TAXING HELL out of everything in sight may enthuse socialists, but such an enterprise can hardly foster business and consumer confidence, or fix the budget deficit and debt pile created by Labor’s last government; there are signs this reality is driving a rethink in the Coalition’s approach, imperilling Bill Shorten’s election prospects: and Shorten, for his part, seems increasingly likely to reap the consequences of the mischief he has sown.
With a general election now just four days away in the UK — an event that, under normal circumstances, would occupy a great deal of space in this column, deeply immersed in British politics as I have always been — I am going to try to provide some kind of “omnibus” view of that contest in the next couple of days; the proliferation of bullshit over the Bali Nine executions in recent weeks, coupled with a phase of extreme compromise on my time for writing articles, has meant the British election (like so many other subjects) has had to be pushed into the background insofar as our discussions here are concerned.
Even today, there’s a 12-hour delay between me starting work on this piece and publishing it.
But I want to cast my gaze somewhere it seems we’ve barely looked of late — towards Canberra — and the unmistakable signs of transformation in the political landscape, for what three months ago seemed to be a lame duck government rollicking toward defeat under a lame duck Prime Minister and the ascent of a nihilistic Labor government headed by a cretinous and pious “leader” is beginning to look like a scenario on the verge of being turned upon its head.
On Friday, respected veteran journalist Laurie Oakes posted an opinion piece in the Murdoch press that canvassed the prospect of the Abbott government racing off to the polls — probably in a double dissolution — soon after next week’s budget, if it is well received; Oakes’ case is well grounded, and I have to admit that I’m very (pleasantly) surprised by the fact the Coalition’s standing in recent opinion polling hasn’t collapsed beyond the admittedly abysmal numbers it recorded in the wake of the abortive leadership putsch back in February.
It is these numbers that to my mind provide the springboard for any such leap of faith with the electorate; at 52-48 to Labor, as Oakes’ story runs, Abbott himself has been bragging privately that he can turn the numbers over the life of a campaign and emerge triumphant. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened, with incumbents in 2004, 1998, 1993 and 1990 the most recent instances of governments trailing at the start of an election period getting over the line on the day (even if, in 1990 and 1998, on a minority of the two-party vote).
The theory — growing in strength despite the earlier insistence the government would run its full term, and bolstered by Oakes’ off-the-record government sources — runs that the government’s gradual recovery in the polls, bolstered by a “dull,” surprise-free budget that emphasises good news initiatives on jobs, families and childcare, will be quickly followed by a Senate reform bill as a virtual statement of intent, followed by a snap election for both Houses of Parliament if the proposed legislation is passed.
In those circumstances (and faced with the prospect of potentially governing at an even greater disadvantage in the Senate than the Coalition currently experiences), Shorten Labor would be crazy not to put its program of obstruction to one side, and pass Abbott’s measures to overhaul voting for the upper house.
But Shorten — whilst effective as a wrecker — can hardly be said to be a shrewd, astute, or even mildly intelligent political operator; he could well direct the ALP to vote the bill down in the upper house and thereby scuttle it. After all, the Greens have no desire to ever assist the Coalition, much less make life more difficult for themselves when comfy leather sinecures are relatively easily obtained. The remaining crossbenchers, faced with this existential threat, would be incandescent with rage, and should the scenario come to pass Abbott would want to hope like crazy that he knocked all (or virtually all) of them out on the first strike, the Liberal Democrat Leyonhjelm being perhaps the only member of the rabble worthy of a Senate berth on merit.
Yet opposition from Labor on matters of Senate reform could play right into Abbott’s hands; were the Senate to pass such a reform bill (even with the virtual certainty of an immediate snap election being called thereafter), the tenures of the likes of Ricky Muir (0.51% of the primary vote in Victoria), Bob Day of Family First (3.8% in South Australia) and John Madigan, formerly of the DLP (2.3% in Victoria in 2010) would be abruptly and deservedly terminated.
But if the bill were to be rejected, it would nonetheless hand Abbott a potent issue on which to fight a double dissolution: the need to rid the Senate of “representatives” elected with the barest sliver of the popular vote. Properly executed, this could galvanise the vote in the upper house toward the larger parties and Independents — and I include Nick Xenophon, and (with my nose firmly clamped with a peg) the
Communist Party Greens, in that bracketing of larger groupings.
Of course, there is much that could go wrong — and not least where the Abbott government’s own activities are concerned, based on its woeful record in salesmanship and strategy to date, and the abysmal budget delivered by Joe Hockey a year ago that should have been rewarded with a demotion. But my evaluation of the government in the past six weeks or so has been upgraded from trenchant criticism to neutral observation, and I would rate the germs of an election strategy starting to leach out from Coalition sources as being a 50-50 proposition at worst.
Where Abbott seems increasingly likely to harvest an improbable boost to its prospects can be seen across the aisle.
