Sunday, July 18, 2010

Australian federal election called for August 21

NEITHER party is inspiring much confidence as we head to an election.
THE stage for the election campaign has been set, even if the date isn't yet known. But for voters the choice between the major parties won't be an easy one. Neither side inspires confidence to become custodians of the national interest for the three years ahead.
On the one hand people don't think Tony Abbott is ready to become prime minister, and his team isn't ready to sit confidently around a cabinet table. Even some Liberals think a return to government this year would be too soon.
But after a full term of bungled policy implementation by the Labor government, voters know the incumbents aren't worthy of holding on to office either.
Labor had hoped its first-term problems would fade into the background once Julia Gillard assumed the prime ministership. But her early mistake of signposting East Timor as a solution to Australia's refugee "problem", without even discussing the idea with the fledgling nation, has highlighted that a change of leader doesn't always bring with it a change of culture.
Do we back a government to win a second term despite its record, and in spite of Gillard's early stumbles? Or should we support an opposition carrying too much dead wood that also hasn't learned the lessons of its own defeat just three years ago?
This kind of dilemma usually favours incumbents, by virtue of voters deciding to stick with the devil they know rather than gamble on change. But 2010 is less certain because the devil we knew was Rudd, and he was ousted in a bloody coup a few weeks ago.
While the injection of Gillard had the potential to give Labor a fresh start in the wake of Rudd's growing unpopularity, the danger after her poor start is that the hard choice of deposing a first-term PM which would have been put on voters has already been taken by the parliamentary Labor Party.
Gillard risks not getting the benefit of the doubt if she doesn't lift her game.
Abbott has started spruiking the idea that he is a ready-made alternative PM with cabinet experience, and his team is a ready made alternative government because a number of shadow ministers served as ministers under John Howard's leadership.
The message is you can go back to the essence of the Howard government if you think the Rudd experiment didn't work. It is designed to lull voters into a sense of security if they vote for the Coalition. But Abbott's construct is highly misleading.
The big names from the Howard era have all gone, and those left who do have ministerial experience were very much the 2nd XI from the last Coalition government.
Howard centralised power at the top, and relied on a small number of senior ministers for key decision making. The Howard government was run out of the Prime Minister's Office and only his press secretary from that time is now employed in Abbott's office.
The PMO functioned with the assistance of a small group of ministers: Peter Costello, Alexander Downer, John Anderson, Nick Minchin, Mark Vaile and Abbott. With the exception of Abbott these names are going or gone, and Abbott was widely identified as the loose cannon of the group, only part of it because he was ideologically close to Howard.
In earlier incarnations of Howard's regime there were other senior figures on the inner sanctum such as Peter Reith, but they had already retired before the Coalition's final term in power.
I can't tell you the number of times senior Liberals interviewed for John Howard's biography told me stories from cabinet about instances when the former PM had to put an end to a discussion initiated by Abbott because he thought it was too impractical to even contemplate.
Those instances were relayed to me for the biography in a context where an Abbott ascension to the leadership was unlikely.
But with Abbott now leader, it will be much harder for remaining Liberals on the front bench (and remember few of them carried authority from the Howard years) to scoff at his ideas.
If Abbott wins the next election he would have unparalleled authority even for a Liberal leader. Defeating a one-term government, including forcing Labor to replace a previously popular PM, would set Abbott up as the ultimate political messiah.
If Liberals thought Howard was a dominant PM, an Abbott prime ministership so soon after being forced into the political wilderness would dwarf Howard's one-time authority.
How much more strident he might become with that kind of authority concerns some Liberals, moderates in particular. We have already caught a glimpse of it with Abbott's rhetoric on boatpeople: the armada coming our way, the peaceful invasion threatening our national security. More important than internal Liberal concerns is the fact Labor has identified some voters are concerned what an Abbott prime ministership might bring.
There is no doubt that Labor is trying to exploit the potential of the characterisation of Abbott as a risky PM with voters still making up their minds. That's why every time Labor backbenchers are wheeled out for television and radio interviews they diligently run the lines the central office has given them; lines tested in qualitative focus groups with swing voters, distributed each morning.
"Abbott is a risk", "Abbott is a danger", "Abbott is a threat". The lines are all about putting enough doubt in voters' minds such that they stick with the devil they know and vote Labor. "He'll bring back Work Choices" (as if Abbott's that politically stupid), "he's too religiously extremist" (this point is usually implied lest Labor upset religiously conservative voters), "he's Mark Latham in waiting" (they tried this line on Malcolm Turnbull too).
What must worry Labor MPs is that if you don't like Abbott, and don't like his hard Right views on issues (as I often don't), the worst thing you can do is meet him. He is hard not to like. An election campaign has the potential to widen that view to the general public, so long as Abbott doesn't blow up like he did on the 2007 election trail.
The constant attacks are designed to ensure this doesn't happen.
When Abbott was elected Liberal leader by just one vote in his showdown with Turnbull, staffers in Rudd's office literally started high fiveing each other in the corridors. They brandished around research which showed Abbott couldn't have started with a worse set of negatives. It was literally off the charts.
But in the end it counted for little. Rudd is gone and Abbott has a genuine chance at the election. Whether the election ends up being close or a blowout, one thing is certain: it is going to be a good contest. But for those of us who would have liked a campaign where the deciding issue in people's minds when they walked into polling booths was more than choosing the lesser of evils, this won't be a campaign to enjoy.

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