One hundred days

Monday marked one hundred days since the Abbott Government was elected by the Australian people. To commemorate this profoundly moving and meaningful anniversary, the Prime Minister’s Office has issued The First 100 Days of Government [PDF] and an accompanying press release summarising the Coalition’s progress on the actions it promised to undertake within this timeframe if elected.

This is, well, an unsurprising development. The Rudd Government undertook a similar exercise [PDF] after winning office in 2007, no doubt designed in Opposition primarily to help convey the urgency and energy the incoming government would bring to the table if elected. 100 is a nice round, memorable number: a century, a ton, just a touch over fourteen weeks, around a week over three months. Sure, it doesn’t mean a damn thing chronologically to any of us, and it typically means little in legislative terms, because the Senate and House of Representatives terms do not align, but it’s a nice shiny round number that newspapers can splash in a large font across their front pages and television news presenters can read off their autocues with effortless gravitas. Today marks one hundred days of the Abbott Government, viewers! One hundred days. Wow.

Leaving aside for a moment the sophistry of the number, it is hard not to contrast the upbeat, sanitised fluff of the Abbott Government’s report with reality. Yes, pre-election promises were made, but nobody actually cares all that much about most of the actions listed in the document or whether they were undertaken with the first hundred days. Few will sleep better than they have for six years knowing that Tony Abbott’s first overseas trip as Prime Minister was to Indonesia. The life expectancy of people living in Kellyville will not have climbed during the last few weeks as the Coalition dramatically and unprecedentedly ensured that Bruce Billson was sworn in as a Minister for Small Business in Cabinet.

What people do care about is that so far, the Coalition has governed amateurishly; they have had a stinker. Tony Abbott and Alastair Cook are basically interchangeable at this point. As the Poll Bludger notes, opinion polls incredibly have Labor ahead of the Coalition by 4 to 5 percentage points, just *cough* one-hundred days after the Coalition’s comfortable election victory. Gaffe has followed gaffe. There has been an embarrassing backflip (followed by a front flip) on the promise to honour the Gillard Government’s Gonski schools funding agreements with the states. After campaigning rabidly against Labor on the dangers of debt, Treasurer Joe Hockey has moved quickly to scrap the debt ceiling completely, leaving the door open for profligate public spending in the next couple of years. The ham-fistedness of the government’s communications with the Indonesian government and more recently with Holden Australia have left a lot to be desired, threatening to make difficult situations even worse for the country. The traditional, dozy Australian holiday period can just not come quick enough for this government.

Any gaggle of muppets can argue that they are performing admirably according to their own arbitrary timeline and carefully curated handful of meaningless metrics. Tony Abbott might not have much to learn from the English cricket captain at the moment, but Alastair Cook should probably have considered taking a leaf from the Prime Minister’s book: instead of promising to retain the urn, he could have instead just promised to keep a first slip in position when in the field during the first four days of the First Test.

I am sure then that the English public would have been satisfied that their cricket team’s performance targets had then been met.

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.

Et tu, Julia?

It’s a bit funny how quickly personal fortunes can turn around; just a month or two ago, the putsch was on, and we were all watching Kevin Michael Rudd give his final, painful press conference as Prime Minister. At that point in time, it did not seem likely that we would see Rudd return to the forefront of political debate in this country. Although he was at pains to re-iterate his commitment to continue on the backbenches as the Member for Griffith, before very long the media rumour mill was running overtime with suggestions on what international diplomatic roles might potentially float across the former Prime Minister’s desk.

Now the Rudd Government is history, the campaign is history, the federal election itself is history, and we have a Gillard Labor Government at the helm, assisted by the Greens and independents Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor, and Rob Oakeshott. If that wasn’t strange enough, the former Prime Minister has returned as a frontline member of Cabinet as Foreign Minister; one pictures him staggering zombie-like into the room with that Milky Bar grin, daggers jutting haphazardly from his back. We’re a long way from Kansas now. One supposes, given the unpredictability of recent events, that it would not be completely inconceivable for Kevin Rudd to emerge as Prime Minister again in some crazy election campaign in the future.

