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Labor needs to lock in voter perceptions of the government now

The government’s post-budget performance has been as poor as its pre-budget one, but Labor must frame the political narrative now, because life will get easier for the government.

As Labor MPs chattered away animatedly to each other in question time yesterday and their far more numerous government counterparts sat sullenly opposite them, Treasurer Joe Hockey rose to answer a question on the budget from his opposite number, Chris Bowen. His response was to complain that Labor was focusing on the politics of the budget, rather than the substance, to invite Bowen to debate it and to accuse Labor of refusing to support finding “a cure for cancer, finding a cure for dementia and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s”.

Inevitably, Bowen rose next question and invited the Treasurer to debate him next week at the Press Club, when Bowen was scheduled to deliver his budget reply. Hockey got up, delivered a clunky joke about how no one would be there, and declined.

The Treasurer had already complained once that Labor was taking a political line on the budget — yes, pot, kettle, etc (Hockey last night emerged after Shorten’s budget reply to lament its lack of substance — yesterday was like both sides had swapped roles and were uttering the exact lines of 2008-13). But to couple it with dodging your own invitation to debate, and accusing your opponent of loving cancer, accurately sums up the government’s post-budget performance.

No wonder Coalition MPs looked like they’d prefer to be anywhere other than behind Hockey, who this week showed none of the aggression and keen sense of his opponents’ weaknesses that had marked his parliamentary performance as Treasurer. Instead he was replaced with a lacklustre, sometimes nervous man who kept being tripped up by journalists, as if That Photo had taken the cigar-scented wind out of his sails. “Not as easy as it looked is it, Swanny?” Peter Costello had yelled from the backbench in the early days of the Rudd government. Swan, from his position close to where Costello had sat before leaving, declined to ask Hockey the same question, but it might’ve been even more apt.

Hockey is off to Melbourne and then Brisbane today, delivering — inconveniently or defiantly, depending on your view of the Fairfax reports about the activities of the North Sydney Forum — two party fundraiser speeches. Ostensibly, the week after the budget is devoted to the relentless selling of it by ministers, but we spend so long discussing the budget before it is delivered now that the media cycle is already moving on. The government might prefer it that way; its first budget process was politically shambolic from the moment it lost control with the deficit levy leak, and it didn’t materially improve once the budget was released.

Warren Truss — of all people, the one guy you thought you could rely on never to provide any colour — decided to (accurately) point out that some superannuants preferred to indulge in “a few cruises and the luxuries of life” before going on the pension. This promptly infuriated seniors’ groups, already sensitive over indexation changes (they might want to hope wage growth stays at 2013 levels, in which case CPI will deliver them a windfall). Hockey himself made a beer reference — he might not be old enough to remember John Button producing a $5 note in the late ’80s in an attempt to shout a bar, but he should know any reference to the price of beer from a politician is always perilous, especially if you’re suggesting people have a bit less of it in order to pay higher taxes and charges.

The particular problem of the cruelty … [is] it confirms Labor’s narrative that the Coalition was all along hiding its intentions to rip Australia’s social fabric apart.”

And there was Peter Dutton, a kind of walking void, who doesn’t just not communicate, but seems to suck others’ efforts to communicate inside him into an infinite, cosmic silence. Health is a natural Labor issue, and this government is undertaking a major change to end bulk billing, which might turn out to be a worthwhile reform or might simply drive more people to emergency wards, but Dutton has been almost invisible in making the case for it. When he has emerged from Silent Movie mode, it’s been to offer such observations as today’s explanation that co-payments would make it easier to get an appointment with a GP.

Based on the last few weeks, this government would be flat out selling a standard issue, winners-and-losers budget, let alone the sort of hardline effort of last Tuesday, particularly given the hard line is equal parts outright cruelty and sensible fiscal discipline. The particular problem of the cruelty isn’t so much the political risk of it — it is mainly directed at low-income earners, students, the unemployed and poor foreigners, none of whom can fight back — as that it confirms Labor’s narrative that the Coalition was all along hiding its intentions to rip Australia’s social fabric apart.

That was Labor’s line during the election campaign, as Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey swore they’d signed up to the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Gonski and would be adopting a similar fiscal strategy to Labor; Labor argued that in fact they were lying and intended to gut social programs and implement a conservative austerity agenda. Labor can now insist, whatever the truth of the matter, that it was right, that that was the Coalition’s agenda all along, because that’s exactly what the budget looks like, particularly in the anticipated cuts to education and health indexation (it’s not a cut, it’s just a slower rise, Abbott argues — an approach he strangely didn’t adopt about the impact of the carbon price on economic growth).

