With the chills of winter shivering up and down the east coast, federal politics has returned to its natural environment. Not Parliament, but rather the endless cycle of media opportunities, speeches to functions and round-tables with interest groups. This is the stuff of daily politics: the business breakfasts, the community events, the door-stop media conferences.
On Thursday, for instance, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott was giving a so-called "Landmark Speech" to the Pratt Foundation in Melbourne. The idea appeared to be to set out some of the big-picture aspects of what an Abbott prime ministership would look like, much as John Howard gave a series of "headland" speeches in the run-up to the 1996 election.
Abbott promised big, but delivered small; a speech closer to a road sign than a landmark. Only two relatively small policy areas were dealt with in any detail, and the bigger picture remains hopelessly confused.
Abbott did discuss a couple of specific policy areas: an Aboriginal jobs compact to train 1000 Indigenous workers for guaranteed jobs, and a new law enforcement council at COAG that would combine the current Attorneys-General and Police talking shops. Although worthy, these are minor policy announcements.
Beyond that, he mainly reworked old policy ideas, such as his 2010 idea to have public hospitals run by local community councils, or his gold-plated paid parental leave scheme. He restated his commitment to mutual obligation for the long-term unemployed, and to tightening eligibility for the disability pension.
Compared to Abbott’s relentless negativity in his daily press conferences, it was at least a speech about what he plans to do in government, rather than about what the Gillard Government is doing wrong.
On the big-picture stuff, Abbott’s speech was characteristically confused, even dishonest. For instance, there were repeated references to the need for Australia to maintain its traditions of small government:
"The next election is set to be more than usually significant for Australia’s future: it will confirm that we are now set on the continental European path of higher taxes, growing debt and bigger government; or it will restore the Hawke/Keating/Howard consensus that government should operate to empower individuals and communities rather than itself," Abbott stated early on.
Of course, this is a grossly misleading statement. As the budget papers tell us, the Rudd-Gillard years have actually seen exceptionally restrained government spending. Australia’s government spending is now lower, as a proportion of the size of the Australian economy, than the Howard or Keating years.
And when it comes to the policy details, Abbott could offer up no examples of government programs or welfare payments that should be cut. Indeed, he spent a lot of time talking about his paid parental leave scheme, an exceptionally generous policy that would see working parents paid up to $75,000 a year, financed by a significant increase in company tax. Unsurprisingly, Abbott didn’t mention the tax hike to big business that will pay for the scheme.
Comparing Abbott’s speech on Thursday evening to Howard’s from 1995 is instructive. The amount of policy detail and the command of that detail that Howard was able to canvass appears impressive in hindsight, especially in comparison with the diminished current standards of political debate.
Howard was capable of discussing areas of economic reform such as coastal shipping, productivity on the waterfront, or industrial relations reform with considerable detail and nuance. In contrast, Abbott’s airy pronouncements ("wealth, after all, has to be created before it can be redistributed") sound great, but enjoy no particular anchor in fact. Australia’s economy growing at 4.3 per cent? Not in Abbott-land.
Of course, while most polls show that Australians show no great liking for Tony Abbott, they also show that the Coalition is still comfortably besting the Australian Labor Party on all measures of electoral support. Gillard and Labor will enjoy few breaks from the pressure and the scrutiny between now and the next election, no matter how well the economy performs.
The Prime Minister is close to a lame duck. Her troubling lack of political capital is highlighted by the desultory interest in what should be a major set-piece event this week, an economic forum held from today in Brisbane. Despite gathering more than "130 leading Australians, from government, business, unions and the wider community to discuss Australia’s future in the global economy," Gillard can’t actually get Queensland Premier Campbell Newman to turn up. Newman has labelled the forum a "talkfest".
"The Premier is of the belief that if the Federal Government wanted to get the economy going, it would get rid of the carbon tax and the mining tax and streamline the approvals process rather than hold more talkfests," Newman’s spokesman told the Courier-Mail.
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett is not going either because the WA Parliament is sitting. The absence of the leaders of the two main resource states highlights the difficulties Gillard faces in managing a decidedly negative political environment. It also shows the contempt that those on the right of politics feel for the current Prime Minister.
And yet, if federal Labor is up to it, it has a distinctly positive story to tell. Last week’s astonishing economic good news has stunned most economic forecasters, and many in the business community. It also presents the government with a difficult but precious opportunity to try and reframe the political narrative.
I don’t subscribe to the "last chance" theories of political doom regarding the Gillard Government, but the emerging understanding that the domestic economy really is in good shape represents Labor’s best chance, if not exactly its last.
As Possum Comitatus observes in a recent blog post about "what Australians believe", the Australian community is far to the left of the contemporary public debate on key economic issues like privatisation, globalisation, the size of government and the role of government in regulating big business.
If the recent poll data gathered by Possum is right, the so-called "Labor values" that we hear so much talk of in government circles might just track the beliefs of ordinary Australians far more closely than the small government rhetoric emanating from the likes of Joe Hockey.
While Australians remain deeply confused about many aspects of the economy — an amazing 24 per cent of Coalition voters think interest rates are higher now than they were under John Howard — the outlines of a comeback narrative can be read in the tea-leaves, if anyone in the government is brave enough to try.
A lurch to the left on issues like bank taxes and regulations, publicly-funded infrastructure, a Tobin tax, health and education, and support for manufacturing, would offer Labor a chance to sharpen the differences between itself and the opposition, and perhaps start to cut through to voters who have given up listening.
It isn’t enough to rebut the unpopularity of the carbon tax and Labor’s home insulation and Building the Education Revolution programs. Labor also needs to turn the blowtorch back onto Tony Abbott with a proper scare campaign on what an Abbott government would really do to government services.
The stakes are high. Whether this government has the ability to convey a simple message that can reach voters in 2013 will determine whether Labor faces electoral wipe-out or not. There’s enough "reality" out there to shape a compelling message in the government’s favour.
Julia Gillard’s recent blog post shows that at least someone in the government seems to understand the opportunities. But does the government possess the narrative ability to shape a simple message and communicate it to voters? Is there even an audience willing to listen?
After all, given the strength of the economy and the desperate political status of the Government, it might be argued that Labor has nothing to lose. On the other hand, in the modern Australian Labor Party, things can always get worse.
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