Look At Tony Now


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.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.