A REPORT in The Australian suggests that despite raising merry hell in its nihilistic, childish demonisation of the Abbott government, Labor is awake to where its real threat lies if the Prime Minister is torn down; Malcolm Turnbull may be the choice of pollsters and pinkos desperate to see the Liberal Party sabotaged from within, but conservatives who will never tolerate him will accept Julie Bishop: and the ALP knows this much at least.
Before we get too far in this morning, I should like to note there are now two (2) issues “in the backlog” that I will, time permitting, discuss with readers in coming days: the “economic and infrastructure policy” matter I alluded to late last week, as well as a foreign policy matter that is flying unhealthily under the radar at present but which — whilst completely “unsexy” — ought to occupy a presence in the minds of those who care about such matters, painful as it may be from time to time.
And the general election that is only seven weeks away in the UK has occupied no space in this column whatsoever, despite the close interest I have taken in British politics since I was a schoolboy, and this is something we may look at during the week as something of a cover-all wrap (although I believe, at this point, that the Conservative Party is looking likelier to survive its date with voters than not, albeit whether in Coalition, minority or outright government remains a point of conjecture).
But following on from my article yesterday, and the ill-considered and foolish link drawn by Labor’s Foreign spokesman Tanya Plibersek between asylum seeker policy and the fate of two condemned Bali Nine drug traffickers (which is getting a stronger run in the press this morning as it is recognised Plibersek has signalled — as this column called it yesterday — that Labor would abandon the measures that have stopped asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat), it seems the ALP is at least alert to a very real threat it faces from the Coalition even as it continues to ride high in opinion polls on the back of missteps by the Abbott government and its own tawdry mischief.
That threat — embedded as it is in the continuing uncertainty over the Liberal Party leadership — involves a degree of foresight that is uncharacteristic of Labor in its present incarnation, so obsessed with the trivialities of the here and now as it has been for the past 18 months.
It is the subject of an article in The Australian this morning by Troy Bramston, who reports that the ALP has been conducting focus group research into the alternative leadership prospects on offer to the Liberals if Tony Abbott is pushed under the proverbial bus by his colleagues, and the thing that really surprises me about this is that for once, Labor appears to have reached conclusions that actually mirror reality rather than the idiotic, dishonest pap served up daily by its “leader” as the ALP’s contribution (for lack of a better word) to the political debate.
In fact — given the electoral risk this column has stoutly maintained Malcolm Turnbull would pose to the Coalition as Prime Minister — I am very surprised Labor’s research calls it as it is rather than leaking material to a journalist that might better serve its own interests if doctored and skewed to make Turnbull appear as the Liberals’ salvation.
It recognises that many voters — just like many Liberal MPs — “remain hostile” to Turnbull.
It recognises that Turnbull is seen as “too ambitious,” too rich, and too out of touch.
It recognises that Turnbull heralds little appeal to voters in crucial outer suburban marginal electorates, noting that he is (correctly) perceived in these areas as “smarmy.”
And in an apparent distinction between the blithe accord it acknowledges that Turnbull’s stellar “appeal” might see the Coalition re-elected in a whitewash under his leadership and the hard reality that Turnbull would attract few votes from the Left whilst haemorrhaging conservative votes from the Right, it recognises that “soft Liberal and soft Labor” voters like Bishop and relate to her.
Implicit is the further recognition that unlike Turnbull, Bishop is acceptable to conservative Liberals (even if, in some measure, only because she is not in fact Turnbull) and that the Liberal Right would entertain her as a leadership candidate where it would never do so in regard to Turnbull.
Labor is right to be conducting this kind of qualitative research — and declining to colour its findings — for its own “leader” is a political and policy lightweight no better than a schoolyard bully throwing stones and taunts; in an irony that should be lost on nobody, Bill Shorten has much to be thankful for toward Tony Abbott and the defective, misfiring coterie of advisers that surround him: no properly calibrated tactical and strategic outfit would make the mistake of deliberately seeking to “marginalise” Shorten.
Rather, it would crucify him, and as gently as Bishop may be perceived in contrast to Abbott, the indications already exist that she would have no truck with either Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, or the shamefully inept apparatus she has erected around the government.
In short, Bishop would remake the government behind the scenes in addition to providing a fresh and more popular face. The same cannot be confidently said of Turnbull.
I’m not going to talk at great length about this today, and I think readers are best served in perusing Bramston’s article, for it covers the ground quite adequately without a simple regurgitation of its findings here although I note, without alarm, that it also identifies drawbacks in Bishop as a potential leader: and that any prospective leader of any mainstream political party comes with drawbacks as well as benefits. The more pertinent consideration is how those balance out.
Even John Howard, in early 1995, was thought in some quarters (including some friendly to and/or rusted onto the Coalition) to merely offer the Liberals a path to a close and honourable defeat against Paul Keating that could form the basis for a successful tilt at office at an election in late 1998 or early 1999. How events can change political speculation!
Or Mark Latham, by contrast, was elevated by the ALP, believing his policy ideas would outweigh the risks presented by his volatile and unruly temperament: a calculation that backfired spectacularly, with Labor policy under Latham being a catastrophe (“Medicare Gold,” anyone?) and its election prospects fatally punctured on election eve by footage of Latham “shaking” hands with Howard in a radio studio that seared into the voters’ collective conscience the notion he was nothing more than a bully and a thug.
I remain hopeful that Tony Abbott can yet survive as Prime Minister and turn around the fortunes of both his own standing and that of his government, although whether he does or not seems to be nearing a decisive point: for every good performance and every advance the PM seemingly makes, a fresh snafu or own goal lobs into the political mix from friendly quarters; just last night, Education minister Christopher Pyne — ramping up pressure over the government’s higher education reforms — made the unbelievable mistake of apparently threatening 1,700 university research jobs if the measures continued to be stalled in the Senate.
It is the latest in an apparently endless list of needless errors.
As for Credlin, she may not be — literally — as visible as she had been prior to the abortive leadership spill attempt last month, but the fact she continues to direct the government from behind the scenes at all dictates that the piteous errors generated by her brand of centralised political control will continue: and perhaps deliver the knockout blow to Abbott’s standing quicker than some might care to think.
In this regard, the imperative for Bishop to be promoted as an alternative to Turnbull is, literally, a life-or-death matter for the Liberals where its electoral prospects are concerned.
Labor recognises it too. And from the material it has linked to Bramston, it appears the ALP is under no illusions as to the threat her ascension might pose to it.
Shorten and Labor have been given a free and easy ride on the Abbott/Credlin watch.
Were Bishop to become Prime Minister, the going would become far more difficult: and with Shorten shown up as the political lightweight and union bully he really is, the dangers for the ALP are obvious, and should not be underestimated: least of all, by itself.