Assert, don’t defend. Fight, fight, fight.
—Andrew Bolt, “[Abbott] Government behind 46 to 54. But here’s how it can recover”, 15 December 2014
[Campbell Newman] just seemed arrogant and beyond the control of voters — a fatal flaw in Australian politics. Abbott hasn’t had Newman’s freedom to smash through as he tackles another Labor debt, thanks to a mutinous Senate. But he, too, has broken promises, picked too many fights…
—Andrew Bolt, “Queensland election a disaster for Abbott”, 1 February 2015
[S]upport for the Abbott government has plunged to 57-43 on a two party preferred basis, according to a new Galaxy poll.
—Samantha Maiden, The Sunday Telegraph, 1 February 2015
It’s a bizarro situation.
—Chris O’Brien, on the Queensland election for ABC News 24, 1 February 2015
Well, I didn’t expect a swing that big.
And neither did the Queensland ALP. In fact they were so busy repudiating the party brand — pulverized in 2012 — that their perplexed candidates kept talking about some new “Local-community-grassroots-committed-listening (always listening) Party” that had won the day, as if repeating the locker room pep talk for a forlorn campaign was what you needed to relay to the public.
In that most anti-political of states we have seen the most spectacular instance of the auto-unravelling of the Right yet. This should settle once and for all that it’s not just Labor that has lost a stable base in society, but that the Right is similarly unable to find a social basis for its agenda. And it’s not like either side even has much of a serious agenda: Newman backed away from his initial flurry of faux-austerity (he never did solve that pesky deficit problem) when it became apparent his government could collapse if he pursued it. Which left him with only a series of hamfisted culture war, and law and order, forays to look, er, “strong”.
Meanwhile a cipher of a state opposition, perhaps even more tabula rasa than Bill Shorten’s face of late, has likely stolen the show, promising to “keep faith” on doing pretty much nothing of substance at all. The fact it was Labor (and not smaller parties) that reaped the benefits of the self-combustion of the LNP is a sign that the voters are suspicious of players like the Greens or Palmer who posture as anti-establishment only to do deals with the majors the moment they get a chance. But it’s also a clear signal that incumbency is now the greatest poisoned chalice of them all.
This is no mere correction of “the political cycle”, temporarily disturbed by some transient internal problems Labor was having a couple of years back. Rather, it reflects an acceleration of the decline and decomposition of the political order that was hegemonic for most of last century. There may be electoral volatility but voters themselves are not being fickle. George Megalogenis nailed it better than most:
The political class has polarised on partisan lines while voters have increasingly lost interest in those alignments, precisely because on all issues that matter directly to voters’ lives there is barely a cigarette paper between the parties. So overblown “look at me!” brand differentiation has become the primary MO of politicos, pushing them further away from their former bases.
Now we come to Mr Abbott. He faces rampant speculation about his future — most angrily on the political Right — on the basis that he implemented the very partisan agenda he was elected by the party room to implement. Recall that in 2009 when Turnbull was trashing the Liberal “brand” by flirting with Rudd on an ETS, the Coalition was on the verge of splitting over the issue. Abbott was, after Hockey fumbled, the only candidate who could reunite a fractured party. When he talks now of being the good captain who helps a good team play well he is not mainly talking to the voters but to his own side, reminding them of what happens when you put a wet like Turnbull (or maybe Bishop) in charge: the whole team collapses.
Abbott is being punished for exactly what he was hired to do: make the Australian Liberal project a governmental reality. Surely “knights and dames” and then giving a clapped out, racist old Royal a knighthood are exactly what Liberal governments are about — once they no longer have a viable “neoliberal” agenda, and once their foreign policy sabre rattling and domestic anti-terrorism agendas no longer have traction. Like a good boy he has taken advice from the likes of Bolt and Murdoch and they reward him with ever-harsher rebukes.
This is why the Turnbull and Bishop options, whatever their possible electoral merits, are so difficult to embrace. The Liberals need, instead, that impossible creature: an ideological Liberal, tough on all their historic enemies (poor people, foreigners, Blacks, Lefties, etc.), yet also marketable to a public that has come to see the Liberal brand as (at best) anachronistic or (at worst) unhinged and in need of euthanasia.
For most of last year I thought Labor under Shorten would falter once actually facing an election, because voters’ memories of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd disaster were too fresh to be overcome. The Queensland result, however, suggests that the “blank screen” approach may be enough for them to come out in front.
Which, of course, will solve none of the problems wracking Australian politics more generally.