There is little doubt that Rudd is the best person for the job in Foreign Affairs and that under normal conditions, he would be a big plus for the government. Stephen Smith has run a tight ship but has not really shone either during his time in the role, particularly given that he was always operating in Rudd’s shadow. Suggestions from the Opposition and indeed from Professor Hugh White that the former Prime Minister damaged Australia’s relationships with some of its partners during his time in office are exaggerated. As it stands however, given the circumstances, there are clearly going to be some outstanding personal issues that Federal Labor will need to confront in Cabinet in order to govern effectively. An already byzantine situation, given the reliance of Labor on the Greens and the independents for power, will hardly be simplified by the fact that one of the most senior positions in the government is held by someone who was so recently betrayed by the new Prime Minister.

Matters are so delicately poised that a by-election in practically any seat but the most safest of seats could result in a change of government. I’m not too sure about the stability bit, but this election has certainly delivered political intrigue to the nation – in spades.

Did the big miners topple the Prime Minister?

I haven’t heard all that much gloating in the last couple of days from the big mining companies, despite the fact that their bitter media war against the RSPT was the decisive factor encouraging Julia Gillard’s powerful co-conspirators to sink their knives into Kevin Rudd’s back. Perhaps they are now feeling just a little sheepish. Looking back over the last couple of months since the Budget, it is difficult to believe that the government’s polling would have been quite so bad or the Prime Minister’s personal political situation so dire if the government had won the media war or else managed to forge an agreement with the miners and the Minerals Council of Australia. The televised ad campaign against the RSPT was as audacious as it was relentless; never before in Australian political history has a cabal of multinational companies banded together so effectively with the aim of overturning the policy of a democratically-elected government.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that one of the most big-mouthed public opponents of the tax, mining magnate Clive Palmer, has a long political history with the Liberal and National Parties, and also happens to be Australia’s largest political donor. As Adele Ferguson and Rafael Epstein reported in a somewhat revealing profile piece for The Age on Saturday:

In the year to June 2009, Palmer and his private company, Mineralogy, gave $400,000 to the federal Liberal Party, $280,000 to the Queensland Liberal National Party, $110,000 to the West Australian National Party and $50,000 to the federal National Party.

That is why Kevin Rudd responded to the tax debate intervention with the accusation that Palmer had bought the Coalition ”lock, stock and barrel”. And Palmer’s ”communist” gibe, had Rudd turning to history. In the ’80s, Palmer was a friend of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s, was at one stage a director of the party and in 1986 Palmer was spokesman for the party during the Queensland election, helping usher in Bjelke-Petersen’s seventh consecutive term in office.

One wonders how many average folk knew, when watching Palmer’s bulbous face bleating about communism on the nightly news, that he was not only a mining magnate and therefore hardly an impartial observer, but also a conservative political stooge from way back, and therefore even less impartial. The whole episode has been a timely reminder about just where the real political power lies in today’s Australia: with those who have the most financial capacity to influence people through public relations and advertising.

The people of Australia don’t have any serious institutionalised mechanism for relegating the Clive Palmers and the Twiggy Forrests of the world to the backbenches; we’re just stuck with them. In contrast our politicians, in thrall to the almighty ubiquity of the latest polling figures, are left scurrying around like so many primitives, fighting amongst themselves and skulking around behind each others backs. After last week’s events, the trading room floor is looking just that little bit more like the centre of real power in this country, and the Federal Parliament, just that little bit less.

The Gillard faceless men putsch

A month ago, I couldn’t see it happening. There has been quite a bit of speculation around the traps in recent weeks about the leadership of Federal Labor, but I’m not sure that too many people took it completely seriously. Then suddenly, in a matter of hours yesterday evening, it all happened. Senior factional figures within the party evidently put forward a case to Gillard for standing against Rudd that she could not refuse. It would be very interesting to know exactly what precisely compelled her to act, to turn on a dime under pressure after months and years of proffering resolute support for her leader. She has been pushed off the proverbial cliff on this, and I think we all deserve to understand why.

