They can’t avoid democracy

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

Tags: , , ,


29 responses to “They can’t avoid democracy”

  1. codger on 20th August 2010 2:09 am

    ‘all bets are off.’ & I would add regardless.

    agreed & for the forseeable future. scary.

  2. Al on 20th August 2010 8:55 am

    You’re saying that if she scrapes in, there’s no ruling out the ‘faceless men’ won’t do it again on her ? I don’t think so … that would surely make labor unelectable to many for many years to come. Getting rid of Australia’s first elected female PM would lose a lot of the female vote .. too risky.

    I think you’re right that Rudd would have won this one as PM (essentially on handling of the GFC).

    I can’t see them losing Saturday. Maybe it WILL be a cliffhanger of a result, but it seems to me labor has wanted to paint it tight all along, to get the disenchanted / protest voters to NOT desert them at crunch time. The thought of Abbott as PM / the Liberals back in office so soon, will be too scary /too much of a wake up call in the end, I reckon.

    Could be more comfortable than we thought …

  3. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2010 9:23 am

    No, I’m not arguing that. There is a tension between Gillard and the party bosses which would have to be resolved.

    If Gillard wins comfortably, then both sides will feel vindicated but Gillard will claim it was the ‘real’ Julia wot won it and be in a stronger position. Anything else, and both sides will be compromised, and I reckon we have a mess.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2010 9:54 am

    I have to say that Labor’s last minute tactic of treating a vote for Abbott as a protest vote is a mistake. It’s not. They have under-estimated how much he has been rehabilitated.

  5. James on 20th August 2010 10:28 am

    Get rid of election mandates and it’s easier for the media to fill the hole. I suspect that’s been News Limited’s agenda all along.

    I agree with you that Labor has been spooked but it was News Limited that set this up with pack hunting members of other media stables jumping on board.

    I think it’s very easy for powerful media companies to control political agendas: they control the news cycles and run the polling and it all just seems so self serving to me. No wonder political parties get spooked.

    Then the media has the nerve to present themselves as passive recipients during the campaign. If people complain about the quality of politics in this country then a lot of the blame has to be attributed to the make-up of the media and how it operates.

    It’s very hard for any politician to cut through the media’s agendas. Keating was an exception and look what ultimately happened to him – Channel Nine became the Coalition’s PR company with News Limited cheering them on and he lost in a landslide that only strengthened the media’s position.

  6. Cavitation on 20th August 2010 11:30 am

    You have to wonder if this is a good election to lose. I heartily agree with Shrike’s analysis of this election. Labor have clearly done badly in picking their strategy, led by some panicked and probably self-interested faction leaders. The coalition is off partying with the pixies, trying to apply discredited neo-conservative policies imported from US Republicans, which are inappropriate for Australia in any case.

    The world, over the next couple of years, is probably in for a rocky patch. Incumbency is going to be a curse. So I am not sure who to place my sympathy with – the winners or the losers from tomorrow’s election. Both sides of politics are clearly unprepared for the challenges ahead, I suspect.

  7. MassiveSpray on 20th August 2010 11:32 am


    I totally agree with you.
    For the past 3 years News Ltd has been doing everything is possibly can to cast a bad light on the government…all you have to do is look at the Oz’s continuing slamming of the BER in complete contradiction to the results of the report.
    Anyone also remember Abbott’s cosy meeting with Rupert the day after he became leader? I reckon he was given the green light to go nuts as Rupert would cover his back.

  8. Checkmate on 20th August 2010 11:42 am

    “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.”

    Don’t agree. The Coalition’s main weakness is Abbott himself. Abbott is highly toxic to a very large section of the community. He has simply alienated too many people over the years, including within his own side of politics, and just has waaaaaay too much baggage to genuinely rehabilitate himself in such a short time and suddenly become Mr Moderate.

    This election is mainly about the style & philosophy of the leaders, not the policies. Though the NBN is certainly a fairly major factor.

    If Labor win (and I think they will) it will be largely because Abbott is just too repulsive to a sufficiently large section of the electorate.

    Now if Turnbull had still been leader…

  9. dedalus on 20th August 2010 2:17 pm

    Just as the world is complex, so too are elections. They operate on various levels. Here are a few.

