Election Diary 2010 – Week One

Federal election 2010 diary: week one.

First-timers disenfranchised

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The decision to call for an election on a Saturday would be otherwise unremarkable had it not meant that new voter registrations close at 20:00 on the following Monday, almost certainly disenfranchising a swathe of first-time voters.

One must assume that the ALP party machine was aware of the consequences of its timing for calling the election, and therefore doesn’t care about these votes, or has reason to fear them. In either case, that can’t be a good sign for Gillard because that constituency is likely to share a mind-set with a larger group of already registered voters.

One might be tempted to draw the conclusion that Gillard’s centerpiece education reforms aren’t really that popular with its intended consumers – students. One might also infer that ALP strategists have decided that the election will not be fought and won education policies; a reasonable assumption, I would think.

These matters notwithstanding, the timing of an election so soon after a leadership change was probably smart. Gillard hasn’t yet had time to make mistakes in her own right as leader of the party, enjoys a substantial honeymoon boost in the ratings, and is likely to slip in popularity the longer she waits if there aren’t any major new initiatives she can deliver prior to and separate from election pork barreling.

Given that the announcement was arranged to be widely anticipated via instructions to media organisations to position themselves at the GG’s residence, it was predictable that there would be an opening salvo of rhetoric, but that the ALP strategists knew it would be throw-away stuff because on Saturday morning the only weekend press that counts was already printed, and most people would have been engaged in more immediately significant activities than listening to politicians disparaging each other.

It was exactly that way for me. I only caught snatches of the news all day. I did, however, catch Abbott ask the rhetorical question: “How can Australians trust Julia Gillard when even Kevin Rudd couldn’t.” Ouch! That one was a free kick that went straight to the heart of Gillard’s credibility as a trustworthy leader. Abbott would be foolish not to repeat it every day until the election because there is no obvious or effective comeback.

Early days.

The margin call: Right now I’d tip a razor thin majority for Abbott.

Xenophobia enters left-stage

Sunday, 18 July 2010

It was curious to see the ALP leader champion a limit to immigration figures that comes across as somewhat xenophobic no matter how much the ALP is spinning it as ‘sustainable’ growth.

There isn’t really any question that some kind of planning for immigration growth is needed, but I haven’t seen any figures to suggest that Australia is suffering from growth that is outstripping wealth. What’s really happening is that our urban planning is missing in action.

Three years ago I had a conversation about this very topic with a friend who is an educated professional and die-hard Labor supporter. He was concerned that there was a complete lack of planning for population growth by any source, not just immigration, and that government had been very slow off the mark to recognise that it would have to play a central rôle in this process.

For example, Wayne said to me, if Federal and State governments were to relocate the head offices of some of their massive bureaucracies into regional centres they could create the nucleus for thriving new regional cities by shifting thousands of jobs from existing urban centres. This would also give impetus for support and service industries to relocate to these new cities, organically driving the demand for and construction of the necessary material and social infrastructure. Not a bad thought at all.

What we hear from government, however, is … well, nothing.

Cutting immigration numbers is not a policy. It is a knee-jerk reaction to prejudice and, perhaps, some opinion polling.

Gillard is scheduled to speak on this topic here in Brisbane today. It’s probably a logical location. Queensland and WA are more likely to respond well to xenophobia than, say, Victoria or NSW, but that’s not a given.

She will have to sell some benefits here, not just talk tough on immigration.

Her real target was always the perception that the ALP was soft on illegal migrants. And so it was. But Gillard will have to a little better than promise reduced migrant intakes to correct that perception.

The leader of a party seen to have been unable to stem the tide of illegal immigrants is unlikely to be convincing when she says she’ll do better at reducing the numbers of legal migrants.

Boredom already

Monday, 19 July 2010

Re-visiting one of yesterday’s issues prominently featured in Brisbane’s Sunday Times, I’ve had some time to wonder why there should be a perception issue about Gillard’s treatment of Rudd if it’s true that Rudd lost support in his party because of opinion polling that showed him losing support in the electorate.

On the one hand we are to believe that the ALP acted to arrest declining voter support by replacing Rudd, and on the other hand we are being told that voters are disenchanted with Gillard’s methods of acting on that sentiment. It appears to me that this angle has all the hallmarks of a media beat-up.

