The Coalition is close to a black hole, and if it doesn’t change course, it will be sucked in. If it had any doubt about whether its behaviour and that of its leader were being observed by the voters, that should now be dispelled after this week’s polling. That such a rapid reaction to the last two weeks was so dramatically reflected in the poll results should convince Coalition members that the people are watching and drawing conclusions. The fall in Malcolm Turnbull’s net satisfaction rating of 40 percentage points in one month is the greatest in the 20 year history of Newspoll.
This piece examines the appropriateness of the Coalition’s attitudes, strategy and tactics since the election.
First its attitudes
Repeatedly, Coalition members talk as if they did not deserve to lose government, because as Tony Abbott put it so plaintively, ‘we were such a good government’. They felt it was unfair as times were so prosperous; everyone was well-off and should have been grateful to the Coalition for this state of affairs. They accept that John Howard should have been replaced long before the 2007 election, but scarcely ever publically flagellate themselves for their sheer gutlessness in not doing so. They consider the election loss was bad luck, and an underserved rebuff from an ungrateful nation.
When will they learn the real reasons for their defeat? When will they accept them and remedy the mistakes they made?
Then there is that upstart Kevin Rudd. They seem never to have carefully examined why Rudd is so appealing to the public. Tony Abbott’s analysis is that he is a fraud, that most of what he says and does is a front for who he really is. This week Abbott categorized him as a scheming, Machiavellian, ruthless gutter politician. Previously he classed him as a fake Christian, a dubious Bonheoffer admirer, an ersatz economic conservative, a master of spin, and a nasty, bullying type under his ever-so-nice exterior. He has been saying for over two years that the electorate is sleepwalking and that when it awakes it will see Rudd in all his ugliness. Sadly for Abbott the people seem to be asleep to his declarations.
Until the Coalition analyses and accepts Rudd’s strengths and how he generates consistent public support month after month, it is they who will continue to sleepwalk in a dream-world of unreality. Tony Abbott and other Coalition members who push the ‘Rudd is a fraud’ line need to give it a break. If he is a fraud, the public will know soon enough. Only rusted-on Coalition supporters enjoy this sort of talk; the rest of the people aren’t listening.
Then there is the ‘born to rule’ attitude many Coalition members seem still to harbour. The corollary is ‘Labor is not fit to govern’. The Coalition considers itself as the natural party to govern – well educated, well heeled, and well connected. In contrast they see Labor as having its roots among the working class, the unions, not the governing elite. That most Labor parliamentarians are now as well educated as Coalition members has not filtered through – stereotypes die hard. The old slogans ‘Labor can’t handle money’; ‘Labor always runs up debt’; ‘the Coalition is the better manager of the economy’ are still trotted out. But if the polls are any indication, the public no longer believes the Coalition is the only party that can manage the economy.
So this talk falls on deaf ears, and should be abandoned.
The burden of anger
Because of these attitudes and persistence of the ‘we were robbed’ attitude, Coalition members continue to exhibit anger about their situation. This is particularly seen at Question Time in the House, when heated reactions and aggressive gestures are exhibited for all to see. Malcolm Turnbull’s sneering accusations, Joe Hockey’s livid, loud-mouthed interjections, Julie Bishop’s irate demeanour and her now-famous cat-claw gesture, and Christopher Pyne’s aggressive points of order are seen every sitting day, and although few watch QT live, short grabs are on public view on TV news bulletins. Voters dislike such behaviour, on either side, but because it is the Coalition that is in Opposition, it is they who exhibit it most. Anger is counterproductive, and is marked down by the public.
The Coalition would appeal to the people more if became less angry, less aggressive, less confronting. Sweet reason would gain it more.
The overriding strategy of the Coalition seems to be to condemn virtually everything the Government says and does. In a contribution to Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead, edited by Peter van Onselen, Tony Abbott says: "At one level, the Opposition's most urgent job, between now and the next election, is to publicise the government's mistakes. Randolph Churchill once declared that oppositions should oppose everything, propose nothing and turf the government out. He was right in this fundamental respect: the opposition's job is to get elected. Intelligent oppositions have no unnecessary enemies. They make the government rather than themselves the issue by ensuring that everyone harmed by government decisions well and truly knows about it."
