8 Sep 2013

Look At Tony Now

By Ben Eltham

Tony Abbott has come a long way. Ben Eltham on how the Coalition pulled off such a convincing victory - and the bright spots for progressives

Tony Abbott will be the 28th Prime Minister of Australia.

Around that simple, central fact hangs much history, and many questions for the future. 

What sort of government will Tony Abbott run? Will he establish a decade-long hegemony like his mentor John Howard? What is the future for the environment, for health, for education? While we’re talking futures, does Labor have one? Are the Greens still growing, or have they plateaued? How to explain the popularity of the Palmer United Party?

The next three years will tell us.

To the victor, the spoils. Australian voters have unambiguously cast their votes for change. Out goes Labor. In comes Tony Abbott’s Coalition.

Politics is increasingly presidential. But even allowing for that trend, for the Prime Minister-elect, this is a moment to savour.

In 2009, when he took the Liberal leadership by a single vote, the Coalition was wandering in the political wilderness. Kevin Rudd was one of the most popular prime ministers in history, and conservative politics seemed hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream of Australian society. Discredited by WorkChoices and divided over carbon, the Coalition seemed at odds with an increasingly social democratic nation. Abbott himself, a conservative Catholic, seemed particularly ill suited to middle Australia.

Look at Tony now. 

In under four years, Abbott has destroyed a Labor government and extiguished the political fortunes of two prime ministers. Now he is Prime Minister himself.

This morning, many in Labor may feel slightly relieved. After all, the ALP “saved the furniture”, holding many safe seats and preserving future leadership talent like Chris Bowen, Tony Burke and Kate Ellis.

That’s an altogether too optimistic reading of last night’s verdict. If Abbott governs with the political skill he showed in opposition, Labor will not form government for a very long time.

How did this happen?

Let’s start with a maxim that seems to have wide currency in 2013: oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

It’s a meaningless dogma, of course: the very nature of Australia’s Westminster system of politics means that there can be only one winner, who takes all. Whether the government loses or the opposition wins, the result is still the same.

So did Labor lose, or the Coalition win? The answer, of course, is both.

In any election, there are a number of dimensions in which victory and defeat can be analysed. For the sake of a bit of clarity this Sunday morning, let’s delineate four: the tactical, the strategic, the political, and the philosophical. If we break the 2013 campaign down into these four ideas, perhaps we can get a better handle on the final result.

Tactics is the short-term and immediate machinery of a campaign. Tactics is ground-level and short-term. It covers everything from the placement of lecterns to the roll-out of advertising. The 24-hour media cycle, the mosh pit of social media and the minute-to-minute reaction to sudden crises: this is tactics.

Strategy is the big picture. It describes the route to electoral victory for each party, and shapes the top line message that leaders use to explain to convince voters. Strategy is long-term and highly focused. As Richard Rumelt writes in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, good strategy is simple, but rare. Many companies, political parties and media campaigns do not have strategies. They have a bunch of goals. “Or, worse,” he writes, “a set of vague aspirations.”

Politics and philosophy exist on a different plane to tactics and strategy, even if they are sometimes confused. Politics is often thought to be tactical, but it can be very strategic. Philosophy is often confused with strategy, but in fact is best described as strategy’s goal. Politics is a domain of action: the use of legislative and symbolic power. Philosophy, in this sense, is best thought of as the dream of a better society, whether that means more freedom, more fairness, or more sustainability.

These four ideas help us understand the Coalition’s triumph.

Tactically, the Liberal team of Abbott, Brian Loughnane, Peta Credlin, Mark Textor and the rest easily bested Labor’s shambolic campaign. The Coalition “won” more days during the campaign than Labor did, a metric easily established by the fact that Labor actually polled worse on election day than it did at the beginning of the campaign.

The Coalition ran a very traditional opposition campaign. The focus was kept tightly on the government and its failings, and mistakes were minimised. The targets were swinging and disengaged voters, which is why the Coalition tailored Tony Abbott’s media appearances to television – still the key conduit for middle Australia.

Labor’s campaign was rather different. A rollercoaster of ups and downs, swings and roundabouts, Kevin Rudd's travelling circus effectively usurped the Labor campaign hierarchy in Melbourne. In contrast to the Coalition's discipline, Labor's campaign seemed to be run largely from the Prime Minister’s plane, by his long-time friend Bruce Hawker. But even Hawker was unable to keep Kevin Rudd from rambling in media conferences, or pushing deadlines, or making policy up at a minute’s notice. Labor spent days explaining Kevin’s random thought bubbles, like the northern Australia tax zone or the relocation of the Garden Island naval base. That was time that could have been spent attacking Tony Abbott and selling Labor’s third term agenda.