Rudd was unquestionably arrogant and dictatorial in his leadership style: the man hasn’t changed his spots since his time as Goss chief of staff and DG. Rolling him for a more palatable public face was never going to be a bloodless coup.

In February 2009 I voiced the opinion that Rudd seemed to have been spending a lot of time grand-standing overseas, allowing his deputy, Gillard, to run the show at home – and to be seen to be doing so. My conclusion then was that she would eventually want the title and position as well as the workload. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if she hadn’t been building a coalition of support for her eventual bid during the long months of standing in for the PM.

But I also wouldn’t regard that as being underhanded so much as ambitious. If Rudd wasn’t aware that this might be going on he is a bigger fool than I imagined.

What is startling about his political assassination is that he did absolutely nothing to build himself a factional power base after ascending to the leadership without one. That failure is the single biggest and only incomprehensible mistake he made. And that failure is exactly why Gillard was able to topple him quite so easily.

I’m not sure that voters really get a lot of choice about factional politics. Sure, it might be argued that people can vote against the party that plays these games, but the players themselves are rarely within the reach of electors, and the factional politics wouldn’t stop just because an election was lost. As for Gillard’s methods, if she were unable to succeed in a factional power-play, she wouldn’t have the strength a leader would need, and wouldn’t deserve the leadership.

Her ability to hold onto factional support will be more important than her ability to woo the voters.

Apparently both major parties today launched their signature TV advertisements. I have seen neither, yet. The reportage says to me that Gillard is aiming for motherhood and warm fuzzies, while Abbott is trying for ‘don’t trust the other side’. I expect I will be heartily sick of the whole spectacle before it’s over.

Contempt for Koch outweighs alarm for Abbott

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

This morning I caught a snatch of an interview of Tony Abbott by David Koch on Sunrise. It made me despise the contrived folksiness of ‘Kochie’ even more than I already do, and I almost overlooked that Abbott is painting himself into a corner with his spiel about Work Choices being ‘dead, cremated, buried’.

Koch knows very well that a Coalition government would almost certainly make some sort of changes to workplace relations legislation. The question was bait for a slip-up.

Abbott knows that Work Choices is a major electoral sore point he has to put behind him. He said what he had to say, but his script didn’t extend to shutting Koch down when he started badgering after the question had been answered. As a consequence, Abbott looked uneasy and unconvincing.

There’s more of this to come for sure, and Koch’s observation that Abbott had some work to do to get his team to stay on the same page on this issue rings true.

The cost of union elections

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

To me it seems like there isn’t very much happening on the hustings . It’s hard to believe there’s an election campaign going on at all, and I’m an interested, relatively informed observer. You really have to be a news junkie to catch any of the to-do. I’m certainly hearing no chatter among ordinary people in the real world (as opposed to the artificial one of media spin and hype).

If there’s a real difference between the parties, neither has made it very clear what that might be. For all the talk about Rudd’s political assassination or Abbott’s secret longing to change industrial relations laws, neither seem to me to be linchpin issues you could hang an election on.

One would hope there’s more to this contest than just a hankering to make it over the line.

The desperate attempt by some in the ALP and the media to paint a Coalition proposal to recoup the cost of union elections from unions as evidence of major changes to workplace laws seems unlikely to inspire any fear in ordinary Australians, most of whom, I suspect, would agree that this cost should be paid for by its beneficiaries, not by taxpayers.

It’s not much, but the reportage in The Australian about anger among senior Liberals about a slow and uncertain start to the campaign by the party machine rings true, is an embarrassment to the party, but seems hardly likely to raise more than an eyebrow among party apparatchiki. Particularly not since the ALP seems not to have stolen a march because of it.

The margin call: My gut feel is still a razor thin outcome, but this time with Gillard leading by a nose.

How I’d hang Gillard if I were Abbott, BLF stands for what?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Today I spotted the hook on which I’d hang Labor during the campaign if I were an advisor to the Coalition, but first, some local colour.

BLF campaigns for … ?

