The new politics and the Victorian election

Victorian electionDaniel Andrews, the incoming Labor Premier of Victoria, proclaimed in his victory speech on Saturday night that Victorians had voted for a new politics, a politics free of negativity and division, a politics focused on “putting people first”.

For good measure, the Premier-elect repeated the message on Sunday morning.

The cynical might want to investigate the claim made on the election night ABC news panel by Liberal Minister Mary Wooldridge that Labor’s advertising had been 70% negative and 40% positive.

Whether or not those figures are accurate, Andrews is undoubtedly right.

Much ink has been spilled already, as if the result were a foregone conclusion, on whether the defeat of a first term Coalition government was a stunning and cataclysmic event. Psephologist Dr Kevin Bonham explains that the “single term theory” is just wrong. Seven first term state governments have been defeated since 1955, the last time it occurred in Victoria.

That, however, should be no comfort to Team Australia Captain Tony Abbott and his barnacle encrusted shipmates. Bonham says there is evidence for a federal impact on the state result, and Dennis Napthine and his strategists can’t have gone out of their way to avoid any more Prime Ministerial hugs for no reason.

There are other tea leaves to be read in the Victorian result, though: not just the dregs of an unpopular Prime Minister or a lacklustre state government.

Andrews appears to understand what Tony Abbott spectacularly fails to get – voters are disgusted by “rhetorical flourishes”, repulsed by lies about lies, and just want governments to do what they said they would do. Perhaps that’s why the Victorian Labor Party concentrated on a few key policy areas.

It’s not without interest that they focused in not just on education and health but also on public transport. The promise of a Royal Commission into Domestic Violence is also immensely significant, and shows, along with the promise to legalise medical marijuana, how much change there has been in social awareness in Australia over a short period of time.

Social liberalism is the new black, even as the Victorian Libs, just like many of their interstate counterparts, are being colonised by the Christian right.

It’s often said that state politics is not ideological, but this isn’t true.

Significant here is the way Andrews embraced the very same unions that the Coalition demonised, lauding teachers, nurses, ambos and firies as “respected professions”. Andrews promised effective public services, an end to wars against those who provide them, and more, spoke eloquently of the rights and dignity of those who work for the public good.

The Labor Party has drunk its share of neo-liberal kool aid over the years, but the assaults on the public sector, and more saliently, on the very idea of a public good by first term LNP governments in Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra have exposed the fundamentally social democratic values that have majority support among Australians.
This is not to argue that we live in a fair society, or a meritocracy, still less that social class and the cleavage between bosses and workers is of no material impact. It is to say that there are bedrock beliefs and habits of thought and action which will run any neo-Liberal ship onto the rocks.

Labor needs to recognise this, because its much touted army of doorknockers and phone-callers are mostly not signing up to campaign because of partisan attachment to the ALP, but rather because the ALP appears to be the vehicle for defending this particular set of Australian articles of faith. Or, appears to be so to some.

Hence, too, the breakthrough of The Greens into the lower house.

The Greens do have a unique demographic and a certain social base, that is not entirely the same as “disillusioned Labor left voters”. It’s far too simple to talk about “inner city elites”. The Labor left’s foundation was an alliance of university educated intellectuals and public service and manufacturing unions. The Greens are more likely to represent “knowledge workers”. There’s a reason why Greens functions have been known to debate the motion – “that Greens are more hipster than hippy.”

Ellen Sandell is the second lower house state MP elected to a non-proportional single member electorate, the first being Jamie Parker in Balmain in the 2011 New South Wales election. The fact that Parker faces a significant challenge from Verity Firth, and that Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek face no real challenge from Greens, does show that Sandell – and Adam Bandt – have no lien on these inner city seats.

The reality is that much rests on Sandell’s shoulders. Bandt was re-elected as much because he was a good MP as a good Greens MP. The new reality is that there’s a partisan contest for fluid voters in the inner city between Greens and ALP. It will continue to be a contest.

It’s here that The Greens do themselves no favours by recurrent talk of preference deals. Neither does Labor. It makes The Greens sound a lot like fully fledged members of the political class. It would be good if people devoted the same energy they expend on arguing about preference deals to campaigning for electoral reform which would empower and represent the preferences of voters and disempower the party strategists who make preference deals.

Party talk is not the same as talking to voters.

