Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Goldfish memory
Inconsistent attacks on Bill Shorten reflect the government’s own inconsistencies

Supplied by ABC News

I don’t know if you can remember a month back anymore – a week is a long time in politics, and a bloody lifetime prison sentence in #auspol, so fair enough if not. But if you try, really try, you might remember the government going on the warpath against Bill Shorten for … being a socialist?

There were a few forays along those lines. He was Cuban, too. He was, in fact – when the statues debate was the hottest thing in town – a Stalinist as well.

But that’s gone now. The government has decided energy is the big issue, so now it’s all about Blackout Bill and his shadow energy minister Brownout Butler.

Much merriment was made back in the Stalinist–Shorten days of the inconsistencies in the government’s attacks, and fair enough. Courier-Mail national affairs editor Dennis Atkins tweeted a few weeks ago: “Ok, so Bill Shorten is a socialist, fantasy book villain, electricity cooler, union thug and a suck up to millionaires. Clever Bill.”

That’s right! Remember the suck-up-to-millionaires attack? Shorten was a “sycophant” to the rich, a “social climber”. That, said many people, was a turning point for Malcolm Turnbull.

It wasn’t – in part because the attack vanished. Where did it go? And what happened to the “socialist” attack? Or the “political correctness” attack (combined with “Stalinism”) of the statues period?

A few points here.

The first is the Atkins point made above: the government was mixing too many messages. That’s a poor tactical decision.

The second, entirely related, is: where is the discipline? Why hasn’t the government stuck with a single message over a long period of time? Perhaps, if you’re being generous, you could assume they’d given various attacks a test run, the focus groups had told them they weren’t working, they’d moved on to something else. But if that’s the reason, then why didn’t they test the attacks first? Is everything being done on the run?

Which brings me to the broader point about all this. There is inconsistency in the government’s attacks on Shorten, absolutely. But it seems to me this stems entirely from an inconsistency in the government itself.

Take the “political correctness” attack, for example. Sure, there’s not an issue du jour to hang it on right now. But also: it just wouldn’t fit very well with a prime minister spending much of his time doing FM radio to tell people he’s voting Yes for same-sex marriage. (And no, I don’t think same-sex marriage is a question of political correctness, but that is absolutely the way the No campaign has framed it up.)

Or take the “socialist” tag. It doesn’t really work when all the government’s energy is being directed towards boasting of unprecedented government intervention on gas reserves.

And the “sycophants to billionaires” tag never really worked coming from Turnbull, due to his own wealth – but also due to the fact the government wants to give a tax cut to big business.

In other words, the reason the government can’t come up with an effective and consistent attack on Shorten and Labor is that there is no clear through line to the government’s approach. As the government jumps from issue to issue, each of which is guided by something completely different – satisfying the right, reminding voters of the “old Turnbull”, courting business support – it changes its attack.

More broadly, it often seems to me as though the prime minister is caught between two fundamentally different political approaches. One is what he said when he first came to power, about respecting voters’ intelligence and not playing rule-in-rule-out games. The other is a creeping acceptance of politics-as-a-game-with-set-rules: Coalition governments must play the immigration card, political correctness is an evil, snappy slogans win the day.

I don’t know if the gap between these approaches is bridgeable. I suspect, for Turnbull, it isn’t, because every time he tries the latter it just reminds people that he has slowly been coerced into giving up the former. Or perhaps the problem is that he keeps jumping from one to the other – if he simply chose one, even if it were simplistic politics, maybe that would be better.

Or perhaps the PM is simply counting on the fact that none of us can remember a month back anymore.


In other news


‘Home Fire’ by Kamila Shamsie

Shamsie’s seventh novel puts a modern spin on an Ancient Greek tragedy

Helen Elliott

Home Fire is told in four parts, each detailing the actions, the deliberated performance, of the four connected characters. Isma, a brilliant student, left university to care for her young twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, following their mother’s death. After working in a dry-cleaning business for years she has been offered a chance to continue a PhD in the United States, and although she believes that the twins, now 19, can look after themselves, she is anxious.” read on


Who’s up, who’s down

Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary ‘Weiner’ charts the fall of a congressman who can’t keep out of the spotlight

Leigh Sales

“The filmmakers are careful to show that Weiner is not merely some shallow, accident-prone boob. On the stump, he’s fantastic. For all his self-centredness, Weiner has a scrappy likeability. In one scene he’s met with jeers when he shows up at a campaign function where, after his speech, a burly New Yorker grills him over his seedy behaviour. By the end of Weiner’s passionate answer, the whole place is cheering. His chutzpah turns the room around. This is his lifeblood.” (August 2016)  READ ON

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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