Westminster dispelled: President Kevin Rudd?

The tenor of the mainstream media’s election banter has changed dramatically since Julia Gillard was evicted from Yarralumla by her colleagues close to a fortnight ago. Kevin Rudd has returned to lead Labor armed not with a fistful of changes in party policy, but simply with a different image, and the easy confidence that comes from knowing that a significant number of people out there in suburbia australianus still fancy him as a leader. He knows this not just because he (ahem) rates himself or that the pollsters tell him so , but because of his assiduous use of social media and his typically amicable interactions with ordinary Australians across the country. We know this because if the polls (and particularly the inimitable Poll Bludger) are to be believed, Labor is now looking seriously competitive with the Coalition for the first time in 3 years. What seemed to be inevitable – Tony Abbott moving into The Lodge in September – no longer feels inevitable.

Little wonder then that the so-called Cabinet-elect is becoming a little restive; Malcolm Turnbull used a remarkable proportion of his Sir John Monash Oration at the Jewish Museum last week to have a dig at the leadership style of Labor’s revived Prime Minister:

I observed the Rudd government from close range, but from the outside, but there are important lessons in political leadership to be drawn from it. There is no doubt that concentrating too much authority in the Prime Minister and his office, the micro-management of policy from that office clearly resulted both in ill-considered decisions (NBN, pink batts, school halls) and inexplicable delays.

Turnbull goes on to argue that Rudd’s controlling nature and the inexperience of his front bench team will compel him to run a presidential campaign, and if elected, a somewhat dysfunctional presidential-style government, just as he did before the knives of his colleagues came out for him in 2010. By way of contrast, he harks back to the Howard years as a golden age of “traditional cabinet government”, during which the Prime Minister consulted generously with colleagues, and allowed ministers to get on with their portfolios with a measure of independence, free of prime ministerial diktats. It is this sort of “traditional cabinet government” that Turnbull argues Tony Abbott and his team will deliver if he leads the Coalition to victory in September.

I don’t take issue with the Member for Wentworth’s assertion that “traditional cabinet government” is in Australia’s interests; I might even be prepared to wave through the notion that the Howard Government – at least during the zenith of its effectiveness – operated as much or more in the spirit of this style of governance than the Rudd or Gillard Governments have managed since 2007. On the other hand surely only the most one-eyed 2UE listener would contend that the Coalition’s performance in Opposition under Tony Abbott suggests they are on track to restore the “noble glories” of Westminster decision-making to Canberra. The Opposition Leader’s relentless negativity has dominated his tenure as the nation’s alternative Prime Minister, and what little in the way of coherent policy the Coalition has communicated so far this year has been funneled through him. He has, thus far, astonishingly refused to debate Kevin Rudd, even though the Prime Minister has allowed him the luxury of choosing the debate topic.

Normally, an Opposition Leader would jump at the chance to get him or herself on the same platform as the Prime Minister in a direct personal confrontation; normally the more bites an Opposition Leader gets at the cherry, the better. Not for Tony. Abbott has not run and is not running a presidential campaign – he is running an anti-presidential campaign, shouting the loudest sound bites, tearing at Julia Gillard (at times without a shred of civility) and appealing to the lowest common denominator, whilst carefully avoiding any substantive confrontations that might expose him to undue risk. Which now, evidently, includes any event that puts he and Rudd in the same room before the dreaded Worm and the nation’s television viewing hordes. Clearly, he fears that in the eyes of the voting public, he might not be able to help coming off second-best to the Sunrise kid. This is a game of chicken he doesn’t want any part of.