One more straw in the wind is the success of independent candidate Suzanna Sheed in Shepparton, and the close race that Labor’s Jaden Minton ran the Nationals in Morwell. Sheed, astonishingly, only threw her hat into the ring a month before the election. In an electorate no doubt disillusioned by the signal failure of Barnaby Joyce and crew to stand up for SPC workers, a smart Indi-style campaign has prevailed. Perhaps that’s why Deputy Premier Peter Ryan bemoaned – “social media is the problem”. In Morwell, Labor has almost captured a seat blighted by a coal mining company’s environmental and health disaster, a disaster to which the response of the state government was at best tardy.

Blogger Andrew Elder gets it right:

The social base on which the major parties were founded is wasting away. The initiative is with community-organising movements, which must necessarily be small-scale. There may come a revival of mass politics later this century, but it is hard to discern from this angle. The smart money is on independents and minor parties, with diminishing majors negotiating terms to enjoy office… This is the future, baby: thumping wins and inviolable mandates will be fewer and further between.

I think Daniel Andrews gets that, too.

He’s ridden a whirlwind into office, no matter how becalmed the surface of the campaign seemed.

Whether or not he does get it will become clear over the next little while. If there’s one thing voters in the age of the new politics is it’s unforgiving.

Post Budget, what happens now?

10402071_10152570891723132_1482661220937210708_nBack on the 13th of May, I wrote about the Budget:

The most important thing about this Budget is that it symbolises the brokenness of Australian politics. It’s a tipping point, a crisis moment for the political class.

In the week between the Budget’s delivery and the resumption of Parliament, things went from bad to worse for the Abbott government.

The polls were nightmarish, both Prime Minister Abbott and Treasurer Hockey had trouble understanding or communicating the impact of measures such as the GP co-payment and the HECS and higher education fee increases. Thousands marched in the streets. The commentariat launched attacks on whingers and bludgers, but University Vice-Chancellors, Liberal State Premiers and the President of the Australian Medical Association had joined the chorus of outrage. Even the Business Council of Australia thought the “Earn or Learn” cuts to the under 30s dole were too much.

Then the whole thing got swallowed up by #winkgate and #daughtergate.

Backbench MPs backgrounded withering criticism of the government’s political strategy to The Australian while News Limited columnists veered from asserting that the impact wasn’t too bad anyway to denouncing just about everyone for their purported selfishness. Tony Abbott oscillated between threats of a double dissolution and promises of second term tax cuts, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he hardly had the authority or credibility to enunciate either.

That failure, and the failure of the usual interest group/media/industrial complex suspects to weave their narrative of “fiscal reponsibility”, is demonstrated also by Labor’s decision to oppose the freeze on family benefits. Clearly, they’re calculating they can safely ignore the demand to “fix their own mess”.

Meanwhile, as if to confirm my suspicion that PUP is angling for a double dissolution, Clive Palmer pronounced:

Well we are unusual, we don’t like them, we don’t like this budget and we aren’t going to talk to them.

And the media rushed to leadership speculation.

Mr Denmore:

We saw this same panicky, existential attempt by the media to frame the debate in conventional, ‘objective’ terms quite starkly in the attempts earlier this year to downplay or completely ignore the significance of the March in March protests.  Any political expression that comes from outside the narrow Canberra-defined world of ‘politics’ is discounted as naive or wrong-headed or a throwback to a quaint 60s idealism.
It’s hard to escape the view that with the public losing faith in institutions, including the media itself, journalists are subconsciously fighting a rearguard action to seize back control of the narrative and cast it in a comfortable framework that suits them and the political classes they report on. In this, they are betraying the principles of their craft – representing the powerful to the public rather than the other way around.  Worse for them, they’re also missing the bigger story.

Tim Dunlop is absolutely right about what’s going on when he points out that “The Prime Minister has no authority”:

Howard took four full terms as prime minister to completely ruin his reputation for honesty. Abbott has done it in less than one full year. How could anyone be so clumsy?

The answer lies in authority.

Both inside and outside the party, Abbott draws on very shallow reservoirs of support. This in turn is related to the fact that the Coalition itself no longer connects with a significant “base”.

This is why our politics has become more and more an exercise in media management than in policy commitment. And that situation is made worse by the fact that the media itself has fractured beyond repair and thus mirrors the political sphere in its lack of authority.

