Labor’s absence of trust
On this Australia Day it is appropriate to be reminded of the past weeks and the way Australians came together to assist in a time of natural disaster.
Whether it is bushfires, floods or some other catastrophe, rarely does a summer holiday season pass without a need for collective action from those who risk their own livelihoods to save and protect others. Although in times of crisis sacrifice seems to come naturally to many Australians, national goodwill is not so evident through the rest of the year, especially when politics are involved.
Sometime in the coming months – more likely the second half of the year – the Prime Minister will mercifully pull the trigger on a federal election. It will mark the beginning of the end of what, by then, will arguably have been the longest campaign in the nation’s history. It cannot come soon enough.
Ever since Julia Gillard negotiated the deal with the independents in September 2010 to stay in power as a minority government, the nation has been on an election footing, with Tony Abbott and his team seemingly convinced the controversial union would never last. It has, she has, and so has Abbott. While neither leader is totally secure, it seems they will continue to face off with all the rancour and vitriol that has so dominated politics for the past two years.
While Australians’ appetite for either leader might be low, they have less appetite for politicians in general. Recently the Melbourne-based Scanlon Foundation undertook a survey to measure social cohesion. It found 75 per cent of 10,000 respondents did not often think about government. But most telling was the question, ”How often do you think the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing for the people?” The answer – a mere 39 per cent. An overwhelming majority of citizens have little faith in the federal political system.
The stark reality is that trust is a commodity in short supply with the federal Labor government and it has worsened under Gillard’s prime ministership. Kevin Rudd’s government at least had close to a 50 per cent trust rating. according to the Scanlon research.
It is hard to earn the trust of voters and, when lost, even harder to regain. Hence the Prime Minister will need to reinvent herself if she is to win back supporters at the next election. Her incorrect decisions and poor judgment have seared lasting memories – and are two of the reasons why Labor will struggle to regain power this year.
Much will be made at the next election of the Prime Minister’s greatest faux pas – her 2010 election eve promise never to impose a carbon tax. The subsequent outcome will forever haunt her and, as much as her advisers attempt to spin the message that the resulting tax was never the horror the Coalition tried to predict, it will be a lie Australians will find hard to forgive.
But it is just one stone in a rich lode from which Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane and his advertising team will be able to choose to mount an election barrage. Think of Gillard’s clumsy judgment on the appropriateness of appointing Peter Slipper as speaker. Or her government’s pre-Christmas decision to dump its long promised 2012-13 budget surplus in the hope it would be forgotten by the electorate in their holiday slumber.
Whether a surplus in 2013 was ever achievable is debatable. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey predicted three years ago it would never happen and was criticised for doing so. Yet over the past three years the federal Labor government made it an unambiguous commitment on hundreds of occasions. Phrases like ”iron-clad”, ”guaranteed” and ”failure is not an option” now leave the Prime Minister and her government with egg on their faces. While world economic conditions may have changed, it does not hide the reality that federal government revenues are 6 per cent higher this year than for the same period last year. Clearly the surplus commitment was made for political reasons, and clearly the Gillard government has had to dump it for political reasons.
In its desperation Labor is personally attacking Abbott, demonising him at every opportunity. Although Abbott’s past history is sometimes open to exploitation, many citizens believe that, if elected, he will blossom as a prime minister who can deliver positive outcomes for the nation. Tellingly, Abbott has already warned his family and colleagues they are in for a very rough ride this year.
It all makes for a bitter and nasty campaign, but there is a cautionary reminder of how premeditated nastiness and personal attacks can backfire. By targeting the family of Campbell Newman almost a year ago in the Queensland election, the Labor Party did itself great harm.
But Labor under Gillard has little else to go on. As much as the subsequent victory of Newman and his unpopular budget cuts play into Labor’s narrative of what a federal coalition government might do after the next election, it now seems likely this year’s federal election will not be won or lost in Queensland.
It will primarily come down to Victoria and NSW, in seats Labor retained in 2010. Sydney’s western suburbs in particular may well settle the result on election night where electorates that have in recent years been inexorably turning away from Labor now threaten to become conservative.
The Prime Minister and federal Labor’s cause will not be helped by the ugly stain of alleged corruption about ALP powerbrokers, which is set to play out for months, becoming a daily pre-election reminder of why the public mistrust politicians, and especially those from the government.
For Australians the most important decision on election day will be trust: choosing between a government they loathe and an opposition they are trying to love. One thing is certain – having experienced a hung parliament, the electorate will not want to repeat the process.
Gillard’s best hope may well be the old axiom, ”better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”, but by her deeds and actions she has lost the trust of a great many Australians. Their anger is white hot and, despite a recent jump in the polls, do not be surprised if, for Labor, the forthcoming federal election turns out to be a disaster.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University and author of 35 books, most recently the political satire ‘Fools’ Paradise’.
The Canberra Times, January 26, 2013