Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Politics Of Negativity

The Wages of Timidity: A hung Australian Parliament has become the outward manifestation of Julia Gillard's (above) and Tony Abbott's negative approach to political leadership.

TONY ABBOTT’S rapturous reception by hundreds of delighted supporters last Sunday morning was more than merited. The leader of the Australian Liberal Party had done what only a few weeks ago the pundits were telling us was impossible: he’d stripped Julia Gillard’s Labor Government of its majority.

Eighteen Labor seats fell in last weekend’s Australian elections, nine of them in Queensland, home state of the man Ms Gillard deposed, Kevin Rudd. For the first time since 1931, a first-term government had been, if not quite thrown out, then at the very least firmly escorted to the front door.

The Australian election result has much to tell us about modern democratic politics.

The first and the most important lesson to be drawn from Labor’s debacle is the ominous power of negative politics.

The Australian Labor Government’s unique success in bringing the country through the global economic crisis virtually unscathed should have been enough to see it returned to office with an increased majority. Astonishingly, Mr Abbott was able to persuade the Australian electorate that – far from being a triumph – Labour’s handling of the economy had been an untidy and extravagant botch-up.

Mr Abbott also successfully re-ignited (and then ruthlessly re-exploited) the fears of many Australians that their country was being "over-run" by sea-borne refugees. With great skill he persuaded his countrymen that Labor had "gone soft" on these so-called "boat people" – a charge which slyly invited voters to question Labor’s membership of "Middle Australia".

The sudden "rolling" of Prime Minister Rudd in a brutal, faction-driven coup spectacularly confirmed Mr Abbott’s characterisation of Labor as a collection of reckless, ruthless and boorishly arrogant ambition-heads, who wouldn’t recognise a political principle if it jumped up and bit them on their over-upholstered rear-ends.

Unfortunately for Ms Gillard, Mr Abbott’s crude caricature of Labor as inept, disloyal and unprincipled had just enough truth in it to stick.

Less than three years ago, Mr Rudd was describing Climate Change as "the great moral issue of our time". One of his first actions as Australia’s new Prime Minister was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. With the enthusiastic support of most Australians he set about devising an Emissions Trading Scheme.

Absolutely predictably, the Labor Government’s Climate Change policies ran into a hailstorm of right-wing opposition. At that point, Mr Rudd’s job was to stand firm and make the case for change. This he did not do. Rather than face down his Climate Change-denying opponents, Mr Rudd cut and ran. Australians were appalled. Labor’s poll-ratings plummeted.

This sudden voter disaffection reflects another, deeply troubling aspect of negative politics. It’s not just about the unkind accusations an opposition levels against a government; it’s also about the unkind impressions a government leaves in the minds of its own supporters. The political dynamic to be avoided at all costs is the one that sees a government assailed with renewed energy by its enemies, even as it is being deserted by its friends.

Finding herself in this unenviable position, Ms Gillard’s winning strategy was clear: carry the fight to Mr Abbott and the Liberal-National Coalition; and rebuild trust and faith in Labor’s mission among her wavering and/or outright rebellious supporters.

This Ms Gillard did not do. Rather than repudiate Mr Rudd’s timidity, she endorsed it and, to the utter dismay of her followers, took it further.

"The great moral issue of our time" was unceremoniously booted into touch by the new prime-minister. Then, in a craven closed-door-deal, Mr Rudd’s one genuinely radical economic policy, taxing the super-profits of the mining companies, was watered down. Ms Gillard was even willing to resurrect the Coalition’s internationally decried "Pacific [or, in her case ‘Timor Sea’] Solution" to the sea-borne refugee "crisis". Anything, to thrust Mr Abbott’s attack-dogs back inside their kennels.

Of course the new prime minister’s strategy of appeasement instantly vitiated whatever moral justification Labor’s fractious barons may have advanced for deposing Mr Rudd.

Mr Abbott’s critique of Labour as an unprincipled band of ruthless opportunists had been vindicated. The Coalition, scenting blood, redoubled its attack. Left-wing voters, disgusted, struck-out for the Greens.

Taking stock of the 2010 Australian election I am reminded of the Muldoon-led National Party’s ruthless demolition of Bill Rowling’s Labour Government back in 1975. That, too, was a relentlessly negative campaign, conducted by a man the pundits insisted could not win, against a Labour Party curiously oblivious to the size and ferocity of the political monsters massing around it.

If, over the next few days, Ms Gillard succeeds in cobbling together a Labor-led minority government, it’s hard to see it representing anything other than the timidity, lack of principle and cynical opportunism which gave it birth.

Australians seem fated to endure either Mr Abbott’s passionate intensity, or Ms Gillard’s lack of conviction.

The politics of negativity come at a high price.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 August 2010.


Anonymous said...

Nice summation. Just one thing. Abbott doesnt deny climate change. However he is sceptical that CO2 causes warming.Big difference.
He has a point. The latest Paper from McKittrick, McIntyre, Herman et al (2010) completly destroys Santer et al (2008), which was the Paper with the mathematical modelling to "prove" that hotspots exist.

Olwyn said...

The fact is that the power of any democratically elected government decreases with each passing year. The corporations are now our kings, whose interests are naturally supported by the parties on the right. For the left, the best they can hope for is to negotiate concessions from them on behalf of the population. If they aim for concessions that are large enough to erode corporate power they will be deprived of oxygen in the form of money and media coverage, and publicly declared to be mad. If the concessions they seek are too small then they become almost indistinguishable from the right. Add the likes of Crosby and Textor to this mix and you have something like Electoral Idol: who is going to be eliminated, contestant A with her hairdresser boyfriend, or contestant B who runs marathons?

Anonymous said...

Anon - Abbot is a climate sceptic, usefull for a country that has the worlds largest coal exports.

Not useful for a world with more and more signs of stress, be it wildfires, the floods in Pakistan, heatwaves, ocean accidification and so on - let alone just the pollution from Oil and Coal etc like the Gulf of Mexico spill.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:03
I think we all agree that soot from using Coal is a major problem. Just look at the Himalayas. Personally I look forward to liquified coal being used more.
However whether CO2 is a pollutant and is creating hotspots has yet to be proved.
There has been no increase in extreme weather events, in fact Hurricanes/typhoons are down in numbers.