Such a situation does not lend itself to long-term planning. It lends itself to short-term shock-and-awe tactics. When you sense the precariousness of your grip on power, you want to shake things up as quickly as possible, to try to alter the landscape radically while you can.

That’s why this budget feels like WorkChoices for everything.

Howard waited for three terms and a favourable Senate before he dared try anything like that. I sincerely doubt that Abbott, even on his best day, thinks he will last that long, and so there is no time to waste.

And he’s right about this:

Are we therefore heading for a hung parliament? I have no idea, but one thing you can be sure of is that if we are, the anti-politician/post-politics position that is likely to resonate powerfully in the electorate is all but owned by Clive Palmer.
Both Abbott and Shorten should be scared to death.

So, what does happen now?

I wonder which of the following scenarios is more plausible:

1. The Senate threatens to block many of the budget measures, negotiations are a farce, the Coalition continues to drop in the polls and casts around for a new leader. Perhaps someone who could jettison the Tony Abbott signature policies of Direct Action and PPL and save a bucket of money to fund backdowns on all the Budget nasties?

But who? Those close to the Coalition party room say Scott Morrison’s stocks are riding high (“he stopped the boats”)!

2. The Senate threatens to block many of the budget measures, negotiations are a farce, the Coalition continues to drop in the polls, and Tony Abbott calls a Double Dissolution election directed against pesky Greens and the obstructive Mr Palmer, asking “Who governs Australia?”.

3. The Senate rolls over, people realise that it’s important to support the fire brigade (or something), Tony Abbott is thanked by a grateful people for saving Australia from Debt and Deficit.

(3) seemed to be what the Government was trying to conjure up last week. This week, I’m not sure what their plan is, but no doubt for a little while, we’ll continue to hear about Toughness.

Clive Palmer angling for a double dissolution election?

4689010-3x4-700x933Clive Palmer’s negotiations with Christopher Pyne obviously didn’t go as well as the Minister for Education thought.

The government should set people free so they can help the country and not need to work in boring jobs because of their debt.

The PUP leader and Member for Fairfax has also put pen to paper for The Guardian:

The Abbott government’s first budget delivered for the lobbyists and donors of the Liberal party. The age of entitlement has arrived. But out in the western suburbs of Melbourne, in the Hunter Valley, in Western Australia and Queensland, in New South Wales and the Northern Australia and right across the nation, the people are moving. The 46% of voters that didn’t vote for Liberal or Labor in the Western Australian election may soon be 60%. The face of power and politics in Australia may be changing forever.

If tech companies long to disrupt markets, then perhaps Clive is inflicting a bit of “disruptive innovation” on the political sphere.

Katharine Murphy:

Voters are actually looking more closely at the anti-politician, the #resistance plutocrat Clive Palmer, who lists unpredictably between high parody and precision “truth” bombing. Palmer in this budget period has emerged as that character from Shakespeare who somehow, despite absolute randomness and exquisite incoherence in the delivery (or perhaps because of it), cuts through the chaos. He’s the character who manages to narrate the tragedy in ways the protagonists can’t because they are too busy spinning their wheels in the court intrigue and foul murther.

Those developments alone have got to be the very definition of interesting times.

The voting public in the post-budget washup appears to be sending Abbott a clarion message – they aren’t buying the Coalition’s version of national interest, made manifest in last Tuesday’s budget, nor are they buying Abbott’s latest outbreak of post-truth, post-fact dissembling.

In the hit to Abbott’s personal authority we see in the latest published opinion polls, voters are giving the thumbs down to the prime minister’s attempt to blame them for not listening adequately to his “mantras” before the election (which by his own admission he minimised and maximised, according to the audience) – rather than blaming himself for promising them hand on heart that he would deliver a world that he evidently had absolutely no intention of ever delivering.


But what to make of Clive Palmer’s negation of almost all the budget measures?

Labor, The Greens and PUP have all responded to Tony Abbott’s double dissolution threat by saying “bring it on!”. Twitter is thronging with #blocksupply talk. Antony Green is upset.

(Incidentally, there’s more than a little contradiction between The Greens’ campaign to #bustthebudget and their statements about what they may and may not vote for. It’s hard to square intimations that they will support fuel excise indexation with a call to “reject the 2014 Budget“.)

My strong suspicion is that Clive Palmer will equivocate over some of the Budget measures, thinking out loud to draw attention to PUP and to the impacts of the said measures, then end up voting against most of them.

