It’s about authority, not the policies

Sunday, 16 October 2011 

Here’s a question: what do the mining tax, the ETS, onshore processing of asylum seekers, gay marriage and poker reform all have in common?

All of them are supposed to be major tests for the government to bring in, yet all of them were supported by either the overwhelming majority of voters (e.g. poker reform) or close to majority. None of them could be remotely called unpopular. What we are seeing is not a problem of the policies themselves, but the declining authority of the government to implement them.

The media have presented last week as one of sharp contrasts between government victory on Wednesday over the carbon tax and government humiliation on Thursday over onshore processing, but in reality the same theme ran through both.

Labor’s relief on the passing of the carbon tax bills on Wednesday was partly based on the view that having moved beyond the threat of the carbon tax being introduced, to now it actually happening, it would be seen as no big deal and so ease the political pressure.

The problem with the view that the government’s political difficulties come from doing something about climate change, is that it ignores the fact that its problems really became evident eighteen months ago from the doing the exact opposite, i.e. delaying it. The slump in Rudd and Labor’s polling from the decision to delay the ETS back in April last year should have alerted Labor that they were facing a more serious problem than just implementing an unpopular policy (which indeed the ETS wasn’t).

Nevertheless, Gillard’s backers ignored the obvious when they took over, and compounded the problem by going to the election with an even more cautious approach, leading to the farcical Citizen’s Assembly and promising there would be “no carbon tax under the government I lead”. While Gillard still made noises about being for an ETS, it was obviously discounted by her refusal to bring in a carbon tax (or price) that was central to it.

The Citizen’s Assembly summed up the muddled thinking with the Labor power brokers, i.e. seeing the lack of political will and authority in the government itself as a problem of a lack of consensus in the community. That lack of authority has been now compounded by backflips and an incredibly self-indulgent internal party review at a time of minority government when they should be straining to assert their mandate, rather than wondering out loud what it is.

That lack of authority, whether because of international developments or Labor’s cack-handed response to it, has turned an issue that was previously a vote winner, like the ETS, into its opposite. Rather than the issue being the problem, Labor’s accommodation to a mis-guided view of public thinking has turned the ETS into a focal point for government dissatisfaction – and made it more unpopular anyway. That lack of authority is no more likely to disappear now the carbon tax bill is passed; if anything implementation may highlight it even more.

Seeing the problem as one of “tough decisions” and the electorate lack of support for them, rather than its own authority, is why they don’t get what Abbott is doing and why they ended up with such a debacle on Thursday. Abbott’s drumming up of a populist opposition to government policies was always more phoney than real, but it nevertheless tapped into the government’s own western Sydney insecurities about its own social base. It is tempting to believe because it makes what is essentially an internal problem of the political class, for which they have no solution, appear like an external one in the electorate, for which by flipping and changing policy, they can fool themselves they do have a solution.

It’s also why it doesn’t matter, at this stage, that Abbott’s opposition is totally incoherent. Just saying “no” to any policy is enough to highlight the government’s lack of political will to implement it. As Turnbull can easily point out, the Coalition’s climate change policy gets to the same target as the government’s, but with more expense. But merely being against a carbon tax, which the government has now made central to its policy, is enough to highlight its past incoherence on it.

The government mistake in still thinking it’s all about policy on asylum seekers, rather than its own authority, is why it cocked up so badly on Thursday. The government clearly thought that so passionate was the electorate about offshore processing (not really it seems) that forcing Abbott into a “corner” by having to oppose it would be enough to exact political damage. It was only at the eleventh hour, when the loss of Crook’s vote meant that defeat was inevitable, that it seemed to have dawned on the government that catching Abbott out as expedient was nothing compared to what was really at stake – its own weak authority.

But Abbott’s success is coming from the government’s problems, not from anything positive he is doing. Indeed, in undermining the government’s authority, some in the Coalition are well aware that he is also undermining the Coalition’s own coherence and authority in the process. Having been brought in to revive the Coalition’s brand, Abbott can’t help trashing it as well, because basically there is no social basis for it any more. That’s why there is some pushing on the side-lines for a push on IR; more to help the brand than, as Reith has admitted, because there is a major push from business for it.

Politicians first understand an unpleasant political reality as an expedient tactical necessity. Just as Howard’s small target tactic in 1996 presaged his inability to bring in any program once he got in, so Abbott’s tactics will be a forerunner of the even greater incoherence to come from the Coalition if/when they get in.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Sunday, 16 October 2011.

