What do Oppositions do?

Ever wondered what Oppositions actually do? Well you’ve come to the right place.

Oppositions have several roles.

If you look up the House of Representatives Practice (go on, do it) , you’ll see several neatly listed:

  • • unmaking the Government— that is, become the government;
  •  scrutiny, criticism and suggestions to improve legislation;
  •  examine expenditure and public accounts;
  •  seek information about government policy (think Question Time);
  •  surveillance, appraisal and criticism of government administration;
  •  ventilating grievances;
  •  petitioning; and
  • examine delegated legislation.

You’ll note that several of these roles really belong to what we call the official opposition, ‘her Majesty’s loyal opposition’ or ‘the alternative government’. This is the largest party and the one most likely to form a government rather than smaller parties also in opposition.

‘The official Opposition’ has a few privileges and responsibilities. For example, a privilege would be the extra resources opposition leaders and shadow ministers receive to help them advocate. A responsibility would be the obligation to give a reply to the budget. However, the opposition’s formal responsibilities are few. Much of what the opposition does is driven by convention built up over time.

Thus, the work (very loosely defined) that oppositions do is:

  • Political tactical work – strategizing and planning media and parliamentary tactics. Often this work is not visible, except of course, in its final execution. However, in the last few years of the Rudd/Gillard governments there was a trend for political tactics to be telegraphed in newspapers. Much this work is aimed at trying to ‘unmake government’ and occupies a lot of parties time.
  •  Legislative/ committee work – these are the formal information gathering and scrutiny roles. This is a large part of what voters would call the ‘real’ work of parliament and is often considered worthy but unglamorous. Though, we should not pretend that it is always pure. Regularly, legislative and committee work is pushed through a partisan filter, and often geared towards parties broader political goals. Think of the way that parties try to use senate estimates: their aims are to serve both the public interest and to embarrass the government.
  • Communication and advocacy work – arguing for ideas and telling people about the Opposition’s specific ideas or policies. On the surface this sounds overwhelmingly positive, but, as it is the opposition, the ideas advocated are often used to frame the government negatively and the opposition positively. However, the opposition plays and  important role when it advocates for  marginal ideas or ideas that government doesn’t want to talk about.
  • Constituent work  – representing your local community, following up problems with the relevant minister. This work is largely invisible at a national scale but can make a  real difference to people in the community.
  • Policy work – which is largely implied in the idea of ‘unmaking government’ an being an ‘alternative government’. Policy work is often a question of emphasis or even style for political parties in opposition. How much policy work to undertake, and what to release to the public, is a judgement call about what a party considers its strengths or weaknesses. It’s also another way of presenting or framing both itself and its opponents. As a quick example, think of the contrast between Whitlam and  ‘the platform’ at one end, and Tony Abbott and a return ‘adult government’ and three word slogans at the other.

The bottom line is: these roles are regularly blended. Is committee work really just about scrutinising government or does it help the opposition unmake government? How much time should oppositions invest in developing their political tactics compared with developing policy? Which combination will actually help them win power?

Should oppositions blur these lines? What should oppositions do when exercising their role? These are difficult questions and one that we’ll try to tackle next time.


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Letters to the Spectator

Just before Abbott’s fall, I renewed my subscription to The Spectator Australia after a long break. Needless to say the Spectator offers a different take on Australian politics than the major broadsheets. Last Sunday, whilst reading the 17 October issue (I appear to get them in the mail a week late), I found myself disagreeing. And so flowed forth this letter (mini-essay), largely reflecting on Abbott’s Prime Ministership and the magazine’s take on our nation’s debate about Islam and terrorism. I’ll let you know if it actually gets published.

If you’re only interested in Abbott, skip to paragraph three.

Sir: Rebecca Weisser appears object to the introduction of more shades grey in the debate about the role of religious ideas and terrorism. The conversation ought to be a robust one, but the solution offered appears to be naming, shaming and relentless hectoring. Where in the world has this strategy ever worked without force? Even a quick glance at the literature shows that this doesn’t work. If anything it encourages the very behaviour Weisser abhors. For social change to stick it must be slow and the choice made by individuals themselves. This, if nothing else, ought to be the core lesson we have drawn from revolutions over the last 200 years.