The face of power and politics in Australia may be changing forever.

Sooner rather than later.

PUP has everything to gain and very little to lose from a double dissolution election. Labor and The Greens may be talking the talk, but I think Clive is walking the talk.

Don’t forget that the anti-politician Palmer learnt his politics at the feet of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Now he was a cunning populist…

Who’s Mr Abbott kidding?

Tony Abbott has been caught out claiming that the Howard government “took a big hit in the polls” after its first budget in 1996.

This is not true.

But you have to wonder what the “sales strategy” on the Budget is now all about?

Maybe the Prime Minister is trying to convince himself.

More likely, he’s talking to his own troops, who are probably in a state of considerable disarray and panic.

He’s certainly not talking to the voters.

Budget 2014: It’s the unfairness, stupid

I had a quick interchange with Mumble blogger Peter Brent on Twitter last week. Brent, whose blog appears on The Australian‘s website, had been running with the line that the Budget was likely to be perceived as good for the economy, if not for individuals, and therefore would not cause the government ongoing political pain. This also appears to have been the Government’s thinking – we heard constantly that Peter Costello’s “axe and tax” Budget in 1996 was well received, and had turned out to be a net political plus for a government that discarded its “core promises” in order to do “fiscal repair”.

Well, times change.

I argued last week that the predicate for this “narrative” to resonate was a sense that the budget was in dire disrepair, and that this hadn’t been met – at least not to the required “crisis” perception. The polling from both Newspoll and Nielsen today bears my argument out, I think. In fact, I’m starting to question the truism that Labor was defeated primarily because of its perceived budgetary sins. It’s a convenient (perhaps the only) line for T. Abbott to run, but I’m not sure it’s true. I’m more convinced now that it was the cluster of factors around “trust” and the constant narcissistic infighting that did for the ALP.

You know, broken promises.

Brent has tried to find a few positives for the government in today’s piece, perhaps a little stung by the magnitude of the rejection of the Budget – including the indicator of whether it’s “good for the country”. I’m not particularly persuaded that the question about whether Labor could have done better is very meaningful. “Show us your policies”, intoned Abbott and Hockey to Shorten, strangely upset that he had followed Abbott’s own lead by using the Budget reply as the opportunity to make a political argument.

First, while Labor may have finally taken some skin off the Coalition and boosted its own primary vote, we need to contextualise this with the more important fact that voters are much less partisan than in the 1990s, and much more inclined to wish a pox on both houses. It’s the entire political class that’s held in contempt.

Piping Shrike is spot on:

In other words, the Budget is nasty without being tough, or effective. This worst of all possible worlds is brought out in the polling. The real problem for the government is not even the overwhelming majority of voters who think they will be worse off, but the unusual majority that think it will all have been for nothing to fix the economy.

This is unsettling for the government as if people don’t think it will be good for the economy, they must think there is only one other reason for the pain, it is “ideological”, which is a political stinker. Unfortunately this government has spent so much time with bogus culture war initiatives in the first few months that it is not a difficult conclusion to draw.

But nor can Labor take too much comfort from this. As polls show, voters think Labor would do worse. However, much Labor, or its leader, may be enjoying good polls, it’s reasonable to bet that that perception that Labor has no control over the economy will return to haunt it at the next election. The trouble for the Coalition in the immediate term is that voters are suspecting that they don’t have control either.

Secondly, I don’t actually think there’s much of an obligation to construct an “alternative” budget. Let the government be judged on what it does.

Let’s be clear, though, about the impact this Budget has had.

(And I know it’s a long time to the next election, etc, etc. But we have the most unpopular first term government we’ve ever seen, led by the most unpopular first time PM. And – as the press gallery endlessly repeated – Knights and Dames and the Right to Be a Bigot being the only things anyone has hitherto particularly noticed about this government – it would be judged on the Budget.)

In lunchrooms at my two workplaces since Tuesday night, I’ve been regaled by colleagues about the Budget, and heard colleagues regale others. I currently work in Business Schools, which are not, to put it mildly, citadels of Teh Academic Left. It’s the unfairness that’s getting everyone, particularly the cuts to young single parents and the Crazy of the Under 30s Dole Horror.

And that’s reflected in the polls.

Hence the apparent paradox of a very small majority agreeing that the Budget is good for the economy, but a much larger majority thinking it bad for the country.

