12 February 2012

No doubt, no benefit

The government - the incumbents, its predecessors, the alternative - is always judged by how well or badly it manages the economy. What's changed in the past fortnight or so is that the Coalition lost its ability to turn the heat up on the government on this issue. It's been funny to watch the journosphere credit the government for switching its focus when it's the journosphere that has suddenly realised that it can't just sit and wait for this government to give up.

The turning point came with Tony Abbott's "classic hits and memories" speech, a catalogue of stupidity that revealed Abbott as not the alternative Prime Minister, but just another commentator and not a particularly insightful one at that. Since then it's been legitimate to ask what Abbott would do in office, in a way that apparently wouldn't have been legitimate at any point over the past two years or so. Since then the spotlight on the government has been a bit warmer: the narrative that the government is hopeless and doomed depends upon the alternative being markedly better, or at least worth the benefit of the doubt.

Laura Tingle gave the most detailed vivisection of the Coalition's pretense to economic policy:
One of the clear messages of the speech seemed to be that the Coalition was quietly walking away from earlier commitments to tax cuts without a carbon tax to fund them.

But that was then denied, and even more confusion ensued about just what the Coalition’s tax plans were.

The next day, Mr Hockey talked about the Coalition aiming for a consistent surplus of 1 per cent of gross domestic product– about $14 billion or $15 billion a year ... By yesterday, Mr Abbott was reduced to saying just that the Coalition would “get back to surplus as quickly as possible”. But we are left wondering what is the goal of the Coalition’s fiscal policy? It started as an exercise in fiscal machismo that was supposed to stand in contrast to Labor profligacy.

For all intents and purposes, it looks like the Coalition has to go back to the drawing board.
Quite so.
The way this disaster has played out can also only lead observers to the conclusion that the senior members of the opposition frontbench don’t talk to each other.
And if Abbott was going to fix that, he'd have done so by now. The only thing worse for Abbott than having Hockey and Robb at daggers drawn is having them working closely together. They would be able to make the sorts of specific decisions that would define the next Coalition campaign, taking control away from Abbott, Credlin and Loughnane. For them to be the voice of economic consistency and to define what the Coalition would and wouldn't commit to renders Abbott a figurehead.

Yet, his party requires Abbott to get over himself and bring all the talents together. Malcolm Turnbull has demonstrated his loyalty and persistence in pursuit of the Coalition's insubstantial campaign against the NBN, and I doubt Senator Arthur Sinodinos is still a floundering newbie. A real leader, like John Howard eventually became, would have been able to harness those enormous egos and have them pull in the one direction: the fact that Abbott sat at his feet for so long and hadn't learnt that pretty much negates his central claim as a leader.
Peter van Onselen tried to say the same thing as Tingle, but much more torturously.
While I am confident (if not overjoyed) Gillard's demise will, in time, still happen so entrenched are her negatives her downfall will be in spite of this week's developments, not because of them. But if I am wrong, an unlikely Gillard recovery will happen on the back of the approach Labor adopted this week.
It's almost unfair to pick on a guy who is as conflicted as that. Almost.
The government won the week ...
Won what? This is PR-wank, a bogus metric for publicists to justify their parasitic existence; it has no place in journalism. I can still remember in the 1999 NSW election campaign, the team all gathered around the analog telly watching the news each night and Kerry Chikarovski imperiously declaring that "we won the night" (well, until the final week of that campaign). It's stupid to claim an utterly bogus prize that confers nothing at all: it's only a "psychological victory" for people dumb enough to think it's important.
Gillard changed tack to take on the important role of economic spruiker-in-chief.
Gillard has commented on economic matters throughout her Prime Ministership. The only thing that's changed is that the press gallery seem to have called off their info-picketline of this government: the press gallery is happy to tell us that the government "can't get its message out" because the press gallery won't tell us straight up what that message is. At first this was frustrating: you have to hunt for the government's message, but after a while of doing that you find that you don't need the press gallery.

If news junkies like me don't need the press gallery, and the great majority of the population don't take any notice of them either, then it would seem that the politicians are the only ones listening to the press gallery - and some of the smarter pollies are already starting to work around them, and the bean-counters at MSM outlets are running the rulers over every cost-centre. The press gallery had no choice but to get down to work (apart from Grattan, who is still away on some jihad against Gillard, and of course News Ltd).
Wayne Swan is not known for his rhetorical skills, so it was important he received back-up ...
Yes, it sure is. It's surprising that Swan didn't have a cheer-squad of ambitious backbenchers on economics committees etc fending off some of the more egregious attacks against him, like Keating did. If he can muster the numbers to be deputy, and if he was such a big cheese in Queensland, surely he can spread the load of economic commentary beyond himself and the boss.