There is another more significant systemic problem with Turnbull’s pitch for “traditional cabinet government”. Recent events have given further credence to what most of us accepted sometime back – in the eyes of the public, Australia’s system is essentially a presidential one tarted up in Westminster system silk. A significant slice of voters who were not planning to vote for Gillard Labor are apparently prepared to vote for Rudd Labor. These folks haven’t changed their mind because of anything substantive Rudd has offered in a policy sense, and they certainly don’t prefer Rudd’s proposed ministerial team. In short, they prefer Rudd as a person, as a leader; as president. Pollsters are fond of telling us it is the two-party preferred numbers that matter on polling day. They are right, as a matter of fact, but when pure personality has the power to toggle the two-party preferred numbers by somewhere in the vicinity of of 10% (larger than the margin of most recent elections), the question of what really is the most decisive factor on polling day becomes a lot muddier.

So sorry, Malcolm. The sorts of voters that the Coalition needs to convince in September could hardly care less about the Westminster tradition and the seductively archaic charms of “traditional cabinet government”. If the Coalition are indeed to win, they now need to sell Tony Abbott as a convincing president. If they fail to do this, they risk losing what seemed very recently to be an unlosable election.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

“Carbon tax” repeal: rhetoric and reality

On 4th April, Tony Abbott spoke to Craig Huth from Max FM in Taree, and was asked about the mechanics of rolling back Labor’s carbon trading plans should the Coalition win government in September. In keeping with party policy on abolishing the scheme, this was the most interesting part of his response:

Some people say, oh but the Labor Party and the Greens will combine to oppose it in the Senate. Well, look Labor wouldn’t be so stupid in my opinion to commit political suicide twice if I may put it that way. If they’ve just lost an election which is a referendum on the carbon tax, they’re hardly going to defy the people twice on this. So, I think the chances of them supporting a carbon tax which has been the cause of their political demise are low, but look, the point I keep making is that when I say there’ll be no carbon tax under the government I lead, I’m fair dinkum Craig and if against all judgment and expectation, the Labor Party is utterly recalcitrant on this, well we’ll take the options available to us under the constitution to resolve the deadlock between the House and the Senate.

Tony Abbott is a man without nuance, and his party’s policy on this issue is wholly emblematic of the man as a politician: lacking nuance to the point of being disingenuous. Whatever happens in the election (which is far from simply “a referendum on the carbon tax”), the current state of the Senate will of course remain as-is until 1st July 2014. The Greens will retain a balance of power, and it is utter nonsense to suggest that they or Labor would simply bend to any incoming Coalition Government’s will, particularly on climate. Memories of the Coalition’s obstructive control of the Senate between 2005 and 2011 are strong in the Labor Party and both Labor and the Greens would relish the idea of returning the favour on such a high profile issue.

Knowing this, Abbott claims that he would immediately seek a double dissolution election if the current Senate declined to yield to a hypothetical incoming Coalition government’s wishes. Really? This would be a high risk strategy, and opens the door for a small-g “green” election fought exclusively on the environment. In this sort of political grudge match, the Greens would stand a good chance of winning a higher proportion of seats in the Senate, as Norman Abjorensen has alluded to. In short, this claim is more bluster than reality, and speaks to Abbott’s inexperience of the practicalities of working with the Senate in a minority government situation. Winning in September – even emphatically – does not necessarily imply that the Coalition would then hold all the cards. In the double dissolution situation the Opposition Leader is supposedly so bloody-minded about triggering, all bets would be off. A famous election victory would amount to little if a hash is made of the next one, which given the gaffe-prone nature of the Coalition’s front bench, would be a serious possibility.

A weighty question mark also remains with respect to how the Senate will be constituted from 1st July 2014, even in the event of a storming Coalition election victory. Antony Green has written a typically exceptional piece on the prospects of the Coalition winning outright control of the Senate if they win in September, in light of the current polling. In short, this seems an unlikely eventuality. The most likely positive scenario for Abbott is that the conservative heartlands of Queensland and Western Australia will offer up additional minor party senators more amenable to working with the Coalition than the Greens and Nick Xenophon. A distinct possibility, but far from a foregone conclusion – and even if that scenario were to materialise, the Coalition would need to wait until July 2014 to set about its demolition work.

