21 November 2011

When the bubble bursts

The dynamic nature of politics means that a policy vacuum rarely remains a vacuum for long (even so, this does not mean a policy can't be described as vacuous almost indefinitely). The whole Abbott-Credlin method of opposing every policy Labor puts up is starting to implode because people need to act on the basis of what's real. You can't sustain anyone or anything on the fantasy that a couple of media-management junkies seek to project, as though it were - or might one day become - real.

This is the problem that the Coalition face with the mining tax, as reported here and here. The legislation hasn't been passed, but recent examples with the carbon price and the US base that Howard lusted after for a decade show that the government can now be taken at its word when it says that it intends to push ahead with a particular policy. The MRRT not only promises big bickies but enables a shift away from income and business taxes, benefitting taxpayers and government alike.
When the opposition resources spokesman, Ian Macfarlane, said over the weekend the Coalition would consider supporting amendments to lift the threshold, he urged people not to get carried away. The Coalition, he said, would still abolish the tax if elected.

If the legislation was destined to pass, in the interim the Coalition may as well ameliorate its impacts.

However, a small but growing group in the Coalition is urging a rethink. One MP, who comes from a mining state and who was vehemently opposed to the tax when it was announced a year ago, told this column the group believes the threshold should be lifted to give smaller miners a break but the tax retained to ensure the bigger miners contribute.

Such a policy about-face would be a humiliation for Tony Abbott, who has vowed to fight the tax to his last political breath and, for this reason, it is unlikely he will flip.
Abbott backflips all the time, and the press gallery never call him on it. Abbott has to answer how he will raise the revenue other than through the MRRT, and the press gallery never (in the Peter Fray sense of the word 'never') call him on that either.

There is also the question of broadening the tax beyond iron ore and coal. Gold is enjoying super-profits and so are rare earths; why they should be excluded from this tax is unclear. It shouldn't care what stage the negotiations are at; at Christmas I shall be having ham, but this is not to say that I'm holding talks with the relevant pigs.

Anyway, back to the Coalition: they aren't having much luck with finding cost savings so additional sources of revenue that can't be shunted off-shore is a better bet than they would credit. The people calling for the broadening of the tax base to include long term super profits are not only right but are likely to prevail when the Coalition eventually makes it back to government.

They are likely to prevail because there is no alternative. Abbott and the leadership group could kill the idea of the MRRT remaining in place under a Liberal government simply by coming up with some other funding model. From the Coalition, any chatter would stop because The Party Line had been decided, end of. To do that, however, would require some consideration on the Liberals' part as to where Australia is at right now, where we're going and the right option among the many that will help us get there. This policy development isn't happening, and announcements that it is underway should not be taken at face value. The Federal Coalition does not do policy any more. It does press releases instead.

So apparently Abbott is "playing down suggestions that some Coalition MPs would prefer the scheme be amended and retained" - well he would, wouldn't he. It might be enough for The Australian to take as given but it isn't enough for the rest of us. The Australian is a useful guide to what the current Coalition leadership is thinking but it is not a useful guide as to what is going on or what should happen.

Here's what John Howard would have done: he would recognise this backbench rumbling as a challenge to his leadership. He would have come out with a defiant statement that his position was clear and he wasn't going to deviate from it - then he would have taken soundings among his backbench. The weaker souls would have stopped their comments on Howard's announcement and assured him everything was fine. The stronger ones would speak to Howard politician to politician: you're giving me nothing to work with here. Do you really expect either of us to win any votes at all promising FA and plenty of it? Howard would see the sense of this (provided it wasn't leaked) and act accordingly, quietly, denying that he'd backed down but doing what needed to be done.

Abbott is too proud for that, and hasn't been through the wringer like Howard had (not that Abbott would or could survive half the adversity that Howard went through).

Another sign of the Coalition vacuum is the NBN. Yes, the Coalition policy is that they're against it and will repeal it, while at the same time Coalition MPs want their fair share, mocking that on which they feed. Your garden-variety hypocrisy and feeble charges thereof just don't cut it here. We all want better broadband, but there was no credible alternative to the NBN before the last election and there isn't one now.

MPs are doing their job when they call for a government service to be extended to their constituents. If there was an alternative broadband strategy, Coalition MPs could offer it as the alternative to citizens wanting that service. This puts Coalition MPs in an uncomfortable position but not an impossible one.

It is political suicide to expect politicians to choose between their constituents and their leadership. Constituents ensure that a politician keeps their job; leadership threatens politicians with loss or diminution of their job. Any Coalition MP/Senator knows Peta Credlin won't help them get another job. Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd and Brendan Nelson and every other party leader who ever got rolled, did so on the basis that their 'leadership' was imperilling the ability of the politicians they led to appeal effectively to their constituents.

This is particularly true with a populist leadership; if people want the NBN or MRRT, who is the leader to say we can't have it? On what basis, within what framework and what priorities - and offering what alternative - can the contrary claim be made?

Into the policy vacuum go a series of politicians who can't accept the vacuum is there as part of some wider aesthetic. They fill it with the status quo because people, inside Canberra and out, can relate to what's actually true and real and tangible. Despite what media management frauds professionals might think, reality is a great starting point from which to develop policy, and there should be more of it. If there's any conflict between what voters want and what feeds the leader's vanity, you can't expect retail politicians to vote for what feeds the leader's vanity.

