When politicians make pronouncements, how do you know whether they are spin or genuinely believed? When they do spin a story it’s their veracity that is called into question. But when they seem genuinely to believe what they’re saying, it’s their judgement that is questionable. Take as an example Tony Abbott’s weekend statement about the nature of the Coalition’s contemporary predicament. He said "I would just caution any of my colleagues against thinking that there is a quick fix or a magic bullet for the poll difficulties that we have.....the problem wasn't Brendan, and it's not Malcolm, it's not even us. The problem is the electoral cycle." Christopher Pyne echoed this in his Channel Nine interview with Laurie Oakes when he said: "A year ago people thought that Brendan Nelson was the problem, a year later they think Malcolm Turnbull is the problem; but the problem is not the leadership, the problem is the electoral cycle." When two Coalition members say virtually the same thing within a day or two, it suggests the spin doctors have had a hand. But if they really believe it, the more likely diagnosis is a delusional state, a crippling political malady. [more]
So is this an attempt to convince the public that the prime problem for the Coalition is not its leadership, or even what it’s doing or not doing; it’s the electoral cycle, an inescapable cycle that inflicts damage on the electoral prospects of a recently defeated political party no matter what it does or says? Or do they really believe what they say?
There’s no question that after a substantial period in power political parties become ‘tired’, short on new ideas, complacent, especially if the economy seems to be going well, and perhaps lazy. The time taken to get to that point varies, and in the case of the Howard Government extended over four terms and almost twelve years. It’s also true that the people become tired of a government or a leader and look for a change. Again the time taken for the people to tire varies, and even when they do, they will change a government only when a viable alternative is available. So if the electoral cycle does have an influence, how much, and when, varies.
Aristotle made an interesting observation about this on Oz Election Forums on Monday. “Both Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are implying that a new government can expect to continue receiving the support of the electorate at this point in the electoral cycle, just short of 2 years into its term, and the Opposition would find it difficult to make much headway. On the surface this seems a reasonable explanation for the Coalition's electoral position. However, there is no evidence to support this conclusion. At the same point in the electoral cycle, comparing the Rudd Government (2007+) to the first Howard Government (1996-1998), on voting intentions, leaders' satisfaction ratings or better Prime Minister ratings, Kevin Rudd and his Government are completely dominant. In fact, compared with all previous Governments since the second Hawke Government (1984-1987), at the same point in each term, the Rudd Government is the standout performer.” Aristotle goes on to support this view with an array of figures. The piece is well worth a read.
Gerard Henderson, executive director of The Sydney Institute, also invokes the electoral cycle as a factor in his piece in today’s SMH, Given the climate, Turnbull's the right man for the job when he concludes “That's about all that can be done until, in time, the electoral cycle turns. As it invariably does.” But he has the good sense to preface this assertion with: “In the short term the Liberals, under Turnbull's leadership, have little alternative but to advance good policy. There is much that can be said about small business including farmers, rising youth unemployment and the likely increase in power generation costs under a carbon reduction scheme that should appeal to the Opposition's core support base.”
So what are Abbott and Pyne really saying? And do they actually believe it?
If it’s just old fashioned spin, either to convince the public that there’s nothing much the Coalition can do until ‘the electoral cycle turns’, or to salve the raw emotions of a dismayed dysfunctional party, it may not do much permanent damage to its fabric; but if it is a strongly held belief the damage will take much longer to repair.
Can anyone believe that ‘the problem wasn’t Brendan’? Although in retrospect many will have formed the view that he did a better job and would be more acceptable than Turnbull, who would rate his performance as satisfactory? Although consultative, as he won his post by only three votes, he never had the unqualified support of his colleagues. His antics in parliament were ridiculous, his stunts such as the 5c cut in petrol excise silly, his policy initiation wanting, and his political judgement, especially in calling a leadership spill to get Turnbull off his back, suspect. Any prospect he might have had in reviving his party was fiercely white-anted by Turnbull from day one. Nobody outside the Liberal Party believes that ‘the problem wasn’t Brendan’.
Can anyone accept that ‘the problem’s not Malcolm’? This is even more preposterous. He too began with a majority of just four but had much more media support than Nelson ever did – the media decided, almost from day one, that Nelson would not succeed. Turnbull has shown repeatedly that he lacks political judgement, nous and commonsense, a characteristic that reached a dizzy height at the climax of the OzCar affair. And it continued with ‘I cannot lead a party that has no contribution to make to the ETS’, a brave even commendable position but imprudent for a leader to utter publically. And as if that hadn’t angered his party room enough, he was soon on the airwaves again adding a backhander to the ‘anonymous smart-arses’ in his party. Apart from his abysmal political acumen, his policy cupboard is bare and showing no sign of being restocked, and he has been ruthlessly opportunistic and disingenuous in his public rhetoric. He has now lost authority in his party, and the Nationals treat him with disdain. He has been a dismal failure and a disappointment to the voting public, even Liberal Party supporters, as evidenced by continual awful polling for over a year, now worse than Nelson’s. How on earth can Abbott or Pyne seriously expect anyone other than blind Turnbull supporters to believe ‘the problem’s not Malcolm’? Certainly most political journalists have written him off, although some expect him to hang around because of the paucity of alternatives. Even Gerard Henderson sees him only as the best of an indifferent bunch.
But perhaps Abbott’s most unbelievable claim was that ‘it's not even us’. What is it that allows an experienced politician to make such an outrageously inaccurate, such a manifestly ludicrous statement? So it’s not the Coalition, or the Liberal Party, or the Nationals that are responsible for the parlous state of the Opposition. Unbelievable! It’s not its lack of policy initiatives, it’s not its inability to establish a policy position on such important issues as the ETS; it’s not its opportunistic opposition to almost everything the Government does; it’s not the deceptive spin it perpetuates day after day through which the public clearly sees; it’s not its complicity in the Godwin Grech affair and its abortive attempts to bring down the PM and the Treasurer, which the voters disapproved so pointedly; it’s not the disarray the Coalition is in, it’s not the public discord on display over and again; it’s not anything the Coalition is doing or not doing, not anything it is saying or not saying – no, it’s the electoral cycle – that’s the problem. A problem not amenable to Coalition intervention, one not capable of remedy, one out of the hands of this blameless body so cruelly suffering the curse of the electoral cycle, a contagion that comes with electoral defeat and which dissipates not by virtue of anything the Coalition can do, but only with the inexorable passage of time. So never mind leadership, never mind creating good policy, just wait patiently for the electoral cycle to move to its next phase – the restoration of the Coalition to its rightful place at the centre of power.
Belief in the primacy of the curse of the electoral cycle afflicts the delusional. If there is a cure, it will take lots of time, new thinking, new ideas, new leadership, new people. But will the Coalition take it?
What do you think?