Which brings us to strategy. Like all good strategy, the Coalition’s was deceptively simple. Tony Abbott focused on winning, and he shaped every tactic and bent all the Coalition’s resources towards that end. Where events, policies or colleagues intervened in a way that might have threatened that victory, Abbott and his leadership team either sidestepped or co-opted them.

The way the Coalition handled the potentially tricky issue of its policy costings is a good example. While the media obsessed over the opacity of the Coalition’s numbers, Abbott and his team stuck to the basics. They knew that ordinary voters don’t really care about costings. What they care about is competence in government. The key argument to win was precisely that of competence and stability, which Abbott and his team have relentlessly repeated for years now. Once that debate was won, the Coalition was able to delay its final costings document until two days before the election, giving Labor no ammunition to attack it.

Did Labor have a strategy? If it did, it was hard to discern. Labor was always going to be hindered by its dismal record of infighting and the unavoidable fact that it deposed two sitting prime ministers without democratic vote. For all of this, it might have been possible for Kevin Rudd to craft a coherent message to convince voters to return his government. But Labor could never settle on one. Was it “a new way”, a positive message of hope, in contrast to the old politics of bitter negativity? Or was it an attack on the Coalition's spending cuts and the potentially devastating impacts of an Abbott government? Labor tried to have it both ways.

Consequently, Labor’s strategy was hopelessly conflicted.

True believers might have hoped for a positive message campaigning on Labor’s second term achievements – even if most of them were legislated under Julia Gillard. Hard-nosed veterans would probably have plumped for a simple attack campaign against Abbott. In the end, Labor couldn’t do either.

If we synthesise the tactics and the strategy in the realm of politics, it's easier to see why Tony Abbott was ascendant. The Coalition’s strategy was better. So were its tactics. Ably assisted by an astonishingly partisan press, Abbott was able to manipulate the media cycle and win the day-to-day political contests. But the Coalition kept its eye on the prize. Unlike Labor, tactics never over-rode the big picture goal of winning government.

Conversely, Labor drifted and stumbled. Unsure of its strategy, chaotic in its tactics, Labor remained crippled by what should have been its greatest strength: incumbency. Confusion reigned. Rudd and his team never solved the riddle of how to present the ALP’s two terms in government. As a result, Labor was at many points campaigning against itself. The low point might have been Labor’s opportunistic attack against the carbon tax, in which Rudd’s decsiison to move to a floating price for the emissions trading scheme early was presented baldly (and untruthfully) as “Kevin Rudd and Labor abolished the carbon tax.”

It is when we turn to the philosophy of the major parties that interesting questions about the next parliament emerge. Many have focused on what – if anything – the contemporary ALP stands for. But the same question might equally be asked of the Liberal Party under Tony Abbott.

As a friend of mine remarked to me last night, whatever the wailing and gnashing of teeth to be seen on the left of politics, there are plenty of Liberals bemused and concerned about what Tony Abbott will do in government. 

While he is often portrayed as a hardline right-winger, in fact Abbott is closer to a big government conservative. His ambivalence towards markets, his Catholic faith and his roots in the old DLP are all hints pointing to a rather different sort of Liberal politician. Abbott is by no means a doctrinaire free marketer: in fact, he appears to be quite ready to consider the use of state power for social and ideological ends. Just as much as despondent progressives, dry Liberals will be in for a wild ride.

For its part, the venerable Australian Labor Party must also come to terms with the contradictions of its political philosophy.

Does Labor stand for a fairer society? In that case, its reflexive claims to neoliberal orthodoxy are hard to square. Does Labor believe in a safe climate, a healthy environment and a sustainable society? In that case, its commitment to economic growth as the primary tool for redistributing wealth must also be reconsidered.  

Ideology does matter. Philosophical differences, not evidence, drive the big debates in our society, such as climate change and the role of government. When Labor refuses to engage in these debates, it shouldn’t be surprised when they are framed in ways that hurt it. If Labor had fought and won the debate about stimulus and deficit, for instance, it might have found itself better able to answer the Coalition’s relentless attacks on its economic management.