Take for example your own magazine, which for weeks has published a stream of angry pieces about Abbott’s fall. Yes, this is a time of anger and grief for many, but the ‘relentless hectoring’ from the media, and even The Australian, has appeared to have done nothing to assuage Spectator columnists’ views. If anything, it appears to have made their views all the stronger.

Yes, Abbott was capable of great decency and service, perhaps more so than any Prime Minister for decades. But he was equally capable of self-serving ruthlessness.

No politician since 1975 has stretched parliamentary conventions to their limits, adding to collapse in public trust in parliament. Abbott stretched other parliamentary conventions too, such as using multiple address-in-replys to speeches by foreign leaders in parliament to run a political attack on the government.

Abbott readily admitted that it was not as grave a crime to mislead the ABC as it was to mislead the parliament, he readily admitted that what he said was not always the gospel truth. His prime ministership was undone, in large part, because he insisted that he had never made promises that he had in fact made. This was all the more remarkable because he destroyed Julia Gillard’s credibility on the grounds of trust.

As a practitioner of negative opposition, no greater example comes to mind. His political instinct was to sacrifice institutions if it served his needs and to shut down discussions and debates in order to make it easier to negatively frame his opponent. Yet, despite his great promise and a clear capacity for complex thinking and advocacy for unpopular ideas amongst his own support base, as Prime Minister, his vision for the future was to lock us in aspic. He took option after option ‘off the table’ and in doing so, impoverished us all.

Abbott was both complex and deeply flawed. That was part of his appeal, or rather, his fascination. But he was not a great Prime Minister.

Conservatives should know their task is to manage change in a manner that preserves traditions and institutions. That is, in fact, the point of the King Cnut story (quoted wrongly in your magazine). Cnut waded into the water to demonstrate that he could not in fact stop the tide. Successful conservatives know this too.

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Is this the end of the Abbott Prime Ministership?

So it has come to this.

My interest in studying the Liberal Party all began one sleepy afternoon at the end of the political year in 2009. That day in parliament, the pollies gave their traditional end of year speeches. It had been a very rough week for Turnbull. He had declared that the party would support the Government’s  Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) despite a heated and unresolved debate in the party room. Later that week, Kevin Andrews unsuccessfully challenged Turnbull for the leadership.

By Question Time, on the last day of the parliamentary year for the House, journos started receiving text messages that Abbott was going to resign, and by 5pm that evening, he duly had. This followed a slew of resignations from opposition members following Abbott’s example. By 7pm, Turnbull was giving a press conference to fight for his political future. He would not go quietly.

What followed was a chaotic weekend of negotiations and deal making, and utter confusion.  At one point, speculation ran wild that Hockey would run on a ticket with Peter Dutton after a report that he had visited John Howard. It seemed that a deal to move to Hockey as a compromise candidate was firming up. But the support around Hockey started to fade away when he asked for feedback via twitter, and collapsed, when  he declared that his policy on the CPRS would be for a free vote. The Liberal Right, content to back Hockey until this point, refused to accept this position. Abbott then withdrew his commitment not to stand against Hockey. Abbott did not expect to win.

But when Turnbull  ran as a candidate, blind-siding Hockey, the moderate vote was split and Hockey was eliminated from the ballot.

In a head to head contest between Abbott and Turnbull, Abbott won by one vote.

A change to Turnbull?

And here we are again. As I write the television is blaring as pundits give their two cents, government ministers have been out to support the PM, and now the Liberal Party is meeting to settle it all. It’s as if its all come full circle.

It was only a few days ago that I was writing about some of the structural features that inhibit debate in our country: strong party discipline and MPs ambitions; the media’s propensity to report on internal debate as division and dissent and; how changes in media processes and technology allowed a party’s communication strategy to be centralized in the leader’s office into one, single message.