The economy and the society are not the same, and people make the distinction.

Let’s put two things together.

Whether or not Labor is credible (or Bill Shorten is credible) as a mouthpiece for egalitarian values makes no difference if the Budget is seen by majorities to have offended those core Australian values. And it has, and it is.

And people are right to see no necessity in this Budget. Joe Hockey hasn’t actually slashed in a fiscal sense (although I’d like to see some modelling of the impact on effective demand of welfare cuts and diminished consumer confidence will probably also have an impact). Leaving aside the Horror Cuts to the States and a few other alleged “structural” measures (though these are also political suicide notes), the Budget pretty much follows Wayne Swan’s trajectory for the next few years, and in fact sees public spending going up.

Instead, the Government has charged down an ideological Rabbit Hole. “Lifters not Leaners”, “End of the Age of Entitlement”, “Get Off the Sofa”. They’ve mistaken the “base” of angry Bolt commenters and talk back radio callers for the Electorate, and to their great peril. The disarray of the LNP cheer squad, amusingly documented at Loon Pond, shows they haven’t even placated their own maddies.

Forget 1996. A better historical analogy, if one is needed, is Fightback! in 1993. Ideological flights of fancy, flying in the face of the core value of fairness, are electoral suicide notes.

Laura Tingle:

Just every so often in politics there is a moment when you can almost hear the tectonic plates shift, and they don’t necessarily come with elections.

We saw one of these in 2010 when it emerged that Kevin Rudd was dumping his commitment to an emissions trading scheme.

The Fairfax-Nielsen poll suggests the 2014 budget is proving another such moment when politics can be turned on its head.

It is not just the dramatic slump in the government’s primary and two-party preferred vote, or the fact that Labor is, for the first time, the major beneficiary of this slump. It is not just that voters – in spectacular, angry numbers – think the budget is both unfair and not good for the country.

It is not even that Tony Abbott’s barefaced refusal to confront the fact he is breaking promises has enraged voters in a way that makes his position with them unrecoverable.

It is the fact that this poll suggests Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey will have little choice but to go back and rethink the entire political and economic strategy on which this budget is built.

The thing is, I doubt they will.

Hockey channels Piketty


There’s a fascinating little snippet here about the influence of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century on the Obama Administration and US Democrats. Obama’s poll ratings improve, it seems, when he mentions income inequality.

I haven’t read Piketty’s tome, and I don’t plan to discuss his theses unread, but I think it’s possible to suggest that its enthusiastic reception is related to the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, and in particular, to the politicisation of income inequality by the Occupy Movements.

The spectre of merchant bankers and captains of finance continuing to award themselves huge bonuses while simultaneously trashing global capitalism, and the propensity to believe that their very practices were nefarious and probably illegal, has haunted the public imagination ever since.

The image of the “Top 1%” has been disseminated perhaps far more widely than its progenitors would have imagined.

What’s stark about income inequality, and particularly the meretricious and often scandalous behaviour of the Top 1% (whose lack of restraint couldn’t be more different from the Protestant Ethic habits of the traditional WASP finance bourgeoisie), is the breaking down, indeed the shattering of the nexus between merit, effort and reward.

Pollies have not helped themselves by living the high life – think Tony Blair cruising the Mediterranean on billionaire’s yachts or the antics of lower rent UK MPs rorting allowances left, right and centre. All this is much more plainly visible than it once was. The veil has been torn away.

The social and behavioural sciences are pretty unanimous in emphasising that legitimacy attaches to an effort/reward nexus that satisfies moral demands for distributional and procedural fairness. This is well established in organisational psychology – put simply, if you see that your work is rewarded through a fair and transparent process that’s equitable to you and to others, you’ll be happier. But it is also a macro-sociological phenomenon.

Capitalist societies thrive on inequality. But they can still satisfy the criteria of distributional and procedural fairness if rewards appear open to those who deserve them, and crucially, if meritocracy is guaranteed.

The social democratic foundations of the Australian welfare and fiscal mix have at least promised this meritocracy, which is what enables people to look on inequality with some notion that it’s fair.

(Note that I am not arguing that Australia is a meritocracy or that we have distributional and procedural justice in the link between desert and income. I would not make that argument. I’m just saying what has until recently given the system some considerable degree of legitimacy is the perception that we do.)

If you kick those foundations out from under people, and if you blatantly reward the few at the expense of the many, you destroy the system’s legitimacy. And the first response will be anger.

