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Abbott and Hockey must win the short-term campaign first

5 July 2014 2 Comments

THE democratic process in Australia is driven by two competing, often conflicting, imperatives. Governments are often faced with critical decisions for the long-term good that are potentially unpopular in the short term.

For politicians it would seem there is little point in making decisions for the long-term national good if it results in an election loss, with an incoming government reversing any gains. In recent history two federal governments have managed the competing demands of the short-term electoral cycle and the longer-term national interest.

The Hawke-Keating government floated the Australian dollar to ensure it became one of the automatic economic stabilisers. It restrained wage growth but introduced enterprise bargaining to link productivity improvements with remuneration more closely.

The Howard government introduced a new tax, the GST, to put state governments on a more sustainable footing and established the Future Fund to ensure the retirement benefits of the current generation of soldiers, police and public servants were not ­hostage to future budgetary constraints.

In recent years one of the most contentious issues for governments to manage has been climate change.

The political cost of this single issue is virtually unprecedented.

Because of his immovable commitment to an emissions trading scheme, Malcolm Turnbull lost the opposition leadership to Tony Abbott by one vote. Kevin Rudd lost credibility as prime minister when he campaigned for action on climate change as “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time only to jettison it soon after the Copenhagen summit. Julia Gillard was the relatively brief beneficiary of Rudd’s downfall but she was ousted from the prime ministership, largely on the issue of climate change. Her declaration just before the 2010 election that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead, only to introduce a carbon tax after the election, gave Abbott the ammunition to define her as untrustworthy.

The response to climate change policy continues to dominate political discourse with much conjecture as to how the new Senate will vote when it begins work on Monday and whether it will agree to abolish the carbon tax.

In the meantime, there has been a storm of criticism directed at the federal budget, some of it coming from Liberal state governments. Labor has declared the budget unfair for inflicting pain on some of the most vulnerable sectors of society. Yet the Prime Minister, Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann appear to be convinced of the merits of individual measures and are showing few signs of weakening on any decision. Their argument is that under Labor the budget was on an unsustainable footing, with rapidly escalating debt and under severe pressure from our ageing population.

Despite the reality of these constraints, the Abbott government is struggling to sell the mes­sage that short-term pain will deliver long-term gain.

Unsurprisingly, Bill Shorten has taken the opportunistic stance of opposing virtually everything in the budget, even measures that Labor proposed in government. And Labor well recognises that climate change is a divisive issue for the Coalition. The longer it remains on the negotiating table, the greater the potential for conflict in government ranks.

Abbott should not expect any relief from a Labor opposition that refuses to accept that, under Rudd-Gillard-Rudd, in government it was hopelessly incompetent, reckless and divided.

The Coalition must therefore pin its hopes on the crossbenches in the new Senate, including the brace of Palmer United Party senators and the unpredictable Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party.

With its first budget the Abbott government has taken a huge punt on long-term outcomes at the expense of short-term popularity. But this strategy is clearly not working. Hence the PM and Treasurer need to reconsider their sales pitch. This could include a greater focus on the misinformation Labor has conveyed about budget “cuts.

The fact is that in most ­instances the Abbott government has merely slowed the forecast growth in spending, which was unrealistic and unsustainable.

A template for a successful sales pitch could be how Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has managed to sell her reforms to the foreign aid program. Bishop has cleverly focused on comparing future funding under the Coalition with the funding delivered, not promised, by Labor. By stressing a “responsible, affordable and sustainable aid budget Bishop has outmanoeuvred her opponents, particularly the opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Tanya ­Plibersek.

The lesson here is that the citizenry will accept steep cuts if they are clearly explained and sold.

The danger for Labor is that the Coalition will use the many advantages of government to win the argument in the community about long-term benefits requiring short-term pain. If the Coalition is able to gain the upper hand in that debate the Opposition Leader will be stranded, having failed to defend the national interest and unable to produce any positive policies. If this eventuates, it could be fatal to Shorten’s leadership.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, July 5-6, 2014, Inquirer, p 24.

2 Comments »

  • Gerard Henderson said:

    Who’s the narcissist now?