Turnbull’s pitch to the party has in some respects addressed this

And we need a different style of leadership. We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and opportunities, explains the challenges and how to seize the opportunities.

A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it.

We need advocacy, not slogans.

That is, if we think about this as if we were writing a paragraph, advocacy needs to move beyond the topic sentence. Perhaps contextualize information, advance an argument, provide evidence, remind us all why we are talking about the subject. But we shouldn’t think this is just about communication. Advocacy of complex policy, by a government, requires the policy to be internally consistent and add up. It has to stand up to scrutiny, because it’s going to be implemented and we will all find out if it will work soon enough.

And he also hinted at another

We need to be truly consultative with colleagues, members of Parliament, senators and the wider public.

We need an open government, an open government that recognises that there is an enormous sum of wisdom both within our colleagues in this building and, of course, further afield.

Is this a call for a wider, more constructive debate that is actually allowed to develop and evolve? Perhaps even a search for an eventual consensus?

Yet, many structural problems remain. We still have a small parliament, high discipline and a media inclined to report on alternative views as dissent.

Turnbull’s pitch rests on the idea that he, personally, has the skills to to distill the Liberal Party’s values and its policy ideas into a broader narrative. That the Party’s values and ideas are not the problem

Now what we also need to remember, and this is a critical thing, is that our party the Liberal Party has the right values.

We have a hugely talented team here in the Parliament.

Our values of free enterprise, of individual initiative, of freedom; this is what you need to be a successful agile economy in 2015.

Rather, Turnbull is saying he has the skills to finesse and wear away at the rough edges. To convince voters that the Liberal Party has a plan. That the party could govern and govern well. This is not a pitch to change the party’s ideas (at least for now). Indeed, we seem to be back in the days of ‘management’ problems of the Rudd-Gillard era, but minus the poisonous rancor.

If Turnbull wins, will his force of personality be enough to give the government the space it needs to wrestle with ideas and convince voters that they have the right plan? Has he changed enough to manage the party room? Will he be able to reconcile the right wing in order to govern without constantly looking over his shoulder?

I guess we’ll find out. If nothing else, I know what my next paper is about.

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Pollies, ideas and dissent

What is happening in political parties and their ability to generate ideas? If we were to go by what the papers say, the chronic lack of ideas and vision is the problem facing Australian politics today.

Yet, if you randomly read a handful of first speeches by parliamentarians, it’s likely that you’ll find a reference to ‘wanting to make Australia better’ or a commitment to a set of values, principles, perhaps, if they are very brave, even an ideology. Politicians like to think they are in the ideas business. Everyone else likes to argue about whether that is truly the case.

But for today’s post, let’s take them on face value and run with the idea that:

Politicians are in the ideas business

One of the functions of political parties is to act a filter, aggregator, and even generator of new ideas for policy. Parties are also supposed to be organs of representation for liked-minded groups in the community (which, party machines like to remind their parliamentarians from time to time).  But to be successful, party leaders regularly make overtures to govern for the good of all, not just those that voted for them. This makes for a fruitful tension between ideology, national interest and popular will.

And it’s an important tension. Think of it this way, if politicians weren’t in the ideas business, but merely in the business of slavish representation or one-eyed ideological implementation, why have elected governments at all, why not instant online polling or  have teams of technocrats that rule the country?

Our political representatives are there to do this governing job for us. Politicians don’t work in a vacuum either. They are working within institutions, engage with other institutions (parliament, parties, the media, interest groups, the bureaucracy). Their thinking and actions are shaped by the rules and norms of each institution. The job is, very simply, to collect all the facts, make decisions, persuade us that its a good idea, and have the idea tested by public opinion, parliament, interest groups etc. Then, after all that, politicians take responsibility for managing its implementation and for when things go wrong (well, at least in theory).

Yet, how often do you hear politicians say something genuinely surprising or different from what everyone else in their party says? When it does happen, what happens with politicians who have ideas that are different, or worse still, contradictory to the party’s current position?

‘If you can’t govern yourselves, how can you govern the country?’