So, Joe Hockey is stirring up the same passions that sell Thomas Piketty’s book.

And that’s why smoking that cigar was the single stupidest political act of the year.


More like a sledge hammer than a nudge: Hockey’s cost shifting


(Graph courtesy of Greg Jericho. The blue line shows real and projected Labor spending on higher education, the red line Coalition, sourced from budget papers.)

The rhetoric of the Abbott government is big on freedom, and Joe Hockey’s homilies, drawing on the wisdom of “Margaret from Jangwarrin, Victoria” (a deserving pensioner, compared to Vilma of Kevin Rudd Land, who’s presumably been on cruises and is thus undeserving), are big on the need for individuals to lift themselves up, make their own choices, take responsibility and so on.

The contradictions of all this rhetoric in relation to free speech for Andrew Bolt haven’t taken long to unravel, of course. So too with the political strategy inherent in Joe Hockey’s budget.

Universities have been liberated by Christopher Pyne to set the level of fees they choose, and Doctors are free to continue bulk billing selected patients if they like, and the states are free to raise revenue from anywhere they like to fund education and hospitals.


Cuts to the Medicare rebate for consultations mean that GPs can only waive the $7 Cure Cancer Now Fee at their own cost. The states are expected to become advocates for a higher GST, because Smokin’ Joe’s “clever” wedge politics leaves them no alternatives. And universities will need to raise their fees whether or not they choose because of the gap in their budgets just created.

It’s not subtle, and it’s not particularly smart. And it doesn’t constitute “freedom” or “opportunity” either. Talk about Moscow on the Molonglo. It’s certainly not liberalism either.

Lift yourself off the sofa and stub out that cigar! Hockey’s social dystopia

stock-footage-young-caucasian-man-starting-off-and-smoking-cigar-on-white-background-selective-focus-isolatedI’m actually struggling to believe the Budget announcement on Newstart for under 30s. We knew that Youth Allowance was going to replace unemployment benefits for the under 25s (and sadly, that’s just a continuation of a Labor trend). But I’m a bit stunned by the scale of the brutopia awaiting younger workers.

Basically if you have a terrible job you have to keep it or face poverty and perhaps homelessness. Then after six months you have to Work for the Dole for six months then you get kicked off again. Meanwhile if you’re young and living with a disability you get a lower income and an “engagement plan”. If you have kids, you lose benefits when they turn 6. This is Hockey’s social dystopia for the young.

So, for me, it actually was a shock, horror Budget.

The way a Budget is reported is somewhat misleading – as if it’s a series of discrete and individual measures. What is more important is how they interact, and from a social policy perspective, the net impact they have on particular groups. Any budget is a policy document as well as a fiscal one.

Of particular importance is the stripping away of around 80 billion dollars to the states, many of which are already trashing services and support for the disadvantaged, in their rush to placate ratings agencies.

Then we have measures such as the Medicare co-payment, the removal of rental affordability schemes and an increase in the fuel levy. All will form a pincer movement attacking those least able to “lift” themselves, because every time they try to “lean”, they’ll find the post kicked out from under them.

Not to mention the forecast increase in unemployment, and the potential macro-economic effects of the budget on effective demand, consumer confidence, and therefore propensity to invest and to hire.

It’s a perfect storm. A pincer movement.

Then vulnerable people’s income is slashed or abolished by fiat altogether. All in a mad quest to end “dependency” and “entitlement”.

Meanwhile, public transport and travel costs soar, the cost of living is the 4th highest in the developed world, homelessness is on the rise, mental health pressures are ratcheting up, entry into the labour market is difficult, childcare costs are extortionate, and so on and on.

Dr John Falzon, Chief Executive of Vinnies, was somewhat measured in his press release, but more passionate and angry on Twitter:

Forget the debt crisis, this Budget exemplifies a political deficit crisis

hawke cigarThe time-honoured “budget leaks” period has gone into hyperdrive this year, suggesting that it’s more likely that a series of trial balloons are being floated in panic than just the routine of getting the nasties out of the way so people can feel good about “the narrative” or a “return to surplus in x years”. Infrastructure Nation, anyone? Roads as far as the eye can see, construction jobs, fat cats in Canberra slammed, the yoof told to get off the sofa. On it drones, polliespeak frozen in aspic.

