Thursday, 19 August 2010
This election campaign has been about two dysfunctional parties trying to expose the instability of their opponent while trying to conceal their own.
Labor has run the better negative campaign and at a wild guess will probably win on Saturday. The Coalition’s main failing was its inability to take full advantage of Labor’s calamitous second week, probably one of the worst campaign moments of any Australian government seeking re-election. They especially struggled to deal properly with the ‘Rudd factor’. The best Abbott could do was a faux sympathy for Labor’s ‘brutal’ dumping of a PM, which was unconvincing and contradictory (wouldn’t voting out Australia’s likeable first female PM after only a few weeks also be ‘brutal’?)
The feeble recycling of the ‘Lemon’ ads in response to the leaks summed up the problem of the Coalition’s tactics. Coalition ads just talked about ‘more of the same’ from Gillard, so missing what was exposed by the unprecedented dumping of a first term Prime Minister. If the Coalition had made the link clear between what they saw as the chaos of government projects like the BER and the pink batts program and the chaos at the top that led to Rudd’s dumping, then the result might have been even worse, and more enduring, than the slump in polls Labor recorded at the time.
The Coalition’s slowness to respond was repeated later with the cack handed response to the government painting of Abbott as an economic risk. Abbott was caught out on the call for a debate and not taking an upfront role in the release of Coalition costings. After allowing Labor to escape its dreadful week, lousy Coalition tactics allowed Labor to successfully turn it back to the economy and stabilise their own side.
Coalition slowness in this campaign was a result of two related factors. First they were unprepared for a winnable election. The collapse of Australia’s most popular political leadership for decades surprised a Coalition that had been more demoralised and prepared for a defeat than at any time since the Liberal party was formed. This election was supposed to have been more about saving the brand than winning government. Economic credibility, usually a code for a government credibility, was put to one side for the sake of a deluded attempt to try and pretend that conservative ‘values’ had some real popular basis in society. This was neatly summed up by Abbott’s appointment of ‘cut-through’ Barnaby to the usually sensitive Finance role. His replacement by Robb was a belated recognition that with a floundering government, such indulgence was exactly that.
The one who put his finger on it was Fraser. When Mal does his bleeding heart routine, his comments are usually worth a miss. But Fraser here was speaking more as the old fashioned conservative he always was and, noting that the Coalition was ‘not ready’ for government, highlighted that they had not much reason to return to power that was based on social reality.
In fact, it suggested a second reason why the Coalition struggled to respond to what was happening in the government. With no real social basis to Abbott’s ‘values’ project outside of core Coalition voters, he instead had to base it on opposing the government’s agenda. To do this, he had to pretend the government had one. So a government, for which everything was up for review, that even on climate change was prepared to be no more radical than Howard, was meant to stand for a whole series of things they did not; taxing industry to save the environment, big spending, soft on asylum seekers, etc.
This argument seemed to be credible, especially when the basis for the government’s support, mostly the international agenda, faded away. Suddenly a Prime Minister that had no trouble signing Kyoto accords, talking about great moral challenges, apologising to indigenous people, downplaying and even burying incidents like asylum seekers setting fire to boats, and remaining hugely popular, now was supposed to be in trouble because he was too tough on climate change, too soft on boats etc. etc.
If this didn’t make much sense, at least the Labor faction leaders believed it. This was despite Rudd’s caving in to pressure on the ETS, the ‘Big Australia’, getting tough on asylum seekers, and so on, making it worse. Then it really got worse after dumping Rudd, and attacking his legacy and coming up with pathetic cop-outs like the Citizen’s Assembly, and finally succumbing to paranoia over what were fairly anodyne leaks. It was only after reconciling with Rudd and talking about precisely what he would have campaigned on anyway, the economy and the risk of Abbott, that the campaign stabilised. But in the meantime, Labor’s tactics had at least legitimised Abbott and kept this a contest.
So we had Abbott grudgingly dumping his ‘values’ agenda with his backdown on Workchoices in the first week and Labor abandoning its ‘Howard battlers’ agenda in the second week, leaving both parties another whole month to campaign on pretty well nothing. This suited Labor better because after their Howard battlers’ backdowns, they were always prepared for a trivial campaign.
What we have then, are two parties heading for election, but neither seeking a mandate to do anything. Essentially they are ignoring the whole point of an election. One of them will seem to get away with it on Saturday, but ultimately, neither will. Mandates are still important, even to the most self absorbed political party. Rudd wouldn’t have been able to last against his own party for as long as he did without it. Yet even if Labor ends up with a comfortable majority on Saturday, Gillard will struggle to claim anything from it other than she was not Tony Abbott. This will be very little to draw on if she really intends to take on the party’s bankrupt power bases, which she would need to in order to survive. If Labor doesn’t win comfortably, then all bets are off.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 19 August 2010.Filed under State of the parties