IN A SIGN tight polls mirror internal findings by the major parties showing the ALP could win on 2 July — and in a response that may well backfire — Labor “leader” Bill Shorten has trashed two years of rhetoric about “fairness” by embracing Abbott-era spending cuts he once derided as vicious, unfair and cruel. It is a belated recognition government involves at least an appearance of responsibility, but may well explode in the vacuous Shorten’s face.
I must apologise for my silence this week; not the result of my workload elsewhere (although that remains very solid indeed) but an involuntary consequence of the death of the computer in my home office, the week has been a very interesting experience in trying to keep balls in the air at all, let alone manage the usual juggle. There has been a lot happening, and I will try to cover off on some of this in a series of shorter posts than usual over the next few days.
And lest there be any doubt, there are some relevant issues (like the Victorian ALP’s dictatorial execution of union demands in sacking the board of the Country Fire Authority over an industrial dispute fashioned to extend and entrench the relevant union against the wishes of CFA members) that may prove influential over the balance of the federal election campaign, and others (like the disendorsement and expulsion of a Liberal candidate for an ultra-safe ALP seat in Victoria) that don’t matter two-tenths of diddlysquat in the wider scheme of things: some of the more salient of these issues will form some of the ground we make up.
But there are two schools of thought about the stunning about-face performed by the ALP, its cretinous “leader,” Bill Shorten, and his Treasury spokesman, the Rudd-esque slogan regurgitator Chris Bowen, on Thursday.
On the one hand, the declaration that a Labor government would adopt a swag of stalled savings measures from the notorious 2014 budget might be seen as a tacit admission that sensing an election win is in the offing, the ALP needed to begin to present at least the facade of economic responsibility where management of the haemorrhaging federal budget is concerned.
On the other, it could be seen as a panicked response to sustained Liberal Party attacks on the ALP’s credibility (and specifically, the credibility of its costings promises) and in particular, the admission by Shorten during the week that whilst the budget would return to surplus in 2020-21 — the same timeframe proposed by the Coalition — deficits over the initial three to four years would be larger than those projected by the Coalition.
On both interpretations, Labor is open to the charge of economic vandalism made in this column two years ago, and guilty of needlessly adding tens of billions of dollars to Commonwealth debt through its bloody-minded obstruction tactics in the Senate, to say nothing of the further billions in interest payments that would not have been incurred to service it over that time.
And on both interpretations, the ALP appears to have gambled that the prospect of what hitherto been an appallingly lacklustre campaign from the Coalition throwing up further mistakes and own goals to diminish the re-election prospects of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull outweighs the very real risk that voters will, en masse, now conclude Shorten and his cohorts are the pack of useless and unprincipled shits we have warned about for two years, and lurch back to the Coalition and the familiarity of the devil they already know.
Joe Hockey’s 2014 budget — whilst likely, as Coalition figures at the time insisted, to go at least some way toward fixing the structural budget deficit bequeathed by the ALP had it been legislated — was a colossal political failure of almost unquantifiable magnitude; rather than seek to terminate unsustainable and massive new recurrent spending programs legislated by Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan to booby-trap the budget, Hockey instead took disproportionate aim at almost every component of the Coalition’s core constituency, with families, middle income earners and pensioners among the groups that would have been hardest hit.
Simultaneously, a misdirected and utterly deficient “communications” strategy saw the budget entrenched as politically toxic in the electorate within days, as a vapid, vacuous Labor onslaught about “fairness” went completely unrebutted in any meaningful sense, and this — combined with unreasoning intransigence in the Senate on the part of the ALP, the
Communist Party Greens and the insidious, Labor-aiding Palmer United Party — created persistent wide Labor leads across all the major polls that were ultimately central to the premature demise of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister.
Even so, Shorten’s own program for budget “repair” — a slate of tax slugs said to be worth $102bn over a decade (notwithstanding bickering over whether this figure was accurate or not) — was almost exclusively bound to new spending programs the ALP proposed to implement if elected.
Now, with an election win having begun to look increasingly plausible, a secondary “program” of adopting the very cuts that were once pilloried as vicious, cruel and unfair has been wheeled out at the eleventh hour in a bid to make Shorten and Labor appear as responsible economic managers, even if the reality — should they form government after 2 July — is likely to prove very different indeed.
