Eleven months after its election, the Abbott government has an early-onset case of the mid-term blues.
Not for this government the heady heights of 2008, when Kevin Rudd’s popularity was bumping against the stratosphere.
Nor is the Abbott government enjoying the sort of first term that John Howard experienced. At roughly this point in John Howard’s tenure, for instance, the Coalition was leading the opinion polls in two-party preferred terms.
Nothing that positive can be said about the Coalition’s polling right now. The latest Newspoll is rather better than the dismal polling after the release of Joe Hockey’s disastrous budget, but it still has the Coalition trailing Labor 48-52 in two-party preferred terms.
Polls go up and polls go down, as the politicians say. But the polling for the Coalition since taking office has always been poor. It has never enjoyed a honeymoon. Moreover, Tony Abbott’s preferred prime minister ratings are only barely leading Bill Shorten, and his approval rating is mired in negative territory. This is an unpopular government, led by an unpopular Prime Minister.
The unpopularity of the Abbott government is important context for its policymaking just now. In the manner of struggling governments through the ages, the Coalition is starting to make bad decisions driven by short-term needs.
Last week was a good example. Prime Minister Abbott’s three-part announcement regarding internet surveillance, counter-terrorism laws and the dropping of proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act was clearly intended as a political pivot, away from the unpopular budget, and towards matters of foreign policy and national security.
Thus, the climb-down on the controversial amendments to the RDA was explained as being about keeping Australia’s Islamic community onside as the government moves to bring in far more stringent counter-terror and internet surveillance laws.
“When it comes to counter-terrorism, everyone needs to be part of Team Australia,” Mr Abbott said last week. “And I have to say that the government’s proposals to change 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act have become a complication in that respect.”
As we’ve argued here before, the changes to the RDA were always a sop to the right-wing power base, represented prominently on the Liberal Party’s back bench, and to influential columnist Andrew Bolt in particular.
The decision by Abbott to drop the amendments has enraged the right-wingers, who have mounted a public campaign on the issue in the wake of the decision. But any such campaign is likely to win little purchase in the general community, which has repeatedly shown its disdain and bewilderment for the government’s desire to protect the rights of bigots.
Nor is the Islamic community particularly impressed by the decision to link their opposition to the Racial Discrimination Act to the proposed new terror laws. The Arab Council of Australia’s Randa Kattan told Fairfax’s Karlis Salna that “on one hand [Tony Abbott is] saying ‘we recognise that these [laws]have been problematic and the community has made it clear that they're against the laws but at the same time let's point the finger at particular communities, let's point the finger and play into the prejudices against Arabs and Muslims’”.
There does seem to be something tawdry about saying Australian Muslims need to be on a national unity ticket, particularly one as risible as “Team Australia.” As Waleed Aly pointed out in a column over the weekend, it appears as though the government thinks it is striking a bargain on the issue: “18c would be left alone as a fig leaf for Muslims; a kind of transfer fee for their recruitment to “Team Australia.”
The link is all the more bizarre because, as Aly rightly observes, the Racial Discrimination Act doesn’t even protect Muslims. It doesn’t cover religious discrimination at all.
On the other hand, the government clearly believes that pivoting towards issues of national security and terror will move the political debate onto more congenial territory. Perhaps, encouraged by temporary applause the Prime Minister has won for his foreign policy in the wake of the MH17 tragedy, Abbott is off on a trip to the Netherlands, where he will continue to play the statesman in an attempt to recapture the elusive advantages of incumbency.
Whether that will work in the medium term is very much open to question. The internet surveillance proposals would not be most people’s idea of an intrinsically populist policy. Does anyone really want George Brandis poking about in their inbox?
On the face of it, tougher terror laws seem a safer bet, at least ensuring positive coverage in the Murdoch tabloids. But as the Howard government discovered during the Mohamed Haneef affair, tough terror laws also remove the judicial safeguards that can prevent nasty scandals from blowing up.
Whatever the policies it proposes, the Coalition will need to perform better than it has this past week if it is to convince ordinary Australians of their value. As the gaffes and distractions related to the two other announcements of last week show, the government continues to prove itself incapable of basic discipline or elementary political messaging.
One would have thought, for instance, that when announcing sweeping new surveillance laws that would enable Australian spy agencies to spy on everyone’s internet activity, the government would do its homework and at least be able to explain what those laws would do.
There was no such clarity from Attorney-General George Brandis, whose train wreck interview with Sky News’ David Spears quickly came to define the government’s bumbling communication of the new proposals. The revelation that Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose portfolio will obviously be profoundly affected by the new proposals, was not told about the decision beforehand, has hardly cleared up the dominant impression of policy being made on the run.
Brandis is rapidly becoming a political liability for the Coalition. A doctrinaire lawyer with a high-handed style, Brandis has struggled to communicate his policies since taking office. It was his memorable justification of the RDA changes – that “people do have a right to be bigots” – that derailed the 18c amendments in the first place. Brandis looks a good candidate for a reshuffle, should one eventuate later in this term.
Unfortunately for Tony Abbott, Brandis is not the only front-bencher struggling with the responsibilities of government. As the Canberra Times’ Jack Waterford perceptively observed on the weekend, there are plenty of ministers out there suffering gaffe attacks at the moment. Joe Hockey has been annoying colleagues by launching a congratulatory biography, Kevin Andrews has been pushing his pet project of marriage counseling vouchers, while Eric Abetz gave a bizarre interview suggesting that abortions are linked to cancer.
So weird were the Abetz comments, some commentators have argued that they were a clever ploy to move the debate sideways, once it became clear that data retention was not going to be well received. According to Paula Matthewson, wheeling out Abetz was a deliberate strategy to distract progressives from the data retention controversy: “just the circuit-breaker needed to reset the outrage machine on social media and provide a whole new story arc for its limpet media.”
If that is indeed the case, then the government’s media tacticians might well have kicked an own goal. Given his well-publicised issues with female voters, the last thing Tony Abbott needs is for the abortion debate to resurface. On any analysis, the government’s interests would be better served by damping down the sport-fires over internet surveillance, and maintaining the MH17 side-show.
In the longer term, some strategic retreats on the more unpopular elements of the budget may also make sense for the government – for instance, on university fee deregulation, which Labor seems to have decided is the key issue it will campaign on in the second half of the year. A cabinet reshuffle may also be in preparation.
There will be plenty more maneuvering, one suspects, as the government tries to combat its mid-term malaise.
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