The Politics    Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Political exams

By Sean Kelly

Tony Abbott’s enemies are trying to set him up to fail

Test-setting is one of the oldest games in the political playbook.

A major event looms. The various players know the possible outcomes; they know the likelihood of those outcomes. It would be easy to let events play out by themselves, and then to discuss, in measured tones amid tempered rhetoric, what those events mean.

But the experienced professional knows that events are never read in isolation, never interpreted purely in some platonic arena of neutrality. Any particular occurrence will, rather, be seen in the light of the many, many, many things said about it in the weeks before it happens.

Take the 2013 election. On the face of it, one might simply say it was a clear Labor loss. But instead, Labor – and especially those who had campaigned to replace Julia Gillard with Kevin Rudd – knew a loss was likely, and set about explaining to anybody who would listen just how dramatic that loss was likely to be. The aim was to reset the test for that election: the question became not “Can Labor win?” but “How much will Labor lose by?” By lowering expectations in such a way, Labor was able to argue that it hadn’t done so badly, and Rudd’s supporters were able to make the case they had “saved the furniture”. (As to the legitimacy of those arguments, that’s a discussion for another time.)

Because test-setting revolves around high-profile events, it comes accompanied by another tried-and-tested trick: deadline-setting. These are particularly beloved of subterranean leadership campaigners. Thus Peter Costello’s supporters could argue “John Howard said he’d consider retirement by the time he was 64. The party will give him the two months ’til then but that’s it.” Then, when Howard didn’t budge: “Howard must resign by a year before the next election. The party is getting impatient.” The beauty of deadlines is that they come and go and don’t cost you a thing. The leadership aspirant gets a story in the paper, leadership stories briefly blossom, and if the needed momentum hasn’t arisen by the time the mooted deadline rolls around, no matter. Deadlines are, after all, like buses (or men): if you missed that one, another will be along shortly.

Both test-setting and deadline-setting are about to be deployed in force. It seems like only yesterday we were talking about the chances of nascent leadership chatter rising to full-blown clamour. Three bad polls, one same-sex marriage debacle, one Trade Union Royal Commission saga, and 11 days later, all of that low-level murmuring today got turned up to something at least approaching clamour with the appearance on the front page of the Australian Financial Review of a story by Phil Coorey , which stated that “footsoldiers” for both Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison had been taking “informal soundings” from previous Abbott supporters to see if they’d shifted since the February almost-spill.

The next obvious deadline is the Canning by-election, set for 19 September. And sure enough it’s being used within the Coalition, with one senior government MP telling Fairfax “A loss in Canning and it’s all over for [Mr Abbott].”

You can see in that quotation, as well as the deadline-setting, the test-setting: a loss and Abbott will be gone. That makes things sound very worrying for Abbott.

The reality is the Liberals are unlikely to lose Canning. At the last election the Liberal Party got 61.8% of the two-party-preferred vote. Some of that certainly would have come from the personal vote of the then incumbent, Don Randall, who recently passed away – but it’s still a huge margin.

This morning a Newspoll showed the Liberals within spitting distance of a loss, but still ahead. So, yes, a loss is possible, and there are concerns in the Coalition that voters could use their vote to hurt Abbott while safe in the knowledge they won’t be changing the government – but it’s still not probable. Abbott would prefer to have no test set for him at all, but if a test has to be set, and it does, then a loss is a high threshold.

That’s why it will be fascinating to watch the test-setting unfold further in the weeks to come. Turnbull and Morrison, if they are indeed positioning for the leadership, will be working behind the scenes to create a much tougher test for Abbott, one he’ll be more likely to fail: a 5% swing against him? Any swing against him at all? We’ll find out. Let the backgrounding begin.  


Today’s links

  • At least 19 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Bangkok.
  • Tony Abbott told his party room he had read the riot act to ministers over their “scrappy” public brawling.
  • Yesterday I wrote about the problems with historical political analogies. Today Paul Keating skewers the misuses of history, and in particular the oft-used argument that the reforms of the 1980s were made possible by John Howard’s cooperation. He was responding to this piece by Howard.
  • Mark Kenny writes that Dyson Heydon’s defence strains credulity. Michelle Grattan writes: “The idea that somehow the NSW Liberals are to blame for inviting Heydon seems to me ludicrous. He is a former High Court judge – he should not have needed to be saved from himself.” Lenore Taylor says Heydon expects to be given more leeway than he gives others. The affair may last till Friday. And just what is apprehended bias?
  • North Korean defectors speak at Parliament House.
  • The Senate gives the government another double dissolution trigger.
  • Former Liberal adviser Terry Barnes says don’t count Abbott out yet. The ministers and MPs who would have lost their seats had an election been held on the weekend.
  • Business has begun taking aim at the Abbott government

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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