Tuesday, 24 December 2013
It’s only the first two weeks of sitting in the house with years to come but the Abbott government has made a strong start.
Dennis Shanahan 22 November 2013
The Prime Minister is now faced with the reality of growing disillusion from the electorate that goes well beyond the carbon tax.
Dennis Shanahan three weeks later
Of course, the importance of the last Newspoll was not the poll itself, it merely confirmed the downward drift in government support a little later than others. The importance of the poll was that The Australian, and especially its political editor, had to explain it. Only three weeks after claiming that the Coalition frontbench was using every crisis to grow in confidence – which given that the Coalition had a large part in causing them, suggested a quite unique winning formula – Shanahan now claimed that the poll slip showed the public becoming increasingly disillusioned.
It’s hard to see why. After all, it’s not as though expectations were high to begin with. Probably more striking than the public’s unenthusiastic welcome to the new government was its unenthusiastic anticipation before it had even arrived. Polls in the run up to the September election showed that not only was the Liberals’ leader unpopular, but so were most of its policies. Labor’s positions on the NBN, public services, Gonski, industry support were more popular. There was a majority for abolishing the carbon tax (not a huge one) yet overwhelming support for doing something about climate change that was certainly not the Coalition’s Direct Action plan.
While the Coalition was seen as being better on asylum seekers, the majority generally thought nothing could be done and did not rank it as a priority. The Coalition was seen as better handlers of the economy but voters nevertheless expected to personally worse off under the Coalition, believing business would do better. The PPL, the Coalition’s flagship policy, was a stinker. And to cap off unpopular policies was the least popular leader heading for an election victory since polling began. The most bizarre example of the public’s mixed attitude to the imminent change in government was a marginal seat poll in March that showed voters wanting Labor to win in inverse relation to actually voting for it.
The issue here, of course, was not the Coalition but the unpopularity of Labor, especially under Gillard. It was why, despite all the warnings of the dangers of unity, when the Prime Minister was toppled and half the Ministry walked out three quarters of a million voters switched from the Coalition to Labor – then mostly switched back again when the changeover ended up looking like more of the same.
This is truly a government by default. New governments usually enjoy a honeymoon when the shift in political mood is crystallised into governing reality. In this case there was no shift in political mood to the Coalition, just a turn off from Labor and so this government has enjoyed no popular support to ride on the back of.
This is all means a hard landing onto reality for the right. It was especially tough for The Australian, since their poll, the one they own and understand, was alone in showing some sort of honeymoon, even if a weak one. The result was an early talking up of the Abbott government and the claiming of a mandate in its own right when none really existed. Hence, the idea that voters had become “disillusioned” of the government’s performance since the election when in reality voters’ attitude was as ambivalent as before.
But if the right have talked up the problems of the first few months in order to change the narrative, they are not alone. The left has also made much of the first few months of the new government explaining the lack of the honeymoon with the implicit vindication that Labor was right all along. This is partly a product of talking up the political powers of Abbott before the election as a way of avoiding looking straight into the Labor mess. But it also is a way of trying to rehabilitate Labor and “move on” from the Gillard-Rudd feud after the election.
It is true it has been an awkward few months. But it’s been better than Howard’s start in 1996 that saw him lose Ministers and his Chief of Staff to scandals, and annoy Asian neighbours from the start. While Howard was helped by his reaction to the Port Arthur massacre a month after he came in, it was not till late 1997 than the honeymoon wore off.
At the time, Labor instinctively recognised that the 1996 election represented a sea change in both its own project, as the political representative of the union leadership, and the electorate’s verdict of it. It kicked off a bout of internal party wrangles between those who wanted to keep Labor’s trade union roots as the basis of what the party was about, and those who saw little chance of returning to power while it was wedded to a now irrelevant past. It produced the oscillations in leadership between the “reformers” and the old guard that culminated in the final gory end in the Rudd-Gillard years.
But the exit of Rudd and Gillard does not mean that issue has been resolved. The “unity” the party is now enjoying comes not from the resolution of that dilemma but the absence of any way out that produced its one election victory in 2007.
In fact in many ways, Labor is in a worse state than it was in 1996. It still has the baggage of union leadership that means even less in Australian society than it did in 1996, plus the added taint of scandal, but on top of that it now has the record of chaotic government that Beazley/Crean/Latham never had to carry. Even if the Abbott government drifts along on its mediocre way as it does now, it still has union ties to play with the former AWU leader, as Howard could with Crean, and the “Memory ads” have already been made.
Labor has one hope, however. The right talking up of Abbott comes from a wish in their heads to see a right mandate being vindicated. If Labor had its contortions over what its role still means, so do the Liberals but, as Australia’s last political party, will take a more ideological form. Abbott’s biggest threat comes not from Labor but from those backers behind him who are the real “disillusioned”. The problem he has is that there is no social basis for carrying out a classic right agenda (nor a social need) but backers must be placated.
The only thing Abbott can do are token gestures to please the right, such as appointing libertarian non-entities to toothless bodies like the Human Rights Commission. Such token actions should not be enough; fortunately Abbott has the left to make a big deal of such “culture wars” manoeuvres as though something of significance has happened. If the left’s last hope is disruption from the Liberal right, so Abbott is helped by the phoney polarities of the left. The pas de deux continues.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 24 December 2013.Filed under State of the parties, Tactics