The Coalition seems to be following Abbott’s admonition, but has spectacularly ignored the need to avoid unnecessary enemies, and the advice of Niccolò Machiavelli in his book on political strategy, The Prince, where he says: “A prince should command respect through his conduct, because a prince that is highly respected by his people is unlikely to face internal struggles." The Coalition is not commanding respect; it is losing it.
People tire of the constant negativity that pours from the Opposition. Turnbull has been given the mantle of Mr No. This obstructive behaviour holds up legislation and wastes parliament’s time. This is impacting voters who want their elected politicians to get on with improving the lot of ordinary people, not getting in the way of every Government move to do so.
Coalition members seem unable to grasp that the public would prefer them to come up with positive suggestions about how to improve legislation, to move sensible amendments, and engage in collaborative discussion, instead of blocking almost everything. The public cannot believe that virtually everything the Government does is wrong.
A second and related strategy, one personally advocated by Turnbull, is to attack incessantly. He does it with venom, venom which had been starkly caught on camera and displayed in the media for all to see. It is a style he has often used in the past, and it has usually worked for him. He seems not to have realized that there is a limit to the value of attack in politics where he is on public display. People don’t like the attack-dog strategy and mark it down. We saw during the last few weeks relentless attacks over the OzCar affair. Dozens of questions were directed to pursuing this, and no matter what answers were given, the questions kept coming. It was tiresome for anyone watching and a monumental waste if time. Yet in Turnbull’s ‘keep on punching’ style the questions continued unremittingly. There were no questions on the economy, climate change, health, industrial elations, or any of the other important matters facing our nation, just a focus on one issue, OzCar. People noticed this. Essential Research polling this week show that two-thirds of those polled believe Turnbull is ‘out of touch with ordinary people’ and less than half those polled feels he ‘understands the problems facing Australia’. Around a half think he is ‘narrow minded’ and ‘too inflexible’. Why do they think this way – his behaviour is the answer.
In pursuing this attack strategy, Turnbull has ignored Machiavelli’s advice to command respect and make no unnecessary enemies; the polls show how much respect he and his party have lost, and how many enemies he has made.
Turning to tactics, Malcolm Turnbull has decided to use personal attack as his main tactical weapon. Instead of focussing on legislative matters, he has concluded that to destroy confidence in the Government, discrediting the individual is quicker than attacking policy. This started with the persistent attack on Joel Fitzgibbon until his resignation. Then Turnbull decided that he’d go for the big prize, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. On the basis of what has now been shown to be a fake email, he levelled corruption allegations at them both, called them liars, and insisted on their resignation. In this particular instance, this tactic of personal attack backfired spectacularly and left Turnbull battered publically by the Government, the media, the polls and the cartoonists, and privately by his colleagues.
Unless he and his party realize that this sort of personal attack is not approved by the people, they will continue down this destructive path to their political detriment. When will they learn?
To conclude, this piece argues that the Coalition has been too slow to accept and recognize why it lost government, unwilling to learn why Kevin Rudd is popular, too focussed on painting him a fraud, and too convinced that it is the only party suited to govern. It needs to dissipate the anger that permeates its ranks and shows in unseemly aggressive behaviour.
The Coalition needs to take a positive approach, discard negativity and make a contribution to the governance of this nation through constructive discourse. It needs to command respect and make friends, not enemies in the electorate.
Finally it needs to abandon its relentless strategy of attack and the pernicious tactic of personal attack. In particular it would be wise to cease attacks over the OzCar affair, but if past form is any guide it will find this impossible.
Unless it makes these changes, it will find itself unable to make any significant contribution to improving the lot of ordinary Australians, and will continue to flounder in the polls. The choice is for Coalition members to make. The question is will they ever learn, indeed are they capable of learning and changing, or will hide-bound attitudes and approaches propel them inexorably towards a political black hole?