The only way you can get clarity on policy is not for one person or another to hand out a songsheet and pleading with/shrieking at people to sing from it. The only way you can get clarity on policy is to have clear policies, that candidates can tailor to their audience.

True, only journalists really care about detailed policy and there is the Hewson thing. Hewson had to go into detail because he didn't have decades of frontline political experience to draw upon. That said, a detailed policy that is based on some sort of consistent bedrock of proven behaviour and principle resonates even with voters who don't pay much attention to politics. This is what happened for the Coalition once they got rid of Downer in 1995-96; they released a whole lot of policies that weren't particularly detailed but set out broad parameters. People saw them and thought: yep, sounds like what you'd expect from the Liberals. Howard knew he couldn't get away with what Abbott still thinks of as his only option: "trust me", with a wink and a grin.

Labor isn't improving because Gillard "seems more Prime Ministerial", as the press gallery would have it ("Waiter! Another jug of Old Prime Ministerial, put it on my tab!"). Labor is improving because they've stopped with the announceables and have something to show for them at long last. This isn't a game of competing vacuums any more; the party that made the most convincing break with the politics of 2010 wins in 2013. Right now Labor only look unbeatable because the Coalition are still playing 2010 politics, it's what they're best at. The Coalition aren't in the game (poll junkies please note: the polls will catch up to reflect this reality. Polls are what economists call 'lagging indicators': they are not useful at predicting behaviour two years out, only assessments of structural capability can do that).

There was a time when the Coalition policy vacuum acted as a bubble that saw the Coalition float above the government and bounce off solid realities and even the odd pointed question. Since the government has stopped responding to that vacuum with its own counter-vacuum, people and things are getting sucked into the Coalition vacuum in a way that the party's leadership can no longer control. Using that vacuum as a platform is about as politically stable as a multistory building in Christchurch (it takes real talent to mix three metaphors in one paragraph, but as ever it's the thought that counts).

People want to vote Liberal because they want stability, and people only do vote Liberal when they can credibly offer that. Nobody votes Liberal because they're enamoured with some eccentric in sluggos who could do any random thing at any random time to any random person or group of people. Nobody who insists the contrary ought to be as safe atop the Liberal Party as they appear to be.


  1. Actually, Andrew, I think you mixed four metaphors. I dips me lid.

  2. Alphabajangodelta23/11/11 12:18 am

    Labor are also starting to look like a broad team (give or take a bit of gay fission!) of achievers that is over the internal dysfunction and policy stallings and stuff-ups of the Rudd period. Carbon, MRRT (and accoutrements), smokes, pay equity. There's a story there of how Gillard has got her team working - in contrast to growing entropy in the LNP. But are we hearing more than the superficial stuff? No. As was discussed on Twitter recently, journalists with their ears to the ground ought to be digging up the more complex stuff like this, which requires thought and serious engagement. But no, it's easier to superficially divine the twitchings among the entrails of the latest Newspoll.

  3. "The Australian is a useful guide to what the current Coalition leadership is thinking but it is not a useful guide as to what is going on or what should happen."

    Quite. Seems Kelly O'Dwyer is doing a better job of questioning Abbott than the media.

    Strange times we live in.

  4. Labor seem to be acting like a party that is starting to get it's mojo back. Anthony Albanese's teardown of Abbott this afternoon was not only amusing as hell, but hopefully signalled a shift in the governments stance from defence to attack.

    To coin a metaphor, the Government has weathered a stormy opening session, played and missed a few times and looked all at sea against a ferocious attack. But the attack lacks depth, and now that there are a few runs on the board they are looking to take it up to the opposition.

    God knows it's what I'd do - ignore the polling, assume the government will go full term and start holding the Coalition to account for their spectacular lack of policy offerings, rampant populism at the expense of sound economic management and constant weathervaning to whatever populist rhetoric is spewed forth by the Talkbackerati.

    Government is won and lost in that middle 20 percent, and funnily enough it's the 20 percent that probably does more thinking than the 40 percent rusted on at either end put together. Give them something to think about in alternative to the same tired old sloganeering coming out of the opposition's tame press.

  5. I think we just saw a continuation of the bubble bursting.

    In a tight parliament, why on earth would the Coalition allow a pre-selection challenge against one of his MPs?

    Slipper had nothing to lose by becoming an independent and becoming the speaker. What is even more ironic is that this wouldn't matter if Tony Abbott didn't welch on his agreement on pairing the speaker one year ago.

  6. David, you may be right.

    Alpha, policy is the only thing that will save this lot and policy is doing just that. I'm amazed at just how policy analysis is entirely reactive to press releases and 'independent reports'. The fact that the press gallery have missed the deposings of a PM and now a Speaker also casts doubt on the 'ear to the ground' thing. What are these people good for?

    Anonymous, I think O'Dwyer will be going strong long after Abbott's gone.

    Michael, they have no choice but to run a positive agenda. The next step is to mess with internal Liberal scheduling and render Abbott untenable. You own the agenda when you wreck the other party's leadership. Talkback shifts no votes and Labor should ignore it.

    Bobalot, as I'm about to blog soon Queensland is full of stupids. Slipper should have been an ex-MP a long time ago.