A strangely unsettled mood seems to have settled over national politics in the last week. Debate over the Budget is still rattling around but with no coherent theme having emerged from either side while the media keep worrying over it like a dog with a bone.

It started with the government, which even on what is supposed to be their central economic theme, fighting inflation, couldn’t decide whether the Budget was “a modest tightening” (Swan) or “a significant contraction” (Tanner). Some left-wing commentators seem to want to make it a meaningful sign of policy courage to introduce means-testing for the baby bonus while ignoring how high earners were being more than compensated by a rise in child rebate. In fact the unwillingness to upset anyone seems to be the one overriding theme of the Budget and Rudd was a bit cheeky chiding Howard for doing the same.

That Rudd can now make the Budget seem like it was intended to upset interest groups is more a testament to their poor management of the message than the Budget itself. If this was truly the intentional purpose of the Budget then surely they would have been better prepared to respond to the criticisms of the health insurers, the pensioners, the solar industry and all the other lobby groups that have picked at this Budget since it was released. With little over-riding political programme behind it, the Budget has become an open invitation to every interest group to push their agenda.

Thank goodness for the opposition. The Liberals’ political instincts have gone as they worry more about their internal needs than taking down the government. A classic case was their response to the Alcopops tax. The government had been caught out with the contradictions of trying to turn book-keeping into a moralistic crusade. Either it works as a revenue generator and therefore usage will go up, or it is a moral issue and revenue should go down. Saying it will go up but not as much as it could have done, does not work for a moral issue.

Unfortunately, having exposed the measure as a sham, Nelson’s need to up the ante to make him look tough and cohere the party by reminding them of their core opposition to tax rises, with a threat to block it in the Senate, is a political error. They too have mixed up the fiscal and moral message, opposing it as a tax rise but ending up on the wrong side of a moral panic (Brown’s moralistic reasons for opposing it were politically savvier).

However, it is the breakdown of basic functions of a political party which is more serious than bad tactics. As seen in WA, the inability to keep anything internal, such as Turnbull’s e-mail on petrol excise, is a sign of chronic political decay (that it is this than a calculated political move is shown by the fact that no-one can work out whose interests the leak serves). What is being missed is that Turnbull is doing himself damage by ‘handling’ the embarrassment caused by the leak. It might ease pressure on him in the party in the short term but it is undermining his political credibility to be seen in favour of something, of which he clearly is not. Turnbull should have taken lessons from his predecessor in the party that standing back from filling a vacuum and waiting for the perfect time to make a move, actually damages the contender’s prospects in the longer term.

The political opportunism of the excise tax would have been an ideal issue to move on. Given the way Howard supporters implied Howard would never have been so opportunistic (yeah, right!) it would have handed Turnbull a rare chance to win over at least some of his most hostile opponents in the party. As it is, Turnbull continues to say that the government wimped out in the Budget, thereby flatly contradicting the whole thrust of his leader’s charge that it is hurting working families. Downer’s response to all of this, which seems to be a plea to the media to ignore the Liberals until closer to the election, is about right.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 22 May 2008.

Filed under Tactics

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