In other words, the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” is not so much a plan as an election device. “Tell it like it is” Tony is “telling it like it isn’t” on this issue. The plan itself is impractical and politically unworkable. Arguably, it succeeds in its goal of offering an over-simplistic, easily digestible message to voters: “we’ll get rid it, and if can’t get rid it right away, we’ll upturn the Houses of Parliament to bloody well do it”. This is the sort of pugilistic approach that wins votes and that the near-apocryphal “Lindsay voters” have come to associate with Tony Abbott, but it not the sort of approach that is going to cut the mustard in the corridors of Parliament House should Liberal and National Party arses warm Cabinet benches.

If it comes to the crunch, the smart money suggests that the Coalition’s “plan to abolish the carbon tax” will get tossed out the passenger-side window many hundreds of kilometres before carbon trading does. A hypothetical Abbott Government would much prefer to live on its knees, blaming Labor and the Greens all the way, than stand the risk of dying on the altar of climate change in a double dissolution election.

Be kind, rewind, rollback, dissemble….

In the years immediately after the 1998 Federal Election, at which John Howard’s Coalition successfully won a mandate for introducing the GST, Federal Labor got stuck in a real policy communication rut. Sure, there was quite a bit of popular opposition to the new tax, and there were some very good reasons for Labor to continue to fight against it. Unfortunately for Labor supporters and indeed Kim Beazley’s political aspirations, as the years ticked by and Australia headed towards the 2001 election, the catch-cry of “rollback” started sounding regressive, tired, and somewhat unappealing to the average punter. One started to get the sense that the core premise of Labor’s economic platform was to take the country back in time three years, chronologically if not literally. Not really a good look, unless you’re Marty McFly.

And so it seems to be with Tony Abbott and the NBN. His mumblings are starting to sound like his policy on our telecommunications future is “rollback”; to regress, to move backwards. His latest hysterical suggestion to drop the NBN like a hot potato because of the floods seems patronising and misguided; a cry and a gasp for a headline. What right-minded government, having secured a mandate for an infrastructure project at two separate federal elections, and having already signed numerous contracts binding the nation to agreements to the tune of billions of dollars, would dump the project at the first sign of unexpected external financial issues, or at the suggestion of their political opponents?

One wonders what Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull really thinks about the National Broadband Network, and his leader’s cock-eyed approach to opposing it. What one doesn’t wonder is what Julia Gillard thinks about the Coalition’s “duh….rollBACK!?!!” broadband policy for the years heading toward 2013. Two thumbs up?

Crossposted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The lot of them will be run over at this rate

Richard Glover is sadly dead on the money with his column in the Spectrum of today’s Sydney Morning Herald. He hits the nail on the head more beautifully and more succinctly then I fear I can manage just at the moment; consider these three cuts:

Week two of the “Me Too” election and Abbott and Gillard are like contestants in a three-legged race, middle legs lashed together, each with an arm desperately gripped around the other’s shoulder, fingers digging in, careering over the political landscape, determined never to be separated.

Same policy on asylum seekers, same squib on the environment, same anxious sidestep on gay rights.

On the magnificence that the belligerent focus on certain marginal seats has delivered us:

Since it’s all about attracting the voters of marginal seats, such as Lindsay, you do wonder why the rest of us even need to be involved. Why not just opinion-poll everyone in Penrith’s High Street and do whatever they reckon is the right thing?

And finally, on where this is headed:

Julia Gillard cites the Welsh socialist Nye Bevan as her political hero. Maybe it’s time she remembered his most famous quote: “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.”

The average Australian punter may not have a grasp of the finer details of public policy, but they have a built-in sixth sense when it comes to political disingenuity, aka bullshit. The baseball bats needn’t have been out for Labor just yet after only three years, but one just gets the sense after all this bickering, dilly-dallying and lowest common denominator marketing, a fair few are now going to be pulled out in the marginals on August 21.

Come on Julia. Give us all a reason to vote for you!