The major stumbling block to a Rudd return is that Swan's position would become untenable - and if his position is untenable, so is the government's. Rudd simply has to find a way around that, given that his team-building skills put him on the outer and are keeping him there.
The importance of the PM's switch to economics is timing and contrast ...
Yes, it does. This paragraph negates the one before it, which was more PR wank and gobbledygook.
timing ahead of global economic threats spilling over into a second GFC; contrast with the Opposition's lacklustre economic performance, especially this week.
It is nonsense to talk of "a second GFC" when it is clearly a continuation of the one begun in 2007-8.

The Opposition's economic performance isn't "lacklustre" - Swan's performance is lacklustre, the Coalition's economic performance is structurally buggered. After mincing and squirming around, van Onselen finally delivers three paragraphs of clear, strong prose that nails the Coalition's predicament:
The Coalition finance team can't seem to agree on when they will return the budget to surplus. It can't tell the public how or from where it will find its $70 billion in pledged budget savings. It won't rule out using the same accountants who costed its policies at the last election, despite the firm having been fined for breaching professional standards on that very piece of work. And it continues to rely on its discredited costings from 2010.

Abbott's blue-collar worksite visits to condemn the carbon tax haven't been matched by a plan to save blue-collar jobs in the wake of the high Aussie dollar. Conversely, he doesn't have the courage to say what all good economic liberals know: Australia shouldn't be producing motor cars. And Abbott's confused messages of fiscal conservatism, coupled with large-scale plans to spend taxpayers' dollars to pork barrel, fuel discontent behind the Liberal lines (at least among the few economically literate members of the party room).

Then there are the personnel problems. Rich economic minds like Malcolm Turnbull and former Howard chief of staff Arthur Sinodinos are kept away from finance portfolios. Sinodinos has been left to languish on the backbench. It makes a joke of Abbott's claims he has his best team in place. Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey and finance spokesman Andrew Robb don't particularly like one another and they certainly do not respect each other. And neither does the business community, who line up to question both men's credentials (and aptitude) to manage our $1 trillion-plus economy.
Another "rich economic mind" from the Coalition who has been raising her profile has been Professor Judith Sloan. She doesn't need to raise her profile for academic or corporate appointments. She used to be a director of the ABC and she is using its various outlets to raise her profile (well, many of them anyway - there isn't yet a Judith and Hoot, but on current projections it's only a matter of time). She lives in Melbourne and has a strong connection to Adelaide, having worked at Flinders University for many years. There's only one Liberal seat available in either city:
  • Menzies, currently occupied by Kevin Andrews; and
  • Boothby, currently occupied by one person who has achieved less than Andrews: Andrew Southcott. This is the guy who qualified as a medical practitioner and then led the opposition, such as it was, to a tobacco control measure on the basis of advertising and brand rights. If you think it's unfair to summarise his career that way, name me one achievement of Andrew Southcott other than getting re-elected.
Sloan would find it difficult to adjust to party politics and a non-deferential media. If she were to run, it would be a rare example of the Coalition putting their best people into Parliament and would give them the policy substance they currently lack.

Anyway, enough kite-flying. Back to van Onselen:
The problem is that he doesn't want to take the political risk of offering up a genuine economic blueprint to secure Australia's economic future, because doing so would involve elements of unpopularity. The alternative, however, is a loss of credibility at a time when economics is dominating the public's thinking.
For most of the Coalition, Fightback! is a figment of history about as relevant to today as, say, the credit crisis of 1961. Tony Abbott was John Hewson's press secretary. The failure of the Coalition to win the 1993 election meant that standards of public life, particularly in economics, need not be so high as to exclude him. Now, he's being asked to produce a Fightback!-style vision, and he can't just laugh it off. Stuck between reprising "the longest suicide note in Australian political history" and just tooling around, patronising blue-collar workers by pretending to do their jobs for them, he will be unable to tread a kind of middle path that will establish him as what the press gallery imagined him to be: the more stable alternative to Gillard. Van Onselen's second last paragraph starts off as piffle but ends with a zinger:
Let's face it, if the Liberals don't win the next election it will be the most gut-wrenching defeat in the party's history, more so even than 1993.
He's dead right there. Mind you, three years after 1993 they were back in office.

