Positioning

Thursday, 11 December 2014 

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

It’s all looking so eerily familiar.

An unpopular leader of an unpopular government. Partisan supporters whining that they have all the right policies but struggling with the “message” – as though for today’s politicians “message” isn’t pretty well all they do.

The despair of conservative commentators isn’t just from the lousy polls, for this government they’re hardly anything new. What seems to have especially brought it on recently is that pressing the old button of strutting around international shin-digs like the G20 didn’t seem to work.

As The Australian noted, the G20 should have been a “personal triumph for Tony Abbott and a high water mark for the government”. Yet despite all the posturing about shirt fronts in the run up to it, and the considered verdict of seasoned commentators that foreign policy was at least one bright spot, the biggest foreign policy event of the year seems to have barely changed voters attitude to the government. If anything, going by the polls since, it may even have made it worse.

But it’s not as though conservatives wouldn’t have been warned. The last big international gala hosted on Australian soil, the APEC Summit in September 2007, didn’t do much for the host at the time either. Then, the visit of George Bush only served to remind that the benefits of the War on Terror had faded for the Man of Steel and things were about to move on for Howard, as well as Bush.

This time, despite attempts by conservatives to draw attention to some communiqué about growth, or something, the real news was Obama suddenly taking the lead on climate change – six years after Copenhagen, when he screwed over another Australian Prime Minister when he didn’t. It seems these days, Australian Prime Ministers can never get the timing right. For Australian Prime Ministers to be out of sync with US foreign policy is bad enough, but it’s especially a problem when they are looking as vulnerable as they have been over recent years.

We are now well into the second act of what has been almost five years of the old political parties trying to reassert themselves, with the second act of this piss-poor Thermidor travelling much like the first. But instead of Labor’s institutional push to regain control, from the union leadership and power brokers, with the Liberals, Australia’s last political party, it has been ideological.

But a third act is not a given. Unlike for Gillard, for Abbott there may not be resolution either externally, or internally. It is not obvious behind the government’s poor polling, but there is a basic problem in Labor’s strategy at the moment. By being a small target, that is what they may very well get it being about at election time if it comes down to the smallest target of all, competence.

Labor has still not broken, nor even attempted to tackle, the basic link made by the Coalition between the ructions during the Gillard-Rudd period and the debt, as two signs of the same dysfunctionality. This issue of competence is normally discussed as “economic management”, but not in the way it is often understood, i.e. as the government being responsible for the economy.

In reality voters don’t see the government having that much control. An economy souring might do as much harm to the Liberals as the economy not souring did good for Rudd/Swan. It is not that voters’ see government as controlling the economy, rather just not stuffing things up and making it worse. Without having tackled this, Shorten may see the polling lead melt away as an election approaches.

But it is the need to be seen as competent that means that there may not be an internal resolution to the government’s problems either, since the clearest sign of incompetence is understood as leadership destabilisation. Abbott faces no real contender, with no real alternative, as Gillard did with Rudd.

Instead it will be done in code and through the media. With all the outrage over the hypocrisy of Pyne petitioning against ABC cuts his own government introduced, it was little noticed that he was also distancing himself from the leadership position – just as Turnbull did the other direction by barely attempting to cover up Abbott’s pre-election promise not to cut at all.

There is the discrete undermining of Abbott via attacks on the PM’s Office and especially his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin. And of course wonderful examples like this morning’s report of Kevin Andrews shafting Credlin while calling for unity at the same time.

With no centre of authority, but no way to resolve it, what we are likely to have is continuing fragmenting and positioning in the government, as Ministers intrigue and jockey for influence like Versailles without the Sun King.

The biggest danger for the government in all this is pointed to by Paul Kelly, that the 2009 settlement, to prevent the Liberals tearing themselves apart over climate change, starts to unravel.

Climate change is an issue for the Liberals not because of their deep passion over the environment, but because it exposes the biggest flaw in the Abbott leadership: it being out of sync with international foreign policy, especially the US’s. If it’s difficult for Labor, it is even more so for the Liberals whose authority has traditionally relied on their closeness to the leading power of the day. It is no coincidence that the biggest challenge emerging at the moment on climate change is not from Turnbull, but from the Foreign Minister.

A Prime Minister being undermined on climate change and by a truculent Foreign Minister. As said, it is all looking eerily familiar.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 11 December 2014.

Filed under State of the parties, Tactics

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Comments

12 responses to “Positioning”

  1. F on 11th December 2014 7:46 am

    I think this government has already failed on the competency test, and we still have two years to run. I think it will be blindingly apparent by, at the latest, the next budget. They’ve started to panic.

    The economy is going to go through a period of a sorta stagnation Australians have not experienced in a generation. Already, they are talking about growth being well under three percent….some countries would give their right arm for such a figure! But for all kinds of reasons it will feel like stagnation.

    Now you make the point this is potentially neither here nor there as to how the government is perceived. True, but the mythology on the Liberals being better economic managers is not just through comparison to the ALP, but comparison to their own record: Howard.

