Prime Minister Tony Abbott knows well that voters tend to look to their governments for reassurance and security at times of national ‘crisis’ and favour those who deliver on that expectation.
Abbott leveraged this Pavlovian reaction when responding to the shooting down of the civilian flight MH17, and announcing enhanced security measures to deal with the possible return of Australians fighting abroad in terrorist insurgencies.
Not surprisingly, he also pressed his newfound “protector of the realm” advantage during yesterday’s first parliamentary Question Time in five weeks.
Following a prime ministerial statement showcasing the Government’s efforts to bring home the remains of those Australians killed in the MH17 attack, a succession of friendly questions from Government backbenchers provided Abbott and Immigration Minister Scott Morrison with the platform to proselytise further about how they are keeping the nation secure.
Budget fight reignited
But it was only a matter of time before Labor turned to a more troublesome subject – the budget.
Labor targeted Treasurer Joe Hockey with a succession of questions that echoed his recent gaffes on the budget. Unfortunately for the Opposition, Hockey seemed to have found some of his old parliamentary mojo, saying Labor had “never accepted that you have to live within your means.”
This is the nexus that’s making life so difficult for Labor, and that we are glimpsing through the opinion polls: voters are unhappy about the Budget but they don’t yet trust Shorten and his team to be a competent alternative government.
The first Abbott/Hockey budget isn’t the toughest in recent political history, but it is certainly the most unpopular. Hockey was at great pains to create an expectation before the economic statement that there was a “budget crisis” to be fixed and that we’d all have to share in bearing the cost. But once delivered, it turned out the budget was made up of measures that hurt only the poor and disadvantaged, and that much of the money raised was not actually directed to repairing the so-called debt and deficit problem.
Since then, the Treasurer and his colleagues have either gone missing in action (as Hockey did when he took a post budget holiday to Fiji), or stumbled from gaffe to blunder with increasingly belligerent complaints about being misunderstood, anecdotes about bushfires and melanomas, or threats to raise taxes.
Labor missing the mark
And yet, as yesterday’s Essential Poll shows, only 23 per cent of voters think Labor is best to manage the economy overall, compared with 37 for the Liberals. It should be noted however that the Government has taken a 14 point hit to that rating since the budget was announced.
This poor showing for Labor is likely because they’ve similarly stumbled around the place, variously delivering clunky slogans about the “unfair” budget or test-driving half-baked witticisms such as “Abbott’s lie-fecta” and Pyne’s “debt sentence”. Shorten was even trying a new one about the “Prime Minister and his merry band of gaffe-sters”.
The Budget was an opportunity for Labor, but the polls suggest its inability to deliver a compelling message about it is causing voters to dismiss them as a viable alternative.
That is clear from this week’s Newspoll, which shows Shorten’s 10 point lead as preferred prime minister just a month ago has dissipated, leaving him only one point in front of his unpopular counterpart. Meanwhile, the proportion of voters dissatisfied with the Opposition Leader’s performance is still around 40 per cent and Labor’s primary vote has dropped back to the paltry level it received at the 2013 federal election.
Shorten’s case isn’t helped by him wanting to be a nice guy while simultaneously trying to replicate the devastating negativity of the former Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott. One approach tends to dilute and confound the other, leaving Shorten looking somewhat insincere and his criticisms sounding like mere complaints.
No more half measures?
Turns out one can’t be half-negative after all.
Shorten may need to adopt the full Mr No persona to get the traction and credibility that has so far evaded him as Opposition Leader.
The Labor Leader would be wise however to recognise that in taking on such a role he is accepting what is essentially a Faustian pact. Going the full negative could see Shorten’s popularity plummet to the levels experienced only by Abbott; in return he would lead a Labor Opposition that has the sharp edge that it’s currently missing, and which is needed to score some real hits.
The ultimate lesson that Prime Minister Abbott presents for his opposition counterpart is that – counter intuitively – unpopularity may well be the price of electoral success. The only question is whether that’s a price Shorten is willing to pay.