The fact that Abbott is no longer getting the benefit of the doubt is encouraging. He lost it after the carbon price passed, but somehow he hammered a nail or something and the idea that this was the guy who'll lead us to a bright, smart and compassionate future came back. He blew it with that speech at the start of this month. It's all downhill from here: he may yet survive to 2013 but he'll limp the final few lengths. After the next election I hope the right wing have the courtesy to fuck off and die like the moderates did throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

A surplus will set up Swan for vindication: the same people who are now claiming it is irrelevant, Canberra-insider hoo-ha are the same people who were most insistent that the Budget must be returned to surplus before the next election. It is over those people that Labor's victory will be had - them, and the Coalition. A vindicated Swan will force the Coalition into a lot of me-tooism - car industry donations, expensive nativist defence procurement, disability and Medicare dental - the whole idea of electing Abbott was that the Liberals would distinguish themselves sharply from Labor. They have hemmed themselves in to the point where their options are limited, for all their perception (among themselves and by a previously smitten press gallery) of strategic flexibility and tactical openness.

After two years with Abbott as leader, and almost that long again until the election, the Coalition is putting forward a policy platform that is pretty much the same as Labor's, only less so in many respects. Battlelines in name only.


  1. The Rudd / Gillard experiment has been a monumental disaster.

    Labor's anti-business obsession with restructuring industries and lining the pockets of their mates.

    The wretched spin doctoring and manipulation of the public in the name of worker's is a transparent scam.

    The baseball bats are waiting.

  2. Alphabajangodelta12/2/12 10:29 pm

    While reading this post I had wondered if you were going to mention the point you made in your last paragraph. This has been Abbott's main problem - that there has been such policy convergence over the past twenty years (Keating's legacy) that it's very difficult for an opposition to craft an alternative that has any credibility with the mainstream, often institutionalised, viewpoint. Labor struggled with Howard's centrist economics and only really got back to form once he stumbled with Workchoices and had started to look tired. Thus Labor was able to distinguish itself on employment regulation and via future oriented investment, such as the NBN.
    Abbott has barely tried any form of differentiation other than 'no'. His few active policy moves have proven clumsy (parental leave) or thick ($70bn budget cut).
    In contrast, Malcolm Turnbull has taken his rather ridiculous role very seriously and though fighting a losing battle has at least tried to offer an intellectually coherent critique of the NBN and an alternative. But he is an exception that proves the Coalition rule.
    We have two budgets before the next election and Labor has a lot of positive but incomplete agendas running (taxation, econ transformation, Asia etc) which no doubt will produce fruit - they have learned from Rudd on that front. They won't have to come up with much to make Abbott look (even more) like a dunce.
    The more amusing aspect of this is that all of Abbott's fellow travellers over the past couple of years - I'm thinking IPA et al but quite a few journos too - will also be made to look like rubes, having thrown away their ideological and intellectual purity for political allegiance with a bunch of imbeciles.
    Will be a fun 15 months or so watching this happen.

    1. CD Kemp set up the IPA to be the intellectual backstop for the Liberal Party, which he believed to be a shallow and populist creation of Menzies. This idea of an intellectual backstop is a position it has never fully occupied until now, when there has never been less congruence between the stated beliefs of the two organisations. Funny how things turn out really.

      Wouldn't be surprised if Turnbull uses gay marriage to relieve himself of the BCDE portfolio.

      Abbott will be slapdash until the end, as he was in 2010, and only mugs (within the press gallery, the Liberal Party, the electorate of Lindsay or anywhere else) will expect otherwise.

  3. Anonmous is correct - the baseball bats are waiting.

    It's just that they will be wielded by Coalition supporters who realise that Abbott has led them to two election losses - both of which will have been his to lose.

    As for Judith Sloan, if she is the best the Liberal's can produce, the pool must be very shallow indeed.

    1. She could be the next Harry Edwards.

    2. I had no idea who Harry Edwards was until I googled him. LOL.

  4. Zuvele Leschen13/2/12 8:52 am

    Carney in 'The Age' had a similar article, recognising Labor has having a good economic record and wondering why Abbott was allowed to play 'fast and loose' with the truth and get away with inconsistencies, while Labor couldn't get its message out (Carney contradicted himself on this in two paragraphs, firstly saying that Labor had only just begun to fight on economic grounds and then saying that they'd been basically doing that forever...)

    His conclusion was it was all the fault of the polls.

    Apparently the media are now resorting to admitting they have no influence on public opinion, seeing this as preferable to admitting they're the ones who have created a false perception of the government's performance.

    1. It's an interesting point. Ross Gittins had a good article on this topic a while ago as well. (Might have actually scored a mention here.) Gittins says that industry economists set the bar higher for Labor, not because they are anti-labor, but because of timidity, being too frightened to give the Liberals the same scrutiny as Labor because they don't want to offend the boss who may well be a Liberal party supremo. Sort of sin of omission, rather than commission. Here's the link

      It feeds through into the rest of the commentariat and as a result, when it comes to economics, the bar is set higher for Labor than the Liberals.

