Opposing on empty

Monday, 15 March 2010 

Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party have delivered the most obstructionist Senate in thirty years.

S Conroy 10 March 2010

What, when Fraser lost control of the senate in 1980? Well no. Conroy of course means thirty-five years ago when Whitlam faced the hostile Senate that blocked Supply. Leaving aside this government’s sensitivity to being compared to Whitlam’s, it is useful for a moment to go back to that period. In 1975, the Coalition used its power in the Senate to help business slow down Whitlam’s expansion of government and ultimately to wrest power from Labor. Now we are looking at the Coalition using its powers in the Senate not on behalf of business or even winning power, but as a way of trying to define itself. The trouble is that there is no coherent agenda behind it.

This is the central flaw in the Abbott ‘experiment’. While his predecessors also struggled balancing the need of the old guard to define the party’s ‘values’ and the electoral impossibility of doing so, Abbott has brought the old guard to the fore and promised confrontation. However, the electoral difficulty of reviving a right-wing agenda has meant he is struggling to define what that opposition should be about. He is opposing on empty, and last week began to get caught out.

It is perhaps understandable that instead of honing in on this, there were those in the ALP who preferred to do the opposite, namely portray Abbott as an extreme right-winger. This may have made them feel terribly left-wing and good about themselves, but disguised Abbott’s weakness. The ACTU have been running ads using Abbott to revive the Workchoices bogeyman, but the fact that they have been running the ads on sites such as Crikey only shows that this more about internal jostling than actually attracting votes in the electorate. Certainly making scare campaigns about the next government is more convenient than thinking about the disappointments of this one.

But the fact is that there is no way that, even on the remote possibility of Abbott getting elected, he will be able to bring in a recognisably right-wing program – for the simple reason that nobody, except certain sections of the Liberal party, have any need for it. Least of all big business, which, for example, were perfectly content with industrial relations even before Howard started fiddling with it. Now that Labor has effectively reconciled the union movement to an industrial relations scene pretty well how Howard left it, they can’t be any less satisfied.

The confusion over Abbott’s agenda is summed up by the Old Man himself, who in an interview in The Australian, complains that Rudd has brought in no major reforms in the first two years. This is a bizarre complaint from someone who has just been in power for eleven and a half years. What exactly does Howard think needs sorting out? Presumably Howard did everything that needed to be done and left everything tickety-boo. A long-standing Prime Minister should be complaining about any major reforms being done after he has gone, not demanding them.

What a giveaway. This idea of reform for the sake of it, sums up the hollowness that was at the centre of Howard’s government, who spent most of it desperately trying to look busy and summon up crises from thin air so he could solve them. It was also why at the end of his government even the little that it was about had to be wound up, and we saw retreats on WorkChoices, a proposed ETS and some politically correct blathering about an indigenous preamble in the constitution, none of which Abbott, or Howard himself, wishes to remember. If Howard couldn’t sustain a distinctive agenda in the run up to the 2007 election, why should Abbott after 2010?

That Abbott’s core weakness is not his right-wing agenda but the lack of it, was why he started to run into problems last week not from a right-wing proposal, but one normally associated with the left, his plans for paid maternity leave. That someone who considers himself such an attack dog for business that he was prepared to publicly impugn the motives of the terminally ill on their behalf, will now suddenly turn around and force big business not only to pay generous maternity pay for their own staff, but for everyone else’s as well (including the government’s), clearly defies credibility. On top of that, it went against what is recognisable as a right-wing agenda and had the party wondering even more what this populism malarkey was about.

But it also allowed the government to finally score a victory against Abbott. On Tuesday Abbott was saying that it would mean that he would probably be opposing the government’s PPL plan. The government seized on the incoherence of Abbott’s position on Wednesday to wheel out Ministers highlighting the obstructions in the Senate. By Thursday, Abbott had to back down and say he would be supporting them after all. Abbott had been caught out acting as an ordinary opportunist politician playing empty political games instead of the ordinary straight-shooter he is trying to project. It will be interesting to see whether the government sticks to the ‘Whinging Tony’ theme, because it goes to the heart of Abbott’s problem.

The government is honing in now on Abbott’s weakness, but given the way it still can’t tie up the insulation fiasco, it still has weaknesses of its own. Last week also saw the start of the international strategy it has needed since Copenhagen. SBY’s visit allowed Rudd to continue to internationalise the border control issue so forcing Abbott to respond with the unusual tactic of criticising government policy while addressing SBY in Parliament (a breach of protocol for which Rudd paid him back handsomely by dragging SBY through the assembled Liberals to introduce him to Turnbull with whom they spoke in front of annoyed Liberals for what seemed like an age). Rudd desperately needs the Obama visit this month and the possibility he might not come is not good news. Rudd may appear relaxed on whether he comes or not, but it is a safe bet that the Lodge will be working overtime to make it happen.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 15 March 2010.