As the above Bob Hawke quote suggests, one of the challenges to free flowing debate in parties these days is party discipline and the way the media reports on internal debates.

As discussed in my last post party discipline in Australia is very strong.  Stronger than many other Westminister systems, due to the small size of our parliament compared to the size of the executive. Party leaders have also been very successful at centralizing power in their offices over the last 30 years. Together, this is a great recipe for politicians expressing themselves in only one dimension — the party’s.

For MPs who do argue for different ideas to the stated party position, they are usually immediately cast a ‘dissenters’ or marvicks’ by the media. Very quickly, often harmless — and I would argue — healthy disagreement and debate within a party, transforms itself into “disquiet within Party X”, or worse still “open warfare” within the ranks or ‘threats to the authority of the leader’. The extent of leaking of party room (and increasingly cabinet) discussions in the current government only increases the chill effect for those wanting to honestly thrash out ideas.

Today, contradicting the party line marks you out as a troublemaker, or it suggests division among your colleagues and a lack of faith in the party leader. When did rigorous and contested thinking become a bad thing?

The shift towards centralized messaging happened slowly.

Looking at Liberal Party archives (and this analysis is shamelessly from an LPA perspective and from my own PhD research), you can see that the rise of television focused the party machine’s minds onto national media campaigning by the late 1970s. The desire to manage an effective national campaign (ie. one message) only grew stronger with each passing election. The establishment of Hawke’s National Media Liaison Service (known as aNiMaLS by critics) allowed the government to effectively monitor comments by the Opposition and to highlight and distribute examples of internal dissent within the Liberal Party to the press gallery. Given the divisions and dissent wracking the Liberal Party in the 1980s, those that survived into into the 1990s, placed a high premium on  discipline and ‘staying on message’.

Moreover, this doesn’t even take into account technological change during this time. One of things that really struck me when looking through archive collections of Liberal MPs from the early 1980s through to the early 1990s was the way election folders were organised. For the 1983 or 1984 campaigns, folders were a chaotic jumble of candidate aids (talking points) from the federal party, marching orders from the state division, which actually had to run the campaign on the ground, and locally produced advertising material by branch members. By 1993, with the roll out of fax machines, every MP had a daily missive from Campaign Head Quarters telling them what that days lines were, what to be worried about, and little sign-offs of encouragement. And this was accompanied by shell press releases where candidates could insert their name and any electorate specific details and then distribute it to the local press. The result was a uniform message. Research by Ainslie and Peter Van Onslen explored how the internet and secure websites had effected campaigning by the late 2000s, which they found had only increased centralization, but gave politicians the impression of control.

Between party discipline, party structures , MPs own ambitions and the way media currently reports on politics, we can see why there is a strong incentive for politicians stay on message. And it’s not just because what they say might be unpopular with the voters.

This, of course, has implications for the quality of our overall public debate and public policy. If debate is discouraged, especially in public where it naturally must be more rigorous, our politicians are progressively de-skilling. If they can’t have vigorous internal debates without it being seen as division within the party, when will new MPs cut their teeth? For example, in the 1980 and 1990s, it was not uncommon to hear arguments that Labor’s factional structure promoted debate and debating skills, which the Liberal Party lacked.  With the decline of Labor’s factional system, both parties seem to be struggling to provide their MPs with opportunities to safely play with ideas.

Talking about ‘narratives’ etc is actually just talking about the symptoms. Moreover, its largely a discussion about tactics and strategy, and if the last decade has shown us anything, it breeds cynicism.

Will it go on forever?

Well, I’m an optimist about Australian politics (call me crazy). I think many of the fundamentals of our political infrastructure remain strong. Most of our politicians, and many interest groups recognize we do actually have problems after our long boom. As these problems become increasingly obvious to voters, the incentive in electoral politics to ‘manage’ the good times should shift towards those politicians with policy solutions and the skills to prosecute them. Moreover, with the rise of social media, and in an age where authenticity is currency, it seems unrealistic to think that backbenchers will meekly stay on message into the future. In fact the last few years have demonstrated backbenchers willingness to assert themselves.

