Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Now we know what Turnbull was talking about. By trailing the government on the ETS over the last two years, the Coalition had made sure that the argument over the ETS was essentially between the government and the Greens. The result was to make the government appear indecisive and unprincipled over an issue that, lacking any real domestic program, it desperately needed to give it a sense of purpose.
Now that the Coalition has decided to make an issue of the government’s plans, the debate has been transformed. Instead of arguing how decisive or indecisive the government is, it has now turned into a contest between either taxing the polluters, or taxing voters to pay the polluters. If Rudd can’t make hay of that, he should sack his advisors.
The journalists at Abbott’s press conference and the interviewers on the ABC were certainly have a field day. They couldn’t decide which was more fun, getting Abbott and Joyce to explain how they were going to find the money to pay the polluters, or asking them whether they believed there was a climate change problem in the first place. Mal and Lucy and the dogs no doubt got out the popcorn to watch the fun last night. While Joyce flubbing around was to be expected, Abbott’s calamitous interview must have produced gales of merriment in Point Piper.
Given the press has gone bezerk over a poll that shows that the Liberals would merely repeat the drubbing of the last election, something that seems to pass as a ‘honeymoon’ for an opposition leader these days (but in the old days, if your name was Simon Crean, would have got you dumped), now seems a good time as any to look at how the government has still not quite got a grip on Abbott’s weakness that were fully on display yesterday.
Good political tactics are about exposing reality. Let’s just review what that means for Abbott. Abbott’s leadership is the result of the old guard’s tactic, of using an electorally acceptable leader to push an electorally unacceptable agenda, going wrong. The failure of Hockey’s candidature forced Abbott into the open and has meant the old guard has had to face what they didn’t need to while they hid behind Nelson and Turnbull: namely, they do not have an electorally viable answer to what the Liberals stand for in a time when business doesn’t need an anti-union party. Abbott and the old guard have been dreaming up an agenda in their heads, but their taking back the leadership now means they must come out with it.
One of the joys of the last few weeks has been to watch this supposed right-wing agenda disintegrate as it is brought to the surface. Not just the climate change scepticism that no longer can speak its name, or a revised Workchoices that Abbott said from day one, can no longer speak its name, even a revival of a nice tough border protection stance ends up being turned into a paean to multiculturalism. The result is that while Abbott has wanted to pose as ‘straight-talking’ he has ended up being all over the place, depending who he was talking to, something brought out ruthlessly by O’Brien last night.
This is why there was a problem with Gillard leaping on Abbott’s virginity comments last week. While the latest poll indicated that he might have lost ground with women on that specific issue, the general impression is to bolster the idea of Abbott as “I don’t agree with what he’s saying, but at least he speaks his mind” etc. etc. etc. This desperation to appear a conviction politician when you have no program to back it, of course, is pure Howard, who started his last election campaign telling everyone “love me or loathe me, you know what I stand for”. In a way, Gillard’s tactic helped Abbott do the same.
Rudd has picked up Abbott’s indecisiveness, although perhaps his office can think of something better than “undies” references. But more importantly, it will be interesting whether he takes it to the next step where Abbott is really exposed. Because, without any real basis to distinguish the Coalition, but needing to nonetheless, leads to Abbott opposing for opposition’s sake and this is the real danger for Abbott. This is what is nowadays called “playing politics” and it is political death.
There are signs that Rudd is setting him up to play this card. Michelle Grattan has rightly noticed how suddenly the political debate over the last few weeks has gone very long term. She incorrectly thinks it is in the nature of the issues themselves, but actually is the way the government has carefully turned around current issues that the government has been grappling with. Rudd’s Australia Day speeches focussed on such themes as population, climate change and aging population, which in fact are simply a reposing of immigration and infrastructure, the ETS and cutting back government spending to get the budget down.
Making the debate long term has two purposes. The first is to depoliticise these contentions issues by making any unpopular government action a result of long term trends over which it has no control. However, it is also to set up Abbott by more clearly counter-posing the future to an opposition leader that in carrying out his project to find what the Liberals stand for, is either forced to look to the past or at least be a block to going forward. It is in essence the tactic Rudd used against Howard in 2007. We saw an updated, sharper version in his speech last November and there was hint of it in his press conference responding to Abbott’s climate change plan yesterday. Let’s see if it unfolds further this year.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 3 February 2010.Filed under Tactics