18 June 2012

Goading and politics

When I was a Liberal Student in the late 1980s, you knew you were a proper Liberal if you put up a proposal that goaded the lefties. Proposing something like privatising the refectory or rolling your eyes at condemnations of racism could reduce someone with a big title on a student association to gibbering about Baudrillard while you represented yourself as Addressing Real Student Issues. In a non-compulsory election where you could hold an office with multiple winners, all on less than 50% of the vote, such a position was a winner.

I've moved on from then, and so have most others who were students around the same time; but the small numbers of people who think that represented the model of what politics is and how it should be conducted have not. One of these is the alternative Prime Minister of Australia.

In recent days he has gone in hard against asylum seekers and given verbal support for Gina Rinehart's bid for Fairfax. Neither of those positions will win the Coalition a single extra vote. Nobody who voted Labor in 2007 and 2010, or who voted for Wilkie or Windsor or Oakeshott, or who voted for Katter's mob at the Queensland election, will vote Coalition next time as a result of those positions.

Observers who shake their heads at NSW Labor winning state election after state election should consider how much help they got from the Coalition. In 1999 and 2007 the Liberals deliberately pursued policies that drove up the Coalition vote in the seats they already held but which effectively forfeited marginal seats. This pattern is being repeated federally; it is increasingly likely that the Coalition will make some of its safe seats very safe while starving marginal seats of the few votes they need to displace Labor/Independent incumbents.

Why Abbott and the clowns who consider themselves Coalition Strategists (and who, alas, are thus considered by others) are stuck in defence is unclear. The media narrative is that Abbott is always on the front foot against the government, perennially confident, dukes up and toujours l'audace - but reality can't support that narrative. When such differences open up it is the narrative that is unsustainable. In the polls, and as far as press gallery consensus is concerned, the Coalition have the government by the throat. This is the point when the Coalition should have the courage to try out new ideas.

The Coalition has put all their eggs into the basket of stunts and skulduggery rather than policy. That's all gone now, egg on faces all 'round (well, it looks like raw egg - that's as close an analysis as we need, thank you very much). That debacle means the Coalition is left with nothing. One reason why you don't risk winning ugly is because losing ugly is so unbearable. The Coalition will have years to repent both the sugar-rush that gave them such great polls in 2011, and the fact that they did so little with them.

At the equivalent point in the electoral cycle in late 1995, shadow ministers started floating ideas so that claims by Labor during the election campaign that the Coalition stood for nothing fell on deaf ears. Abbott is supposed to be emulating Howard but only in lip-service terms, which is all very well for journalists (and voters) happy to take Abbott at his word. Voters happy to take Abbott at his word are fewer in number in marginal seats than in electorates where they are already surrounded by people who think as they do.

A focus on non-issues is exactly the wrong thing for them to be doing right now - nobody will believe anything they bring out during the campaign. This is why Phillip Coorey is wrong when he thinks the next election is a reprise of 2007. Coorey assumes that the Coalition have the policy heft and temperamental stability to convince people that the answer to the present malaise (such as it is) is a Coalition government. There are no grounds for anyone to assume that, and blowing away that flimsy assumption is a far easier task than that facing the Coalition - which they and the press gallery appear destined only to realise too late, too late.

NSW Liberal patriarch Sir John Carrick always said that you can't fatten the pig on market day. Right now the only fattening going on is in that most ephemeral and unreliable of indicators - the polls. Abbott and the generation of Liberal strategists gathered around him are mounting a much more substantial challenge to the Liberal Party's received campaigning wisdom more than they are to Labor's incumbency.

That lack of strategic nous is the only explanation I can find for this nonsense. One of the Coalition's most relied-upon tacticians seems to have all but declared his intention to sit out the next election or cruise through it in second gear, rather than go all out for a serious shot at governing the country.

