Lame duck

Thursday, 31 January 2013 

The bewilderment of most of the press gallery to Gillard’s setting of an election date eight months ahead is a sure sign that it’s probably being done mostly for internal reasons – something the press gallery is often curiously blind to.

Gillard claims it is to clear the air of an election and allow the government to govern but, of course, it does the exact opposite. As the press correctly notes, it puts us into an eight month long election campaign or, more accurately, formalises the three year campaign we are already in. In doing so, it locks the Labor party behind her in campaign mode. The slight sense of siege mentality in the leadership was reinforced by the way that she told so few even in the Cabinet about it – except for seeking the advice of that astute political strategist, Wayne Swan.

But at a guess, as an electoral strategy it is probably a bad idea. Presumably the electoral rationale was that it would give time for Abbott to expose himself and, as dutifully parroted by Swan last night, an opposition that has no costed policies. But then, as shown by Swan last night, neither really does the government. Both he and Wong hid behind the May Budget Statement for not giving any details last night, but as both interviewers tried to explain, it was not details they were after. There was no clear government strategy or message in the run up to the Budget either, other than a crisis management that would be done the “Labor way”. What would Labor have done if there weren’t economic difficulties? Who can tell?

If Labor wants a detailed, year long debate on policies, what exactly would it be on? For a start there is the problem that Labor has adopted a lot of the Coalition’s platform already. There are certainly debates to be had on welfare-to-work, offshore processing and the war in Afghanistan, but that won’t happen between the parties. What is the economic debate at the moment? Not a clue.

Labor could always campaign on the carbon tax, which would be a refreshing change, since it hasn’t yet. Having made clear she was forced by the Greens to bring it in, Gillard hardly stumped the country last year promoting it, preferring instead to let Abbott do the leg-work and wait for his ludicrous claims to come to nought. One suspects that Sussex St is not exactly suggesting she goes around western Sydney pushing it this time, any more than they did the last.

No, clearly the main “issue” that Labor will be campaigning on is Abbott, just as they did in 2010. But Labor’s view on Abbott comes more from their own insecurities than the reality. It was why Abbott campaigned better than everyone expected last time and presumably will do so again. There are no doubt others who are capable of providing “Katerrisms” through the next months to the embarrassment of the Liberals, much as conservative Republicans did in the US election. But Gillard is not in the same position as Obama to take advantage of them.

It is the paradox of an extraordinarily long election campaign in inverse proportion to an extraordinary light agenda to fill it that goes to the heart of Gillard’s problem and the real reason why this may be a bad move. Since Gillard took over she has had a problem of incumbency. This is not so much a problem of Gillard (although claiming she would rather listen to kids read than attend a NATO meeting on Afghanistan or sprawling around sofas for the Women’s Weekly or claiming to be a victim of sexism hardly helped).

Gillard’s real problem of incumbency is that having being put in the leadership for internal reasons the power brokers who backed her had no agenda to give her – except some half-backed ideas on a Citizens Assembly and East Timor processing centre. Gillard rushed to an election last time to fill the gap. She can’t do that now, so has announced one early for much the same reason.

But last time she entered the campaign ahead in the polls (although it had mostly gone by the first week before the leaks). This time she starts way behind. Given the expectations of an Abbott win, her early announcement of an election will less focus attention on the governing by this one, but by the new one to come in September. Just as in the US, there is the inevitable malaise in the second half of the second term as power drains away and attention turns to the next Administration, so it is likely to happen here.

The difference is that in Australia, a Prime Minister facing even the most inevitable of defeats still holds to the end one power of incumbency – deciding when it will happen. Now even that has been thrown away.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 31 January 2013.

Filed under State of the parties, Tactics

Tags: , , ,


18 responses to “Lame duck”

  1. Monica on 31st January 2013 1:42 pm

    Usually with Gillard the rationale for any of her actions is not for the benefit of the electorate. It will be to keep her in the job.

