Monday, August 28, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Clothes don’t always maketh the man
Turnbull’s leather jacket offensive was overshadowed


One of the mistakes political parties make is to think that particular policies are popular or unpopular. Voters are asked whether or not they support an idea. If most do then it’s considered a good idea, politically, to go ahead with it. If most hate it, it’s considered unpopular, so don’t touch it.

The really obvious factor that this type of analysis overlooks is the person announcing the policy. The reality – much more rarely tested – is that different policies, like different clothes, look better on different people. Kevin Rudd, announcing he’ll sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, looks great. John Howard doing precisely the same thing looks like a desperate fuddy-duddy.

I was thinking about this in the context of the two major stories that the Turnbull government was dealing with today.

One was Snowy Hydro 2.0. The prime minister’s first storied visit was in March when he announced the project, or, more accurately, a feasibility study into the project. Today the PM had another announcement: $8 million for that feasibility study.

This isn’t a massive deal in itself – $8 million is governmental chickenfeed – but to stop there is to miss the point. The PM wants to remind people that the project is happening. He was there in June as well, wearing his leather jacket, and the leather jacket came out again today.

The leather jacket gives you a hint as to what this project is about. This is about Malcolm Turnbull being the leader that so many imagined him to be not that long ago: cool, switched on, perhaps not young himself but with a young person’s grasp of the importance of the future and the challenges facing the country. Snowy Hydro gives Turnbull a chance to look visionary.

It’s a perilous game connecting poll movements to any single cause, but the PM’s advisers would be well aware that the only significant jump in 18 months in the government’s Newspoll figures came just after his first Snowy Hydro visit. Then, the government had sunk to its lowest point under Turnbull, behind 45–55; after the visit, it jumped up to 48. Last week, the government hit its second-lowest point, of 46. The PM will be hoping for a repeat performance.

If he gets one, it’ll be because the Snowy Hydro fits so well with Turnbull, or at least the image of him that many Australians still cling to. So does his intervention in the gas market. Here is a man, who understands business, taking action to look after the economic concerns of Australians, while engaging in a bit of nation building as well. Bingo.

But, while the PM was talking about energy and jobs, part of what is supposed to be a week-long push on power prices [$], he was in danger of being overshadowed by a story about asylum seekers.

It’s rare that this happens, but this particular story had juicy elements for the tabloid media, i.e. the government being gleefully mean-spirited to asylum seekers in Australia, and the suggestion that the rest of us were being taken for a ride by these conniving wastrels (asylum seekers, not the government).

On Sunday, Fairfax reported on leaked documents showing that the government planned to immediately cut income support of around $200 a fortnight, as well as give the asylum seekers three weeks to find new accommodation.

These particular asylum seekers are people who came to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island for medical reasons and who were allowed to stay because courts found they had the legal right to do so. Some of these people have been sexually assaulted or attacked, offshore, and are terrified of going back.

Peter Dutton today branded their lawyers “unAustralian” for using the law to keep them here. Just to be clear, he’s saying that sticking to the law in Australia is unAustralian. It should be a fairly remarkable thing for a government minister to say.

Two points about this. The first is that government policy seems to have reached a level of psychopathy. These people have been in Australia for some time, and the flow of boats has not restarted. It is not necessary to take this punitive action to remind desperate people not to get on boats. But the government seems determined to stick to the pure rationality of its boats policy: nobody will settle in Australia. The actual intention of the policy has been forgotten; it has become a set of rules that must be followed at all costs.

The government may not have meant this particular policy to become public, but – given the strength of Dutton’s words today – is probably not that concerned that it has.

And that is because the way that politics so often works is that those involved think “well, we know this policy works in Australia, so it should work now”. Or “this type of policy plays well for conservatives, so this should too”.

But remember the times this type of xenophobic stunt has been pulled deliberately: like Turnbull’s big push on citizenship and 457s. That did nothing for him in the polls. Not immediately afterwards, and not in any delayed way, either. That’s because it doesn’t fit. It could work for PM Dutton, but not for PM Turnbull.

Turnbull would like us to see him as the leather-jacket-wearing, nation-building visionary. His government engaging in this type of petty bullying confuses our image of him.

This might seem like an optics issue. One could argue the solution is for the government to get its PR act together, that Dutton should have run quiet today.

But like many optics issues, further reflection finds that it is actually a substance issue. If Turnbull is who so many of us thought he was, why is he allowing such drastic, inhuman policies to be enacted at all?

In other news


Canberra needs a watchdog

Who is keeping an eye on our federal politicians?

Richard Denniss

“Fear not. There is no need to create a federal equivalent of ICAC. Sure, the Australian Wheat Board was caught up in a bribery scandal with Saddam Hussein, the Reserve Bank was caught up in a bribery scandal related to winning note-printing contracts abroad, and Senator Arthur Sinodinos was sorely embarrassed to discover that a company on whose board he served donated money to the political party of which he was treasurer. But they were isolated incidents and accidents, all of them.”  READ ON


Leader’s block

How can Turnbull overcome the Coalition’s ongoing poll woes?

Mungo MacCallum

“The argument is always that although Turnbull has not met expectations – in fact he has been a crashing disappointment – the voters still keep a vestige of hope that he may yet become the man they had thought he was back in those dim dark days when he knocked off the despised Tony Abbott. But the Newspoll figures suggest the opposite: the punters are well and truly over Turnbull, too.”  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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