Kevin Ekendahl: supporting bold action

Liberal Candidate for Melbourne Ports, Kevin Ekendahl just sent me a letter. In case you were wondering, these are the bits that are apparently really important:

  • crucial for the future of our nation
  • we are already a weaker nation
  • Increased cost of living pressures
  • Massive debt, Budget deficits, waste and mismanagement
  • unnecessary uncertainty
  • there’s too much talk and not enough action.
  • taking real action and delivering real results
  • Our Action Contract with Australia
  • real action to strengthen the economy
  • Budget back into surplus
  • Australia’s border security, raise education standards
  • improve local health services
  • It’s time to get things done and get Australia back on the right track.

I wonder who decides what phrases in these condescending, paper-wasting template letters should be highlighted in bold because apparently the author believes these are the only bits people are likely to read?

Also, does anyone else thinks that the “Support Real Action” campaign jingle sounds a lot like “support re-election”? A damn fine idea.

Game on for Saturday 21st August

Suddenly, amidst a winter of some considerable political discontent, we have an election date. The circumstances are a bit ironic for me. I tuned into the Sky election coverage of the Australian election from London just under three years ago in November 2007 (a frabjous day!), and it seems that once again, I will be tuning in from the other side of the world to see who will lead Australia for the next three years. Just a week or so ago I registered to vote overseas, and am in the throes of organising personal matters and packing up my life in Melbourne. Just as I was fronting up to the reality that I would need to disengage from political events for a little while at least, Julia Gillard has called in for a cup of morning tea at Yarralumla, and despite the touch of malaise that has been creeping into recent debate, it is going to be hard to tune out.

Even considering the disorganised thrashings of the last few weeks in Labor Party circles, Tony Abbott and the Coalition will head towards this election as clear underdogs. Centrebet has Labor at an almost unbackable $1.22, with the Coalition not looking like a bad bet at $4.10, to be quite frank. This is not an election campaign much like that waged in 2007. This is not going to be an election campaign with a distinct choice, or clear water between the Government and the Opposition on a number of issues. Given recent events, most Australians would harbor some fairly strong negative thoughts about both major parties. It is only natural under the circumstances to be feeling a bit confused and uncertain about who to vote for. On the one hand we have a Labor Government which promised the world, has delivered on some levels and failed notably or reneged on some others, and still has a reasonable proportion of its original to-do list outstanding. On the other hand, we have an Opposition defined almost exclusively by what it does not stand for, as opposed for what it does, lead by a politically divisive figure in Tony Abbott.

In her noon press conference announcing the election date, Julia Gillard was organised, precise in her language, and confident. She looked and acted like a Prime Minister. She was convincing, but her mindless re-iteration of Labor’s election mantra du jour, “moving forward”, felt forced and was truly grating. The new Labor leadership team has made it clear over the past few weeks of their intent to distance themselves from the failings of Kevin Rudd; they really should be wise by now to the fact that people are sick of simplistic election slogans like this one. It should be possible to be direct and straight-forward without reducing your communication with the public to the level of a glorified infomercial.

The Prime Minister declined to make any new policy announcements, only promising that any new measures announced during the election campaign would be offset by savings in other areas. Politically speaking, this is a smart move, and pushes Tony Abbott into a very small space in which to operate. It mimics the “I’m an economic conservative” promises made by Kevin Rudd heading into the election campaign in 2007. Abbott’s natural instinct as a blue-blood is to either conserve the public dollar or to transform it into a private dollar, but to differentiate himself from the government, it might well be that he needs to fight that instinct and put some sizable spending measures on the table.

Tony Abbott’s response was mixed. For starters, it was made in a somewhat off-the-cuff fashion in an anonymous hotel in Brisbane, leaving him looking a bit like a hotel management trainee who stumbled into the wrong function room. He should have known given all the media speculation that an election date announcement was imminent and stayed in Canberra over the weekend. This was a mistake, right off the bat. His delivery was mostly quite assured, if seemingly not well orchestrated, and he actually did make a few good points that will resonate with voters, namely:

  • Why should we trust Julia Gillard if even Kevin Rudd evidently could not trust Julia Gillard?
  • Why should we trust Federal Labor if we have no idea who will fill the key ministerial portfolios in the government until after the election?
  • Why should we treat Julia Gillard and her team as being any different to the team lead by Kevin Rudd, given Gillard’s senior role in the Rudd Government?