    Run a scoreboard. Side A spends X dollars on policy Y, side B spends Z dollars. Side A promises this, side B promises that. Ditto with scrapping this, scrapping that. Etc. Add the scores up. Voters who do this sort of thing will probably lean toward Labor.

    Then there are the personality-type levels, the campaign add levels, the demographic issue levels (gay marriage being a classic this time).

    There’s the young bogan male issue (aka boat people metaphor for islamaphobia issue).

    But above all else, there’s the mainstream media manipulation issue.

    Question. Will the demise of print and tv media lead one day to a better outcome in this regard? That’s an answer to be supplied by future political campaigns. I live in hope.

  10. adamite on 20th August 2010 5:33 pm

    The whole idea of a ‘mandate’ to govern was trashed by Howard. Who could forget Howard’s famous multi-dimensional mandate encapsulated in the cynical distinction between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ promises.

    Like his mentor, Abbot will follow the Howard model – hence his strategy of keeping as low a profile as possible, carefully phrasing his responses to media questions, allowing him to define the ‘people’s mandate’ in his own terms once in office.

  11. Al. on 20th August 2010 5:58 pm

    Laurie Oakes: ‘Are you a weather-vane, Mr.Abbott ?

    Abbott: ‘The, uh answer to that one, uhm, Laurie, is, uh, .. blowing in the wind ?’

    Tony Jones: Mr. Abbott, last week you argued that white is black, now this week you say black is white. Further, prior to becoming PM, you said work choices is dead / would not be re-introduced in your first term, and now ….

    Abbott: ‘Yes, completely true Tony, …. and the point is ‘ …………

  12. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2010 6:25 pm

    Checkmate, definitely think Abbott was a problem for the Liberals (and the reasons why he was put there) but on the campaign the Libs main failure was their inability to exploit the second week and let Labor recover.

    Dedalus, definitely think this is a political problem than a media bias one. If anything, media influence is declining along with the political class.

  13. john on 20th August 2010 6:45 pm

    Media influence is declining among the people. but it seems alive and well amongst the apparatchiks.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2010 6:48 pm

    Very much so. More than ever, in fact.

  15. john on 20th August 2010 7:36 pm

    Maybe if it had less effect, we’d be seeing a proper contest between a social democrat and a classical liberal, but style trumps substance anyday.

  16. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2010 7:44 pm

    Personally, I doubt it. Because the reason the media is having such an effect on the political class is because there is no real basis for social democracy or classical liberalism.

  17. ewe2 on 20th August 2010 9:46 pm

    This election has cemented a six-month seachange in my media habits. I’ve stopped watching Insiders, left 7.30Reportland and the TV has been mostly off except for the footy. Instead I read a variety of political blogs and refer to the mainstream news cycle maybe once every four days or so (I find there’s no point in chasing any story unless it survives the four-day test). I’m probably atypical for my age, but I suspect that’s going to typify the younger generation’s habits also. Thus the legitimacy of the mainstream media has further eroded by their own hand, leaving journalists stranded like the Twelve Apostles. And about time.

  18. Mr Denmore on 20th August 2010 10:16 pm

    For me, the most interesting story of the election is the implosion of the media, which has finally been found out and found wanting.

    Everyone now knows how the game is played and has largely switched off, except of course for the spin doctors at the heart of the machine who have too much invested in the process to question its reason for existence.

    Where this goes next will be fascinating to watch. In the meantime, as evident in watching the Gruen Nation, we seem to be stuck in a state of lazy cynicism – sniggering at the inanity of it all, but failing to reflect on the tragedy of our inability to do anything about it.

  19. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2010 11:04 pm

    There has almost been an underlying struggle by the media to extract themselves from the mess of the major parties. Latham was the last straw.

  20. john on 20th August 2010 11:11 pm

    So who do you call it for, Shrike? Lab, Lib or hung parliament?

  21. The Piping Shrike on 20th August 2010 11:12 pm

    Well I did think Labor in the post above, but I’m getting less certain …

  22. john Willoughby on 21st August 2010 12:11 am

    just what we need
    in the current climate
    a weather vane
    with a cuckold rooster

  23. Tezza on 21st August 2010 8:12 am

    I think Mike Carlton has summed it up in today’s Herald:
    What short memories we have.