And that’s how Opposition Leader Bill Shorten played it last night (pictured), in a speech of pedestrian delivery   — which means good by Shorten’s standards — and little substance, but aimed exactly at reinforcing the perception of ideological cruelty. Shorten hammered the theme right from the outset, referring to “the beginning of extreme policies with an extreme impact on the Australian people … turning Australia into a place most of us won’t recognise: a colder, meaner, narrower place. Losing our sense of fairness and our sense of community.”

You could imagine Anthony Albanese giving a very different speech, the kind of mercilessly mocking speech he’d deliver after most of Abbott’s suspension motions under the previous government. But Shorten is aiming to appear less stridently partisan, which is interpreted as lacking cut-through on social media and even in the press gallery, but the truth is Shorten hasn’t needed to do anything much, so clumsy has this government been so far.

Down the track, in the next two budgets, life should get much easier for the government. Its forecast that the economy will slow this year is likely to prove too pessimistic — growth should be stronger, unemployment should be lower, and revenue should be higher than predicted, if the international economy doesn’t pull us back again. Labor needs to be successful in framing voter views of this government now, and hope that they stick between now and 2016.

23
  • 1
    Electric Lardyland
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Is there actually anything more inane, than a career politician complaining that their opponent is being political?

  • 2
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    And there was Peter Dutton, a kind of walking void,”…..

    Priceless, a pearl beyond price, one of the best descriptions of a very pedestrian LNP politician I’ve ever read. Fantastic. Olé

  • 3
    cairns50
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    ill be straight to the point bernard

    your article is very poor

  • 4
    AR
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    had marked his parliamentary performance as Treasurer.” .. perhaps I was dozing, when was that?
    If it was a typo. for “as Shadow Treasurer..” then I would, again, ask, when was that?

  • 5
    Carroll Frank
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    To the contrary. Shorten was electric and fiery, unlike we’ve ever seen him before. The government side looked uncomfortable. The applause throughout, despite admonitions from the speaker, gave frisson to the atmosphere.

  • 6
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Shorten is giving a very good performance of being a reasonable man. Bearing in mind that his opponent is so easily categorized as a blustering bully, it is the right strategy.

  • 7
    leon knight
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    Agreed Carroll, I thought it was mostly a great performance too, and the final public applause as the LNP bolted like frightened rabbits was nice finish, as was the final DD dare….Abbott deserves a relentless hammering on the DD issue after his endless jibes at JG on the subject.
    Hockey’s discomfort was palpable, but the battering was not enough to wipe the stupid smirk off Pyne’s face…classic “no sense, no feeling” I think.

  • 8
    Elbow Patches
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Agree, Carroll I think Shorten warmed up as he went and the applause was warranted and yes, a palpable ‘frisson’ as you say

  • 9
    AR
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    CarF & LeoK - can’t see anything in Blli Shrotnun worthy of your esteem but would second your suggestion that the best 3 word slogan for the ALP (and country) is “DD NOW!

  • 10
    MJPC
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    BK, interesting look at the aitruation however your down the track comments on the next 2 budgets speak of crystal ball gazing. In your next report can you please predict the Ozlotto numbers for next Tuesday? I consider foretelling the future for budgets is just as hit and miss. I seem to recall the day before the wall street crash that heralded the GFC many (particularly the rent seekers) were also predicting continued wealth and prosperity.
    I thought Shorten did very well and finally there was a Labour leader in Parliement that encapsulated what this current, cigar smoking, crown are trying to do to the ordinary australia, not those in Tony and Joe’s electorate, but the rest of us.

  • 11
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    CARROLL FRANK: I agree with you completely. Tony Rabbott looked as if someone had stuck a sword up his fundamental orifice, then twisted it.

  • 12
    CML
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    I also thought Shorten did well last night. And there seems to be a lot of people who are thinking the same thing, on various blogs and social media.
    Good article Bernard. But I’m not so sure about the government having an easier time of it with the next two budgets. This one is said to be the spending reduction job. At least the next one (two?) will have to look at raising revenue in some form or other. Raised taxes/levies, or cutting back on say super entitlements for example, won’t be any more popular than what they did this week.
    Good luck with that!!

  • 13
    mikehilliard
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Great description of Dutton, not so sure I agree with your take on Shorten.

  • 14
    zut alors
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m puzzled why Hockey is criticising Shorten’s budget response for having no policy detail.
    Go to transcripts or Hansard for the LNP’s right of reply in previous years for a master class in dearth of details.

  • 15
    Jimmyhaz
    Posted Friday, 16 May 2014 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Clearly we are living in a post-ironic world when Joe Hockey can accuse someone else of playing politics.

  • 16
    klewso
    Posted Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Does the “Right” really stand for “Right to do whatever it takes”?

  • 17
    pritu
    Posted Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Re. “post ironic”. True. It is a world in which shock jocks and the Murdoch press toy with the semi-conscious half of the electorate.