These are all fair, thoughtful, and credible points. Unfortunately, the Opposition Leader did not deign to back them up with any positive policy announcements of note, or any real measure of what the Coalition’s agenda would actually look like if elected.

For the moment at least, the Australian people face a real conundrum. We have a decidedly second-order, tactical election on our hands. There are no grand visions, there are no inspirational plans. It seems certain that who people dislike more as a leader will largely dictate who they vote for on Saturday August 21st. Meanwhile, the Greens look set to win the balance of power in the Senate, and will likely pick up 1 (Melbourne) if not more seats in the House of Representatives. What does this mean for federal politics? I am not sure it is going to mean very much at all, at least beyond the symbolic.

It is difficult to see any future Gillard Government or Abbott Government wheeling and dealing very much with the Greens, particularly given that party’s staunch unwillingness to give some ground in order to gain some ground in terms of negotiation. Despite the likelihood of a record vote for the Greens at the election, I am more convinced than ever that the major parties, presiding somewhat slothfully over the middle ground of Australia, are going to be dictating the policy agenda over the coming parliamentary term. The marginalisation of the environmental left that took grip after the failure of Labor to deliver an ETS and the failure of the world to reach a meaningful deal in Copenhagen looks set to continue.

Given the recent performance of both majors, and the over-reliance of the Greens on Bob Brown as a credible mouthpiece, it’s hard to look forward with an enormous amount of optimism about the health of politics in Australia. Federal politics, arguably, has never looked more like state politics than it does at this very moment.

And if that’s not a put-down, I’m not sure what is.

ELSEWHERE: Mark’s views on the opening gambits over at Larvatus Prodeo are well worth a read.

Peter Brent echoes my thoughts on the odds being offered for a Coalition victory over at Mumble.

The deck chairs on the HMAS Gillard

With election date speculation now officially rife, speculation is now also beginning to mount about what any future hypothetical Gillard Government’s front bench would look like, should it win the election. In part to stave off concerns about instability at the top and in part to distance herself from Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister has declined to instigate a major reshuffle since becoming leader and has also declined to nominate who would serve in which ministerial role if Federal Labor is re-elected later this year.

The situation is complicated by the former Prime Minister’s obvious predilection for a high-profile foreign affairs role:

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd is reportedly determined to take on the foreign affairs role, if Labor is returned.

He has been telling journalists that as a former prime minister “he deserves the job”, ABC Television reported on Sunday.

While I can understand Julia Gillard’s decision not to “rock the boat” before the election, I also see a number of drawbacks to this approach. If Gillard were to take her new, finalised team to the hustings and subsequently win the election, her team would have received a proper imprimateur from the public to govern the country, and would inherit a certain significant amount of public good will as a result. Under the assumption that the team of Ministers that Federal Labor currently has in place is set to be scrambled and subjected to fairly thorough recomposition post-election, I think that people are right to feel a little uneasy. Do we know who the Gillard Government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs will be after the election? No. Do we know who the Gillard Government’s Finance Minister will be after the election, with the resignation of the wonderful Lindsay Tanner? No.

It is almost certain that the Coalition will exploit this sense of uncertainty with respect to Federal Labor’s team in the lead-up to the election. One may well not like Tony Abbott’s team, but at least one can be fairly certain of what Tony Abbott’s team will look like if elected. I am not sure that the general public is particularly enamoured with the idea that the archaic factional engines responsible for turfing out the old Prime Minister will also be responsible for deciding who will govern the country – not them.