Filed under Tactics

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19 responses to “It’s about authority, not the policies”

  1. Roger Wegener on 16th October 2011 9:01 am

    Absolutely spot on PS.

  2. Steve Thomas on 17th October 2011 10:49 am

    Thoughtful piece but of course, it is easy to talk about “authority” having to accommodate the indies and the Greens.

    Had Labor, in its own right, made the decisions it has made then they would own them outright. The conservatives are right in this one. Labor is beholding to the indies and Greens to not only get power but to maintain it.

    The outcome, of course, is compromises all over the place.

    The Oz electorate have been used to a “winner take all” situation in elections for decades, and frankly have shown poor maturity in coming to grips with minority government at the Federal level.

    The electorate pine for “certainty” which can come from a government with “authority” hence the banshee wail from the conservatives for another election that they would likely win at this point, with a return to a government with “authority” and a safe and comfortable status quo, even if it means voting in a highly disliked and mistrusted leader of the Opposition.

    In many respects, the electorate got what it voted for. They wanted to smack Labor but could not stomach Abbott.

    Now, of course, the price is that to bring in tough legislation the government has a number of interest groups, on its own side, to satisfy, let alone the carping critics of the MSM and a policy vacuum opposition.

    It is a shame it has all come to this but the 50.9 vote to 49.1 was how it played out.

  3. Michael on 17th October 2011 10:52 am

    It’s been bleedingly obvious since he took over the Opposition Leadership that Abbott’s tactics in the wider political-impact sphere than Parliament was to frustrate, frustrate, frustrate. It may appear to be no more than saying “No, No, No”, but what at root it is is to unseat Labor’s grasp of how to be political at all.

    He IS a weathervane, he is inconsistent, he does lie, but none of that matters a jot while the electorate is so easily convinced by those tactics that he is right.

    That he is demonstrably not, that he has a vacuum to offer as an alternative government seems not to bother voters at all. He’s mouthing the frustations and envy of the ‘forgotten people’, a grouping anyone with a grievance or an itch can join, it seems.

    The only ray of light for Labor, or anyone anti-Conservative, is that Abbott’s personal standing is weak and weakening in the polls. Will this transfer to an abhorrence of putting him in the Lodge at an election, or earlier than that parliamentarians moving to replace him, who can say?

    Anyone could lead the Coalition to government ‘today’.

  4. Patricia WA on 17th October 2011 5:08 pm

    Silly argument. Government may not seem to have authority – because the media presents it as having no authority. Meantime it keeps on consistently exerting its authority to govern and to legislate, and with no effective opposition. How often have we been told in the past year the Government, Cabinet, Caucus and ALP are divided and Gillard’s leadership/authority is under challenge?

    Still the Prime Minister keeps on keeping on, and the Greens and Independents continue working with her and her ministers. However often Tony Abbott claims the contrary and whatever media promoted public perceptions about her may be it’s pretty clear that she has plenty of personal credibility and therefore authority amongst those with whom it matters.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 17th October 2011 6:51 pm

    Hang on a sec. There’s a very strange reading of recent history going here!

    Firstly Labor backed away from implementing an ETS before it became a minority government not after. It was Labor who decided to water down the mining tax and the ETS program and cave in to anti-asylum seeker panic while it was a majority government, and went into a campaign that was so shallow and empty that halfway through they had to talk about a “real” Julia.

    It was only after it became a minority government that it was forced to bring in a carbon tax, pokie reform and raise the issue of gay marriage. Far from holding Labor back, the independents and Greens have pushed Labor forward to take on issues it clearly doesn’t have the political will for. If Labor had kept government in its own right we wouldn’t have a carbon tax. We would have a Citizen’s Assembly thingy trying to raise a consensus that already existed.

    Labor was losing authority before it became a minority government, which is why in many ways it became one. As I suggested at the time, Labor has hidden behind the minority status to blame it for a lack of a program it doesn’t have, the irony is that in reality the independents have given it one. Clearly the comments suggest that it hasn’t stopped some trying that line on though!