Everyone knows the publicly published polls have been terrible for the government; for this, Turnbull and his team have only themselves to blame, as a Prime Minister whose personal support has predictably drifted into solidly negative territory over the past six months — people didn’t like Turnbull as opposition leader, and it isn’t a surprise that assessment is being revisited — is being further compromised by a campaign that has hitherto failed to lay a glove on the smugly glib Shorten, nor apparently to convince sufficient numbers of voters of the merits of voting Liberal at all.
I have been receiving word from reliable sources across Australia about private Liberal Party polling that substantially verifies the results of the public polls — and then some.
Prior to last Thursday, the consensus appears to have been that between 10 and 15 Coalition seats stood to be lost to Labor in just Queensland and NSW alone; when it is remembered that Liberals and Nationals notionally approach polling day with 90* of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, this movement would be sufficient for Turnbull to lose the government’s majority in those two states alone.
At least one extra seat in Tasmania, perhaps two in Victoria, one in SA and up to four in WA — plus the Darwin-based seat of Solomon — rounded out the upper end of potential losses to the ALP Coalition insiders have been bracing for.
Talk of the Liberal Party winning two or three additional seats in Melbourne, on the back of Turnbull’s alleged popularity, evaporated: sandbagging and holding existing territory had become the order of the day.
And more ominously, some research conducted in very safe Liberal electorates showed the Turnbull government’s superannuation changes — replete with the despicable sleight of retrospective taxation — were generating white-hot fury among the party’s most affluent supporters, although the effects of this had not been quantified in terms of a swing against the party in those seats.
These are just some of the things that have made me think a Shorten victory — as distasteful as it would be — was growing likelier.
But all of these things also preceded the bombshell dropped by the ALP on Thursday, in which the families, age pensioners and recipients of some healthcare services that Shorten has spent two years solemnly claiming to represent are all now lined up in the sights of the Labor gun.
At the very minimum, Shorten and Bowen have validated virtually every criticism levelled at them by the government, conservative commentators, and those elements of the press who are independently minded enough to call them out for what they are: wreckers and economic vandals prepared to gamble with the very viability of Australia itself through political tactics designed to slake an obsession with regaining power at literally any price.
In the case of Shorten — already thoroughly discredited as completely untrustworthy as a self-confessed liar, and having done nothing during this term of Parliament to alter that perception among the wider public — Thursday’s backflip will simply feed into the electoral sentiment that he stands for nothing, and nobody, except himself and his delusional view that he is “destined” to be Prime Minister.
But whilst Labor’s breathtaking about-face on the 2014-vintage savings measures will do nothing to engender any credibility for Shorten, the simple truth is that he had little to begin with.
With three weeks to go and an ineffective, mistake-prone opponent, Shorten may well calculate that by getting the yuckiest bit of his own campaign out of the way, there is ample time for Turnbull to slip up, perhaps terminally: the truth be told, and based on the Coalition’s efforts to date, it’s probably a reasonable assessment to make.
And whilst it elicited a lot of noise from Turnbull and his Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, the equally simple truth is that there is no guarantee their economic attack lines will resonate with voters even now: after all, this Coalition government has been almost fatally defective where communications and tactics are concerned since the day it took office, and this flaw is arguably just as pronounced today as it was when Peta Credlin was in charge of overseeing such things during Abbott’s tenure.
In any case, and perversely, the fracas over the CFA in Victoria on Friday has probably already taken much of the wind out of the Coalition’s sails where federal Labor’s budget backflip is concerned: people, and politics, move on. Politics is an eternally fluid business. Events gazump events. The Shorten-Bowen show is already old news.
Either way, in a pedestrian and moribund re-election campaign, Thursday was the first genuine turning point the Coalition has encountered: and with three weeks to go, it may well be — nay, is probably — also the last.
The big question (to put it very bluntly) is whether — after two and a half years of talking complete shit, violating many of the “principles” Labor has historically claimed to stand for, and playing fast and loose with the country’s economic security by virtue of its behaviour in the Senate — Shorten’s latest gambit amounts to one half-arsed move too many.
I think it’s fair to say that this election was won, or lost — depending on your viewpoint — on Thursday afternoon.
If the Coalition’s fortunes rise from here, it will be obvious that Shorten’s stunt has backfired.
But even if they do, the Coalition can afford no further mistakes: for if a rise in support from the government is followed by more gaffes that lead to that support resuming its decline, then Shorten — unbelievably — may yet have set himself up to triumph with his announcement that despite ranting for years about fairness and cruelty, the whole thing was an act from the very beginning.
Should a Labor win come to pass, then God help Australia.
*Includes the seat of Fairfax held by Clive Palmer, which will almost certainly be regained by the Liberal Party on 2 July.