The voters’ message for Tony Abbott: listen up
Reflecting on his incumbency, former American President George W. Bush has made clear that he has learnt that “shock and awe” is not a good recipe for waging war or running government. Many Australian voters, it would appear, are also learning this lesson.
Although Labor leader Bill Shorten is currently on the ropes, polls show that the two-party vote, unlike in 2013, is neck and neck. Rather than “shock and awe”, these days voters are looking for more thoughtful government.
The wider electorate has little confidence in the current crop of politicians and is increasingly questioning clarion calls that once drew loud applause from more than just the party faithful.
When Tony Abbott told the NSW Liberal Party earlier this month that “having stopped the boats, Scott Morrison’s now delivering a fairer and more sustainable pension”, the support was largely limited to the conference hall.
The boats have indeed stopped. But the cost, detaining asylum seekers in offshore camps and paying people smugglers to turn their boats around, is taking the gloss off this seeming “mission-accomplished”.
The situation is even worse with regard to changes to pensions. In fact, the lived experience of tens of thousands of mainstream voters , former teachers, police officers, firefighters and other state government employees , is that Scott Morrison, in cahoots with the new Greens leader Richard Di Natale, has made their lives as pensioners far less sustainable.
As state employees they were required to contribute to state-government-supported pension schemes on the understanding that this would provide them with a retirement income in addition to the old age pension. Now Morrison and Di Natale have told them that this is no longer the case. They must pay for their retirement without any old age pension support. Such people are not millionaires and for them losing $175 or more from their weekly budget will make life very difficult.
Former teachers, nurses, police officers and firefighters are rightly highly respected members of the community. But as week after week they struggle to make ends meet, their plight may be deeply felt and their grievances are likely to fester.
For the Greens there may be a blip in popularity as diehard supporters shudder at their federal leader having done a deal with the ideological enemy. But, whether it is the early election for which the ALP is telling its members to prepare, or the Coalition government runs its full term, the Greens diehards will still vote Greens on Election Day. Indeed the Greens will hardly notice the loss of a handful of votes of retirees , from whom they draw little support.
Even though retirees have long memories and their experience of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years was certainly not a happy one, it may not seriously decrease the ALP’s tally of votes either.
For the Coalition, however, doing a deal with the Greens on pensions, that delivers a “shock and awe” wrong-footing of an already wobbly Shorten-led Opposition, may result in unintended collateral electoral damage.
Retirees tend to be particularly sensitive to other people being treated with anything less than the common decency with which they expect themselves to be treated. Politicians displaying poor manners or ill-using others to win points in schoolyard squabbles raise their hackles.
Grandparents may appear to be old and frail but, as wise politicians and children know, once aroused they are tenaciously ferocious people with whom to deal.
With so many voters increasingly disillusioned with all mainstream political parties, the door is more than ever open to independent and minor party candidates winning through in the House of Representatives and especially in the Senate.
Conservative-minded retirees who have served their communities and state governments loyally throughout their working lives can provide independents and minor parties with a powerful network of families and friends strongly motivated to show their respect for much-loved retirees by ceasing to vote for the Coalition. They may well influence the structure of the next Federal Parliament and particularly put at risk the Abbott government’s chances of being returned to power, and also of controlling the Upper House.
The breakthrough of independents and minor parties will almost certainly be resisted in House of Representatives seats like Scott Morrison’s New South Wales electorate of Cook, which at the last election was held with a two-party preferred vote of 66 per cent.
But in seats like Ann Sudmalis’ electorate of Gilmore on the NSW South Coast, where there is a concentration of retirees , many of them former public servants , her two-party preferred 54 per cent vote at the last election could well be defeated by a popular independent candidate.
Similarly in Queensland, where the LNP’s Michelle Landry holds the former ALP stronghold of Capricornia by a whisper of less than 2 per cent two-party preferred. In Capricornia’s more LNP-leaning wards, like Livingston, voters who opted for the de-amalgamation of their local council from Rockhampton, along with ALP-leaning voters elsewhere, all unhappy with Anastasia Palaszczuk’s ALP ruling the state, could be readily tempted to support a likeable Katter Australia Party candidate calling for a plague on both their houses.
The Katter Australian Party is not alone in seeing increased support. Other minor parties , in particular the Australian Sex Party, and the Nick Xenophon team , are gaining new voter interest and they, too, will be seeking and winning support from disillusioned retirees and their families and friends.
Having re-established himself as the unchallenged leader of the Coalition, Tony Abbott would be well advised to reflect on how better to deliver thoughtful government that not only wrong-foots the opposition but also secures the breadth of support necessary to secure a future Federal Parliament that is not splintered by a plethora of independents and minor-party representatives.
Griffith University emeritus professor of history and politics Ross Fitzgerald’s memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-Book and a Talking Book from Vision Australia.
The Canberra Times, June 29, 2015