The emerging Opposition strategy

Malcolm Turnbull believes the Coalition can win the next federal election.  To do so he has to reverse the stubbornly persistent opinion polls that show the Coalition is around ten points behind the Government on a two-party preferred basis, and he is now 40 points behind Kevin Rudd as preferred PM.  Although the polls showed a gradual narrowing of the gap between the parties from a record gap in March, the narrowest it ever came was the week after Turnbull became Opposition leader, when we saw the so-called ‘Turnbull bounce’.  It dissipated soon after and the gap widened to around a steady 55/45.  So Turnbull cannot, at least at present, rely on the gradual erosion that often occurs as Governments moves through their term.  This may occur later, but Turnbull feels he can’t wait.  Nor does he seem prepared to wait for the global financial crisis to wear away support for the incumbent Government, as so often occurs in such circumstances.  So far the electorate has applauded the actions of the Government in handling the crisis. 

So what is Turnbull’s and the Coalition’s strategy to gain traction?  The following suggests a strategy and an array of tactics that seem to be in play, if not formally, at least in daily practice.

The well-tried strategy of proposing policies alternative to those of the Government that might prove to be more attractive to the electorate has not been evident, but might be so nearer to the election.  The broad strategy to date has been to criticize, attack and sometimes ridicule Government moves, both policy and action plans.  It seems as if it is following Tony Abbott’s admonition to follow Randolph Churchill’s dictum: Oppositions should oppose, propose nothing and kick the Government out.  In doing so, another dictum has been applied: truth is irrelevant; all that counts is perception.

Turnbull’s first tactic seems to be to make a comment on every subject.  This gives him headlines and radio and TV grabs – the exposure all leaders crave.  His supposition seems to be that the more he’s exposed, the more erudite he’ll appear, and the more people will like him.

The next seems to be to try to anticipate Government moves and pre-empt them by stating what should be done, and occasionally what he would do.  The former is preferable because several options can be offered, some of which might hit the mark and make him look prescient, whereas the latter is more risky as it commits him.

Then criticize everything the Government does.  The criticism does not have to be immediate; endorsement can morph into trenchant opposition in a day or two.  Inconsistency is not a problem; people soon forget.  This tactic was seen with the economic stimulus package and the bank guarantee.  In both instances, Turnbull promised bipartisan support but later said that he would have done things differently.  The trick is to support measures that are likely to be, or in fact are proving to be popular, but suggest he could have done them better. [more]

Another, but similar tactic is to support popular measures but ask questions about how they will work and where the money will go, and to ask for the details.  Also raise philosophical doubts about the measure – is it wise, is it good policy?  A recent example of this is the temporary support given for ABC child care centres, something no opposition would oppose lest the wrath of parents descend upon them, but still able to be used to cast doubts.  Despite rapid action, the Government was accused of ‘dragging its feet’ and that as a result many parents would be leaving ABC centres for others.

A tactic that has been in evidence almost since the election, but which Turnbull uses repeatedly, is to paint the Government or its ministers as ‘not up to the job’, ‘out of their depth’, inexperienced, immature, ‘with the training wheels still on’, sometimes plain incompetent or lacking judgement.  A variant is the oft-repeated phrase ‘they don’t understand’ or ‘he doesn’t seem to understand’.  This implies Turnbull does understand and has a better take on the matter.  Then, using his circumlocutory style, he attempts to show that indeed he does.  What he says doesn’t have to make sense or be logically consistent, so long as it has a superficially authentic ring about it.  Being an ex-banker he expects his words to be given credence.  We’ve heard such talk about the bank guarantee, the financial crisis, inflation and interest rates. Turnbull always understands these issues, whereas the PM and the Treasurer don’t.  The implication is that in such times Australia would be better off with Turnbull running the country.

Another well-tried tactic is to attack the person.  Not just labelling them incompetent, but questioning their integrity.  Rudd’s integrity is being attacked over the ‘leak’ of his call with George W Bush.  He is being termed ‘loose-lipped’, egocentric, never able to admit a mistake, a ‘disgrace’, and is being attacked relentlessly in parliament for his breach of security, his naivety, his pumped-up ego, and his disregard for parliament.  George Brandis was at it again today after the Senate refused the enquiry proposed by Stephen Fielding.  The fact that this matter seems to be of little importance to the punters, and of trifling diplomatic consequence, has not deterred the Opposition from expending large amounts of their and the parliament’s time and energy on the matter for nothing more than trying to inflict damage on Rudd, even if that inflicts damage on the nation diplomatically by giving the matter continuing loud publicity instead of letting it die a natural death.  In this matter its own interests are clearly well ahead of that of the nation and more important issues such as the economic downturn.

