided) to 34/59 (7% undecided).

    Abbott’s stocks and LNP polls on the way up. Gillard’s stocks and the Labor vote on the way down. These are not numbers suggesting a move against Abbott. Coorey’s analysis is lazy and this is not a gobbet of news.

    To me these figures mean that the voters have largely decided what they think about both leaders. They don’t like either Gillard or Abbott particularly and don’t especially want them as PM. However public perception of the shortcomings of the Rudd-Gillard era of Labor government appear to mean that they prefer to tolerate Abbott as PM rather than Gillard.

    Another change of Labor leader will not help their stocks. It didn’t work last time and a repeat only reinforces the already strong public perception that Labor doesn’t know what it is doing or what it stands for. This is not to say that they won’t try it if their desperation becomes great enough but can they find a viable patsy willing to sacrifice his/her career? Rudd probably would take it his ego is big enough for him to believe he can turn it all around but the Right will not have this. Can poor honest competent conservative Smith be persuaded in Monty Python style that now is the time for a meaningless gesture? Perhaps. Combet Shorten? Hardly.

    Only chance for Labor to salvage something is for them to go full term with the current team and hope for a period of calm. Any hope of that with the pokies madness looming?

    If they go full term they might yet be competitive. My prediction for a 2013 election? A fairly narrow LNP win. No independents but an increased Green vote that probably won’t produce extra MPs this time. Yes Abbott in the Lodge and we will be in for a seriously rough ride.

  6. Yeah it pretty much proves your point, doesn't it? Malaysia solution gets scuttled and everyone jumps to talk about how humiliating it was, instead of actually figuring out how the onshore processing is going to work. They get policy, for once, and they don't want to touch it. Carbon tax passed the House of Reps — no, let's talk about Rudd, let's talk about Wilkie's pokies plan.

    If Labor keeps winning incremental victories, a lot of commentators are going to look like utter fools for talking about the utter irredeemable failure of Gillard's govt. "No, we were just putting it how the electorate saw it".

  7. Anon1, the press gallery have no interest in doing their job. I think Bolt and left bloggers deserve one another.

    Anon2, Sue, thank you. There's such a gap between how media portray things and what people talk about. Sometimes you have to call it as you see it, but that goes against years of journalistic practice.

    PatriciaWA, like all bullies you can expect him to collapse under scrutiny - if only there was any.

    Anon3: I agree. Experienced journos are going to look like monkeys.

  8. Now to you, Doug. I agree that the govt will go full term. I agree that Labor will not change leader.

    I don't give a damn what the polls say. I remember Beazley walloping Howard in the polls but I do not remember there being a Beazley government. I also remember the desperate 1991-3 Keating. I love the fact that Gillard has decided to say damn the polls and full steam ahead, leaving grubs like Niki Savva hissing in her wake. Present trends do not continue and there won't be an election this Saturday, nor next Saturday either.

    The "steadily rising" stuff might be valid if there were six months to go before the election, not now. The game always changes a year out and it cannot change in Abbott's favour. Howard was not this unpopular in 1995-6 - if he had been, he wouldn't have got in.

    Only morons want "calm". People want government to do things. Governments lose office when they slow to a crawl (eg Howard, Keating, Fraser) or when they fizzle out like a dud firecracker (eg Whitlam). The latter looked like happening under Rudd but the reason my money is on Gillard is that she shows signs of learning and has room to grow. Abbott is firing on all cylinders and is becalmed, he's not going to pull in four seats without losing that many and more.

    Polls are leading indicators, only fools regard them as determinants of political action.

  9. Hillbilly Skeleton18/10/11 10:31 pm

    I'm surprised the government haven't cottoned on to the Coalition's mantra wrt any political party that wants to upset business certainty, as far as Abbott & Hockey's hysterical calls, nay demands(even though they haven't actually won the election that is already in the bag in their tiny minds), that business not buy any Carbon Credits, and that they will have to pay back Carbon Finance Corp loans...'Sovereign Risk'.
    Roll on November and John McTernan joining the staff in Canberra for the government. I get the feeling he thinks just like the Coalition framers. Hope so, because, as every man and their dog are saying, this government just has to learn to sell itself better, and successfully take down the Opposition a peg or two.

  10. I find it amazing that polling is front page news. "If an election was held tomorrow, this person would win". Well, since an election isn't being held tomorrow, the story is simply a fictional situation involving something that isn't going to happen (the election tomorrow, that is). How the hell is that front page news? It's as front page worthy as reporting "if Abbott had a sex change, we'd have a female Opposition Leader and a female PM".

    It's no surprise Labor is being called a "do nothing" Government when we have "report nothing" journalists.