Perhaps these are our years of gauche adolescence, as we adapt to our digitally mediated conversations about politics?

I may be hopelessly optimistic, but then, for all our sakes, I hope I’m not wrong.

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Early Modern ideas about Parliament’s origins

Forged texts, bizarre founding dates, the confusing history of when the parliament ‘began’.

The History of Parliament

Our series celebrating the anniversaries of Magna Carta and Simon de Montfort’s Parliament continues today. Dr Paul Cavill, Lecturer in Early Modern British History at Cambridge University discusses how the origins of Parliament were viewed in the early modern period…

When did the first parliament in England meet? In modern historical consciousness, the answer is straightforward enough: in the year 1265, following the victory of Simon de Montfort over King Henry III at the battle of Lewes. Historians have long objected that the position was by no means so clear-cut. We might prefer to envisage a protracted process of development, possibly stretching as far back as Anglo-Saxon assemblies, which culminated over the mid to late thirteenth century. Underlying this question is the issue of what defines a parliament. Was the first parliament the first general assembly of the king’s subjects so to be called by contemporaries (or later…

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How party discipline shapes our political debate

We’ve been looking at some of the structural features in Australian politics that are impacting our polity’s ability to discuss ideas. Perhaps one of the most important, but under appreciated aspects is party discipline. It’s a factor that is regularly acknowledged, but I think we tend to take it for granted as a factor and fail to think through how it actually effects debate in our polity.

Party discipline is one of the strongest structural features that shapes Australian politics outside of the design of our political institutions. But what is it? Well, put simply, it is the practice of voting as a bloc on matters of party policy in the parliament as opposed to treating every vote that comes up as a conscience vote.

Although both the two major parties enforce party discipline, their practice of it are a little different.

Two major parties’ approaches to discipline

The ALP places a greater emphasis on party discipline by compelling all ALP members to pledge to vote along party lines at the risk of expulsion. The ALP had good historical reasons to do this, because before the pledge was adopted from 1890 onwards, the fledging party had struggled to ensure that its MPs would deliver on the party (and the trade unions’) objectives.

The pledge became the major factor to shape politics in the early Australian federation. The political parties which transferred themselves from colonial politics into national politics (which for simplicity’s sake we’ll characterise as Alfred Deakin’s protectionists and George Reid’s Free traders) had been a looser collection of individual MPs that coalesced, into and just as easily, out of, factions. The discipline with which the ALP, armed with the pledge and a developed party structure, brought to bare on Australian politics forced the parties of the right to react and adapt.

It was the 1903 election, where the parliament was split three ways between  the protectionists, Free traders and Labor that eventually inspired Deakins’ famous “three elevens’ speech, where he argued that it was impossible to play cricket (in this case, govern) with three teams of eleven rather than two.

Deakin, who held many sympathies with the ALP (and at times relied on Labor votes to govern) ultimately could not reconcile himself with the way the pledge crushed individual conscience and this set Deakin on the course of uniting with the free traders to form the first of the ‘non-labor’ parties, which the Liberal Party is a descendent.

It is for this reason that the Liberal Party makes such a big deal about their right to cross the floor, despite the reality today that the party displays high levels of party discipline. However, this was not always the case. For example, the Fraser government was subject to quite a few backbench revolts given its giant majorities after the 1975 and 1977 elections. Although many Liberals see the pledge as a major point of differentiation from Labor, and a great source of pride and virtue, in reality, crossing the floor in the LPA is often a ‘big deal’ and a threat to their pre-selections, so MPs don’t undertake the option lightly.

But its not only the historical factors that make party discipline important.

Today, the exercise of party discipline still has an important influence on our political culture. And the reason is simple: the Australian parliament is relatively small but the jobs (and salaries) available as a proportion of the total number of MPs are high.

