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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