The Politics    Wednesday, April 8, 2015

I can’t believe it’s not government

By Sean Kelly

I can’t believe it’s not government
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might be a duck. But then again, it might not.

Usually, whenever a conservative prime minister makes an announcement on the national security/law and order/defence side of things, the press smells a rat.

There follows a predictable deluge of articles about that leader playing to the lowest common denominator, cynically stoking fears in order to get themselves a boost in the polls. This was in evidence after the PM made a national security statement in February, and after he announced in March – with no fewer than eight flags behind him – that 300 troops would be sent to Iraq.

Of course, the fact that an observation is predictable doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be made. Leaders of any stripe who exploit fears for political gain – the very opposite of what you’d think their jobs should be – deserve to be called out on it.

This morning, the prime minister announced a national taskforce to tackle the spread of the drug ice. We can expect a few of those kinds of articles (or at least some snide comments) to follow.

It’s true that Abbott is fear-mongering in the hopes it will accentuate his authority. He is also playing to his right-wing base, with whom his hopes of keeping his job reside. But I suspect he is also doing something else, something both politically smart and hopelessly unsustainable.

What any political operative knows is that, more than anything else, voters expect their governments to govern. After a long run of chaos and high drama, Abbott’s advisers have recognised that right now voters are craving some peace and quiet.

And so, in the face of desperate unpopularity and a tendency to make mistakes wherever he goes, the PM has resorted to a failsafe strategy: make announcements the Opposition can’t disagree with.

Labor were unlikely to vocally oppose the PM’s efforts to fight terrorism. On the PM’s decision on Iraq, they gave their support – the usual result on national security matters. And it’d be pretty odd if they spoke out against efforts to counter a drug “epidemic”.

But, Sean, I hear you say, the government has been talking about other policies recently – superannuation, pensions, Medicare! Well, yes, but what you’ll notice, if you look closely, is that the government has been very careful not to actually announce anything. Mostly – on pensions, for example – they have cautiously welcomed the fact that other people have put forward ideas. Occasionally they have withdrawn a long-standing policy – in other words, the precise opposite of announcing something new. The most strident they have been is to advocate for a policy without actually announcing it, and in these areas – multinational profit-shifting and superannuation reforms – they have largely focused on things that Labor have already said they support.

All of this is good management. A weakened PM is doing his best to avoid controversy, and with the exception of a couple of gaffes (“Goebbels” and “lifestyle choices”) he is succeeding. And his government has been rewarded with a small shift towards it in the polls.

But no government can avoid disagreement forever. Until that moment, all Abbott is doing is treading water. He’s not really getting anywhere, but at least he’s not drowning.  


Speaking of fear and patriotism, Uncle Bill Heffernan says we should stamp out tax avoidance the way we stamp out ISIS.

A few weeks ago, the Guardian posted a great infographic on the number of flags in the background of each of Tony Abbott’s press conferences.

Interest rates stayed on hold yesterday. There have been unexpected movements in the dollar in the moments before the last three rates decisions, and those movements are now under investigation. In a busy day for the Reserve Bank, officials also announced the bank was unlikely to regulate Bitcoin any time soon.

Living in south-west Sydney can take three years off your life – so what can be done about it?

Yesterday I wrote about the rise and rise of surveillance. Yesterday the Federal Court ordered Australian internet service providers to hand over the details of thousands of customers who may have pirated Dallas Buyers Club (full disclosure: I’ve never seen it). And here’s a piece on the sleuthing that tech makes possible: patients googling their therapists; emergency department psychiatrists googling their patients for criminal records.

One I missed at the weekend: former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg is rumoured to be considering another run – this time to be mayor of London. Hopefully he’ll retire from that job just in time to take over from Clover Moore in Sydney.

And from the most famous political newspaper in America, on the TV show that deals with political strategy better than any other (and is more realistic than House of Cards): an illustrated guide to all 456 (!) deaths on Game of Thrones

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

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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