If Liberals are ambivalent about the prospect of an Abbott Government, what makes anyone think swinging voters are at all exercised by the prospect? Nowhere are Liberals more ambivalent about winning government than in the nation's most marginal seat. A heavy hand with "counselling" will see Liberals stay at home when the hard graft of setting up a campaign is to be done over the next few months. I've been in election campaigns where it is hard to rally the party faithful let alone the undecideds, and that's what we are looking at here. People busy fretting about what an Abbott Government might (not) do should really get a life.

Look at the new government in Queensland. They do not have to win any more votes, and so far the only decisions they have made have been leftie-goading: development against the Barrier Reef, cancelling literary prizes and defunding HIV education programs. No votes lost or won from any of that for Newman, but the difference with Abbott's crew is they're not in government. If Abbott creates the impression that he's going to stuff cronies into every crevice of government and fiddle with a few programs, there's no incentives for swinging voters to shift their vote from Labor.

Labor supporters plead for voters and the media to have some sympathy for the government, to admire the sheer pluck of Gillard and Swan and to recognise that they are doing their best. Such sentiments will follow, rather than lead, a perception that the Coalition are just not up to governing the country. People want to feel good about their decision, but most voting decisions are made in private on cold calculations of advantage. Keating won in 1993 because the Coalition made people feel greedy and stupid about voting for Fightback! - he did just enough for people to create post-facto justifications for giving him one more chance. This worked far better than dewy-eyed pleas for forgiveness like Kevin Rudd offered in 2010, or the damn-the-torpedoes bluster that tipped out both John Brumby and Jeff Kennett from governing Victoria.

Supporters of the government, whether rusted-on Labor people or not, need to wait out this aberration whereby Abbott gets to goad people who are better than him. There will be a time to give it to Abbott with both barrels, but it is too early for that. Simply by executing the carbon price with the same steadiness that killed the anti-GST campaign the government will have done enough to put the Coalition off its game of winning over those who have voted Labor.

Before Hawke it was accepted that Prime Ministers didn't have to be popular in order to win elections. Nobody outside his family loved Menzies, for goodness sake. Now popularity is assumed to be essential, the oxygen without which a Prime Minister cannot function, and someone who keeps on going without oxygen must be a freak. That assumption requires you to forget how quickly both Howard and Rudd made the rooster-to-feather-duster transition. Gillard will win for the same reason that Fraser and Keating both did: nobody loves them but the other guy is hopeless. If you must goad you do so after you win, not beforehand; premature goading can make people standing with you feel that their judgment is poor, and they may not be there when you are challenged to do something more than lazy culture-war bullshit.

Abbott is being defensive when he should be attacking, but he has nothing to attack with. The usefulness of his stunt strategy evaporates when doorstops go feral and have to be cut short. Nonetheless, there are still people who insist that he's going to be Prime Minister, it's just that they are already the sorts of people who would never have voted anything but Coalition anyway. The fact that those people can't relate to those who voted Labor in 2007 and '10 is why the Coalition are going to lose. Labor haven't consistently been able to relate to them either, but consider how much easier their task is and add the benefits of incumbency.

Goading people who don't rise to your bait make you feel like your judgment about people and situations sucks, and judgment about people and situations is the very essence of politics. If Abbott can't snatch government from Labor, only a journalist would believe he'd have anything to offer in terms of gentle and substantive persuasion over the long term.


  1. Excellent piece. It basically seems that both sides are crap but one side is seemingly intent more on throwing crap than promoting it.

  2. "Phillip Coorey is wrong" could be a good name for a Blog. I lost all respect for him after watching one of those Age videos where he tried to blame Abbott and Pyne's "dash for the door" on Labor

    1. He's a dill, and hopefully unemployed soon.

  3. Didn't you read Paul Kelly today?? Apparently Abbott and his frontbench colleagues now have more than 50 "fully costed, fully funded" policies.

    Also. His government will stand for less interference in people's lives and encouraging less of an entitlement mentality for Australians. All of this was written with a straight face, presumably.