We’ve had on and off again deficit levies, probably the biggest talking point along with bulk billing co-payments. Maybe the idea was to get all the angst out of the way first, but the increasingly febrile commentary from the government’s usual cheerleaders and the backbenchers prepared to put their names to their disgust suggest deep division within the Coalition and Cabinet about how to proceed.

Endless historical analogies about the virtues of breaking promises have been trotted out. How silly this can get is obvious from a reading of Nick Cater today in the Oz.

Or from Peter Costello saying “my debt and deficit black hole was bigger than yours”.

So let’s understand a few things.

First, the budget will be horrible. When you get neo-classical economists pointing out that slashing spending directed at the middle and working classes and the excluded will increase inequality markedly, you know you won’t like what’s coming. (The point is, of course, logically simple, but the significance lies in who’s making it.)

That John Hewson strategy of beating up on everyone at once didn’t work in 1993, and that, at least, hasn’t changed. So the negative reaction won’t come just from people concerned about distributional fairness and public services.

Secondly, no-one’s buying the “we’re all in this together/ building for the future/fixing Labor’s mess” narrative. (Just as Campbell Newman has found that a public who rejected Labor asset sales won’t support LNP asset sales to plug a supposed Labor debt gap.)

Peter Lewis and Jackie Woods from EMC contextualise the numbers from the Essential Report poll:

The Abbott Government is heading into tonight’s budget with its own debt crisis: that is, that voters aren’t convinced we have one.

The premise of the budget – painstakingly set up through the Commission of Audit process – is that dire circumstances call for tough measures.

But this week’s Essential Report suggests voters are expecting to take the fall for a budget emergency that is really just a false alarm.

Without believing the central premise of the budget, voters are left with a sick feeling they’ll pay for a budget that doesn’t fix the economy but rather punishes ordinary people in favour of the wealthy.

Meanwhile a collapse in Tony Abbott’s personal stocks suggest the Government is embracing the task of burning of political capital early in its term a bit too enthusiastically.

The thing is, of course, that the majority of voters are right to believe all this.

Labor is, of course, ahead in the polls. But not through any particular increase in its primary vote. Greens, “others” and PUP are all doing swimmingly, and some of that tide flows through to the ALP via nominal 2PP distributions. Whether Bill Shorten is consciously pursuing a sotto voce political strategy or not, keeping well out of the way is the orthodox political option for the ALP at the moment (not, nota bene Tony Abbott, loud and incessant negativity).

But that orthodoxy is wrong.

The most important thing about this Budget is that it symbolises the brokenness of Australian politics. It’s a tipping point, a crisis moment for the political class.

Everything they think they learnt in politics school is wrong, and the focus groups must be feeding this back. We can see this reflected through the inconsistent and panicked messaging from the government.

Confected austerity economics will not work in a crisis of trust. Nor will “let’s all pull together” work in an age of upper middle class entitlement, generously fostered by John Howard’s electoral/fiscal calculus.

Kevin Rudd rode the populist wave of distrust in politics all the way to The Lodge. Then the Climate Change reversal marked a capitulation to “strategy” from the bovver boys of the NSW right, unaccountable for their consistent tunnel vision whether or not they are currently being hauled before various Royal Commissions and Inquiries.

Julia Gillard never had the public’s trust, because of the way she came to office.

Tony Abbott knew all this. It’s not so much about taxes. It’s about a fundamental connection with the populace. Abbott’s power came partly from his tendency to adopt any or all positions on a topic, regardless of contradiction with his past selves, but more so from his mantra about restoring trust, keeping faith, and keeping promises. That’s why a deeply unpopular man is now PM.

So forget all the wonkish arguments, and the strategic calculations.

Clive Palmer is the only pollie playing a clever game at the moment. And he’ll reap the rewards.

The Greens are nuts to oppose something they should stand for – a more progressive tax system (again, forget the wonkery and the strategy talk). Christine Milne will also reap the reward of her decision. They are looking like an opportunistic opposition party, and the message Milne is sending is either too complex for people who aren’t paying attention and/or who don’t speak econotalk or too directed at her own followers.

You can do well in this political environment by either reflecting populist politics back to the populace, or by standing for clearly delineated values. If the latter, you must walk the talk. It’s hard to see how Labor can do that at the moment, but at least orienting the party in that direction would be useful. It would be much more convincing coming from Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek or Penny Wong than Bill Shorten, though. (This is not an age for the Machine Man.)

