It’s difficult for oppositions to win the media game.
As many shattered parties have discovered in the past, not all publicity is good publicity; particularly if the focus of the media circus is on internal disunity and policy splits. On the other hand, newly defeated parties take a while to adjust to the fact that the agenda is inevitably set by the government, and only if they’re lucky can they get a quick sound bite in at the end of a TV news segment. You need to have something sharp to communicate, and you need to say it sharply. That’s why opposition leaders have often fallen by the wayside for want of the ability to "cut through". Prolixity and prevarication do not a pithy political message make.
The Nelson Liberals probably won’t be consigned to the near invisibility many of their State counterparts suffer. But they’re showing every sign of making an incredibly messy transition to Opposition. And while Dennis Atkins, writing in The Courier-Mail on Saturday, is quite right to say that John Howard departed the national consciousness almost simultaneously with his election defeat, the former PM’s industrial relations crusade continues to haunt the Liberals.
An insight into the dilemmas confronting the conservatives came last week with the leak – initially to the Sunday Telegraph – of "strategy documents" prepared for the Party’s leadership by Melbourne political consultant Don D’Cruz, a former employee of the Institute of Public Affairs. They were published in full online by The Australian on Wednesday.
To suggest that the advice in question was confused – and confusing – is an understatement. The suggestion that the Libs should cosy up to the union movement and push for a faster implementation of the WorkChoices phase-out than Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard proposed before the election falls into the "too clever by half" basket. And the idea that doing so would orchestrate some sort of wages breakout which could then be pinned on Labor gives the game away: as well as politically inept, the plan is staggeringly hypocritical.
The episode is enormously revelatory of the self-inflicted wounds the Nelson Liberals are staggering under.
First, the Party’s responses to the role of WorkChoices in its electoral defeat last November have consistently played into Labor’s terms of debate. Any opposition at all to Labor’s workplace changes faces being painted as a desire to defend the Howardian relics of the past; whether it’s unfair dismissals or a convoluted plan to preserve in aspic the Howard IR agenda up to 2006, as pushed by Deputy Leader and Workplace Relations Shadow Minister Julie Bishop. Whichever way the Opposition seeks to tinker with Julia Gillard’s bill when it reaches the Senate, they’ve already well and truly snookered themselves.
Secondly, the messenger appears to be as much a problem as the message. Shorn of all the "strategic" bells and whistles, D’Cruz’s amateurish dot points are pushing a predictable, ideological line.
Regardless of one’s views on microeconomic theory, the electorate sent one message loud and clear on 24 November last year. John Howard got it absolutely right when he warned that a Labor victory would the repudiation of the project of ongoing IR "reform". There’s rarely been a clearer verdict in Australian electoral history than the verdict on WorkChoices.
No amount of crazybrave strategic positioning can disguise D’Cruz’s ultimate view that Howard didn’t go far enough in deregulating workplace relations. Rightly or wrongly, any acceptance by the Libs of his advice would signal an underlying desire to go further down the free market road in IR, and provide Labor with enormous amounts of material for future negative campaigning. Hard as it may seem at the moment, the Libs have to do the hard work of policy thinking themselves.
Thirdly – and crucially – by painting themselves into a corner on IR and WorkChoices, the Libs have disabled their own ability to be constructively critical.
There is no doubt that Labor’s Forward With Fairness agenda isn’t an ideal template for workplace reform. Rudd and Gillard offered too many hostages to fortune in the race to secure political support – both to the union movement and to placate business opposition in the lead up to the election. The policy is still terribly complex, it’s weak in areas like gender equity, and questions remain in the productivity field. That’s only a quick overview of areas where the new government’s agenda is lacking, and there will be much scope for legitimate criticism when the detail is forthcoming.
But it would appear that the Libs have discarded their capacity to add anything constructive to the debate – through a combination of an inability to understand that the shibboleths of the Howard era can no longer be defended, and an inability to think outside the square in both policy and political terms. Getting the albatross off their backs by quietly voting for the legislation, without any D’Cruz-style plan to entrap Labor, might be their last remaining viable move in this particular political game.
This article has been edited from its original form for accuracy.
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