The US military confirms coalition aircraft bombed a location in west Mosul, resulting in what could be the highest civilian death toll from an air strike in more than 15 years.
“Fizza” Turnbull and “Two-Rounds” Abbott need to heed Johnny Cash’s advice and leave their guns at home.
A reshuffle and a better media strategy will only get the Abbott Government so far. What it needs is power and authority, both of which are in short supply in this globalised world, writes Tim Dunlop.
Andrew Bolt is worried. The Abbott Government has, he says, “a serious problem“. They are lagging in the polls and unless they do something drastic, they are going to stay that way.
His is one of those tough-love columns those on the Right like to write occasionally in order to gird the loins of those on their side of politics.
Such articles are like an intervention for a friend with a drug problem, or a who’ll-tell-you-if-I-don’t moment where a loved one softly informs you that your pits smell.
To be fair, Bolt is certainly read and respected by the Coalition, so he is within his rights to think his little truth bomb will have some effect.
Indeed, some of what he says is fair enough. But what I want to highlight here is the fact that he misses the wider significance of his own assessment.
Most interestingly, the solutions he offers betray a fundamental misreading of the underlying problems faced by not just the Abbott Government, but Australian political parties in general.
Bolt makes a long list of the things that are undermining the Government:
- They are doing OK on foreign policy, but voters don’t care about that
- Their broken promises continue to “kill” them
- The budget is in “blowout” and the economy is struggling, and that undermines their “entire argument for being”
- They are suffering an “onslaught” from the media which makes it impossible for them to sell their agenda
- They have a lousy media strategy which is “too often defensive and reactive”
- Tony Abbott is just too nice, which means “The Government is getting killed in bare-knuckle politics”
- Joe Hockey is a dud “who can’t dominate the agenda”
- They lack an effective head kicker, and so look weak
- Scott Morrison (who Bolt, like many on the right, sees as heroic) is underutilised
- Julie Bishop is great, but again, no-one cares about foreign affairs
- Malcolm Turnbull’s ability to coddle “the Left-wing media” is being wasted
- They have no “inspiring cause” they can evangelise about
- They don’t have enough spruikers outside government, including within business circles, who will help them push their plans
- They lack “inspiring reforms” that will “energise [their] base”
- They need to dump fights they can’t win like Medicare co-payment and the parental leave scheme
- They are ignoring new talent, especially women, within the parliamentary party
- They have no senior Victorian ministers, as they have had in the past
- They keep getting caught out in interviews on the ABC. Ministers “sit there passively while the interviewer asks the gotcha questions”
The first thing that strikes you is how much of this could have been applied to the last three Labor governments (Rudd, Gillard, Rudd).
In particular, the idea that the Government lacks an inspiring “big picture” message; that they face a hostile media and have no coherent media strategy; that their Treasurer can’t dominate the agenda; that they lack spruikers outside government; that they are lumbered with unpopular policies; and that broken promises are killing them – all of this sounds eerily familiar.
And that’s exactly the point.
The fact that governments of different political stripes end up suffering from the same shortfalls speaks not to something unique to a given party, but an underlying weakness in the political substrate.
Remember, both Rudd 1 and Abbott himself came to power with fairly decent majorities, were ostensibly swept into office on the back of electoral dissatisfaction with their predecessors, and yet both very quickly fell into a heap, shedding internal coherence and public confidence in equal measure.
This is hardly a coincidence. In fact, it is part of a wider trend in Western democracies, where political parties, long the basis of democratic governance, are no longer able to command the authority they once did.
As political scientist Peter Mair puts it in his book Ruling the Void:
The age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society, and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.
Memberships are down, voting is in decline, and much of the serious work of economic management now happens at the pan-national level via organisations like the G20 or the European Union. So-called free-trade agreements and other international contracts zap control from sovereign nations and hand it to these rootless instrumentalities, further undermining the role of parties and the governments they form.
What’s more, corporations distribute profits globally and thus avoid tax on a massive scale, depriving governments of the resources they need in order to function. The fiscal hole is then filled by governments destroying services which ultimately leads to the rising inequality that is plaguing the developed world.
Citizens naturally become disenchanted. They come to expect to be disappointed.
Tony Abbott’s many broken promises are thus symptomatic of a system where politicians anticipate that disappointment, feel the need to tell people what they want to hear, but then lack the authority to even remotely address the issues people want addressed.
That he even gave all these cast-iron commitments – despite the fact that it was as obvious as it could be that he would comfortably win the 2013 election – is indicative of the underlying weakness that animates so much political behaviour.
So what happens when political authority evaporates in this way?
The void is filled with tales of budget emergencies, a rhetoric of entitlement and of leaners and lifters to justify cuts, a scapegoating of the truly vulnerable such as asylum seekers and the unemployed, and the whipping up of national security concerns: anything that can make it look like the government still has some relevance.
But people see through it, which is why the polls are as they are.
Bolt’s “solutions” to the Abbott Government malaise, then, are just about pointless because he misses this bigger picture. He says the government must execute a reshuffle and then: “Get sharp. Get tough. Get assertive. Get confident. Offer inspiration. And fight.”
But these all presume that governments, or parties more generally, have some underlying authority, some power to really make a difference in people’s lives. Increasingly, though, that power and authority is absent – dissipated into the gossamer connections of a globalised world – and without it, no amount of sharpness, toughness, assertiveness, confidence, inspiration or fight is going to make any difference, especially in the long-term.
Bolt is right. The Abbott Government is in big trouble. But the nature of the problem goes way deeper than anything a reshuffle and a better media strategy is able to address.
Tim Dunlop is the author of The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience. He writes regularly for a number of publications. You can follow him on Twitter. View his full profile here.