Let’s do the math

We only have 150 members and 76 senators  for a total of 226 politicians at the federal level. Then consider that in the House, the numbers might be split roughly 50-50 between Labor and the Coalition or at the moment given the government’s large majority little more lopsided at 60-40. In the Senate, the situation is even more complicated: almost a third of the Senate sits on the cross benches leaving the two major parties with roughly a third each. This means that party rooms aren’t actually that big.

The LPA’s party room is currently 123 and the ALP’s is 80.

Now consider the ministry, which currently sits at 30 (19 Cabinet, 11 outer Ministry) and its the same for the Shadow Ministry. These positions are entitled to higher salaries than the base pay for a backbencher.  On top of this, the government has 12 parliamentary secretaries (paid at a higher rate) and the Opposition has 15. Moreover, there are also committee chairmanships and deputy committee chairmanships which are also a pathway to seniority and promotion into the ministry.

What does this all mean?

Well, it means that 87 out of 226 members or (38 per cent) of  all parliamentarians have some kind of position (and often a salary too) above that of a simple backbencher. In reality the number is higher if we just look at the numbers for the two parties of government 87 out of  203 (43 per cent).

For the Coalition specifically, its 42 out of 123 (34 per cent) and for the ALP its 45 out of 80 (56.25 per cent). But importantly, these figures do not include chairmanships of parliamentary committees, which are regularly the first step on the way to a ministerial career.

In a nutshell, its not that hard to become a minister in Australia. Consider the UK, which has 650 members in the House of Commons and where governments can have large backbenchs of over 150 members. Consider Canada, which also has a larger parliament, of 308 members (which will rise to 338 at this year’s election). If we were to take our number of 87 executive members and (glibly) applied it to the House of commons alone that would mean that only 13 per cent of the 650 sitting Commons members would be in the executive or shadow executive. This doesn’t even consider the other factors that might count against someone become a minister, such as holding a marginal seat.

After looking at the numbers, we can see that its not that hard to get into the ministry in Australia. Therefore, the incentives for MPs to keep their opinions to themselves, tow the party line and be a team player are high. If you stay disciplined, one day you’ll get to be the one making decisions. To be clear, I don’t think politicians tow the party line because they’ll get paid more — many MPs could earn a lot more if they worked outside of parliament. Arguably, this trend is even stronger in smaller parties, because the numbers are so small, everyone has a job.

Should we then be at all surprised then that our politicians are as timid as they are to think outside the box or speak out against their party? If they behave and show even modest talent, the might very well be promoted.

*** Thanks to Peter Phelps MLC for his comments. I’ve edited the post in line with the discussion below. ***

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The end of reform?: lets think about some structural features

Lately, there has been a lot of discussion about ‘the end of the reform era’. Here and here and are just two examples of a trend of late.  This isn’t a new debate, its been bubbling around for a few years now. For instance, Great Expectations, Triumph and Demise  or Trivial Pursuit.

In its recent iteration, the very basic argument is that Australia has become ungovernable: the public doesn’t want to face the music and politicians are too timid to tell the truth.

But this doesn’t tell us very much about the underlying structural factors at play.  What are the incentives and disincentives that politicians are responding to in the Australian political context (and globally)? And, following on from this, what are some of the consequences of these incentive structures.

In several posts of the coming weeks , I’ll explore some of these structural features and their consequences.

Let’s start with communication 

We’ve all heard a lot about it. Namely that politicians aren’t doing ‘it’ right. But what are we actually talking about here?

Most often, this complaint seems to be about a lack of consistency in the reasons governments give for doing things. Alternatively, it can be a complaint about the way the government has gone about explaining something. That is,  general agreement with the government’s course of action and the reasons given, but dissatisfaction with the timing or the strategy the government has undertaken to explain an idea.

Last year’s budget demonstrates both complaints well (and the following arguments can just as effectively be applied to the ALP during their last term in office).

For the first, consider the GP co-payment, which didn’t really seem to add up: Medicare is unsustainable, so we’ll introduce a price signal which will, or sometimes won’t, deter people from going to a doctor, but all the money will be spent on medical research not making Medicare sustainable. Puzzled faces all round.