  • 18
    AR
    Posted Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Zut et al above - for the torys to complaint about a policy free speech is truly bizarre but I think Pritu has it “the semi-conscious half of the electorate
    Lot of them about and they are required to vote.

  • 19
    Tyger Tyger
    Posted Saturday, 17 May 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    So, in light of a “perception of ideological cruelty”, “whatever the truth of the matter”, “that’s exactly what the budget looks like”.

    Translation: This government is ideologically-driven and cruel, just as many of us, both supporters and opponents, thought it would be.

    Next time just say it like it is, BK.

  • 20
    Hunt Ian
    Posted Sunday, 18 May 2014 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Version with typos fixed.

    Yes, Shorten does need to nail Abbott if the MSM will let him. Abott’s line is that what they did, kick the poor and vulnerable hard, was “necessary” to solve Australia’s budget problem. Well, it was not, and even people on his own side were pointing out the alternatives.

    1. Superannuation concessions have been too generous to high income earning Australians. Australia needs to move to the policy proposed by the greens: that everyone get’s a deduction from their tax rate of 15% for contributions to super. There may be other alternatives-the liberals have proposed some-but this would be the best. The government could also consider a 15% tax on the earnings in super pensions but only where people had received a 30% tax cut for their contributions. All of this would be a permanent real contribution from high income Australians, rather than the silly, temporary and just plain cosmetic “deficit’ levy.

    2. The big alternative is to see that it is not spending but the low level of revenue collection that is unsustainable. Before the 2007 election, Howard went for a win with tax cuts and Labor matched him. These cuts were not sustainable without a continuing commodity boom. They should be reversed, but with indexation of the old rates. Perhaps this could be combined with changes like the extension of the no tax threshold and an increase in the top rate back to 49% (with the medicare and NDIS levies).

    3. The ALP seems afraid of this because of a fear that economists will start talking about how distorting income taxes are. This claim is rubbish. It only holds true in the imaginary world where markets are complete and perfectly competitive. No economy around the world is like this, least of all the Australian economy with its oligopolies. Nor is it best to make our world as close as we can to the imaginary world. Economists have shown that getting close to the imaginary world when other parts of the economy are not can make everyone worse off. If we get rid of this deluded belief and close tax havens, it is far better to have greater taxes up to a point, so that government can really look after the vulnerable, rather than pretend they will, as the Abbott government now proposes to do. But, in any case, the Howard government survived with those rates for years and no Liberal said then how bad it was for the economy.

    4. This will fix any budget problem. We don’t need to reduce the real value of pensions to take away the attraction of spending up big with super and going on the pension afterward. If you want to reduce that you do not push the poor into poverty on the pension, as they have no alternative to the pension. What you could do is deduct amounts from the pension depending on how much more rapidly super was spent than some standard level, so that rapidly spending down super gives no benefit.

    5. The Abbott budget is unbelievably and unjustifiably harsh. That Warwick McKibbin thinks it is good, with only vested interests complaining, is just another reason to accept that it is a cruel and unwarranted attack on Australia’s way of life.

  • 21
    Posted Monday, 19 May 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    It is almost as if Tony Abbott was guided along this wretched Coalition budget by his father confessor, George Pell. They do have phones, faxes and computers at the Vatican, don’t they?

  • 22
    The Pav
    Posted Monday, 19 May 2014 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    All Shorten needs to do to kill the argument about not having policy is toi say bring on a DD if you dare and then we will announce the policy but in the meantime it is the oppositions job to point out the govt failings
    Like

    A GP payment based on incorrect info ( 6 visits not 11 and the main users are those already paying a fee. The sick poor do not go to GPs early enough or often enough) leading to bad policy that will increase the cost. BTW the USA medical system is rated the least efficient. Germany is about #1 and we are about 10th of developed nations

    Reacting poorly to a crisis that doesn’t exist. I mean if they can’t fix a problem over 10 years gawd help us if something realyy bad happens.

    Debt blows out to $600B in ten years So what. What will be the size of the economy then. Under Abbott probably much smaller so it will be a problem

    $1B pm in interest = 3% of Federal Income….Chump change

    Shorten should make a virtue out of being boring. Something like Australia is complex and needs more than three word slogans and sorry but I have to explain this in detail and not just flash around in HiVis shirts and budgie smugglers. which given the absence of any meaningful policy from Abbott is where he stored his policies.

    There is no way Abbott will have the guts to call a DD

  • 23
    AR
    Posted Monday, 19 May 2014 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    The Pav +1 and koala stamp double plus good for the first paragraph’s tactic.
    Go Shorten and this from someone who thinks that he is a waste of space who will probably waste this brilliant strategy.

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