    Finally it’s a bit much to blame the media for leadership speculation. It wasn’t the media who took the unprecedented step of dumping a first term Prime Minister. Given that they told everyone it was because they were down in the polls, it’s understandable the media now look for another change when the polling is far worse. If anything, except for the completely brilliant ABC, the media underplayed the likelihood of it happening. Shanahan looked at the quiescent caucus meeting before Rudd went and concluded it wasn’t on. Silly billy, as though it was up to them!

  6. Riccardo on 17th October 2011 8:05 pm

    TPS, looks like some other comments confuse ‘authority’ with ‘mandate’.

    Authority is one of those heavy political science ideas, that government is by consent of the governed and the Wizard of Oz needs to stay behind the curtain, looking grand and powerful. When that is lost, as it has been, we see the government (the broader idea of government not just the ALP) is just a figleaf for a political class with no purpose.

    I take this idea further than you do though. I accuse Australia itself of being a false sovereignty – one without a purpose. France is there for the French, but what is Australia for? Settlement colony? Fail. Major producer? Fail. Intellectual hub. Fail. Quarry. Pass. I think the Anglo-Celtic establishment is losing control and will have to cede in a decade or so.

    Americans have something to be proud of and patriotic for – revolution, civil war, major questions of justice and liberty. We have nothing. We’re almost like the British Virgin Islands, which I read has had the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London trying to politely shove on their way.

  7. John Kotsopoulos on 17th October 2011 9:51 pm

    The media has been derelict in its duty to provide balanced reporting on every one of the issues on which you claim the Governemnt has failed to show authority. The most bleedingly obvious recent example is the continued use of Liberal inspired hyperbole as in the so-called carbon tax.

    The same applies to asylum seekers arriving by boat. Have a look at the hysterical page ones that greet each boat arrival. I wrote to a leading Melbourne journalist pointing out that more asylums seekers arrive by plane each year than there are boat arrivals in detention. Morevover plane arrivals are far less likely to qualify for permanent residency yet despite this none are held in detention.

    His response was that it was all the Government’s fault for not managing the debate!

  8. kymbos on 18th October 2011 8:12 am

    I wonder if this period of Labor rule will, despite the mess of it they have made, end up being one of significant transformative change (NBN, ETS, pokie reform, tax reform?).

    Yay for minority government.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 18th October 2011 9:19 am

    But John, the polls say the majority of voters support onshore processing in asylum seekers – a position only held by the Greens and that discreet lobbying group, the Labor Left. If the media’s anti-refugee ranting is having an effect on anyone, it is the political class because it is so weak, precisely the point of my post.

    Kymbos, I think if this period is marking anything, it is the end of the credibility of the two major parties, whether they have a majority or not.

  10. Michael (another Michael) on 18th October 2011 2:55 pm

    Interesting post. It’s a difficult concept to except after decades of the Labour/Liberal show it might over, especially since nothing much seems to be taking it’s place. I find it interesting that even though the Greens and independents are driving the legislative agenda (one that is very mainstream) they don’t seem to be given any credit in the press for doing what neither major party seems capable of doing – representing the constituency. It seems to be already concluded that the independents will disappear and the Greens have maxed-out their support and the press is expecting a return to normal programming.

  11. Andrew Elder on 18th October 2011 8:26 pm

    How do you get this elusive authority of which you speak? You exercise it. That’s what the government did last week. The Libs have no answer to that once the ALP stop asking them for permission or using them as the benchmark for what good government is. As I’ve said elsewhere the government has exercised some authority, and will hopefully keep doing so, while the consequences of trashing their own brand falls on the Libs – with a few questions from the press gallery of course, assuming they can snap out of puppy-dog adoration in time.

  12. Dr_Tad on 18th October 2011 10:41 pm

    Gillard and co may have exercised something, but authority it wasn’t. The only thing they have going for them is how disliked Abbott is, but they barely even seem to get anything out of that. Authority comes not from its exercise but from having social weight based in a program that connects with a substantial section of the population, and the ALP has spent 30 years throwing that overboard.

    Everyone who thought last week was a good one for the government will be celebrating a victory as pyrrhic as that of the cultural Left against Andrew Bolt. It verges on delusional.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 19th October 2011 9:22 am

    Andrew, I get what you’re saying in your post about Abbott, although saying that he will never be Prime Minister seems a little too definite for me in this climate.

    But I really can’t get what you are saying about Labor. You say that having a tax summit, passing a carbon tax and finally deciding (?) on an asylum seeker policy are signs of Labor exercising authority.