A variant is to personally attack servants of the Government or independent regulatory bodies.  The vicious personal attacks on the integrity of Treasury secretary Ken Henry in Senate Estimates over the bank guarantee matter, and more recently when accusing him of doing the Government’s bidding on the projections for economic growth, show how far the Opposition is prepared to go to discredit the Government.  Don Randall’s attack on the Reserve Bank governor when he suggested Glenn Stevens had favoured Labor with recent interest rate rises and falls was another personal attack on a public figure of high standing.  Apart from trying to indirectly point the finger at the Government, it’s hard to see what the Opposition thought it would gain.  It seems unconcerned that it might inherit difficulties working with public servants and authorities should it become the Government.  Moreover, Turnbull seems unwilling to call his members to order when they overstep the mark.

All these tactics seem to be divorced from the significance of the issue at hand, whether it is the greatest economic upheaval in decades, the child care centre predicament, or the supposed ‘leak’ from the PM’s office.  As Bernard Keane, commenting on the Opposition’s tactic to call Rudd and Swan incompetent in their handling of the financial crisis, said in yesterday’s Crikey "...a month ago Turnbull declared full support for the Government’s stimulus package "without quibbling'".  Keane continued "Yesterday in the joint party room he said that while he supported the package, he didn’t support the actual ingredients, and that he would have constructed the ingredients 'more astutely'".  Keane’s piece concludes: “The only possible conclusion from the Opposition’s tactics is that it is perfectly prepared to exploit the biggest economic crisis in decades for its own political ends.”

Keane goes on to say: “The risk with Turnbull’s tactics are that they backfire, and create a public impression of a smart-rse, someone who failed to get behind the Government as it tried to manage a global crisis. ... Turnbull would be better off letting the economic slowdown do his work for him, leaving the unemployment numbers to undermine the Government’s standing. The risk at the moment is that he cruels his public image before that can happen. Once the public has an image of you, it’s very hard to shake it off. Only John Howard has ever managed it, and he did it by turning his weaknesses into strengths.”

So it’s hard to see any logic to Turnbull’s strategy and tactics other than his belief that if he throws enough mud, some will stick, and that by repeatedly attempting to discredit Rudd, Swan and the Government generally, he will gain traction, the scales will fall from the voters’ eyes, and he will emerge as the indispensable statesman who can restore Australia to the ‘glory’ of the Howard years.  On the other hand, as Keane suggests, his strategy may inflict so much damage on his image that recovery will be difficult, if not impossible.  Some are already punting he will not survive as leader to the next election; what he’s now doing may ensure that this becomes a discerning prophesy.  Unfortunately for him, his impatience, his ego and his determination to use a ‘do whatever it takes’ strategy no matter how politically opportunistic, may be his undoing.

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Bushfire Bill

13/11/2008Let me be first to comment and shower praise on this beautifully written piece. I personally have never been worried about Turnbull as a threat to Rudd. The Rainmaker is so ego-driven that he is akin to Alcibiades, the 5th century Athenian who, having lost the audience in his place of birth and homeland, Athens, went to Sparta, then back to Athens and finally to the Persians - the mortal enemy - to gain recognition of his talents (forgive the pun, youse Ancient History economists). Alcibiades died a lonely death, far from home, a skyrocket (well, some say the Chinese had invented them by then) that was doomed to flash brightly and then fall, burnt-out, to Earth at some inconsequential place where no-one knew him, or of him. [i]Sic transit Malcolm[/i] Turnbull has met his "Peter Principle" moment. His incompetence has finally been laid bare for all to see. "Mr. 19%", the Rainmaker, who advises punters to wager on every horse in the race - we support the government's measure today, we condemn it a day later - has finally collided with his match: a nerdy achiever, who, while not being as brilliant and as well-connected (this, above all else, is clear), has the moxy and the stolid determination to see the thing through. We have Downer, insanely (and I mean it: "insanely") jealous of the other diplomatic savant, the one with the blonde hair, doing good, getting calls from George W. Bush. Has anyone thought [i]why[/i] the Libs are so obsessed with Phonegate? It's because Bush is their past and future hero. How [i]dare[/i] Rudd appropriate him to himself? We have Abbott - the Mad Monk - with his religion franchise stolen by the Great Phoney, Krudd himself. Failed Jesuits of the World unite! Only one side of politics has God on their side.... and it ain't the socialists. And then we have Turnbull, merchant banker in a world where merchant bankers are anathema: haughtily dismissing Kevin as a pretend phoney, an economic [i]naif[/i]. How dare Rudd puport to take calls from the ex-most important man in the World, and on economic matters? [i]Look-at-moi-look-at-moi[/i].... I'm Malcom, the Rainmaker. I betrayed Kerry Packer in a carpark, for money. I'm the man who has (every) answer for every problem. Just name your problem. How dare this interloper, who didn't even rent a flat on New South Head Rd. and do it tough, think he can be PM? He only lived in a car in Eumundie. His narrative couldn't possibly be as compelling as mine. If Kevin farts, it'll be a fart in front of the Queen. These Labor chaps don't know how to behave in [i]decent[/i] society. So says the consevative rule book: mind the silverware, Labor's back in town. That's their whole strategy: belittle the man, and the movement, while endangering the country. It's close to sabotage, of the economic variety. Rudd is diplomatically incompetent. No-one will ever talk to him again. Ken Henry is a stooge. He has sold out to politics and the quick buck. Glen Stevens is an enemy of the rightful government. Our nation is at Ruin's door. With these people at the helm, our country is ruined. [i]Can you believe it? The ASX market lost 6% today! Fancy that![/i] But be confiednt. Hold your nerve. Malcolm the Rainmaker is coming to save you. Yeah, pull the other one, Truffles.