      I suppose this will always be the way it is, but over the past year I've been flabbergasted by just how much Abbott has been allowed to get away with. A modest bias is one thing. Willful blindness another altogether. But maybe, just maybe, the tide has turned...

    2. Zuvele, I read the Carney piece but everything he said was pretty much covered by the others I quoted. He used to be more than a poll jockey but now he's hiding behind them too, which is sad.

      PB, not too many finance supremos in the Liberal Party, not since Howard's days as Treasurer. Gittins is jumping at shadows too.

  5. "The problem is that he doesn't want to take the political risk of offering up a genuine economic blueprint to secure Australia's economic future, because doing so would involve elements of unpopularity."

    Or because Abbott is simply unable to produce anything of worth - other than, as you say Andrew, pretending to do other people's jobs for a few minutes.

    The free ride that the press have given Abbott has made him lazy, to the point where he doesn't feel the need to come up with any coherent policy. Interesting that Abbott's main advantage will turn out to cause his downfall.

    Zuvele: So Carney is still playing that 'we know facts but the public doesn't therefore it's the government's fault' line? Sheesh, when will journos do their job?

  6. I think I have noticed a difference with Gillard this year. She seems a little more assertive in press conferences and interviews. She's also talking faster - I used to think she suffered from the Crean disease of talking too slowly (which can appear to be condescending and monotonous).

    1. I do too - don't know where this 'talking slowly' rubbish comes from, suspect it's something Bernard Ingham schooled Thatcher in and people have drawn the wrong lessons from that experience.

  7. Your quote "If news junkies like me don't need the press gallery, and the great majority of the population don't take any notice of them either"
    It's OK, Annabel Crab is going to host a cooking show on the ABC (featuring politicians) called "Kitchen Cabinet" (seriously it's not yet April 1st).
    Suggest Michelle Grattan might get a run on a gardening show (she knows a lot about manure).

  8. I just placed all my accumulated sport bet winnings on Labor for the next election. Can't see the odds getting better.

    Today has to be a low point in the behaviour of the press, with a poll reporting improved public perception of Labour economy management skills as a loss.

    Can't see Abbott getting the boot, so I think it's a safe bet.


    1. Sounds like a smart investment, might try something similar.

  9. Newspoll and essential polls going back to 2009 show that the coalition has been ahead of govt by a consistent ratio of 40s to 30s on the question of which party better at handling economy. The punters seem to buy Abbott's clarity: lower spending, wiser spending, no big taxes and goodbye carbon tax. Derision re 70 billion blackholes and surplus timing appears to leave them unmoved. Press gallery has to have something to write so it grabs every straw available.

    I put the punters obduracy down to a default sky-won't-fall-in position - ie when they have taken the baseball bats out of the shed they assume the opposition won't be worse.

    imo Labor will only be saved by a significant shift in the punters opinion of the competence of the government. Whether the carbon tax bribes will achieve this remains to be seen. May instead be pocketed with a horse laugh, as was the ungrateful response of the multitude to the stimulus cash hand-outs.

    btw - it is now evident that press gallery was spot on its foreshadowing of the Rudd challenge - and they were reporting off serious backgrounding from Rudd himself. Interesting times ahead.

    1. bb, I should start out by saying that I despise the use of "punters" in political commentary.

      What you call "clarity" is focus-group bullshit on which Abbott cannot deliver. Your second paragraph is rubbish, the carbon pricing mechanism isn't a tax so there goes you third paragraph; and as for your last you've got the cart before the horse, as my next post will point out. I wish you'd use your own brain rather than outsource it to a herd of halfwits.

  10. Just delete "carbon tax bribes" with "carbon pricing mechanism bribes" and the point is the same.

    "Clarity" was the word Maxine McKew used recently when describing Abbott's ability to communicate with the masses. The point had nothing to do with focus group derived messages - all parties use those (eg Moving Forward). It was about communication skills at delivering those messages.

    Surprised you deride the term "punters". They are, after all, the 20- 30% swingers who actually decide elections, -not those of us who obsess about policy or party.

    In my experience they "do" punt - ie if they are in the mood not to like a government they just vote against it, punting that the other side won't be worse. This may be partly, perhaps mostly, because they are forced to vote, so have to make a choice on the day.

  11. People who use "punters" to describe their fellow Australians tend to have a patronising attitude toward them, which they confuse with realism. Abbott's skill is limited to making a statement and not being questioned on what it might mean if he were to be entrusted with more responsibility than he can handle. But then, if you think one set of words means the same as any other set of words, what's the point?