After July

Monday, 25 June 2012 

In September last year, Essential Research carried out a poll asking voters whether they supported the government’s plan to introduce a carbon pricing scheme on 1 July this year. Given the government’s deep unpopularity, the answer is as you would expect, they were against it (48% against, 35% for).

They were then asked, “Would you support or oppose this carbon pricing scheme if the money paid by big polluting industries was used to compensate low and middle income earners for increased prices and to invest in renewable energy?” Given the electorate generally supports doing something about climate change, the answer was again as would be expected – a strong level of support (50% for, 37% against).

The fact that numbers were switched around for what was basically the same thing could be taken two ways. Either there has been a disinformation campaign by the media and the Coalition of Goebbels-like proportions which has fooled the electorate – or that this government could propose Christmas and the voters would be against it.

In reality it’s a bit of both. The trouble with arguing this is merely an extremely successful disinformation campaign that will be cleared up from 1 July is that it forgets that this government was facing popularity problems even before the carbon-pricing scheme was announced. In fact, the government has gone out of its way to avoid unpopular decisions that has only been matched by how little of it actually helps its popularity. Even on what should have been widely regarded as a policy success, the handling of the GFC, it gets no credit.

This government has an authority problem, not a policy problem. It comes out as getting the blame for anything that goes wrong and no credit for anything that goes right. It is not a result of the minority government, it was evident during the last months of Rudd, compounded by his dumping, then again by Labor’s feeble 2010 campaign and only capped off by the way it has handled its minority status. That after 1 July, Labor’s problems will disappear is something that even the Parliamentary Party suspects won’t happen. It is not acting as though we are days from its burden being lifted.

Yet there is one other reason to suspect that the opposition to the government’s scheme has more to do with the standing of the government than the effectiveness of the anti-carbon tax campaign – the lousy credibility and popularity of the man who has been leading it.

One of the difficulties for those still seeing the two-party system intact is that the only way to explain Labor’s unpopularity is through the success of its immediate alternative. This throws up the problem of what to do about the striking unpopularity of Tony Abbott.

The usual tactic by the right-wing cultural bores like Miranda Devine is to simply ignore it and instead point to the few times he manages to be preferred over our deeply unpopular Prime Minster.

But even those with less of a political axe to grind are struggling with it. The Australian’s Paul Kelly who tends to see the two-party system as a never-ending narrative as grand as himself, sees Abbott as the most “effective opposition leader in decades” who has “exploited the natural instincts of the public”.

But it is precisely his detachment from the natural instincts of the public that is Abbott’s problem. While Kelly thinks his negativity has been a problem, right from the very beginning Abbott’s unpopularity has been about the opposite – that despite all the back-flips and ducking and weaving, there is a suspicion that Abbott is a right-wing political animal and has an agenda – and the public don’t like it.

As the NSW and Queensland governments are starting to discover, being the party of default against a defunct ALP is one thing, going in and imposing an agenda of their own is something else entirely. If Kelly’s claim is true that Abbott will be campaigning on “values” at the next election, it must be the best news Labor has heard for some time – if not for the fact that Gillard will be banging on about hers as well.

For what will happen after the carbon scheme is implemented, historical parallels are sometimes useful but not the one people usually give, Howard’s introduction of the GST in 2000.

Funnily enough, no one wants to talk about the much better, and more recent, example of a government policy that sparked an opposition scare campaign when it was proposed but that faded after it was implemented, leading to the opposition leader being dumped and the campaign wound down.

That policy was of course, Workchoices. When Howard announced it in 2005, the unions immediately launched a nation-wide campaign. Industrial relations moved from being a minor to a middling issue and initially Labor received some benefit. It didn’t do much for Beazley though, and as the union’s anti-Workchoices campaign got underway in 2005, his own rating sank to the level of Abbott’s today.

When Workchoices actually took effect in March 2006, even the benefit to Labor started to fade and Beazley was finished. One reason may have been that Workchoices did not shake up the IR landscape as the unions and Beazley had predicted. Even by the closing months of the Howard government, as Gillard admitted, it only covered about 5% of contracts.

While being associated with the unions’ Workchoices may not have done much for him with the electorate, it did solve some problems for Beazley. It made it possible to keep Labor’s “brand” and in with the party’s power brokers while still making it seem electorally relevant. When Rudd took over, as Beazley noted in Van Onselen’s book Howard’s End, Rudd kept the campaign but made it more about Howard’s empty “extremism” than a threat to the “movement” – in line with Rudd’s view on the union movement more generally.

