Friday, 6 November 2009
Memo to Coalition: Look what happens when you make the government the issue, rather than yourselves.
Lenore Taylor “New opposition focus pays off”
What on earth is she talking about? Lenore Taylor’s crediting of the government’s poor polling to Coalition discipline over asylum seekers seems to have totally forgotten what has happened over the last few weeks. First we had the Old Rep of Andrews and Ruddock return to the stage with Ruddock getting so excited that he started talking about the return of TPVs, which Turnbull had to disown. Then we had Wilson Tuckey getting very excited and claiming that they could be terrorists, which Turnbull had to stand up in Parliament and disown. Then we had the Coalition do an about-turn and say that Rudd’s treatment of the asylum seekers was inhumane, until Abbott got too carried away in that direction and blamed the drowning of asylum seekers on Rudd’s policies, which he had to disown. Finally, to cap it off, we had the Coalition’s spokeswoman on immigration talk about the return to Howard’s polices that she had later to disown.
The Coalition has tried not to be the focus, but they haven’t excelled. Far from being disciplined, the Coalition’s campaign has been all over the place as various members try and use it to return to the Golden Years while Turnbull has to deal with the reality that they can’t. Any political impact on the issue is coming not from what the Coalition has been doing but rather what has been going on in the media, with the Coalition doing little more than trying to follow the media as best they can.
They are not the only ones. Rudd’s whirlwind tour of the nation’s media over the last week starting just before the bad Newspoll was released, was less provoked by the poll than fears of the media’s subsequent handling of it. For the last week, Rudd has not been battling the opposition, in fact he hardly mentions them. He has been battling the media and its interpretation of what is going on.
The press has been uncomprehending to what Rudd is trying to do with these interviews and indeed why he is doing them at all. He doesn’t appear to want to do them. For any Rudd watchers, there is a tell-tale sign when the PM is under pressure – his top lip disappears. It was certainly AWOL on The 7.30 Report on Monday night when he started his campaign. As usual when Rudd is in that mode, he was not very good and appeared, as others have noted, to have nothing to say. Yet within the interview were the tactics that he has pursued for the last few weeks and indeed, for his period in government.
Basically, he is trying to depoliticise an issue that Labor will lose if it does not. First, he lowers expectations about what is possible. So the issue becomes “complex and difficult” and the sort of “tough negotiations that governments face, with no easy answers”.
Second, he launches an anti-political attack on the left and the ‘extreme’ right, as he calls them, who he portrays as the opponents he has to deal with. In doing so attempts to isolate his critics, and the debate, from the mainstream
Finally, he internationalises it. Just as with his earlier trips to Jakarta, Rudd is now shifting the focus to Sri Lanka, talking about phoning the Sri Lankan President, and perhaps, more extraordinary, proposing to bring Sri Lankan workers directly to Australia. Some commentators have thought this insane given the current climate, but that would be to misread it. Rudd is having problems not because he is seen as soft on border protection; the government has always been seen as softer than the Coalition on the issue. In fact, his refusal to allow the Oceanic Viking to return to Australia with its passengers could be seen as a sign of toughness. The problem he faces is that with the Oceanic Viking stand-off, the media have brought out of the issue what the boats have always been about, a test of being in control.
Greg Sheridan had an interesting take on it when reviewing past Prime Ministers’ actions. He highlights the hypocrisy of Fraser, always a worthwhile exercise, in the way he set up squalid camps through South-East Asia to detain asylum seekers. More interestingly, he describes how Howard arranged with Indonesia to take an active role in detaining boats, but kept it secret in order to, according to Sheridan, respect the political needs of the Indonesian President. This blogger will go out on a limb and suggest that Howard’s own political needs were more important. He wanted it secret to protect the myth that “We decide”, which was so useful for him.
What both Prime Ministers had in common was not only the encouragement of setting up international camps, but making a secret of them and presenting border protection as a unilateral policy of the Australian government. That is no longer possible. The Liberals know it, which is why they agreed with Labor to drop the measures in the first place, which even now they can’t argue should be restored. The conditions that allowed Fraser and Howard to get away with such a ruse are no longer there and so this government needs to politically neutralise an issue that has been so useful for past ones. There is one final striking thing about the Rudd media tour. He is the only one doing it. Because at the end of the day, he is probably the only one in the government who knows how.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 6 November 2009.Filed under Media analysis, Tactics