Friday, August 6, 2010

His Name Is Kevin, He’s From Queensland, And He’s (Still) Here To Help.

Following on from the former Prime Minister’s telephone interview with ABC Radio National this week, Mr. Rudd has now returned to the political battlefront looking even more like a Prime Minister than ever. Pictured standing in front of a pair of Australian flags, Mr. Rudd’s facial expression was a far cry from the tears of June 24. Gone were the tears, replaced by a look of satisfaction which gave the appearance of the canary that ate the cat. He didn’t just look Prime Ministerial, he looked Presidential. His message was that the fate of the nation is far more important than the fate of one K. Rudd, and so he has called upon his fellow Australians, and especially his fellow Queenslanders, to re-elect the Gillard Government.

Of course, the Opposition is claiming that this bizarre turn of events only highlights the deep divisions within Labor. How, they ask, if Julia Gillard was the solution to the Kevin Rudd problem, could Kevin Rudd possibly be the answer to the Julia Gillard problem? And they have a point. It’s hard to imagine anyone looking at the events of the past two months and concluding that they are an indication of a stable and competent government. At the same time, however, as I said yesterday, under the circumstances this is the best course of action that Mr. Rudd and the Labor Party can possibly take. Whether any of them like it or not, the mere fact that Levin Rudd exists at all is going to influence the election campaign so the only sensible thing to do is to attempt to use that influence to as much advantage as they can.

The irony of this is exquisite, and perhaps that’s why Mr. Rudd is suddenly looking a whole lot more cheerful. In so many ways this is a form of vindication for him, as well as an opportunity to once again play a meaningful role in events. Of course, the irony doesn’t stop there. On the same day we have also seen former Prime Minister John Howard addressing Liberal party supporters with a speech which has made national headlines and left no one in any doubt about his support for Tony Abbott, or his views on Julia Gillard. Mr. Howard has absolutely trashed the Labor Government, labelling Julia Gillard as “an even greater failure than her predecessor”. All of a sudden, we seem to have former Prime Ministers popping up everywhere.

As well as Kevin Rudd and John Howard commanding centrestage, we have had Bob Hawke campaigning with Julia Gillard, and today we’ve had former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser also throwing in his two cents worth. The funny thing is that he seems to be campaigning for the Labor side, saying that the Coalition is not ready to govern the nation. All we need now is Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam to release a television advertisement and we’ll have the complete set of past and present Prime Ministers on display. It has certainly livened up what was previously a rather uninspiring election campaign in all quarters. Watching Tony and Julia has been like watching the second grade players in the warm up match. Now at last the first grade players are on the paddock, warming up for the main event.

Forget about a second debate between Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, how about a debate between Kevin Rudd and John Howard?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Two Dogs…

As James Grubel, the senior political correspondent from Reuters, said today, this is becoming a most unusual election in that it now appears to have two underdogs. Historically speaking, a Tony Abbott victory might seem to be unlikely for a number of reasons. Simply by being in opposition he is already starting out from behind, needing a significant swing to win enough seats to take power. Secondly, it would be highly unusual for any government to lose office after just one term. Even Gough Whitlam managed to win two elections before being sacked by the Governor General in 1975. Thirdly, for all the shortcomings of the government, the opposition isn’t exactly immune from fumbles and stumbles of their own. For all these reasons, Tony Abbott could rightly expect to be considered the underdog. But this is no ordinary election.

History might mean nothing, because history has already been made by the Labor Government’s own unprecedented decision to cut down a first term Prime Minister, taking all of us into uncharted territory. Just how voters respond to the lingering disquiet that they have somehow been robbed of the right to make their own choice can still play a big part in deciding the outcome of this election. That the leadership change was itself triggered by a decline in support for the Government in the polls has become something of an irony with those same polls now delivering even worse news for the new Prime Minister. With the polls showing Labor ranking at best level with the Coalition, and at worst well behind, it now seems that Julia Gillard has become the underdog.

Thomson Reuters Poll Trend Analysis shows that boiling down all the major poll figures gives the Government a two party preferred figure of 51.5% and the Opposition 48.5%. On those figures the Government might just scrape back into office, but it is by no means guaranteed. There is a risk that there will be a hung Parliament with independent members, and maybe even a Green, holding the balance of power in the lower house, something which hasn’t happened since 1941. There is also the prospect that the Government might be ahead on the two party preferred popular vote but still lose the election anyway. It has happened before with both Kim Beazley and Andrew Peacock winning more than 50% of the vote, but still not securing enough seats to take government.

