21 December 2014
Some days ago, I heard on radio an interesting observation from political commentator Peter Hartcher, who writes for the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD. He said that Australia’s political scene now was like what it was in 2010. This sounds pretty accurate.
Back in 2010, Australia had a popular government suddenly becoming unpopular, and an alternative rated unpopular but running an effective scare campaign on government debt and taxes and immigration. Kevin Rudd was then Prime Minister, hitherto immensely popular until a change of environmental policy sent his popularity into freefall, and running against him was Tony Abbott, long rated unpopular and having the reputation of an attack dog. This scenario saw Rudd, less popular in his own party than with the public, ousted from the top job in a partyroom coup, shortly before a general election was due. Because the coup was sudden and somewhat unexplained, voters revolted over being denied a chance to pass judgement on Rudd, though they didn’t really warm to Abbott. When the election came, neither side of politics really impressed the voters, and the result was a hung parliament.
Julia Gillard became Prime Minister after the coup against Rudd, and after the election, she beat Abbott in the negotiation battle to win support from the crossbenchers holding the balance of power, among them two rural Independents from areas thought more likely to vote for conservative governments. Abbott never accepted the legitimacy of the outcome, and spent three years of campaigning with relentless negativity and attacks. Somehow, Gillard was able to govern for three years, until her own leadership grew unpopular and Rudd rolled her in another partyroom coup.
Abbott overcame his own unpopularity to win the election that followed Rudd’s return to the top job. Apart from campaigning against debt and taxes and immigration, Abbott ran the line that he wasn’t either Rudd or Gillard, whose squabbling over leadership ultimately made them look messy. After Abbott’s election win, with Gillard and Rudd both to depart the scene, Bill Shorten became Opposition Leader.
Hartcher’s observation about 2010 being revisited would seem accurate. Since Abbott’s election win, Shorten has run a relentless campaign of negativity – he and his party haven’t really accepted the legitimacy of their election loss, despite publicly arguing otherwise. Their attacks have been largely on the basis of Abbott’s attempts to cut government spending and debt, which they see as hurting poorer people through cuts to services and so forth. Shorten himself isn’t that popular, even though he leads Abbott in the opinion polls. He’s considered a party hack and machine man, with little inspiring or interesting to say, and indeed he was considered a key player in the partyroom coups against both Rudd and Gillard.
With unpopular leaders, there’d be little wonder that voters have been looking at minor parties and Independents for alternatives. Enough of them looked elsewhere to cast their votes at the 2013 election, even though Abbott emerged the overall winner, and minor players won a decent number of seats, especially in the Senate, leaving Abbott to have to negotiate his legislation with a mix of people, some of whom simply can’t abide him.
Time will tell whether Abbott can negotiate his way through an unpredictable Senate, and whether Shorten will have anything inspiring or interesting to say as Opposition Leader. For the time being, voter disillusionment will remain strong.