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A Gradually Building Election Campaign

The Leader of the Opposition has launched the Coalition’s so-called “mini campaign”, the setting being the outer western suburbs of Sydney. That western Sydney is the focal point so early in an election year should come as no surprise given just how crucial the area is in any election. A mix of polls have shown that the Liberal Party could pick up a number of seats in the area. Lindsay, McMahon, Barton, Reid, Parramatta, Greenway, Watson, Werriwa, Fowler and Banks are all in play for the Coalition according to internal Labor polling from November last year.

The new year in politics has already been conducted at a frenetic pace. Amid natural disasters, we’ve already had a number of issues play out. But it is the election that matters. The election is due any time from August onward, but the tactical moves and campaigning, sound or otherwise, have started early. That’s what we have come to expect from Australian politics.

Looking at the mini campaign itself has the right move been made tactically? And in terms of the election campaign as a whole, what are the political realities and what is required from the opposition now, and as the election day hurtles toward us?

In an election year, it’s too early even for a short, but clearly forensic and politically calculated bombardment of electorates. The week ahead is clearly about trying to reverse the negative perceptions of Tony Abbott. That is fine, but it is too early for a political blitzkrieg. It gives off the wrong vibes. A short burst of campaigning is usually something associated with the final days of a campaign, especially when there is a late surge required.

Instead, what should be favoured is, at the present time, a similar yet different campaign method to the one deployed almost from the 22nd of August in 2010, the day after the surprise election result. What should be similar is the constant campaigning. However, it should be different in that it must have less of a campaign feel about it. The campaign should be much more muted – campaign fatigue has well and truly set in.

This short burst of election campaigning too, because of how early in the year it is, must be more about Tony Abbott listening to the concerns of voters than preaching to them. Yes, broad themes must be sold, but now is still a time for Tony Abbott to lend his ear to the voters of Australia rather than chew it off. Both leaders have been doing a lot of the latter.

From a public relations perspective, it might well have been better too, if the term ‘mini campaign’ was jettisoned. To have rephrased it as a listening tour would have been better, though in politics, both have negative connotations.

In the prism of the broader campaign, there have been complaints, as their has been throughout Mr Abbott’s leadership, that he has not released much policy. In any case it is still too early to release a broad range of fully-costed policies. But there must be a drip feed of policies and the refinement or jettisoning of existing ones – think paid maternity leave.

There is another reason why complaints about dearth of policy should not hold much weight. Because of the nature of the budget, a campaign lacking in major policy commitments, other than pre-existing ones, is a political reality. So the Opposition Leader can be forgiven in that sense too. The election will be one where a measure of austerity is the norm, even though Labor have been trying to frame it as otherwise in order to try to dent Coalition prospects.

The campaign will continue to evolve over the coming months. It will be testy and it will be tough. You can expect that there will be further campaign fatigue suffered by the community and that’s why the mini campaign and the early part of this year needs to involve more listening to the voter than speaking at them. It needs to build gradually.

And ultimately, because of the fiscal situation, there won’t be much in the way of substantive argument dominating the political discourse.

Personal Over Political Even in Policy

We might have been forgiven, after the extraordinary scenes last week in the parliament, having built up over months, would have begun to fizzle out to a spot-fire here and there. However, it seems that the government, our politicians, are firmly wedded to continuing to give the blaze, presumed under control, more oxygen. It would appear that, even in the case of some policy, the Gillard Government is set to prosecute it from a personal angle rather than a political angle about the sense or otherwise of Coalition policy.

Members of the Opposition yesterday, including Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, his deputy and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made a flying visit to Indonesia yesterday. Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader was granted a rare privilege by the Indonesian Government, access to the ear of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Early in the day Mr Abbott made a speech where he said, for the relationship between Australia and Indonesia to continue to prosper, we and Indonesia, to continue to foster a culture of mutual respect would need to raise potential policy changes with each other.

Then, during his meeting with President Yudhoyono, the Opposition Leader, discussing the relationship between our two countries, including the issue of asylum seekers, Tony Abbott failed to talk about the proposed policy of turning back asylum seeker boats headed from Indonesia. Scott Morrison since stated that he had brought up the policy in his meeting with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

In and of itself, the leader of the Liberal Party not raising the issue is not a terribly horrific misstep. Neglecting to mention turning back the boats will appear clumsy and hypocritical in light of his words early yesterday both domestically and in Indonesia. The events of yesterday, no matter how trivial, were well and truly open to being spun by the ALP into an attack strategy.