    MORRY Schwartz’s The Monthly is a publication of the inner-city Left, by the inner-city Left, for the inner-city Left. So it comes as no surprise that the July issue covers the 50th anniversary of The Australian with an article by left-wing academic Margaret Simons titled “The daily narcissist”. Get it?

    Simons is the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne. As such, she influences many young men and women who are hoping to find careers in the media. The question is, what would they learn from her piece in The Monthly?

    The Australian has made an enormous impact on journalism since its birth in 1964. Not only has it been a fine newspaper for half a century, more important, perhaps, the arrival of The Australian provided much needed competition in the media marketplace, especially in Sydney and Melbourne.

    There is an easy test for this proposition. Compare the dullness and lethargy of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age before 1964 with what they became in the couple of decades that followed Rupert Murdoch’s creation.

    The best advice an academic can give students is to urge them to be well-informed, considered, dispassionate and accepting of legitimate criticism. Simons’s Monthly piece meets none of these criteria. She uses the word “narcissist” or its alternatives five times with respect to The Australian. Yet there are 17 uses of the word “I”. Simons seems to believe it is important for her readers to know that she has been criticised (the word “attacked” is used) in the newspaper and that this was a “horrible” experience. So what? In her professional career, Simons dispenses criticism. She should be able to accept the same.

    Reading The Monthly, it is difficult to know what the director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism is on about. Halfway through her 2000-word essay, Simons declares: “I want to argue that we should talk about it (The Australian) less.” Then, at the end, she maintains that “until and unless” The Australian “returns to sense there are other things to talk about”.

    But no one forced the Melbourne University academic to write at length about the paper. Presumably she did so because The Australian is important. Simons concedes that the paper “still carries good journalism” but maintains that “it is lost in its black-and-white world”. This is simplistic abuse. Sure, The Australian is a right-of-centre newspaper. But it breaks many stories, including some that were very detrimental to the Howard government of recent memory. And the paper runs opinion pieces by the likes of Troy Bramston, Graham Richardson and Ross Fitzgerald among other social democratic types.

    The Australian contains a greater diversity of views than can be found in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Moreover, the paper is distinctly more devoted to pluralism than Simons’s own Centre for Advancing Journalism, which employs many left-of-centre types but few, if any, conservatives.

    Simons’s Monthly piece lacks dispassion. She writes about Murdoch’s opposition to Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in 1975 but not about his support for Whitlam in 1972. She presents The Australian today as a voice for the Coalition but fails to mention that it supported Kevin Rudd against John Howard in 2007.

    It is understandable why the leftists in Schwartz’s Collingwood office suffer from the condition of Murdochphobia, which is increasingly prevalent in the inner city. But the director of the journalism school at one of Australia’s leading universities should be able to do better.

    Simons’s piece on the alleged “daily narcissist” resembles a download from a psychiatrist’s couch. The Australian is half a century old but Simons has chosen to assess its contribution to Australian society with reference to the paper’s impact on the mindset of her mates and herself. How narcissistic can you get?
    GERARD HENDERSON THE AUSTRALIAN JULY 05, 2014

  • Cut & Paste said:

    The broadest of churches. The Speccie (Spectator Australia) has the last word:

    NEITHER ‘The Age’ nor the ‘Guardian Australia’ publishes a weekly conservative columnist. Don’t expect Ms Simons — who runs an outfit called the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne — to condemn the old Spencer Street Soviet and its pale online imitator for silencing dissent. Yet when ‘The Australian’ stands up and tries to defend our nation’s interests or highlight the folly of wild and woolly world views, it is treated with shock, distaste and outrage by the likes of Ms Simons. ‘The Australian’’s editorials tilt Right, but its opinion pages showcase many Labor-leaning writers such as Peter Beattie, Craig Emerson, Troy Bramston, Gary Johns, Ross Fitzgerald and Barry Cohen, not to mention the darling of the Left intelligentsia Phillip Adams. Under the much-maligned Mr Mitchell, ‘The Australian’ endorsed Kevin Rudd for prime minister in 2007 … Add to this all the many exclusive reports that have hardly helped Coalition governments — children overboard, Haneef and AWB among other scandals — and it is difficult to see how ‘The Australian’ lives in a “black-and-white world”.

    Cut & Paste, ‘The Australian’, July 8, 2014, p 11

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