    They, and their backers, have played up this inheritance. But its become pretty apparent that it had little to do with Howard’s administration, and much to do with blind luck of being in the right place at the right time.

    By their own comparisons, their government looks nasty and shambolic. It doesn’t look good. They will not be able to emulate what Howard did….which was, of course, their plan. Howard’s government had the luck of existing in a virtuous cycle of upward productivity gains(which flattened during his time), minimal inflation,low unemployment, and a vastly improving terms of trade. By and large it was the same conditions the world over.

    Even if the Liberals fake it, and throw money at the electorate, it still wont be able to recreate that magic. We aren’t moving from a recessionary period to a growth period; we are moving from a growth period to a sort of recessionary period if unemployment is anything to go by. It will tick up to 7%, and it will stubbornly stay there.

    Even now, they have stopped talking about Howard’s ‘achievements’ and started going all the way back to the Hawke-Keating years. That in itself is just completely bizarro. They don’t want to be compared to Howard because its an impossible comparison. They don’t have the pots of gold to dole out like he did. The world was more certain in every way: economic, militarily, culturally, etc. There were less critics to contend with, it was more easy to talk over them, to corral them in their own words.

    The Howard era has become like a folk memory: a golden era when everything was calm and serene, and all basked in the glory of prosperity. Neither major party can stand such comparisons.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 11th December 2014 6:21 pm

    As far as the electorate goes, I don’t think voters gave Howard that much credit for the economy, they didn’t worry about tossing him out when times were good. I think the view is that managing the economy is pretty well all the Libs do, and they seem more in control.

    As far as the Libs themselves go (and same for Labor) the Hawke/Keating “reform” period is a comforting myth as it seems one of intent and purpose, something they all wish they had now. In reality, a lot of the Hawke years was about reacting to events beyond their control.

  3. Paul Montgomery on 11th December 2014 9:17 pm

    Oh, that article ended abruptly. I thought you were just warming up.

    Looking at the long term, the major shift that could happen in 2015 is that we may very well get talked into a recession by the Libs, and this may break the generational stranglehold the right has undeservedly enjoyed in polls as “better economic manager”. The first PM to break the run of growth started in the early 90s will pay a heavy toll.

    I know you’re invested, Shrike, in this concept of the Libs being the last political party and Labor being somehow post-ideological in comparison, but when you look at the legislative agenda of Gillard versus Abbott, I think Gillard’s was a lot more ideologically coherent than the current shemozzle.

    What is Abbott’s ideology? (The culture wars stuff doesn’t count really, that’s the sideshow to the main game as far as governing goes.)

    It’s not market liberalism, as he rejects the ETS and favours the interventionist PPL. It’s not strictly recividist Toryism, because he rejects a lot of National Party agrarian socialism and has applied a shotgun to the head of manufacturing. He appears to be making it up as he goes along, which is kind of the opposite to ideology.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 11th December 2014 10:12 pm

    Abbott’s ideology as leader was driven by the needs of the party and initially it was about restoring the brand but increasingly now about keeping it together and that involves balancing the competing wings (the mish-mash on climate change being an obvious example). Culture war gestures is very much part of this, I don’t see why it should be excluded. It’s not coherent, but then ideology never is really.

    With Gillard there was at least some coherence as her agenda was more driven by the maintenance of the party position of power brokers and the union leadership, along with their accompanying whacky Sussex St view on the world. It was only near the end when that support started wavering that it began to shift and she became the radical feminist that we all love today.

    I’m playing a bit with the idea of the Libs as Australia’s last political party, but it’s more to highlight that the Libs function as competing individual interests, and this in turn tends to be more conducted in the ether of the media and ideas. Labor’s ructions were institutional and tended to be more realpolitik.

    Having said all that, with Labor’s institutional push having run aground under Gillard, the “new thinking” that has been bubbling under the surface in Labor, and which I discuss in the Latham essay on the left, is likely to come more to the surface. God help us all.

  5. Paul Montgomery on 12th December 2014 9:16 am

    I’m sorry to harp on it Shrike, but I don’t think you’re being coherent. Ideology is anathema to being “driven by the needs of the party”. Either you provide direction through ideology, or you’re a weathervane pragmatist. Abbott can’t be both, and I think he is the latter, albeit his version of pragmatism is utterly incompetent. Ideology doesn’t just mean “whatever a leader does”. It has to refer to a set of non-negotiable core principles, of which Abbott doesn’t seem to have any in practice.

    Gillard was far more driven by ideology because she used up her political capital on leftist policy: Gonski, NDIS, NBN, carbon pricing etc. Rudd may have announced these policies but he didn’t implement any of them, he didn’t have to wear the opprobrium of an ideologue paying for their courage. Gillard was the one who was punished.