    But Labor didn’t want a tax summit, Oakeshott did. Labor didn’t want to pass a carbon tax this term, the Greens and the independents did. Labor didn’t want to have onshore processing, the Coalition and the Greens didn’t want Labor’s Malaysia solution. That’s why Labor made the tax summit a formal, pointless affair and Gillard has been telling everyone who listens that they only have onshore processing because of Tony Abbott, hardly giving authority to that decision.

    As for the carbon tax, Gillard told everyone that they were only introducing a carbon tax this term because of “changed circumstances” i.e. they weren’t in control. I know some are trying to rewrite history and pretend that Gillard wanted this all along and was never about slowing the pace of climate change action, but some of us can remember all the way back to last year.

    Sure, Labor has been bringing in bills that it wants and exercising some authority over this Parliament, as you would at least hope from a party that gained most support in the last election. But last week was hardly an example of that.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 19th October 2011 9:45 am

    By the way, I detect a little slipperiness in the discussion over what this government is. This is a minority Labor government, not a coalition with the Greens and independents. You can tell because Labor going behind the Greens’ back to get an offshore deal with the Coalition, completely against what the Greens want, would hardly be possible if they were in a coalition with them.

    The distinction is important because while last week could feasibly be called a coalition government exercising authority, it could definitely not be called a minority Labor government exercising authority, since little of what happened last week was driven by it. Let’s not hide behind an illusory “coalition government” and pretend we aren’t seeing a floundering minority Labor one.

  15. Ray on 19th October 2011 1:10 pm

    It comes back to “that vision thing” doesn’t it?

    The Greens and independents are in politics for a reason – they want to do things and politics is a means to that end. Much of Labour and the Liberals are in politics as a career. To them it’s all about progression. You can’t really be authoritative when you don’t really have anything in particular that you want to do other than to be in government.

    The problem is that, while a majority of Australians are in favour of onshore processing, that majority contains a number of people who think. And the problem with that is that the “pragmatics” in the party don’t trust those people. They’re the people who check your statements, who might go looking for facts rather than digesting your media advisor’s spin, whose opinions are possibly going to change with those facts; and you can’t count on their votes long-term. The “believers” on the other hand – the people who skim issues, chat through the news until the sports comes on, might glance up and nod approvingly when a media stunt catches their eye – they’ll stay onside for years if you can capture them. And that to me is why the party has to be pushed to do what the majority wants. Because if you do something thinking people approve of, they’ll feel well-disposed towards you for a (brief) while. But when you do something the believers disapprove of, you’ll earn their long-term hatred and they won’t vote for you until they hate the other team more than they do you.

    The faction controlling the Labour party are unfortunately just a lot less interested in being being popular than they are in not being too unpopular. So why don’t they do something different? After all, Labour is historically unpopular at the moment. Because they’re careerists, not crusaders. If they aren’t associated with anything controversial they can still hope to be re-elected even if Labour loses. Who knows, they might even end up being promoted to Leader of the Opposition.

  16. James on 20th October 2011 11:47 am

    When Howard lost in 2007, some commentators pondered the destruction of the Liberals, as they held power in no state or territory. What an amazing turn-around it has been. Now it is the ALP’s whose future that must be considered, with its base at an all time low and shrinking. Sadly, the Liberals’ stunning comeback co-exists with the most dumb-downed political mindset in the nation’s history.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 20th October 2011 11:09 pm

    I don’t think the Liberals’ problems have gone away by any means. It’s just that Labor is now having troubles in comparison. Clearly, dissatisfaction with both parties is fairly widespread. I think this period, since the fall of Howard, is a major turning point for both parties.

  18. Riccardo on 28th October 2011 9:08 pm

    Have the Liberals really won at state level. O Farrell and Baillieu don’t carry on like winners. Even Barnett struggles. I suspect SA will go the same way.

    Not sure about QLd, there seems to be genuine anger with Bligh though I’m not really sure what is driving it, she is supposed to have lied at an election but struggling to find a government in my 40 years of recollection that didn’t.

  19. What Weaknesses and Strengths Does Tony Abbott’s World Affairs Journal Interview Reveal? | AusOpinion on 2nd October 2013 10:33 pm

    […] weakness. He is personally unpopular, but Ms Julia Gillard’s former government’s lack of political authority, and its strategic errors, exposed her and led to support for the ALP dropping sharply. In the week […]

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