For now, though, these are discussions that Labor can indulge in at its leisure. Government has passed to the Coalition. It will fall to Labor to oppose Tony Abbott’s agenda, and work towards re-election, probably in 2019.

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Posted Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 14:44

2019? Too soon, I'm afraid. Maybe 2022, but if he governs with O'Farrell-style moderation it could well be longer.

Also, the damage Rudd has done to Labor will take a long time to repair. Labor, if and when it returns to government will be a very different beast to the one we have now, 

The Liberal Party is being run as an increasingly professional machine. One indication of that is that the quality of their candidates is improving overall. This is just one aspect Labor must improve. Interviews with Labor MPs on election night showed us a lot of people who did not have the capacity to contribute beyond their electorates.

Posted Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 16:00

Does incumbency still give an advantage? It gives the Opposition things to complain about. As Tony Abbott has shown the complaints don't have to be true: "worst government ever", "bad economic managers", "cost of living pressures". They just have to be repeated without mercy.

And when it comes to an opposition's own plan for government, say as little as possible until the end. And perhaps not even then. Andrew Robb is saying on Insiders today the mining boom will effectively re start overnight now the government has changed.

In government, you have to deal with reality, in oppostion, fantasy will do. Labor should adopt these proven tactics from day one.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. douglas jones
Posted Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 18:10

But what does this say about democracy?

An informed electorate (by the media?), interested and active in ensuring the vote means something, concerned for self but a little left for the bigger picture society foreign relations environment form of economy.

Or, one as this article implies, accepting of lies and media propaganda generally unconcerned for much beyond the immediate horizon, easily manipulated and generally ignorant ill equiped to analyse & fact check.

Sure the tactitions even strategists in the coalition camp realised this. So if several had  ministerial status, somehow, a sportsman or billionaire, a foolish government and indiffferent media these folk could change the Government simply by mouthing with every utterance, incompetent chaotic blah blah, a female would help.

So much for democracy! 

Posted Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 18:43

The idiots who voted for Abbott deserve all the chaos that his prime ministership will bring them.

The pity is that the principal victim will be the environment, which, after all, didn't vote for him.

Posted Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 20:26

Suck it up lefties, if you don't like it move to another country, perhaps North Korea where you can live in a socialist utopia.

Posted Sunday, September 8, 2013 - 23:50

The fat lady has sung and we have a new Government and a new Prime Minister.

Time will tell how they will perform, but they do deserve a chance to implement their policies without fighting a cynical rearguard battle in the Senate

Sadly there will be a conga-line of rusted-on true believers who will continue tha fight rather than get on with the job of working together for the benefit of our Nation.

Interesting that the spin-masters have already been wielding their black magic - evident by the uniform declaration that Labor lost the election because of their internal dysfunctions.

I do hope that, behind closed doors at least, there is some acknowledgement that lies during the campaign (and proven to be lies!), policy-on-the run, crazy-brave policies, dropped policies and a jaw-droping series of failures to implement policies just might have had an influence.

Otherwise they're just kidding themselves.

Anyway that's one man's thoughts

JV @ l'Attitude in Cairns

El Tel
Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 05:12

One post-election question that South Australians may be able to answer. What is so bad about Nick Xenophon? His Nick Xenophon Group got 25.88% of the Senate vote in SA, second highest after the Liberals, and higher than Labor, yet he did not get two Senators elected. Looking at this in more detail, it turns out that both Labor and the Greens preferenced Family First ahead of Xenophon's running mate, and the Greens preferenced the No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics ahead of him. As a result, Family First have a SA Senator elected on Greens' preferences.

I know enough about Family First, which had Steve Fielding as a Senator from 2004-10, to know they would seem to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Greens, or Labor Senators such as Penny Wong in SA. So what then is apparently worse about Nick Xenophon? From my observations of his time in the Senate, he does not appear particularly radical either way, and clearly has a local following in SA, like Andrew Wilkie has in Tasmania, or Tony Windsor used to have in New England?

Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 08:35

PM-elect Tony Abobott will remain in power for 2 terms or more if the Australian Labor Party (ALP) remains a Labor voter- and Labor values-betraying,  pro-coal, pro-gas, anti-environment, anti-science, pro-war, pro-Zionist, human rights-violating, US lackey Alternative Liberal Party, Another Liberal Party, American Lackey Party, Austrlaian Lying Party and Anti-environment Lavbor Party. .

