There is a real danger at the moment that federal politics could descend into a deep cycle of negativism and not emerge until after this year’s federal election. The Opposition has adopted a resolutely negativist approach in recent months, focusing almost purely on attacking the government’s record and in particular, the record and personal character of the Prime Minister. There are now rumblings that Federal Labor will look more thoroughly to the negative as the election campaign draws nearer, attacking the credibility of the Opposition Leader as it seeks to turn the polls around.
While there is plenty of juicy material to draw on when it comes to negative lines of attack on the Opposition Leader, it would be a mistake for the government to rely exclusively on Tony Abbott’s failings for political sustenance. If federal politics turns into a gigantic mud-slinging match, the government stands to lose more from the exercise than the Opposition. Whomever holds government is by association responsible for the general tenor of debate. If things turn really ugly between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, it will be Kevin Rudd who will be ultimately held responsible for the poisonous state of federal politics, not the Opposition Leader.
As I see it, there are a few crucial positive points that Federal Labor needs to address in order to reclaim its ascendancy over the Opposition:
1) Mapping out a credible path on climate change
The government needs to outline a more thorough roadmap towards the implementation of its emissions trading scheme – or in the very least, a credible roadmap on climate change. The current policy – to shelve the proposed scheme until 2013 – is, by itself, a very weak platform to stand on. There has been some suggestion that Federal Labor has dropped the scheme as a kind of fig leaf to Australia’s centre-right base – but in truth, dropping the scheme has only damaged the government’s record and won it no new support.
2) Defusing asylum seeker issues whilst retaining a humanistic approach
The current situation, with boats arriving every other day, is simply not politically sustainable, but nor is the government’s absurd, ad hoc policy of temporarily freezing claims for asylum by Sri Lankans and Afghans. A new strategy is required that mixes fairness with firmness, and is designed to shape the volume of arrivals in tune with the number of asylum claims that Australia can be readily expected to process annually.
3) Finding common ground on the Resource Super Profits Tax
Federal Labor can not wage an election campaign while the mining industry is filling commercial television ad breaks with deceptive, one-sided advertising. Fighting ads with ads is counterproductive and won’t work, particularly given the government’s past angelic stance on government advertising. The only realistic option is for Labor to reach out to the mining industry through its industry contacts and seek to broker a compromise deal that retains the core income-generating potential of the RSPT whilst offering some further reasonable concessions to industry.
4) Reclaiming the government’s record
One of the biggest problems the government has is that many of its achievements are either “works in progress” due to their considerable scope and cost, or are somewhat intangible, such as its performance during the worst of the GFC and its more symbolic achievements. The government’s leadership team needs to make a more conscious effort to defend its record, and explain to the public what it is achieved, and why certain significant items it has promised have not been completely delivered (e.g. the National Broadband Network, the CPRS).
In short, it needs to publish a kind of scorecard which lays bare the government’s record and explains why certain promises have not been delivered on. In numerous instances where promises made have been broken, there are reasonable, rational reasons why that the public need to understand better.
5) Selling health reform
It really is crucial for the fate of its proposed health reform package that Federal Labor reclaims its record. At the moment, the public generally does not feel as though it can trust the Rudd Government to embark on such a costly, complex, and ambitious program of reform, when several of the large policy promises previously made have not been delivered on, three years on. The spectre of the home insulation scheme also still looms large on the national consciousness, despite the fact that culpability for the more disastrous repercussions of the scheme’s introduction does not realistically rest with the government.
Presently, the public does not really understand all that well what the government’s health reform package is all about, because it is quite a complex, multifaceted package. There is no simple message, because while the Federal Government would take control of majority funding of the public hospital system under the proposed reforms, there is still a 60:40 funding split between the federal and state governments. It is difficult to credibly argue that this set of reforms will “end the blame game” once and for all, but it certainly does appear that it may be a step in the right direction.
In short, I don’t think the Rudd Government can hope to outgun the Opposition in terms of negative political warfare, despite the rich vein of material Tony Abbott has provided it since he became Opposition Leader. To win, Federal Labor needs to retain its essential positivist voice, and demonstrate that it has both a plan for the next three years and the ability to deliver on its plan.
A strategy that centres upon the exaggerated and prolonged slagging of Tony Abbott is a strategy that only hacks the government a path towards political ruin.