Political achievements and challenges

| January 12, 2015

Last year, the Abbott Government struggled with the transition from campaigning on shallow slogans to convincing the electorate of the good of its policy agenda. Dominic O’Sullivan sets the political scene for the 20 months that remain until the 2016 election.

The 2014 political year’s principal defining point was the Abbott Government’s failure to sell its Budget. The second was Julie Bishop’s competent public image in foreign policy that has positioned her as an alternative leader, should the late 2014 Cabinet reshuffle not remove the domestic policy ‘barnacles’ that the Prime Minister explains as the cause of the Government’s declining public support: the GP co-payment, higher education funding reform and widespread cuts to public spending, for example.

These ‘barnacles’ continue to overshadow achievements such as the free trade agreement with China, and foreign and security policy assertiveness that creates a publicly popular sense of authoritative government. The false association between ‘stopping the boats’ and counter terrorism measures have helped to create an image of being in control of Australia’s ‘sovereign borders’, and the ALP lacks the inclination to develop an alternative policy direction.

While it is generally argued that voters distinguish state from federal politics, the federal Coalition cannot but be concerned that the South Australian Labor Government’s return to office, against all expectations, may have been, in part, a referendum on its own performance. Similarly, the Victorian Coalition’s convincing defeat after just one term in office has been partly attributed to voter dissatisfaction with the Abbott Government. The defeat of the long term Tasmanian Labor Government provided a minor counterpoint.

It is in domestic policy that the Government is vulnerable. Here, 2014 has provided the ALP with a real opportunity to differentiate itself with the confidence and conviction of an alternative government. As the Abbott Government remains philosophically committed to the measures set out in its first Budget (the ‘barnacles’ are the Senate’s rejection of particular policies, not the policies themselves) and to the general principle of a balanced Budget, the 2014 policy difficulties have every likelihood of reappearing to provide opposition parties with real points of contrast to take into the 2016 election. Indeed, the ideological fervour with which the Coalition pursues its cause creates an opportunity for the ALP that will be strengthened still, if calls for the broadening of the GST to food, private health insurance and private school fees sustain momentum.

The Government was elected with a mandate to balance the Budget. It is an idea that people like as a distant and abstract concept, but for the Government, support for its translation into substantive policy remains elusive. As an abstract concept, a balanced Budget is prudent and responsible, a sign of a capacity to manage the economy. However, when in practice, it means significant cuts to public expenditure, and when people understand the burden to be distributed unfairly, a different political reality emerges. For the Abbott Government, that reality is the transition from campaigning on shallow slogans to convincing the electorate of the good of its policy agenda’s more far reaching implications. It is the failure to make that transition that distinguished 2014; and that has set the political scene for the 20 months or so that remain until the 2016 election.

The Government will try to sell its policies in different ways, but its ideological commitments have been well established in its first year in office, and there is obvious political space for the ALP to set out an alternative vision, to develop a clear sense of purpose beyond just winning. Perhaps, for example, there is a case for running small Budget deficits, or for balancing Budgets in different ways?

The ALP needs to clarify its position and prosecute its merits with certainty and consistency. Changes to its leadership election rules have allowed Bill Shorten the security and stability of leadership that neither Kevin Rudd nor Julia Gillard enjoyed, but which are essential to the creation of a public sense of readiness for Government.

Shorten’s own policy achievements as a minister, the Gonski school funding reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme are popular and significant points of contrast with the Coalition, whose 2014 Budget, like any Government’s, tells us much of its philosophical disposition, much of its understanding of the core business of government.

Indeed, a Government’s Budget and an Opposition’s alternative are responses to the foundational political question: What is Government actually for? The preciseness and conviction of an Opposition’s response is a measure of its intellectual readiness for Government, and it may be the ALP’s capacity to position itself as a serious alternative Government that determines the long term electoral consequences of an unpopular first Abbott Government Budget and whether it will be Tony Abbott or Julie Bishop that leads the Coalition into the 2016 election.