  11. Fair enough Andrew. Before I comment I should say first that I desperately want what I think you want. A government that is not headed by Tony Abbott.

    As a climate activist I also desperately want the Gillard government's Clean Energy package and (equally important) their renewable energy bills to be passed and to survive. These are our first baby steps down a path that within a decade all nations will be rushing to follow. We are already late to move. It is vital we don't delay.

    As a lifelong social democrat I put up with Labor's pandering to the right until I couldn't stomach it any more and now vote for Australia's middle of the road social democrats. The Greens.

    So that's who I am and where I'm coming from politically. I don't have any knowledge of political processes or political parties other than what I can glean from the various media sources available to me. These include intelligent blogs like yours. The ABC and the Fairfax press.

    I am interested in the current state of Australian politics, in ideas and in discussion of these. That's why I comment on others blogs.

    I am not interested in picking fights or in the sort of testosterone fueled competitions to see who can be the most insulting that so often characterize comment streams on Australian political blogs. That is one reason that I enjoy your blog and try to contribute to the discussion.

    Although thoroughly supporting what I think is the underlying sentiment of your blog I have sometimes been surprised by your analysis.

    Now you say you don't give a damn about polls but chose to highlight a piece of bad poll news for Abbott in Coorey's article. I simply wanted to point out that if someone wants to grant significance to information from a poll and draw inferences they need to look a bit more carefully than Coorey did.

    Far from suggesting Abbott is at risk the polls suggest his star is rising and anyone in the Libs inclined to contemplate regime change would be discouraged rather than encouraged by the polls.

    The fact that Abbott's popularity is low but his party is way ahead on Voting Intentions strongly suggests:

    a. that the electorate is not paying attention to policy.

    b. that they are currently inclined to tolerate Abbott as PM rather than Gillard.

    I can't see any other interpretation of this poll data. I accept that polls are fickle and that we are (hopefully) a long way out from the election.

    I fervently hope this situation will be turned around but I think it is important to see these things as realistically as possible and I can't see light at the end of Gillard's tunnel yet.

    Abbott does not deserve to be PM and Gillard does not deserve to be where she is. The fact that the electorate takes her 'broken promise' on carbon tax so seriously is infantile and lazy wrt the failure to consider whether the policy itself is beneficial or not. But this doesn't change the reality of the situation. Things are what they are.

    On the question of whether the government will go full term I hope it does and I think that as long as they hold their nerve and we don't get any nasty surprises leading to bye-elections (what is the current state of play in the Craig Thompson saga?) they will manage it.

    On the question of whether 'only morons want calm' I reckon that only LNP supporters want more action reinforcing the view held already by a dozy infantile electorate that the government is incompetent and not in control. That is what I meant by calm. However, now that you raise it I reckon there is plenty of evidence that the Australian electorate prefers governments that do nothing so long as it doesn't impact negatively on lifestyle.

    Finally I was attracted to the piece by John Watson in today's Age. It seemed to me to sum up the attitude of the electorate to our political parties pretty well.

  12. "Now you say you don't give a damn about polls but chose to highlight a piece of bad poll news for Abbott in Coorey's article."

    I didn't write Coorey's article, Doug. I pointed out that he focused on things that weren't news (Gillard down, Coalition up) and ignored things that were (Abbott less popular than ever).

    Of course people aren't paying attention to politics. Most people spend something like 8 minutes a year on politics (I read somewhere once - don't have a reference). The way you can tell this is how much things change in the run-up to an election.

    To focus on polls is to miss the point. It's like people with eating disorders who weigh themselves constantly - no good comes from it. There is no correlation between the polls now and what might happen in an election. Each poll is based on a little bit of bullshit ("If an election were held tomorrow ...") and takes off from there - off it goes, and off goes every flighty person who doesn't understand government and who thinks actual policy execution is just some drawn-out drought between the froth and bubble of election campaigns.

    To go on about 38% of this and 54% of that is to very meticulously miss the point.

    "I reckon there is plenty of evidence that the Australian electorate prefers governments that do nothing so long as it doesn't impact negatively on lifestyle."

    If the Howard government had been re-elected I'd agree with you, but it wasn't so I don't. People will sacrifice for a greater good - yeah, you have to pick your battles but it's still more true than not. Besides, this is the great conundrum that's opened up in Australian politics since Whitlam was not re-elected after 1975: if you have contempt for Australians as lifestyle-├╝ber-alles, why govern them?

    I thought the Watson article was piffle. Abbott is cool? Marketing is what's most disappointing about Gillard? When Fairfax downsizes next they should shunt that fool into oblivion, or News Ltd.