    THE prospect of Abbott in The Lodge is grim enough but the circus he would install on his front bench is truly terrifying. I have compiled a short form guide, in no particular order:

    Deputy Prime Minister, the National Party’s Warren Truss. Who?

    Deputy Liberal leader and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop. Beautifully groomed, famed for her “death stare”. But, like Lord Downer before her, would need help using the atlas at Foreign Affairs.

    Senator Eric Abetz. Der Fuehrer der Liberal Partei in dem Senat, und der dummkopf aus Tasmanien, die uns die Godwin Grech Affaere brachte. Gott helfe uns.

    Senator Barnaby Joyce. Babbling hayseed bean counter from redneck Queensland, liable to confuse millions, billions and trillions. Spooked by fear of Chinese. Riverview old boy, like Abbott himself: “I talk to Tony all the time. And we have a very constructive relationship, and a very open relationship. Sounds like it. And not a sexual relationship.” – ABC Radio National Breakfast, February 2009.

    Kevin Andrews. Yes, incredibly, he’s still around. Barbered dolt. Fierce opponent of stem cell research, a woman’s right to abortion, and all that stuff. Botched the introduction of Work Choices so badly it had to be handed to Joe Hockey. Became a laughing stock with his Inspector Clouseau antics in the Mohamed Haneef affair.

    Joe Hockey. What’s a nice guy like him doing in a place like this?

    Andrew Robb. Tired old party hack, cynical pragmatist with a talent for hyperbole and confected outrage but little else.

    Christopher Pyne. Once accurately described by Julia Gillard as a “mincing poodle”. Lightweight fop in the Adelaide manner, but wins a point for his ill-concealed loathing of his fellow South Australian Liberal Cory Bernardi.

    Senator Cory Bernardi. Former champion rower, may have been whacked on the head by an oar once too often. Believes climate change is a socialist plot and wants to ban the burqa because “it is now emerging as the preferred disguise of bandits and ne’er-do-wells”. Despises Pyne in return.

    Malcolm Turnbull. Brooding Point Piper plutocrat and cat lover. A devout believer in his own second coming and will do his level best to engineer it.

    The thought of this lot in power for three years chills the blood.

  24. The Piping Shrike on 21st August 2010 9:02 am

    That there was a chance it should ever come to this …

  25. dedalus on 21st August 2010 11:20 am

    The only objective predictor is the consensus between the various polls, weighted for recency. Our own partisan opinions mean absolutely nothing. Therefore I predict a narrow ALP win.

    On the question of media influence, arguing against media bias and influence on voter intention from certain sections of the media (Daily Telegraph being the obvious example) seems to me bizarre, not to say counter-intuitive.

  26. brute bernard on 21st August 2010 2:48 pm

    Good point, and you can add names to the list. Ruddock, Bishop, he’s Bron’s love child, remember, so is it nepotism we’re talking about here?

  27. Al. on 22nd August 2010 1:48 am

    Hung parliament, at least for the time being.

    Believable, but unbelievable.

    I thought they’d built up an incredible amount of good will just a year or so back, with all the money being splashed around …

    The dumping of Rudd, was surely counter-productive.

    Regardless, I also have to think, that had they kept Turnbull, they would have skated home comfortably.

  28. Riccardo on 23rd August 2010 8:22 am

    There’s no doubt there’s media bias. The question is why? Sure, the ‘supply side’ is moguls who want to make a quid and want compliant governments, especially right wingers.

    But the ‘demand side’?

    Plenty of “Green Left” or “Direct Action” type rags for sale on street corners for those who want.

    The real let down is Fairfax, a lifestyle magazine with a ‘news’ supplement attached.

  29. Riccardo on 23rd August 2010 8:26 am

    Open any Fairfax rag or website, more likely to get a story on Miranda Kerr, how to build your own pergola, fashionable resorts in the Indian Ocean rebuilding after the Tsunami, oh and by the way Labor sux, the Libs are worse, the Greens sound good (but will they let us build that pergola or go to the Indian Ocean resorts?)

Comments are closed.