It is important to mention that the Indonesian Government are well and truly aware of Liberal Party policy regarding asylum seekers. Our friends to the north have seen the plans in action before under the Howard Government. The Indonesians too, have actually heard about Abbott’s plan to resurrect the draconian measures that were part of the ‘Pacific Solution’.

It is no surprise and has been known for some time, that the Indonesians are not keen at all on receiving back asylum seeker vessels that have departed from their shores on the way to Australia. Indeed, they hate it. They will not be open to an Abbott Government pointing asylum seeker vessels back toward Indonesia.

To not mention the specifics of Abbott’s planned return to the Pacific Solution was clearly an attempt to avoid an embarrassing situation, of again being publicly rebuked by Indonesia. In light of his words yesterday though, a little embarrassment has though been suffered. However, that will probably pale in comparison with the real embarrassment that could have been inflicted over being shot down again on policy grounds.

What was very interesting about most of the verbal attacks mounted by the government was what, more correctly who, was attacked. Instead of most of the verbal barbs being directed at the Liberal Party or the inhumane policy, most of the venom was directed at Abbott himself with the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister accusing Mr Abbott of various things, including being “cowardly”, a “mouse” in Indonesia.

Very little focus in the put-downs was directed at the policy itself. It was raised by Chris Bowen that the Indonesians do not like the idea of boats being directed back to Indonesia and will never participate in it, but those words came as a secondary thought.

The government too, could have attacked the policy directly, not from the standpoint of the Indonesians not being willing to allow it to happen, but from the angle that it is just too horrifying, too unbelievable to even contemplate a government wanting to actually behave in a manner like that. Labor should have destroyed the proposal that way like they used to.

Could it be that the Gillard Government, after having already shifted dramatically to the right on asylum seekers and refugees did not want to appear too soft on asylum policy by not attacking it directly? That’s a possibility.

In any case, attacking the personal over the political is set to continue.

Games and More Games, But Where to Now for the NDIS?

The latest Council of Australian Governments meeting has gone off with a bit of a hitch. The National Disability Insurance Scheme launch sites were front and centre of the COAG agenda today with the states and territories coming together to try and win a launch site, well in most cases at least.

At the meeting today in Canberra a total of three launch sites were announced by the Prime Minister Julia Gillard. South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania managed to reach agreement with the Gillard Government to co-fund trials in their respective states and territories.

But alas, a fourth and final trial location could not be found. The states and territories who will be hosting launch sites are all Labor administrations. Those loudest in their criticism of the government over the project, from a positive interest in at least trying to find an outcome, to in Queensland’s case, not having an interest at all in contributing funds until at least 2014-15 are all Liberal state Premiers.

Western Australia a Liberal state, under Premier Colin Barnett will at least be trying out their own version of the scheme, ‘My Way’ which the federal government will have a look at to see how their experiment at a state-based scheme goes. But really, all states should just get with the same program, but points for trying.

New South Wales and Victoria, on the face of it, seem part of the way there. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced that his state had $570 million for the trial, a not insignificant amount, over half of the commonwealth allocation in the May budget which put aside $1 billion for the four initial locations for the disability scheme.

Together with Victoria, the two states with conservative Premiers put together a joint bid. Their proposal was to cater for 15,000 people with a disability with the New South Wales part of the two-state agreement to be put in place in the Hunter region.

But again money was the killer here. The Prime Minister wanted NSW Premier O’Farrell to contribute a further $70 million for the trial and the Victorian Premier, Ted Baillieu an extra $40 million for their states to be able to have one of the four initial NDIS service areas.

The first point is that the money that NSW were willing to bring to the table was an extremely generous sum for a scheme which the Productivity Commission recommended should be fully funded by the feds.

Second, surely each of the three parties in the negotiations for the joint bid had the ability to make up the $100 million funding shortfall between them, whether that be either of the two states or the Gillard Government, or all three sharing the extra burden.

As far as Queensland goes, with relatively new state Premier Campbell Newman at the helm, the whole situation is far from encouraging. The Queensland Premier, Mr Newman came to the meeting of Australian governments proposing to spend not a single cent on a proposal for a launch site. Interestingly though, Mr Newman brought a proposal to COAG today for a launch site to be held in the town of Gympie, north of Brisbane.

But that of course was never ever going to translate into the northern state being granted the right  by the commonwealth to enjoy the benefits of being one of the first four places in the country to see how the eventually national scheme will operate.