For the second, consider the failure of the big picture narrative about the budget. People questioned why dramatic action was needed at all, why it was directed disproportionately at some groups and not others and it struggled to tell us what kind of Australia we would get beyond one that had a balanced budget (which is no bad thing).

But if you don’t believe me, Andrew Robb  summed it up neatly:

 Many people woke up on the Wednesday morning after the budget and found two very big packages [medicare co-payment and university de-regulation] looking to provide a solution to problems that they weren’t aware we had.

But this isn’t just a question of better ‘narratives’

There is also a deeper problem with the way people are communicating at the moment. Which appears to be a lack of agility in the messaging from the government, which struggles to adapt itself to explain the same idea in multiple ways until it can find a frequency people can relate to or understand.

This was strikingly on display at the Prime Minister’s Press Club address to kick off the political year, which was generally panned by the press defensive and a bit of a fizzer. Abbott was asked several questions in which he struggled to go beyond the headline talking points to develop an argument based on secondary reasoning. Lenore Taylor from The Guardian asked:

…Two sets of modelling found the impact of last year’s Budget fell disproportionately on poorer families even after the carbon tax abolition was taken into account. You’ve explained very clearly why you think that the budget deficit needs to tackled but voters do seem to think that last year’s Budget was unfair. How do you explain to them your belief, presumably your belief that it was fair and the choices that you made there, and why you didn’t take different choices that might have had a different impact on fairness?…

Abbott’s response seemed to circle around the same idea again and again, and struggled to get beyond it:

… Now, I am very concerned for fairness. I wouldn’t be in public life if I wasn’t very concerned for fairness but, Lenore, what’s fair about saddling our children and our grandchildren with debt and deficit as far as the eye can see? This is intergenerational theft. It’s intergenerational theft and I’ve spent plenty of time in recent weeks and months and years talking to older Australians and, you know, older Australians have a horror of handing to their kids debt, of saddling their kids with burdens that they had accumulated and that’s what we’re doing. This generation of Australians is blighting the lives of our children and grandchildren because we, under the former Labor government, lacked the intestinal fortitude to address these issues. We were self-indulgent as a nation because of the former Labor’s Government’s political weakness. That’s what happened, now it’s our mission, it’s the mission of this Government to address that. Now, if you don’t get it quite right the first time, you have another go and you get it as right as you can. But we absolutely owe it to the Australian people today and the Australian people of the future to tackle this issue. I think it was Edmund Bourke who talked about the social compact as being a kind of a trust between those who are dead, those who are living and those who are yet to be born. We will not break that trust.

Now, in general there is nothing wrong with this answer. It follows many of the standard techniques of public relations, in that the PM answers a difficult question on his own terms, says very little that will get him into serious trouble, and repeats his point so many times, you couldn’t miss it.

However, when we consider the context of this speech it is interesting. This speech at the time was billed to make or break his Prime Ministership. Many of the questions, including the one asked above, went to the heart of the critique of the government’s 2014-15 budget (fairness). The government didn’t even try to explain the philosophical reasons, let alone the harder evidence behind their decisions. They thought it would be enough to say that there was a budget emergency and to narrowly blame a much more complicated picture solely on Labor’s mismanagement. The budget has real structural problems and pretending the problem isn’t as difficult as it truly is, severely limits their capacity to act and be taken seriously when there are enough voices pointing out all the problems and contradictions.

Given that none of these problems had been put to bed at the time, and the government was struggling with its partial back-flips on the GP co-payment, Lenore Taylor’s question was entirely predictable. This speech was given almost nine months after the budget came down in May 2014. It is striking that the government has not been able to develop a more compelling argument to deal with this critique, than endlessly repeating the idea of inter-generational theft, without going into any tangible implications of what this will mean for our society. He could have used statistics, he could have used an example, an analogy, anything… Instead, it was just the talking point, said different ways, again and again.

It’s not as if Labor is any better at the whole explaining business, as the their last term in office aptly demonstrates. But, all this points to a lack of depth in some of the more difficult and subtle skills of persuasion.

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