    It most probably will also be to
    1. thwart Rudd,
    2. manage the Slipper fiasco (in case he is found guilty and has to leave Parliament)
    3. manage Craig Thompson issue ( he has been arrested today)
    With either of the last 2, it is possible that the Parliament could be brought down.
    However, I still do not understand how setting a date almost 8 months away gives her and the ALP any benefit.

  2. Andrew Elder on 31st January 2013 6:40 pm

    I respectfully disagree.

    You know as well as I do that the press/MSM would have spent most of this year speculating on when the election might be, which would have the same effect in taking up space, spoiling the whole effect etc. that blue-green algae has on a watercourse. The idea that the election campaign only starts when the writs are issued goes against a generation of media custom-and-practice.

    The idea that the government is simply battening down the hatches in the face of unpredictable economic circumstances is also questionable. The government has policies such as the NDIS and the changes to education expenditure (both in amount and in terms of the incentives it targets) that might usefully be grouped under the rubric ‘Gonski’.

    The lesson that the Gillard govt has learned from the fate of Qld Labor is that the relationship between revenue and expenditure matters, and can’t be skated over because the expendiure is so important. This doesn’t mean that the election campaign is going to become a feast for aficionados of fine accounting, any more than any election is, which may explain why they didn’t campaign on the carbon tax per se (especially as it is an interim measure for an ETS).

    I think you’re assuming that nothing has changed since 2010. With Abbott, that may be a fair call. With Gillard, it isn’t. Clearly, she’s ramped up on foreign policy, and while she has a way to go it’s not true that she can’t be arsed and has let opportunity after opportunity pass her by. This is true of other policy areas as well.

    It is true, however, that the Coalition have learned nothing about foreign policy since 2007. The very idea that Alexander Downer’s shoes can’t be filled would be ludicrous were it not absolutely true. This too is true of other policy areas as well.

    The idea that election timing is crucially important hasn’t been true since 1983, and even then the best-laid plans backfired against the Fraser government. At the very next election, Hawke blew his advantage of incumbency by a strategic mis-step. In 1998 Howard made almost the same mistake. The idea that election timing even counts for much is, frankly, bullshit.

    Election timing has occupied a powerful place in the Labor mind because Menzies used it to such great effect. Having been re-elected on slight margins in 1951 and 1954, Menzies could not resist the ALP meltdown of 1955. By 1961 he’d lost that advantage, but when circumstances presented themselves in 1963 he took the chance and won again. This is the source of the idea that election timing is some precious jewel not to be given lightly.

    In the first week of the 2010 election Abbott’s election-winning momentum stopped dead because he could not articulate a post-WorkChoices Coalition workplace relations policy. Because he and his team are morons, they still haven’t addressed that vulnerability. The weaknesses of the Coalition are the same as those under Howard: workplace relations and, broadly, “the future” (e.g., education, engagement with Asia, ICT).

    The weaknesses of Labor in 2010 is that they talked a good game but delivered little. Those weaknesses aren’t gone but they have been addressed.

    The best comparison for the 2013 election is the election of 1980: an unloved incumbent defined by the means of ascent to office keeps it together against a challenger who hasn’t got what it takes and can’t go beyond platitudes lest he displease somebody.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 31st January 2013 10:14 pm

    Thanks for your considered comment.

    I’m not making a big deal on election timing one way or the other, other than being an advantage that Gillard has thrown away. The more important point is not when it is, but what the government will run on when it happens.

    Here I certainly do not think things are the same as 2010. They have got much worse for Labor. It is this that makes her announcement on election timing effectively turning her into a lame duck Prime Minister.

    Let’s leave aside the obvious point that they are being led by a far less popular leader than 2010, and let’s look at the issues.