Ad astra reply

13/11/2008Thank you Bushfire Bill for your generous remarks about this piece. Your comments are, as always, germane, amusing and incisive. If only Truffles could read this post!


14/11/2008Ad astra, why not email your piece and Bushfire Bill's comment to Truffles for some bedtime reading? Then again, maybe not just now but during the next election campaign so he hasn't got time to remake his image, because the longer he has to entrench the image he's managed to portray to the electorate now will lose him more votes than he gains. By the way, thanks for pointing out the preview button. I was pretty well crying tired last evening. It was a too-warm day yesterday and the two puppies I volunteered to hand rear for a friend when his bitch kicked the bucket soon after the birth of eight puppies, wore me to a frazzle. They are now in their 4th week of life and just like kids are a handful when they grow out of the feed/sleep cycle.

Ad astra reply

14/11/2008janice, Truffles should read the comments on Jack the Insider's live blog in yesterday's (13 November) issue of [quote]The Australian[/quote] titled [quote]The Rudd v Turnbull battle[/quote]. If you missed it, it's here: You'll see that many of the comments are congruent with those made in this piece.


15/11/2008180 degrees form Bushfire BIll on this one. Your man inept and the very fact you refer to Turnbull as a rainmaker is testament to this. Kevin Dudd, all blow and no go. Out on his goldbricking phony arse in one term fella!

Ad astra reply

15/11/2008Another piece of the Coalition strategy may have been exposed by Tony Abbott on last night's ABC's [quote]Lateline[/quote] when, confronted by Rudd's continuing good opinion polling, he said "Wait for a year until unemployment is rising". So it seems as if the Coalition may be relying on adverse economic circumstances to erode the status of the Rudd Government, as indeed they may. We'll have to wait to see whether or not that will occur, but as the alternative Government one would hope that alternative policies would be offered that might be more attractive than those of the Government. We're waiting patiently. JH, it would give your opinion of Rudd a touch of authenticity if you advanced some evidence to support it. Just using the hackneyed "Dudd" word, using the worn expression "all blow and no go", and predicting just one term tells us only [b]what[/b] you think, but not [b]why[/b] you've formed that opinion. Let's have some evidence, so we don't conclude that you're "all blow and no go".


15/11/2008Did this intellectual inbred, JH, initial his pseudonym after John Howard? Tell ya what, meathead, change it to R Slicker. PS: I'll take it you voted for SerfChoices at the last election. In effect, you voted to cut the throats of your own kids in the workplace. A low act indeed. Only a rodent would do that to their own offspring. (Do you eat your young at your hole too?)


16/11/2008JH, I'm sure Ad astra welcomes all comments from all sides of politics. However, it is nothing but tiresome to read posts that are only negative cliches rather than an intelligent, thoughtful opinion as to how and why this opinion was formed. People like you have been using the 'Dudd' tag from the time the election campaign began as well as a few dozen more, and because of your rusted on ultra conservative views it is doubtful whether you would admit the Labor Government is doing anything right. You do yourself a dis-service in that you come across to everyone other than your own kind, as a bigotted twit without an argument to debate.

Bushfire Bill

16/11/2008The longer the conservatives rely on anger and sheer name-calling to express their frustration, the longer it will be until the Australian public begins to accept them as a viable Opposition, much less a viable alternative and then fully-fledged government. Raw anger might make you feel good for a few minutes JH, but it serves no useful purpose.


18/11/2008Ad Astra, the performance of Truffles has been very disappointing for me, he can be and should be a future PM. He is clever enough, qualified enough and sufficiently eloquent. There is plenty to attack the Rudd government with, too. -That idiot Stephen Smith and his idiot plan -Using Ken Henry as a shield, -Fluffing the bank deposit guarantee -The stimulus package being poorly targetted (spent on crap) and not on short term infrastructure spending -Rushed policy in general. As such he should be making hay, instead the opportunities are squandered, perhaps its his relative inexperience in parliament. Perhaps the snide attacks reflect the malice within the Liberals who are still smarting from the election loss. I myself am satisfied with Rudd, not overjoyed, not underwhelmed. I would be jumping for joy if Swan were to banished and Tanner stepped up. Imagine that, Rudd retires after two terms, Gillard steps up Tanner steadies the ship. Giggity!

Ad astra reply

20/11/2008Doghouse, I've re-read your comment several times, have wracked my brains, but I can't work out what you're referring to when you talk about "That idiot Stephen Smith and his idiot plan". Do you mean Stephen Conroy?


21/11/2008Woops, I mean Conroy! Apologies to Smith! Gawd thats terrible, my vitriol got the better of me (embarrassed) Yesssssssssss Conroy, off with his head.
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?