Friday, September 10, 2010

Australia Votes 2010 - Post Mortem (Part 2)

So the ALP had decided axe Rudd, and Gillard had wisely called an election. But this is when it all started to go downhill.

Given that Rudd’s failure on climate change was the single most credible reason people had to abandon the Labor party, Gillard’s first move should have been to announce a legitimate climate policy. The huge swing to the Greens in the absence of any serious climate policy from either Liberal or Labor tells you a lot - particularly when it was a major factor in Rudd’s election over Howard. Clearly the Australian people were desperate for serious action on climate change, but neither party was willing to provide it - Tony Abbott had famously said that climate change was “crap” and his party’s policies conformed with this, so if Labor had presented cogent, decisive climate policy like Rudd did they would have gotten a considerably larger portion of the vote (although they would have had to provide some evidence that they would follow through better than Rudd did). Unfortunately, Gillard’s focus group-driven response was to assemble a focus group, which actually made her seem even more ineffectual on climate change than Rudd.

Now, I rarely have anything positive to say about Tony Abbott. And looking at his campaign from an ethical standpoint I think I’d be just as appalled as always, but from a strategic standpoint he is to be commended. You can fool a nation about a lot of things, but it’s very hard to fool them about the state of the economy, because they interact with it every day - but Tony Abbott did. I’ve already gone over the truth of the matter in Part 1, but Abbott convinced the Australian people that they were in the midst of an economic crisis; that it was a train wreck, that they had a huge debt that needed to be eliminated, that we needed to stop the boats because they were a huge economic drain (as I discussed here). He may have created a Strawman to defeat, but he was damn good at it. Labor’s catastrophically stupid move here was to not refute him. If they had, as I’ve suggested, responded to this campaign with the facts of the issue - the robust economy, the insignificant debt, the non-issue of asylum seekers - Abbott would have looked like an idiot and a liar. Instead Labor decided to go negative and smear back on separate issues, which was much less effective.

The parties were both terribly samey, but the one issue they really locked horns over was broadband policy. It has been said that Labor’s costing for the NBN is an understatement, though Conroy pointed out that so far it is keeping to budget and even going under-budget in some cases - but Labor’s potentially dubious accounting is nothing compared to the Liberal’s attempts to defy the laws of physics. Labor exploited this weakness to great effect - just imagine if they’d done the same with the economy. Incidentally, this all throws Gillard’s request for an economic debate and Abbott’s refusal into an interesting light, but considering their advertising budget, she shouldn’t have relied on it.

Of the two major parties, I can say quite clearly that I think Labor deserved to win on the strength of their policies. But with the bland, samey message that Labor put out, and with Abbott’s enormously effective campaign, the Liberals deserved to win on the strength of their campaign. Tony Abbott is generally quite unable to control his mouth - a quick Google search of his quotes reads rather like a list of George Dubya’s finest - but he managed to refrain from any stupid comments or decisions for the entire duration of the campaign. It seems, however, that he wasn’t counting on a hung parliament. In a moment when the independents finally had the power to quell the politics and get on with government, Abbott fell back into childish, petty bickering. He challenged the legitimacy of a potential Labor government, citing the two-party preferred percentages (which is an irrelevant statistic, as Tony Abbott well knows). He claimed that the Liberals were “no longer in Opposition.” And to cap it all off, he initially refused to have his policies costed by the Treasury. Since he finally agreed to this we can pretty much see why - the now-infamous 11 Billion dollar ‘black hole’.

Gillard, by contrast, was calm, polite, and accommodating in every respect. Her Treasury costings had proven to be even better than expected - which allowed her to make an additional pledge of $100 million to Andrew Wilkie without even breaking the bank. Abbott pledged $1 billion, and I think this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. The other independents had seen Abbott’s campaign; pretty much the only reason people were considering voting for him was on the basis of the economy. He had built up an image of fiscal responsibility, of repaying debt and cutting wild spending. Then it turns out that he had lost $11 billion and was willing to throw another billion at Wilkie to buy his vote, when the entire hospital project would only cost about half that. He utterly annihilated the image he was relying on, and Gillard strengthened the one she should have been pushing all along. A lot of people have commented on the fact that the Independents were likely to prefer someone with very different views over someone with slightly different views (for psychological, narcissistic reasons) and this was probably a major factor too. But in a complete reversal of the campaign proper, Gillard’s quiet competence and Abbott’s flailing collapse were really what pushed the final decision.

Part 1: here
Part 3: here

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