It does rather look as if trouble is brewing in the ALP, and on one level this is no surprise; the strategy of its “leader” to veto in the Senate, in cahoots with the Greens and often Clive Palmer’s miserable outfit, any bill that might enable the Coalition to undo the almost criminal sabotage wrought upon the federal budget by Labor in its final year in office — aided in no small part by Hockey’s shocking 2014 budget, which was used to justify the obstruction — has served its dual purpose of vaulting Labor ahead in the polls, whilst denying the Coalition a continuation of its Howard-era narrative of a powerful track record on economic and budgetary management.
I make a point of not referencing Andrew Bolt very often in this column; not because I don’t agree with him (I usually do) but simply because his take on things doesn’t align quite as well with mine as the thoughts of others, like Miranda Devine and Piers Akerman, and on account of the fact too many people arbitrarily dismiss him (which is a shame). Even so, he’s nailed it in his piece in Melbourne’s Herald Sun today.
In tandem with the tactics of obstruction and a “small target” strategy — which has included the release of few new policies, at least one of which (the abolition of the private health insurance rebate) he will stand on only to hide — Shorten has presented Labor as afraid to rock any boats: there’s been a pro-Israel strategy, as Bolt notes, which is designed to avoid the malicious and unwarranted BDS campaign of the wider Left; there’s been his initiative to “rewrite” (read: junk) Labor’s traditional socialist objective; and (as Bolt again notes) he’s gone out of his way to avoid upsetting the harder Left of his party, with a refusal to support the successful asylum seeker policies of the Abbott government, a commitment to reintroduce a carbon tax, and in tandem with his refusal to permit any repair of the budget deficit to occur, has proposed only populist “hit the rich” measures as a “solution” that don’t constitute so much as a Band-Aid when the scope of the problem is fully considered.
But for all that, Shorten is in strife — and the onslaught is coming from what should be friendly quarters.
It is clear that some kind of leadership positioning is being engaged in by his deputy, Tanya Plibersek; there have been too many instances too quickly now of Plibersek trashing both the positions of her party and/or her “leader” to logically reach any other conclusion.
We spoke about her lamentable contribution to the gay marriage debate just a few days ago; now — as readers will have seen from Bolt’s article, and can explore further in an excellent piece from the Courier Mail — we see Plibersek effectively torpedoing the Shorten Labor position on gay marriage, the Israel-Palestine issue, and placing an alternative Labor agenda on the table that panders to the hard Left but which crucially provides a point of difference to the mostly meaningless, vacuous drivel served up as “leadership” by Shorten.
If the efficacy of the Shorten strategy really is set to peter out and die (and the reaction to Hockey’s imminent budget will prove the point once and for all), then he suddenly becomes fair game in terms of a Labor leadership blood feud: and should a contest emerge at all, that very fact will in itself neutralise the last vestiges of electoral damage caused to the Coalition back in February.
In terms of Plibersek’s prospects, it’s not hard to see how she might mount a case compelling enough to Labor MPs to support a spill.
One, more than 60% of the party’s membership (which is traditionally more socialist than its MPs) voted against Shorten as leader; there’s an easy argument to make that the rank and file don’t support him.
Two, because the ALP is in opposition, under Kevin Rudd’s leadership rules, she would need 60% to support a spill rather than the 75% required were the party in office: and with a total of 80 federal MPs, this means a vote of 48-32 would be sufficient for the Labor leadership to be declared vacant. It’s not a huge margin that is required, by any stretch.
Three, the fact Plibersek is rusted to Labor’s hard Left means she can count on the support of some (but not automatically all) of the more militant Labor-affiliated unions; this should be no bar to her claiming the leadership in a Labor context, for most of the ALP’s state and territory leaders now hail from the Left: a situation that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago.
And, finally, if Hockey’s budget pulls the Coalition ahead of Labor in the polls — IF — then Shorten is going to find himself in very deep shit, very quickly.
And it isn’t as if Shorten is any kind of shiny cleanskin; the whiff of scandal — thus far successfully averted — has followed him for years, from his disloyal but ruthless role in knifing his two predecessors, to a rape allegation not proceeded with by Police on account of a lack of admissible evidence, and to all sorts of interesting material still being picked over at the Royal Commission into the union movement.
It’s not as if Plibersek is a breath of fresh air; rather, with her anti-male, anti-business and anti-liberal prejudices, she can more accurately be likened to a foul wind emanating from the general vicinity of a sewer.
Yet if Shorten’s antics wind up showing him to have been too clever by half — as this column has maintained since the day he was endorsed as a “leader” — then you’d have to think Plibersek could end up stealing the (leadership) chocolates.
It would be a stunning turnaround; a government that looked gone for all money (and probably deserved to be, six months ago) climbing off the canvass, out of the pit, and looking ascendant, whilst its Labor Party foes engaged in their time-honoured pastime of ripping each other to bits.
Is it any wonder some in the Coalition are daring to leak about the prospect of an early election for both Houses of Parliament — even if, at the end of the day, it has to be fought with the Senate voting system unchanged.