Nothing Like Talk Of A War To Silence A Small Target Opposition Leader

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Initiative in politics is an important, if nebulous, quality.

In the party political sense – and, like it or not, parliamentary major party politics remains the single most important driver of change in our society – initiative means the freedom of politicians to act: to define the agenda, to move freely across political terrain, to lead rather than follow.

Without the initiative, political parties find it very difficult to gain traction. The appalling spectacle of Julia Gillard’s final year in office is a good example. Despite some clear legislative victories and a world-famous parliamentary oration, the Gillard government’s week-to-week stumbles and pratfalls meant it was rarely in control of its political destiny.

For much of 2014, it has been the Coalition’s turn to experience the vicissitudes of government. Labor has had the initiative.  The turning point was early in May, that disastrous month in which the Coalition allowed the hardline Commission of Audit to confuse and overshadow Joe Hockey’s first budget (which was plenty austere in its own right).

Bogged down in domestic issues, the government has found it tough going ever since. Attention has focused on Joe Hockey – understandably, given the woeful performance of the Treasurer. But the gaffes and stumbles are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise.

Voters don’t want the government to dismantle Australia’s social democracy. The sentiment is apparent in both opinion polls, in the nervous whispers that began to emanate from Coalition backbenchers, and in the ordinary remarks of individual voters.

The Coalition’s trust deficit is exacerbated by the fact that it never promised to radically reshape Australia’s social safety net. Abbott’s much ridiculed promises of “no cuts” to health, education, pensions and the ABC have garnered plenty of coverage since they were broken, but the bigger picture is that by committing to maintaining health and education spending, Abbott appeared to be accepting the social democratic consensus of the Rudd-Gillard years. All that has gone by the wayside.

What did Labor do with that initiative? Worryingly for Bill Shorten and his supporters, the answer appears to be: not much.

That’s important, because the political initiative is shifting back to the government.

Debate rages over whether Shorten’s generally measured and low-key performance as opposition leader is a calculated tactic aimed at keeping the focus on an unpopular government, or merely the result of a lack of retail political talent.

Whatever the reason, one of the outcomes of Shorten’s relaxed style is that the ALP has not landed any serious blows on the government.

In stark contrast to Abbott as opposition leader, Shorten has not made himself into an attack dog, relentlessly tearing at the government’s credibility and performance. Nor has he appointed a suitable colleague to play that role – even when, in Anthony Albanese, a rugged street fighter is close to hand.

In fact, you could make a good case that the government’s most damaging wounds after a year in office have been self-inflicted.

Shorten’s small target strategy is about to meet its first stern test. The reason? War and terror.

The government’s pivot to national security issues was apparent some weeks ago – shortly after the MH17 disaster. When voters seemed to reward Abbott and Julie Bishop for their activist role in responding to the Ukrainian crisis, Abbott and his strategists drew the appropriate conclusions.

The result has been an overt move to make national security the central theme of the Abbott government.

The renewed focus on security issues plays to the Coalition’s clear strength on such issue with voters. This week’s Essential poll, for instance, ranks the government’s performance on a range of issues. “Relations with other countries” ranks top, with a net positive rating of +15 per cent. It’s the only positive, however. The Coalition is polling in the negative for every other issue that Essential tested – even its traditional strength of managing the economy, where it is polling -6 per cent. On social policy issues like health and education, it is polling in the negative 20s.

No wonder the issues of war and terror seem so attractive to the government.

And so the drums of war have started to beat. We’ve committed to a military intervention in Iraq. New anti-terror laws have been announced. The terrorism threat level has been raised (supposedly a decision made by ASIO, rather than the government, but obviously one welcomed by the current administration).

And today we’ve seen the largest counter-terrorism operation in domestic history, with coordinated raids throughout the suburbs of Brisbane and Sydney.

The media has been told that the raids have foiled a plot to kidnap and behead a random citizen, in apparent homage to the televised killing of western journalists by the Islamic State.

Whether this is true, and how much evidence the police have to substantiate the allegation, will only be revealed once those arrested are brought before the courts.

So far, we know only of 22-year old Omarjan Azari, who has been charged with conspiracy to prepare for a terrorist attack.

Given the social media presence of Islamic State, and the well-known tendency for military intervention in the Middle East to radicalize small groups of extremists in western nations, the raids must clearly be taken seriously.

But the political bonus for the government is clear. With a real home-grown terror plot to point to, the scare campaign on Islamic terror will only intensify.

All of this means Labor is now at a cross-roads. Pragmatic counsel suggests that Shorten’s decision to stay in lock step behind the government on national security has removed the opportunity for the Coalition to attack Labor as soft on terror. But it also limits his ability to campaign against the budget.

For the time being, there is nothing Labor can do but stay quiet and intone motherhood statements of patriotism and concern.

But the terror headlines also impair Labor's ability to keep the political focus on domestic issues. What a pity Shorten didn’t make more of the initiative when they had it.

That’s history now. The initiative has passed to the Coalition. The terror scare will almost certainly dominate federal politics for the rest of this year. 

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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