The Politics    Monday, July 6, 2015

What you are about to read is almost certainly wrong

By Sean Kelly

The budget wasn’t the political success it seemed at the time

Commentators are constantly on the hunt for explanations.

Events are simple, they scoff – the province of mere reporters. It is explanations that require expertise, consideration, wayward brilliance. Show me an event, and I will show you an explanation. (I’m quoting myself here.)

The problem for commentators, myself included, is that there is a constant stream of political events, and only so many explanations. Many events are either not particularly explicable, or do not fit into explanations which are visible from such close range. Give a commentator a few years, a bit of distance, and they might be able to accurately tease out the strands of history. But history viewed from up close is much like an impressionist painting viewed through a magnifying glass: that pink dot may be part of a water lily, or it may just be a pink dot.

This is a long way of saying that sometimes it is amazing and amusing how quickly a completely incorrect interpretation can take off.

Before this year’s budget was delivered, it was widely seen as a test for Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey: they had fought back since the February near-spill and this was to be the moment that proved their success or their undoing.

After the budget was handed down, it was generally taken as a solid piece of political craftsmanship. That much was true: different polls taken at the time, asking specifically about the budget, showed it had won the approval of the Australian people.

But those polls also carried verdicts on the government and Opposition. The Fairfax/Ipsos poll showed a jump in votes for the government and a fall for the opposition. Largely as a result of that poll, a narrative took hold that the budget had sewn up the prime minister’s recovery.

A Newspoll at the time seemed to receive less attention. The lesson that was taken from it was based on the rising personal approval of Abbott, rather than the voting numbers, which showed a small improvement for Labor in two-party terms.

Since then, there has been a sense that the PM has been cleverly building on his poll success with appeals to the traditional conservative safe ground of national security and a “tough” approach to terrorists in our midst.

Today both Newspoll and Ipsos had new polls. It is now clear that nothing much has shifted votes since the last polls taken immediately before the budget. The only clear trend to emerge has been the descent of both Abbott and Bill Shorten in personal approval.

The point is not that Ipsos or Newspoll were wrong, or that commentators were wrong to attempt to draw conclusions. They are better placed than most to offer interpretation, and readers want explanations. But it is interesting, with just a little more distance, to interrogate the assumptions that have taken hold (and again, I don’t excuse myself from this) since mid-May.

In hindsight, it looks as though Abbott’s improvement in personal standing after the budget was not so much a ringing endorsement of the budget itself as the last gasp of a trend that began in February: a trend that has, since just a few weeks after the budget, turned in the opposite direction.

It also seems that Abbott’s political strategy since then – full throttle on national security, pedal to the metal on rhetorical machismo – has been not only embarrassing for those who care about the standards of Australian political debate but politically ineffective as well, something that is now beginning to be written about (two recent examples from the Australian here and here).

It’s also an important indicator that Abbott’s strategy between February and May was quite different from the one he is currently employing. Yes, it included a focus on national security, but wedged between issues with real meaning in people’s everyday lives: vaccination, food labeling, foreign investment.

Voters are smarter than most politicians give them credit for: they have seen the culture wars of the past few weeks as the poor imitation of reality television they were, and delivered their judgments.

On the Labor side, it is also now clear that Shorten was not simply left flat-footed by a clever budget. His numbers have been trending downwards since the beginning of the year. He will be glad at least that he is again succeeding in dragging Abbott with him.

I think these are sensible theories, of course, based on a reasonable interpretation of the facts before us. But with the perspective of a few more months, and certainly within a few years, it is entirely possible I will turn out to have been entirely wrong. My apologies in advance.


Today’s links

  • Penny Wong makes the case for same-sex marriage and furiously takes down Eric Abetz. Abetz, meanwhile, makes more crazy arguments, saying that because there should be more women on boards, children need both male and female parents. Although apparently this sudden demand for equal representation doesn’t extend to federal Cabinet. 
  • The PM has ordered his ministers to boycott Q&A. Barnaby Joyce has obeyed. What will Malcolm Turnbull do? (It’s interesting, by the way, that Joyce chose to make clear in public that it was Abbott’s decision, and not his own.) Labor says the boycott is like Soviet Russia.
  • Greece votes “No”. Everyone is confused. Economist Thomas Piketty slams Germany for expecting Greece to pay its debt despite never having paid its own debts. Billions have been wiped off the Australian stock market.
  • Debate continues at the national summit over including recognition of indigenous peoples in the constitution. How racial discrimination clauses are treated has emerged as a focus of disagreement.
  • Detention centre staff have been ordered not to talk to journalists about “anything that happens”. Which is pretty broad, obviously.
  • Christine Forster, Tony Abbott’s sister, on the debates she has with her brother and what the government should do on same-sex marriage.
  • A former Disney CEO says funny, beautiful women don’t exist.
  • ICYMI 1: The Prime Minister’s office was aware that Julie Bishop had misled parliament over the Monis letter several days before parliament was informed. More evidence has emerged today.
  • ICYMI 2: This ABC video inserts Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard into The Breakfast Club. Hilarity, or at least keenly knowing chuckling, ensues. 

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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