    On the economy, Labor had a problem in selling its handling of GFC in 2010 given what was implied by the dumping of the Prime Minister who oversaw it. That implication has now become explicit. If Labor seriously thinks it can run on its handling of the GFC again, like Crean did on 3AW this morning, then all the Libs have to do is run ads from Gillard’s press conference in Adelaide this time last year when she described the dysfunctionality at the heart of the Rudd government at the time – in what was an extraordinarily self-absorbed act of political self-harm.

    Or, perhaps on that other issue of Gillard’s in 2010 and one of the government’s main “achievements” this term, asylum seekers. Labor has now fully endorsed Howard’s policy and is desperately trying to make it work, which ironically, on its own it does not. But it doesn’t matter for the Coalition, they now have Labor’s endorsement and can present themselves as the only that can deliver it.

    Then there’s climate change, another major government achievement this term. You’re right it is only at the first stage ahead of the ETS, surely one of the most important programs of the next term with a major lasting impact on the national economy. Will Labor campaign on it? Of course not. The whole DNA of this government was to downplay and slow it down as too politically tricky (a view likely to be reinforced by its experience this term). That’s why in the Press Club speech on the “issues” Gillard gave it one line.

    Gillard’s incumbency problem has come from a lack of agenda. Of course the Coalition doesn’t have one either, but it means there is no basis to claw back from a long standing deficit in the polls, like Keating did against Hewson 20 years ago. It also means that the Coalition will win by default, something they will obviously delude themselves is not true. But barring a major disruption in the parties, we will have to wait till after September to find that out.

  4. Peter on 31st January 2013 11:01 pm

    I disagree with this perspective.

    People never take the time to actually listen and read media releases, and statements made on social media.

    Gillard’s platform for 2013 is the NDIS and Education Reform, whilst in the background supporting families, rolling out the NBN and looking for ways to improve and strengthen Australia against cyber attacks.

    The question everyone seems to ignore is the Liberals party policies, and their involved in the Slipper / Ashby affair

    Don’t see much perspective, and Gillard seems to be the easier of the two targets.

  5. Penny on 31st January 2013 11:13 pm

    Gillard has never painted herself as a victim. To call out inappropriate behaviour is not the same as painting yourself as a victim. Whatever side of politics you are on, this is an important distinction.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 31st January 2013 11:23 pm

    Peter, it’s perhaps worthwhile making a clear distinction here, that between policy and agenda.

    Labor will go into an election with lots of policies, no doubt, but no agenda.

    An agenda of a political party comes from the social base it was formed by. Labor’s agenda problem comes from the erosion of its social base, especially that of the unions that formed and still finance it (it is also a problem for the Liberals in as much as they were formed to oppose it).

    Rudd had the same problem as Gillard of no agenda. The difference was that Rudd knew how to make a virtue of it with an anti-political agenda against the ‘argy-bargy’ of the main parties. Gillard, being put in by the power brokers of those major parties, cannot (although this blog thought she might try given her record against the factions).

    The other agenda comes from international. Here Australia’s foreign policy has always been led by the major power of the day, and in this case the US has lost its political agenda since the end of the War on Terror. Rudd thought he had a replacement in climate change, but after Copenhagen, he did not.

    That’s why the demand to focus on “policy” usually by Labor fans is missing the point. It is not about all being policy wonks, but representation that has been lost. Calls to focus on policy just want us to avoid that fact.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 31st January 2013 11:28 pm

    Penny, Gillard pointed out Abbott’s sexism purely on the grounds it hurt and offended her. I think that distinction was blurred as a result.

  8. goner_kebab on 1st February 2013 8:42 am

    She seems to be a gifted tactical politician.

    The question, “When are you going to call an election?” is plainly and simply out of the way for the next nine months.

    That question , if it is written on pieces of paper by journalists, to be brought out of their pockets, pocket books, or purses gave the cleaners in various offices heavier work than usual yesterday.

  9. Thomas Paine on 1st February 2013 8:47 pm

    Gillard has shown herself to be the political fool.

    But I am interested to see that she is imitating Rudd in appearance now? Glasses and button up shirt the other day. If she says ‘programmatic specificity’ or some such…then we will know that she thinks becoming him is her only chance.