In this environment, it is conceivable the entire fate of the nation could hinge on the most unlikely of circumstances. It could be that voters in a handful of marginal electorates could swing one way or the other based on local issues. It could be that opinions about the Prime Minister’s religious views or marital status actually do make a difference to the outcome. It could be that resentment over the treatment of Kevin Rudd is enough to tip the balance. That’s why Mr. Rudd’s decision to break his silence and unreservedly support the Gillard Government is crucially important for Labor. It won’t necessarily remove all concerns over the impact of the ghost of his leadership hanging over the campaign, but no matter what he does, or even if he does nothing, Kevin Rudd will remain an influence over this election.

That’s why, as a Labor Party member, the best thing he can do is attempt to use that influence for the benefit of the Party.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hijacking The Language

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has been accused of having difficulty keeping his foot out of his mouth, and it would seem that yesterday has provided us with yet another example. In response to questioning over his refusal to accept Julia Gillard’s invitation to debate the economy, he pointed out that the Prime Minister had previously and repeatedly rejected any further debate, and suggested that she had only changed her mind because her campaign was flagging. In the interim, the Opposition had taken the Prime Minister at her word and made arrangements for their own campaign accordingly. When the questioning continued he said, ''Are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, no doesn't mean no?''

The reaction was both rapid and rabid. How dare Tony Abbott make a reference to a phrase which is widely associated with the campaign against sexual harassment and assault? How dare he trivialise the issue of violence against women? How dare he use those words to attack the Prime Minister who happens to be a woman? How dare he play the so called “gender card” in the election campaign? Tony Abbott, screamed the feminist lobby, just doesn’t “get it”. Of course, the issue of violence against women is a very serious one, and deserves to be addressed accordingly. But to suggest that Tony Abbott’s remarks trivialise the issue, or display a lack of respect for women, or could be construed as in some way condoning abuse is not fair or reasonable.

Even Tony Abbott’s harshest critics have admitted that they understand clearly the meaning of Tony Abbott’s comments. They acknowledge that he was criticising the Prime Minister for saying “no” one day, and “yes” the next. They recognise that he was suggesting that the word of the Prime Minister could not be relied upon, and not intended to be any kind of attack on women or their rights. But surely, if they are capable of understanding what Mr. Abbott was saying, without misconstruing it as an endorsement of antisocial behaviour, than any other reasonable person could too. If there is no doubt about what he meant, how then could the comments be considered inappropriate?

Of course, the critics have taken issue with the choice of words rather than the actual meaning, claiming that it was an attempt to make a joke about violence against women. Comparisons have even been made with Alexander Downer’s infamous joke about the “things that batter”. But that’s not what Mr. Abbott has done. He has used a commonplace expression, one which is widely applied in many contexts, to make a point about the veracity of his opponent. Just because it is a phrase which has been used in a social issues campaign doesn’t mean that the politically correct brigade has the right to hijack the English language and prohibit the use of particular words and phrases for purposes other than their own. It verges on the Orwellian.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

To Debate Or Not To Debate, That Is The Question.

It’s eighteen days since Julia Gillard drove to Yarralumla to ask the Governor General to dissolve the Parliament so that an election could be called. It is eighteen more days until that election takes place, so this is the half way mark. The first half of the campaign has been filled with more trip-ups than triumphs, especially for the Government, leading to the promise to unleash the “Real Julia”. At the same time, the opposition also had a few wobbly moments, especially in the first week of the campaign when Tony Abbott seemed to be tying himself in knots to kill off work choices without actually promising not to give it mouth to mouth after the election. It has given rise to the perception that while Labor wants us to see more of the “Real Julia”, there might be concerns that the “Real Tony” can’t be trusted not to put his foot in his mouth.