As I was passing through town this morning to keep a dentist’s appointment, I heard a din coming from an unseen source on Adelaide Street in Brisbane’s CBD.
Minutes later I saw what all the fuss was about: around 70 BLF and affiliated union demonstrators, marching down the middle of the street, blocking traffic but otherwise well behaved, chanting unintelligible slogans along to the coaching of some guy on a megaphone.

The demo was odd because I really had no idea what they were marching for or against; the placards merely identified the union, not their specific cause. Even more odd was a complete absence of police. It wasn’t that they were needed, but in Brisbane you’d expect to see SWAT teams if a Girl Guide group crossed the road against a red traffic signal.

I saw no news reportage of the demo, and looking around at the faces of other bystanders, there wasn’t really any reaction.

As a demonstration I think it failed to make any point other than that the BLF still can and does make its presence felt when it feels like it.
As a voter this says to me that unions live in pre-historic times of long-dead class struggles that are of little real relevance to most working Australians today.

Gratuitous advice to Abbott

But on to the what seems to me as the most important topic of the campaign to date. The ABC online news carried an article indicating that as PM, Kevin Rudd had been rather cavalier about his attendance of, and therefore regard for the National Security Committee of Cabinet (NSCC), a body that makes the most critical of decisions relating to Australian defence and foreign policy (the full story is here).

Legitimate questions can be raised about the special kind of arrogance it takes to talk and act like an experienced and seasoned foreign policy dynamo while ignoring the NSCC. Julia Gillard, as his deputy, would certainly have been aware of this state of affairs and, it seems, did nothing to address the issue.

If I were the Coalition I would nail the ALP to the cross of being second-rate guardians of national security and Australia’s foreign interests. It’s a charge that can be laid at the doors of all senior Labor ministers, and it’s unlikely they will be able to refute suggestions of inexperienced laxity, being asleep at the wheel, and being irresponsible managers of Australia’s affairs.

Abbott should have been on the attack immediately about Julia Gillard’s decision to send no one (or at least no one we have ever heard of) to the Pacific Islands Forum to represent our views to our closest neighbours (see The Australian’s comment by Rowan Callick here). The attack should have focused on the primacy of Australia’s rôle in the region, and the arrogance of a government in ignoring a region facing substantial challenges, not least of which is a military dictatorship in Fiji.

Couple that attack with the Rudd blunders, and another couched in the language of some criticism of Gillard’s immigration stance made by former Labor leader Mark Latham to the effect that her small Australia strategy is a fraud (see the story from The Australian here), and you’re beginning to make a substantial case against the credibility of the ALP to handle the affairs of the nation at home or abroad.

This is how Abbott should undermine Gillard’s credibility as a leader and stateswoman. It doesn’t hurt that Rudd’s arrogance and high-handedness are going to be electoral minuses without too much effort to paint them as such.

It’s almost too good to be true. And it is. These issues do not connect with domestic policy, which will always be dearer to voters’ hearts than foreign shenanigans. Nevertheless, a skilled team of advisors ought to make this one fly for at least a couple of weeks to establish the theme that Gillard doesn’t have what it takes to run a country. Other examples can then be strung to this theme as they arise.
Right now I’d have a team of researchers scouring Rudd’s record on consultation with Parliamentary committees to find any other shortcomings, and I’d be doing the same for Gillard.

Labor no friend to low-paid, unemployed

There is another, unrelated Labor weakness: the party is no friend to the low-paid or unemployed.

I was looking through my journals for anything I’d written about Abbott in the past and, inter alia, came across a piece in 2003 that set me to thinking about the ALP’s almost complete disregard for the lowest socio-economic strata.

My piece in 2003 (read it here) suggested that Abbott made a good deal of sense when it came to not punishing low-paid workers for the few paltry extra dollars they might be making. It ought to be relatively cheap to make some kind of announcement about a modest incentive pitched at that bracket of voters.

If Abbott can steal a march as a friend to the most needy, I’ would think he would have Gillard on the ropes.

On the other side of the fence I still don’t see a clear strategy for Gillard. She seems to be waiting and hoping that Abbott will hang himself. That’s not a bet I’d be making. I suspect it would be a better bet to target his weaker team members, particularly on the nationals’ side of the fence.

The margin call: still razor thin, but Abbott by a nose.

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