Federal Labor has just shot itself in the foot in a dramatic way; one recalls the damage ultimately done to the party by the Latham challenge. I’m not sure what sort of risk assessment was conducted by the folks pulling the strings here. If Rudd somehow clings to power, against all odds, he will be critically diminished. The Opposition will be able to pick at the bones of Rudd’s credibility all the way up until the impending election. If Gillard wins, she will have a lot of explaining to do, and not a lot of time to do it in. An election may be called within days so that Gillard can establish a mandate from the people, nullifying the Opposition’s likely line of attack. What is she going to do differently – what is she offering that is really any different? If she is going to do a number of things differently to Rudd in a policy sense, how can the people trust what Federal Labor say anymore, given that just days and weeks ago she was talking up her leader’s credentials and direction? We have no idea about what Gillard’s personal views are on the RSPT, climate change, or any number of other issues. Presumably, at least in part, her personal views may be deemed irrelevant. The so-called faceless men may well decide what her views will be.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Julia Gillard will make a great Prime Minister – one day. But that day is not today, and I still don’t think this is the right time or the right path, for her, or her party. If the putsch succeeds, it will have been a rise to the top characterised by cowardice and panic, driven by people who care more about polls and the state of the spin cycle than just about anything else. Of course the alternative, now that the putsch has been rammed maniacally into motion, may be even worse.

Happy unbirthday, Tony Abbott!

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.

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.

Interest rates and election dates

In the lead-up to the November 2007 federal election, there is little doubting that interest rates played a crucial role on shaping the attitudes of voters towards the Howard Government. With Howard, the poisonous element was his controversial promise to keep interest rates low. With Rudd, the poisonous element is the rather prolonged rollout of his government’s stimulus package – particularly the “Building the Education Revolution” (BER) component. Although the government probably has its political hands full with a few other things just at the moment, it would be surprising if it didn’t have one eye on the inflation outlook when deciding precisely when to call this year’s election.

As a result of the continuing financial instability in Europe and the recent flight of investors away from the Australian dollar, the RBA Board decided to leave the cash rate as is at this morning’s meeting, bucking the recent trend (three consecutive 0.25% increases in the last three months):

In Australia, with the high level of the terms of trade expected to add to incomes and demand, output growth over the year ahead is likely to be about trend, even though the effects of earlier expansionary policy measures will be diminishing. Inflation appears likely to be in the upper half of the target zone over the next year.

Consistent with that outlook, and as a result of actions at previous meetings, interest rates to borrowers are around their average levels of the past decade, which is a significant adjustment from the very expansionary settings reached a year ago.

Despite the comment on inflation, it seems likely that with global financial instability still floating around in the short-term, the RBA is unlikely to be too adventurous on interest rates in the next few months. Could this be the carrot that Federal Labor decides to seize on and call a August election?

ELSEWHERE: Antony Green’s excellent analysis from January this year corroborates this thesis, suggesting that an August poll date is starting to look odds-on.

Liberal Party knives out on asylum seekers

The Coalition has been sticking its knives into the Rudd Government in recent months on asylum seekers, and a lot of the knives have been sticking. It is undoubtedly the case that significant push factors have been in play in recent years that haven’t been there previously, but I think its equally fair to say that the government has done a poor job of managing its communications on immigration issues. In its efforts to sell the humanity of its policies to progressive voters locally, Federal Labor has probably not done enough to present a relatively firm (but fair) line to the international community. On this score, tomorrow’s episode of Insight on SBS should prove interesting:

This week an alleged people smuggler speaks exclusively to Insight about why he thinks more boats are arriving. And his comments are explosive.

“People see Australia as easy. After three or four months it’s done.  The important thing is we definitely get citizenship.  We will become Australian citizens immediately.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm Turnbull has emerged from the backbench to remind Tony Abbott he is still around, sticking in a few knives into his own team for good measure:

Referring to the Coalition’s announcement on boatpeople, Mr Turnbull said “ideally” new policies should go to the partyroom. He said push factors played an enormous role.

“There are literally millions and millions of people who have refugee status or would if they arrived in Australia and sought refugee status be granted it under the UN rules,” Mr Turnbull said. ” So the push factor is gigantic.”

The Federal Government needs to get on top of this issue, or it stands the possibility of copping a real pasting as the election draws near. It needs to come up with a fundamentally new approach that retains the essential humanity that the centre-left want from Labor, whilst making it quite clear beyond our borders that we can only accept genuine claims for asylum, and we can only accept so many.

The government’s current approach is, unfortunately, dysfunctional.