Filed under Tactics

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4 responses to “Opposing on empty”

  1. David Pethick on 15th March 2010 8:10 pm

    I’m fascinated with the nature of the contest that’s taking place at the moment.

    If we were to measure their relative popularity on a “strongly dislike (-2)” to “strongly like (+2)” scale, I feel that

    *Rudd would today have a lot more -2 scores than his +2, reflecting the downside of trying to be everything to everybody.
    * He must obviously still have a huge block of +1’s though.

    By comparison,
    * Abbott would probably have a lot of +2’s (from his base) and then a big cluster of 0’s or -1’s.
    * The passionate feminist vote (-2) is probably a lot smaller than it’s media representation!

    So – can Abbott continue to define himself, to the point that those 0’s become +1’s? If the PM continues to try positioning himself as a poor man’s Jeff Kennett then some of his +1’s become 0’s very quickly, and then we have a contest.

    If the preferred PM gap narrows to 10 points, this is going to be a policy driven election. From there, the Libs do have a shot on their financial management credentials.

    Watch Rudd – can he get his mojo back? If we get harmless, safe, friendly Kevin07 back then he’s a shoe-in.

    Just some random thoughts…


  2. Graeme on 17th March 2010 8:34 pm

    Mr Pethick. It’s true that Rudd’s bullying tone is a sad response to Abbott’s He-Man gameplaying.

    But to say Rudd is widely disliked is absurd: what really has changed in the last few months to turn Rudd’s huge ‘+1s’ into ‘-2s’ (to borrow your metric)? What Rudd has lost is lots of conservatives who thought he was a nice, intelligent, well groomed sort of Labor leader. They’ve mostly reverted to type, in plumping for the leader of the brand they were always going to vote for come election day.

    Contrary to your assumption that only some hard core feminists are set against Abbott, Abbott has years of baggage that offends secular liberals, the unionised, libertarians and many more. Abbott is getting good marks for being a canny ‘opposition’ leader: but unlike Latham (who was just as canny, just ask Mr Duffy) Abbott can’t even crack a third of the population wanting him as PM.

  3. Riccardo on 18th March 2010 10:42 pm


    Agree 200%. The high marks Rudd was getting in the polls must have come from some of the Liberal base (not just the swingers) wandering over the the safe and comfortable Rudd, and the unexpectedly anti-union, anti trendy-left Gillard.

    As you said, they were never likely to vote for them in an election – except if their own L-NP party was unelectable, with they were with the constant fighting and Turnbull turning off much of the ideological base.

    Now they have their ‘sort’ of leader back, the base has returned, and we’re back to 52:48 again and the government returned with the same margin.

  4. David Pethick on 20th March 2010 9:14 am

    The commentary seems to back up what I am saying, but like I said I would love to see some polling.

    Graeme – the big shift for Rudd (+1 to -2) has come about through the media coverage that has painted Rudd as “all talk, no action”. Women in particular seem to have taken a dislike to Rudd for the tone he takes when talking down to people (e.g. state premiers). I think there is a growing perception that he may be a bit of a bully-boy. A lot of it is not fair, but that is what I am hearing when I talk to people about their views of Rudd.

    My thoughts at the moment are…
    1) Who *loves* Rudd? Quite a few already hate him, whereas the vast majority are ambivilent and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
    2) Abbott has got his base already locked away. I think we’re agreed on that. Rudd/Gillard locks up the Labor base. As with all elections, we’re talking about the middle 20.
    3) I’d characterise the large drop in Labor support in SA for Rann as an example of what could befall Rudd. That is going to be the story this coming week, particularly if Rudd gets hammered in the health debate on Tuesday.
    4) The difference in the federal sphere is that Abbott is a well known politician who has captured the public’s interest. He’ll continue to cover off some of the problems in his past (he’s pretty good at the twisting backflip with double pike) and will create some problems for Rudd who will appear evasive on the same questions.

    Rudd should go sooner rather than later – he gets returned today with an increased majority if he takes a reformist zeal into the election. Waiting and allowing Abbott to build credibility is a mistake – he will win the election but won’t survive the subsequent Gillard ambush.

    Dave P.

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