The new “bell-weather” seat for Rudd Labor

In today’s edition of The Australian, Dennis Shanahan reported the results of some rather interesting marginal seat polling conducted by Newspoll over the last weekend. Of particular interest to me are the reported results in Lindsay, a seat that I have spent over half my life in. The Newspoll results suggest that Labor’s primary vote has collapsed to just 34% in that seat, and that the Coalition’s vote has surged to 47%. The Greens tend to poll rather poorly in Lindsay, and conservative fringe parties such as the Christian Democrats and One Nation tend to poll well, so these results, if they can be relied upon, suggest that Labor’s David Bradbury and the Rudd Government could be in some real trouble.

While I agree with Mark at Larvatus Prodeo and Possum when they suggest that the Lindsay polling results were irrevocably contaminated by the weekend state by-election in the seat of Penrith, I feel its too simplistic to dismiss the poll entirely. Federal Labor is, make no mistake, on the nose with Howard’s battlers at the moment. Tony Abbott’s straight-talking approach intrinsically appeals to that peculiar strata of the population who thought they saw someone fresh with a dab of economic blue-blood in Kevin Rudd in 2007, and switched their vote from the Coalition to Labor. Abbott is seen to be a man’s man in a way that neither Brendan Nelson nor Malcolm Turnbull was, and Rudd, at least to many, has revealed himself to be a bureaucratic ditherer who does not speak their language.

There are no simple answers to this problem; there is little doubt that Federal Labor’s pollsters and advisors are burning the midnight oil trying to find it. The Prime Minister needs to pay more attention to people in seats like Lindsay and endeavour to do a better job of explaining the achievements of his government to them, and why they should vote for him again.

On the vicious white-anting of the social contract

The installation of Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader seems to have coincided with a fully-fledged embrace of mean-spirited, Thatcher-era conservatism by the Federal Coalition. There is something about Abbott’s mien that makes him come across as being even more pungent and even more belligerent than John Howard ever was during his years as Prime Minister. Undoubtedly there are many cold-hearted bastards and life-worn misanthropes out there who find this aspect of Abbott attractive, but he is running the risk of pushing his patrician barrow roughshod over one or two too many needy people.

There were rumblings in the media today about the Coalition’s (of course, unfinalised, “non-core”) plans to enhance restrictions on access to welfare; most specifically to force welfare recipients to take a job if it is up to two hours away from their home, up from ninety minutes. Apart from the fact that this “announcement” adds another couple of “will he, won’t he” proposals to the basket of such proposals that the Abbott Opposition has floated into the public arena in recent months, it is an idiotic dog whistle of an idea. It would only serve to increase the stress on Australia’s dilapidated social contract with the disadvantaged, whilst saving little, and disenfranchising many.

The reality of welfare is that there will always be cheats; there will always be people who try to rort the system, and there will always be some who get away with it. Although we can certainly work at discouraging and minimising such behaviour, to a certain extent, there will always be a price that society collectively must bear – if indeed we are to have a fair, reasonable, and well-ordered welfare system for people who really do need the services and support of government in times of need.

In the not too distant past, when I was unemployed for some time, the bureaucratic inanities associated with receiving welfare payments on an ongoing basis made the whole prospect too daunting and too laborious to pursue. If I as a qualified professional find the prospect too painful, lord only knows how many Australians who can’t find work feel about Centrelink and the process for obtaining welfare. For all the so-called nameless, faceless “bludgers” out there that the Coalition so loves to charge after, there are thousands of other fair-minded people left high and dry by a system that discourages engagement, discourages people from seeking meaningful work germane to their talents, and encourages isolation, despair and frustration.

Is forcing people to travel two hours each way for a job one may not even be suited for sensible, particularly given that the costs of such travel would reduce the wages on offer below the minimum wage in many instances? Tony Abbott spent a few days in the outback a few months back; maybe its time he spent a few days on the mean streets of Sydney or Melbourne or amongst the back blocks of the outer suburbs, to understand how complicated and deep set the personal and social problems some people have are.

Sometimes screwing people over and around is not the best way to get them to do the right thing.

The balm for Federal Labor’s pain points

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.