Of course, the real question is not whether not Tony Abbott might sometimes stumble on his words, because let’s face it we all do that from time to time, but whether he can be taken at his word. Even on that score, his own words can be used to condemn him after his confession that not everything he says can be considered to be the “gospel truth”. To be fair, that indiscretion was also the result of mangling his own message, but even so it is a less than reassuring performance. But the real measure of his intent should be found in his policies. While the Government has been suffering in the polls as a result of its own shortcomings, Tony Abbott has been enjoying a relatively free run, getting away with a series of inconsistencies.

Having said that climate change is “crap”, he now wants to spend taxpayers’ money on “direct action” against climate change. Having denigrated the Government for introducing a “Great Big New Tax”, he announced his own Big New Tax on business to pay for a parental leave scheme to which he had previously been opposed. Having imposed that Big New Tax he then announced that he would cut Company Tax by a similar amount, at the same time gazumping the Government’s own plan to cut Company Tax. Having done that he has now changed his plan for parental leave to start a year later and reduced the tax increase so that it exactly matches the tax cut for companies. Having demanded two more Leaders’ debates during the campaign he has now refused the challenge from the “Real Julia” to engage in a debate on the economy.

Now that the Opposition appears to have the upper hand in the opinion polls, perhaps Tony Abbott can afford to reject the opportunity for another debate. Perhaps he is right to claim that the invitation is nothing more than a stunt, especially as the date would conflict with his own campaign launch. Perhaps he is unconcerned that he will be accused of wanting to avoid a debate or that he is afraid of the outcome. But the bottom line now is that he can no longer accuse the Prime Minister of the same thing. If he really wants a second or even a third debate, it now appears that the Prime Minister would be prepared to accommodate him. Having said no, it would now seem that the “Real Tony” really doesn’t want a debate after all.

I wonder if he ever actually did.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Will The Real Julia Please Stand Up

On Friday I offered the opinion that the first two weeks of the election campaign had been won by Tony Abbott and the opposition. That opinion has been born out by the poll figures released over the weekend, with the credible Neilson poll showing the opposition with a winning lead in the two party preferred vote of 52 to 48 percent. This morning, the Newspoll gave a result which has the two major parties neck and neck at 50 percent each, which represents a dramatic advance for the opposition in past fortnight, and an equally dramatic decline in the fortunes of the Government. On Friday I observed that the Government had lost control of the agenda, and that seems to have been reflected in the polls. In response, the Prime Minister has announced that it is now time to “unleash the Real Julia”, to borrow the headline from today’s Telegraph.

Over the weekend, Julia Gillard said it was time to “make sure the real Julia is well and truly on display”. She said, “I'm going to step up and take personal charge of what we do in the campaign from this point". Maybe that’s a good idea, given the difficulty that seems to have overcome the Government, but it does raise a couple of very curly questions. If Julia has not been in charge of the campaign up until now, just who exactly has? And if it’s time to unleash the “Real Julia”, does that mean the Julia we have been watching is some sort of fake? After sternly warning all Australians to beware of falling for the forked tongue of “Phony Tony”, talk of the “Real Julia” could be seen as somewhat precious.

Of course, the truth is that the “Real Julia” has been there all along, but any political campaign is run by the Party, not just the Leader. In this case, the Party is still being driven by the very same people who decided to dismiss Kevin Rudd and install Julia Gillard as Prime Minister in June. Those people, including Senator Mark Arbib and Party Secretary Karl Bitar, are also responsible for coaching and grooming the Leader, whoever it might be, to lead the campaign. And that’s where the lines can become blurred. How much of what we see, of any politician, is the real person and how much is the focus group driven result of polling can become difficult to determine. What Ms. Gillard seems to be telling us is that for a while there even she had trouble telling the difference between the two.

Regardless of just who is really running the campaign, or whether the ‘Real Julia” will now step up, there’s a very good chance that it’s already too late to make a difference. The underlying disquiet about the ability of a Party to callously discard a Leader in an apparent attempt to win at all costs has only been amplified by the events of the past fortnight. After displaying contempt not only for their own former Leader, but also for the people who voted for him three years ago, the Party now appears to be desperate to appear not to be desperate. With almost three weeks of the campaign still to run, it’s too soon to say that they have lost the election, but unless there is a dramatic turnaround that will be the outcome. Labor hasn’t yet fallen to the bottom of the cliff, but they have tripped at the top.

If they don’t grab a safety rail there can only be one result.