The overall point is that all Liberal states were playing politics. It (the funding job) could have been done. Surely too, the federal government, in the knowledge that in twelve months time they will likely not be in power and not having to stump up further funds for the essential disability policy. were also playing political games.

What was interesting today and in the lead-up to the crucial Council of Australian Governments meeting was that the Northern Territory Government, under Chief Minister Paul Henderson, a Labor administration appeared relatively absent from the debate and discussion. The motive likely the upcoming election in the Northern Territory.

So where to now for the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

While the federal government should have followed the Productivity Commission recommendation to fully fund the scheme it is clear that it will never happen that way.

But it is clear that the NDIS just has to happen. People with a disability have waited far too long for a serious attempt at a framework meeting their basic but diverse needs in a converted national approach.

Like it or lump it, the states have to alter their stance on the project to a standpoint where they are willing to contribute more whilst still pushing for the commonwealth to fund the vast majority of the costly policy.

With a likely Liberal Government at the federal level next year, it is important that their in principle support, which appears to be wavering quite strongly, is converted into real support for following the already embarked upon implementation process.

Lobby groups, the state and current federal government will need to continue to put the pressure on the current federal Opposition to make their uncertain bipartisan support a reality. Nobody wants to see an incoming Abbott Government in power suddenly baulk when faced with needing to implement a policy that the Liberal Premiers have all had varying degrees of difficulty acknowledging is important.

But again, at the same time, the current administration at the federal level must take their share of the blame for what is a very worrying juncture in the NDIS debate.

All states and the federal government need to work together more and be more willing to compromise. They all have the means to contribute something. People with a disability cannot afford to miss out with another failed policy.

Fischer an Inspired Choice as Patron of NDIS Lobby Group

The National Disability Insurance Scheme, NDIS for short is the most promising policy idea relating to disability in some time, perhaps ever. It’s something that needs to happen, should happen and where politics needs to be put aside and has been. It’s a long-term project, meaning much time to prepare it well, but equally and with the history of the Gillard Government as much time for it to fail. The policy idea desperately needs the big guns of politics and society, past and present to keep their collective eye’s on the ball to turn this great idea into a political reality.

Today the NDIS lobby group, Every Australian Counts, headed by former NSW government MP John Della Bosca made a wonderful choice, naming former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer from early in the Howard era the campaign patron.

Tim Fischer, like many parents in Australia knows just how hard the lives of people with a disability can be. He left politics, citing as a reason the need for he and his family to focus on the demands of helping out their son, Harrison who has autism.

Mr Fischer has been a long-term advocate of doing more for people with a disability whilst in public life and post politics, involving himself in the disability cause with different organisations in the field.

As someone with a disability I have had the opportunity of witnessing just how committed the former Deputy Prime Minister is toward improving the lives of people with a disability and how interested he is in hearing the stories of people with a disability.

When I competed at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games the man himself was the Mayor of the Paralympic Village. I will never forget seeing him moving around the village, that trademark hat adorning his head, welcoming athletes and team staff from around the world, shaking their hands and having a bit of a chat to as many people as possible on his journey’s around the athlete precinct.

Often on my trips to the dining hall I would encounter the sight of him sitting down with athletes, Australian or otherwise sharing a conversation with many of the mass of athletes that gathered in Sydney to compete at the 2000 Paralympics. Indeed, I even had the opportunity, sitting with a group of athletes when the Howard Government Minister came to say hello.

Far from the obvious benefits of having someone whose experience with disability is both close and personal, the political benefits of having a former MP, diametrically opposed to the Government which has proposed the scheme is a very important factor.

It is important position, both to keep the Gillard Government honest with fierce, but diplomatic advocacy on behalf of the Every Australian Counts group, a skill honed overseas, as much as it is t0 keep the Coalition honest and on track with its’ commitment to bipartisanship on this most important reform. This is particularly important when the Abbott-led Coalition seems closer and closer to taking the reins of government at the next federal election with implementation and commencement possibly occurring somewhere in what could be a second term of a Coalition Government.

This policy at present is still just really a thought and no money has yet to be committed to the implementation of the actual scheme, though rumours abound that there will be an allocation of sorts outlined in the forthcoming budget, just weeks away on May 8th.

Having Tim Fischer in the role of patron for the campaign, starting in earnest with the rallies next Monday in capital cities around Australia is a big step forward in the campaign and will help to keep the campaign on track from political idea at present, to reality.

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