    Oh yes, and she/they did play the little victim game with the sexism issue. Considering she was actually protecting a piece of gross sexism whilst protesting sexism. More and more like Howard each day.

  10. David on 1st February 2013 9:56 pm

    Announcing date7 months early seems a disaster. All TA has to do is maintain his current strategy for 7 more months to defeat the ALP.
    I Like your accurate distinction between policy and agenda. The NDIS is neither agenda nor fulfillable policy. Rather a desperate grab at something/anything to differentiate herself from TA.
    Evans resignation from cabinet this evening marks a much more important shift than Hype re Thomson or Slipper. This the first cabinet defection indicates that the Gillard’s primary purpose, as outlined by yourself that of shoring up internal support has also failed.

  11. DM on 2nd February 2013 12:35 pm

    Add Nicola Roxon to the list of defectors too. Although, this is a real surprise considering her strong backing of Gillard in Feb of last year.

  12. j-boy57 on 2nd February 2013 1:20 pm

    Abbott is a gift that will keep on giving all the way to polling day.. the nostalgia for the Howard years and the reminder that on his front bench sit the numerically and morally challenged remnants is proof positive that the LNP is starting to believe its own Murdoch fuelled bullshit..

  13. The Piping Shrike on 2nd February 2013 8:54 pm

    His “who do you trust” lines said it all.

    On Roxon/Evans, I think it is more the internal part of what I’m talking about here. By naming the election date, Gillard has just focussed everyone’s mind on the coming defeat.

    Her claim that this timing was planned, three days after naming the election date to give “certainty and stability”, is just nonsense of course.

  14. Political Animal on 3rd February 2013 7:24 pm

    Piping Shrike, you need to get over the fact that Rudd is no longer PM.

    The MSM to the contrary, announcing the election date months in advance does have a precedent: PM Key of NZ. Might have been interesting to weave that into your anti–Gillard rubbish.

    You keep writing about social base but don’t see that Gillard has been busy building one.

  15. The Piping Shrike on 4th February 2013 12:21 am

    Last I looked, New Zealand was another country. In fact, New Zealanders I know seem fairly insistent on it.

    It must be sheer anti-Gillard pro-Rudd bias to suggest this might not be good tactics. It’s been going well, hasn’t it? Check out how well the rest of the planet thinks it’s going in the morning papers’ polls.

  16. Doug on 5th February 2013 4:56 pm

    Gillard’s announcement has effectively moved us to a fixed term situation in which the date is known years ahed so doesn’t become an issue for media absorption and speculation.

    It’s useful in a tidying up sort of way but does very little to change the underlying dynamics of what is happening. We have a number of “themes” set running by the Opposition which the government refuses to challenge and so become accepted as reality even when they are not. I cite as a classic the shared assumption that we have a major problem with the cost of living – well some people do mostly those on Newstart and minimum wages but they are not the ones the politicians have in mind because they are doing noting policy wise to deal with their problems.

    Given that we have low inflation, falling interest rates and wage increases on average over the past decade slightly higher than CPI increases at a macro-economic level it just isn’t true. But unreality triumphs because no-one will get and point out that there is not a real problem. Because there is to a real problem except for vulnerable groups nothing much can be done in terms of policy to address a non-issue.

  17. The Piping Shrike on 5th February 2013 8:50 pm

    I think it is necessary to see the calling of an election date in context. The government has a problem of authority. My argument is that it is because of a lack of agenda and an inability to develop a political response to it. (I think by the way this explains why it is doing so poorly in economic management that has little to do with the economy).

    With the government so far behind in the polls this was always going to get worse as the election approaches. All calling the election date does is accentuate that and accelerate that decline in authority. That’s all the point I’m making.

  18. Riccardo on 6th February 2013 9:01 pm

    The ALP/Gillard fanboys have a problem with your blog TPS. They dont get it.

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