    I’m not seeing much thinking from either side. The reason things look eerily familiar is that both major parties suffer the same basic fault, which is shared by almost every other major party of any stripe in Western politics at the moment: the elites have lost touch with the populace, because their policy choices have been restricted to the small subset of liberalism, for the almost exclusive benefit of elites. Every thought that Labor or Liberal might have that is workable in Canberra right now is a disappointment for the populace, because any populist policies (such as those Gillard implemented) get shot down by the elites eventually.

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  7. The Piping Shrike on 14th December 2014 8:38 pm

    Ideas may come out of the head, but whether the person whose head it is becomes leader of the party and those ideas are adopted in the party depends on whether it suits the party’s needs, surely. In the past that would have in turn depended on whether it suits the needs of those who made and financed those parties. Now it is more whether it suits the party for itself, and how it conducts itself.

    In the Liberals it is conducted more through individuals and informal groupings so is more likely to be conducted through ideas, agendas, etc. In Labor it was a more institutional argy-bargy so was conducted in more pragmatic terms.

    Your characterisation of Gillard as more ideologically (left) coherent is surprising, not least probably to the protagonists themselves. Gillard would have been the first to say that the ideas came under Rudd (the NDIS from the 2020 Summit of course) but they didn’t get implemented, which is what she had to do. As for carbon tax, it was something she argued for deferring (at least) and campaigned in 2010 on it waiting for the Citizen’s Assembly and a cross-party consensus. She only brought it in because of minority government necessities, and then barely spoke of it.

    As for coherence and principles, it is always possible to pick it apart since it always has the basic flaw of assuming the primacy of ideas – and as most people know, that’s simply not how things work.

  8. Ken Fabian on 20th December 2014 7:17 am

    I doubt that being out of step with Obama is something Abbott’s team sees as a genuine problem; I suspect they see themselves as perfectly in step with ‘adult’ US Republicans, who are seen as more truly representing ‘adult’ US thinking and values than Obama. If they can delay serious commitments and pretend to be flexible with some minor concessions and vague and contradictory utterances – they expect or at least hope the tide will turn, and a similarly minded Republican President, possibly with both Houses behind him (almost certainly ‘him’), will take charge.

    If they are feeling that they are out of step it would be with Europe, not the US. And perhaps they see it not so much as out of step, as being a step ahead and even leading the way in the global crusade against their imagined eco-socialist climate conspirators.

  9. Ken Fabian on 20th December 2014 7:22 am

    Previous comment is re the climate issue – I managed to edit out the context when I rewrote the comment above!

  10. The Piping Shrike on 21st December 2014 5:42 pm

    I think that’s a fair summing up of how the Libs see it.

    But it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily so. Abbott’s learned like all before him that turning the focus internationally can help if you’re in trouble at home, as is this government. It makes it a lot harder if you’re out of sync with the largest international player. You need someone out there. Hence this alliance with, er, Canada.

  11. Ken Fabian on 22nd December 2014 10:21 am

    Is having an electorate – as well as institutions of science and an opposition – that takes it seriously the ‘real’ climate problem that Abbott’s team seeks most to address? Ultimately, betting everything that 97% of working climate scientists and every peak science institution and every bit of formal expert advice is wrong has very poor odds, yet I suspect we are still a couple of electoral cycles and climate catastrophes away from the collapse of Conservative climate delusionism.

    I can’t see that we will get rational policy out of any Government on this as long as Australia’s leaders are not called to account on climate – yet I see no indication that the press gallery has any desire to have the views of leading Libs and Nats on climate explored or exposed. On the contrary it looks more like they see the vague and contradictory and insincere utterances papering over an unstated but unswerving effort to undermine climate as a policy consideration as examples of clever politicking.

    For Abbott, being obviously insincere and lacking commitment on climate actually plays well to a cultivated base of climate science deniers and doubters, who have been encouraged to reject all science based reason and logic over decades as part of the Right’s long running strategic response to the issue. For Gillard, like Rudd before her, her obvious lack of commitment and sincerity worked to alienate a bloc of supporters who take the issue seriously. She could have made the issue a Big Issue but it looked more like she spent more effort downplaying and distancing from a decision that looked based on political expediency, not on genuine concern about a serious problem.

    Is there even such a thing as a solid bloc of Libs and Nats that take the climate problem seriously? I think Labor does – but I suspect it has a larger bloc that doesn’t really have that good a grasp of the issue either, and sees committing strongly to it as politically problematic and electorally damaging. Abbott may get some short term gains by maintaining appearances of being ambivalent. I’m not convinced Shorten and Labor will gain anything by emulating Gillard in this – conviction and commitment needs to be up front and unambiguous.

  12. The Piping Shrike on 24th December 2014 8:48 am

    As ever it will be driven by politics. The Liberals’ coy opposition to climate change science compared to the UK Conservatives, say, is not a measure of their grasp of the science but political needs. It simply doesn’t play the same role that it does in the UK concerning the difference in tension with the U.S. v Europe. Any shift in the Liberals position on it will occur for the same reason.

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