Tony Abbott is set for life if Labor elects  as Labor leader  right-winger Bill Shorten who utterly and crucially betrayed 2 successive Labor PMs and who wanted to invest Australians' hard-won superannuation in the nuclear terrorist, racist Zionist-run, democracy-by-genocide Apartheid Israel, a rogue state based on mass murder, gross human rights abuse,  theft and mendacity (see Gideon Polya, “Open Letter to Media & MPs re pro-Zionist Labor & Apartheid Israel threat to Australian superannuation funds”, Australians for Palestine, 27 May 2012: http://www.australiansforpalestine.net/63762 ).

There are 3 crucial things that the Real Opposition Leader (Greens MP Adam Bandt) must endlessly stress:

1. Climate criminal Lib-Lab climate change inaction - Labor essentially abolished a Carbon Price during thre Election Campaign (reducing it from $25 per tonne CO2-e to a derisory $6 per tonne CO2-e close to the Libs' $0 per tonne CO2-e) and the Coalition's Policy for Resources and Energy" issued in September 2013 made absolutely zero (0) mention of man-made climate change from fossil fuel burning.

2. Tony Abbott and most of his colleagues were part of the Howard Coalition Government that illegally invaded Iraq in 2003. The Iraq War was associated with 1.5 million violent deaths (Google "Just Foreign Policy"), 1.2 million avoidable deaths from war-imposed deprivation, 5-6 million refugees, and 0.8 million under-5 year old Iraqi infant deaths, 90% avoidable and due to horrendous war crimes by the war criminal US Alliance and Australia in gross contravention of the Geneva Convention. The last Australian troops left under PM Julia Gillard. 3 million undeer-5 year old Afghan infants have died under US Alliance and Lib-Lab Australian occupation  (Google "Iraqi Holocaust Iraqi Genocide" and "Afghan Holocasut Afghan Genocide"). Invading other countries  not in self-defence or without UN sanction is a WAR CRIME.

3. Urgent, requisite action and arraignment of Australian Lib-Lab war criminals and climate criminals are pipe dreams  in Murdochracy, Lobbyocracy and Corporatocracy Australia due to malreportage, censorship and lying by omission  by the Mainstream Murdoch media, Fairfax media and bottom-of ther barrel taxpayer-funded MSM like the ABC, the SBS and the endlessly censoring, anti-academic, academic-based The Conversation  - the Greens should set up a science-informed on-line newspaper to counter the neoliberal lies (like an extension of New Matilda; hundreds of scientists and other scholars would give of their expertise for free).

Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 08:46

Oh Horror!

Another politician has been voted into the seats of power.


The problem is not the politician at the head of state, but the power which we ourselves surrender to that state.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Sooz
Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 09:32

The state of political discourse in this country over the last couple of months has made me feel ill. It astounds me that anyone could feel happy about voting for either Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd when both so flagrantly set out to deceive and manipulate us. These are not the hallmarks of a healthy democracy. People like @Aaron above might feel a great victory has been achieved by Tony applying these skills more deftly than Kevin, but actually I think we've all just lost a little bit more of the no BS irreverence that used to make Australians uniquely difficult to manipulate by 'he who would be King' types. I no longer feel like any of the major political players represent me or the better interests of average Australians. Campaigning these days is more akin to the process conducted by reality tv programs than democratic process. It's ugly, but I think representative of our own lack of social responsibility and lack of vision. Why else would someone celebrate their big moment as newly elected leader of the nation by describing Australia in such stunted terms as a 'business'? If this is all the vision we can conjure up for ourselves it will be no surprise if we then cheapen ourselves with a fire-sale mentality. There is so much more grandeur and beauty to Australia than this. Depressing and sad.

Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 10:02

agreed Rockjaw - the problem isn't with which party is in power - it is that people have such power...and absolutely misuse/misapply it without accountability.  SMALL central government and larger local governance would work better, be more democratic and cater to individual needs within each community much better - citizens would have to have more involvement in the collective organisation of their area/country, people in power would have to listen more attentively and act on the voice within their community.

Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 10:04

aaron - whatever, if you think abbott will make much difference except to the already powerful, wealthy minority, then you're an idiot.  For the rest of us life will go on probably pretty much as usualbut with more instability, insecurity, stress and poverty.  That you are happy with that type of scenario is a big statement on your character or lack thereof.  Suck it up buddy...

Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 14:08

Those who say that Labor only needs to repeat the tactics of Tony Abbott and the Liberals in opposition do not understand Australian politics. I hate 'blaming' the media for things, but the fact is that if Labor just kept repeating catch phrases like "waste and mismanagement" and "stop the boats" and "bad government getting worse", the media would call them on it, and pillory them for treating the Australian public like fools.

It is just a matter of fact that the Liberal Party can do this kind of thing, but the Labor Party cannot.

The Labor Party only wins government through being a credible stable alternative. The Liberal Party win government by being the 'default' party when we've had enough of Labor.

So a future strategy for Labor has to be built on the same foundations of their most succesful team - Hawke/Keating.

They have to be able to comfort the business sector that they won't interfere too much, while at the same time appeal to progressives that they stand for something more than laissez faire economic management.

It's actually not a hard thing to do, but the Labor Party needs firm and strong leadership to do it, and ultimately this is where the Labor Party currently fail. Too many of the existing Labor Party administration want to emulate the Liberal Party's strategy of being a small target, and neturalising issues that are problems. The sooner that lot leave, the better.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. asmcrae
Posted Monday, September 9, 2013 - 19:31

but the fact is that if Labor just kept repeating catch phrases like "waste and mismanagement" and "stop the boats" and "bad government getting worse", the media would call them on it, and pillory them for treating the Australian public like fools.

It is just a matter of fact that the Liberal Party can do this kind of thing, but the Labor Party cannot.

Absolutely spot-on, jcleeland. 

This mundane article follows the banal pattern of so many 'mainstream' analyses in that it all but ignores the quite vicious role played by the corporate media, in particular Murdoch's. So pervasive was it during the last few years that many voters had arrived, with the blessing of 'commentators' in articles like this, at the almost irrational belief that Labor was incompetent - the worst government ever. Now Labor may not have lived up to my perpetual hopes, but by conventional judgment they were nothing of the sort, ie. completely incompetent. And that is despite their internecine wars.

In short, coalition failings and real malfeasance were swept under the carpet while Labor misjudgments and failings were blown out of all proportion. Abbott only seems to have been kind of clever because he was allowed to get away with it, literally encouraged; in fact the man is a vapid, moralising bully surrounded by born-to-rule dullards. Three years were spent developing no real policies, and now the removal of the 'carbon tax' is an albatross which will send shock waves throughout the economy and the future. As you say, jcleeland, just suppose Labor had kept on repeating, when it was topical, the mantra, 'No GST'....

I will apportion blame for Labor's defeat arbitrarily - let's say 30% their own fault and 70% to the most relentless hounding out of office seen since 1975. Just a stab. There will be all kinds of reflexive agonising by Labor, spurred on by the punditocracy, but the biggest problem is their paralysing fear of the corporates and the junk media. The first thing they must do is to stand openly and firmly against the rent-seekers and scare-mongers in their development of sound, sensible policies. For example, after six years in office nothing substantial was done about the iniquitous formulation of funding for private schools, or the stacking of the ABC by Howard, or Negative Gearing, or..... 

Posted Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 11:19

Crikey Ben, Cheer up!

The Mad Monk or Tony the Toad has just as much propensity to self-destruct as any0ne else removed from the safe and cosy position of Oppostion to where the "Rubber hits the Road".

There is nothing appealling in his p0licies and his promises have NO roadmap to achievement. The front bench are non-entities with the exception of Turnbull.

The carnivorous Media and Business knocked- off a  Government which had no time to re-establsih itself... e.g. the boats were declining

Labor has to repackage a positive set of policies and target those 3.33 million voters who did not particpate on Saturday.

Palmer will keep the Liberals looking over their shoulder. Seniors and Pensioners were not represented by the major parties. ( 3.2 million over 65years.)

Roll on 2016!!!

Posted Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 11:28

P.S. God in his wisdom has provided an unruly Senate.

Posted Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 11:32

P.S. 2

With 2 quotas will the Electoral Commissioner give Nick X . two votes in the Senate?

Posted Tuesday, September 10, 2013 - 14:58

Labor will not return to government while Rupert Murdoch controls the political agenda.

It behoves academics, journalists, unionists, and voters to demand that we receive a full and free flow of accurate information from the mainstream media so that we are able to make informed political decisions.

Social media can play a vital role, but the problem is that most traffic online is driven by reports in MSM.