Make no mistake, though, Jonathan Green may have been mistaken only in his timing. He penned a tome last year – The Year My Politics Broke. Budget Night 2014, after all is done and dusted, will be the night it broke forever.

Close, but no cigar ;)

Newman v the doctors: a political fight that is poisoning the LNP

1800187_670334396358324_809804344_nIf there was one issue aside from privatisation that doomed Anna Bligh’s government to defeat, it was healthcare. Health had been a running sore for successive Labor administrations in Queensland. If it wasn’t the spectacularly expensive payroll bungle, it was the revelations, aired in a royal commission and successive criminal trials, of alleged criminal malpractice by Jayant Patel, nicknamed “Dr Death”. Or it was a self-styled Tahitian Prince living it up on embezzled millions.

Add that to the usual pressures on a public health system and you have a toxic mix. Bligh herself gave credence to the salience of the issue by promising to “blow up” Queensland Health. (Although arguably she was onto something, as the bureaucracy is notoriously cumbersome and unresponsive.)

Now the Campbell Newman government finds itself in an epic fight with public hospital doctors, a fight it cannot win in the court of public opinion if we go by recent polling. Doctors are being asked to sign new employment contracts by April 30. All indications are that mass resignations from the public system are being contemplated.

Newman and the Liberal National Party claim to be acting on the advice of the Auditor-General, who raised concerns about private practice arrangements for salaried specialists. Many doctors argue that the “rorts” were a consequence of an ill-designed scheme by the former government to retain staff. It’s crucial to understand that unlike other states, many of Queensland’s public hospital doctors (particularly in specialties like anaesthesia) are employees rather than visiting medical officers.

Very little rationale has been offered publicly about the shift from award and enterprise agreement-based employment to individual contracts, and it’s not clear that it’s a necessary consequence of the deficiencies in accountability and remuneration identified by the Auditor-General. The contracts, read in conjunction with changes to the Industrial Relations Act, deny salaried doctors unfair dismissal protections, control over work location and timing of shifts, and require doctors to take direction on appropriate medical care from hospital and health service administrators.

The suggestion is that, having failed to find private operators for public hospitals that could actually provide cheaper services, the government’s agenda is to substitute bureaucratic cost controls for clinical judgement. That’s something the federal policy shifts towards paying hospitals for the “efficient price” of a procedure encourages.

Unsurprisingly, doctors are up in arms. The Queensland Health Director-General was affronted by being presented with a pineapple at a public meeting (the protesting doctors are calling themselves the Pineapple Group, after meeting at the Pineapple Hotel), Health Minister Lawrence Springborg has been loudly decrying “interstate union thugs”, and now the government is taking legal action against unions for “deceptive and misleading conduct”. Assistant Health Minister Chris Davis, a former Australian Medical Association president himself, has barely been corralled within the government’s ranks. The AMA is running TV ads, the Facebook “Keep Our Doctors” page has 8846 likes, and on Tuesday night, doctors rallied along with other public servants outside Parliament House.

None of this is a good look for a government that recently lost the Redcliffe byelection to Labor with a massive swing. Polling conducted by ReachTEL for the Australian Salaried Medical Officers’ Federation in Ashgrove (the Premier’s seat), Cairns, Ipswich West and Mundingburra shows massive public opposition and significant impacts on the LNP’s vote. Newman would easily lose his seat to the ALP on these numbers, and it could be reasonably inferred that the LNP’s majority would be in danger. (It would be fascinating to see polling in seats higher up the pendulum).

Perhaps most inflammatory is the Premier’s suggestion (on which some hospital and health services are reportedly now acting) that interstate and overseas doctors will be recruited to replace specialists. There’s also talk of contingency plans to pay private hospitals to provide services for public patients, an objective in any case common to the state LNP and federal Coalition governments.

The Newman government faces a potential meltdown of the public hospital system in May. While Springborg has given some ground in negotiations, taking the system to the brink of disaster in a dispute with a profession overwhelmingly trusted by the public is hardly a savvy “crash through or crash” strategy. And this from a government that’s found it hard enough to successfully demonise bikies.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of its new focus on consultation, Treasurer Tim Nicholls has been touring the state touting the benefits of privatisation. It seems that memories are short in George Street.

Originally published in today’s Crikey. Reproduced with their kind permission.