Abbott’s opposition to the carbon tax played much the same role. It has been forgotten now, but the opposition to the ETS was not an electoral ploy but a desperate attempt to save the Coalition’s brand. In reality, the election of Abbott was a sign that the Liberals were prepared to do the unthinkable – forfeit the next election. What saved them was that it coincided with Labor’s implosion, partly, ironically, helped along by the Coalition’s reviving of its brand, spooking Labor about its own base, culminating in the take-over by the “Lindsay test” crowd and Gillard telling us it was game back on.

It’s not of course – and Labor’s periodic leadership speculation and the inability to put down Rudd is a sign of that on their side. On the Coalition’s side, despite rumblings, the anti-carbon campaign and Labor’s political ineptitude has enabled Abbott to balance the brand and electoral viability reasonably well and conceal the reality, even if it still comes through in his own unpopularity. But from 1 July one of those props will start to fade. The press has a sense that for Labor nothing will change, but that for the Coalition something will get a bit harder. They may be right. But not because they will be exposed as exaggerating to the electorate – that assumes they had credibility in the first place – but because a balancing act will become that much harder.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 25 June 2012.

Filed under State of the parties

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6 responses to “After July”

  1. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 25th June 2012 11:43 pm

    All too true: the race to the bottom shall continue apace – all that’ll happen after 1 July is that the Coalition’s descent will speed up considerably. Another reason to suspect that the next election will closer than the polls let on – not because the government stages some sort of ‘fight back’, but because the choice is so poor. (And to think we could have endure a campaign *worse* than 2010!) Or, to put it another way, if you think this government is craven, incoherent and incompetent, just wait until an Abbott government.

  2. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 25th June 2012 11:48 pm

    I should add another reason why the GST analogy is a bad one. Post-introduction, the GST’s effect on prices barely registered – in the public mind, that is. (Why else did “rollback” fall flat?) The focus shifted to the attendant bureaucracy – cue all those piss-poor ‘BAS relief’ puns masquerading as headlines. All those small business people and tradies struggling with the paperwork that comes with being conscripted into tax collection. (I seem to remember a whole Kath & Kim episode about it.) There’s no equivalent under the carbon tax.

  3. Riccardo on 26th June 2012 8:43 pm

    Well the parallel this time round is electricity bills. Both sides know it is a big fib and that you read the price regulator reports it is all about recovering dividends ripped out of publically owned producers, spending up. Some say overspending on wires, replacements for power stations that are long overdue.

    Most of this due to ALP govts, and i’m not trying to be partisan, they were all in for a long time, but they put off decisions due to capital aversion and envrinomemtal campaigns or NIMBYs.

    So the thing people whinge about, the cost of utilities, stoked by Abbott, not efectively countered by Gillard. In terms of regression to the mean, hard for Australia to have relatively low priced electricity for ever with rising demand for energy, labour and credit.

    Complaining about he cost of living worked for Howard, then Rudd and now Abbott. Easy pickings when the government has no credibility.

    Looking forward to TPS post on the media. I dont like Gerard henderson but do share his disgust at journos in nappies who clearly dont know anything before about 1995.

    We will survive Gina just like we survived her father. Rupert is no way as bad as Keith or Frank and if people think Fairfax equals left wing they clearly didnt know the family. The partisan press used to be the norm. Not saying I want it back but keep things in perspective. Gina’s denialism had nothing on old Lang, who wanted to shoot Aborigines and go round nuking thingsvand whatnot.

    If Gina and Clive do set up another Hansonite party it will cause trouble for he Libs, as these things always do. This time it will b in WA and may involve successionism which could kill Abbott.

  4. Michael (the other one who occasionally comments here) on 26th June 2012 9:44 pm

    Not so sure that “Complaining about the cost of living worked for Howard, then Rudd and now Abbott”. Isn’t the real lesson of the last few years that such whingeing delivers ever-decreasing electoral returns?

  5. James on 28th June 2012 12:18 pm

    Shrike, do you think the Coalition will ditch Abbott before the next election?

  6. The Piping Shrike on 28th June 2012 5:16 pm

    Very much depends what happens on Labor’s side as both Gillard and Abbott are so dependent on each other. If Gillard goes, so will Abbott. But I think Abbott will struggle even with just a narrowing of the polling gap.

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