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Vultures circle Labor's wagons

Date

Editor-at-large, The Canberra Times

View more articles from Jack Waterford

Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax

Sooner or later - almost certainly sooner, Tony Gillard or Julia Abbott is going to declare that the forthcoming election represents perhaps the most momentous choice of our lives. The race to be first to say it will be no more riveting than any part of the present contest, perhaps the more so because sooner or later the other will say it, too.

Both will find it fairly difficult to persuade many voters. For dyed-in-the-wool Labor voters, a victory by Abbott will be a catastrophe, not only to their personal sense of wellbeing but to the world at large. For committed Liberals, the restoration of normality cannot come quickly enough, and if, by any Labor shenanigans it doesn't, it will be time to go to New Zealand or perhaps one of the newly seceding kingdoms of northern or western Australia.

Most of the remainder will wonder what practical difference a change of government will make to their lives. They won't be warned off simply by fresh warnings of Abbott's alleged character flaws or predispositions : many fear the worst but have already judged Gillard and found her so wanting that almost anything is now thought better.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen / Fairfax

They have low hopes and expectations of both parties and both leaders - indeed they dislike both intensely. One has seemed to make a science of opposition for the sake of opposition. Yet close analysis shows him to differ from his opponent mostly on fairly subtle matters of degree - and generally over matters that will have very little actual effect on the immediate quality of people's lives. The forthcoming choice may be the least important ever.

Abbott has promised to abolish the carbon tax. This has the symbolic quality of showing that he is more sceptical about climate change, and certainly less seized with any sense of urgency about doing much about it.

In this sense, Gillard and Labor may seem much more virtuous to those with a sense of urgency about ''the great moral issue of our time'' (and Gillard perhaps the more worthy for having copped such flak for being seen to renege on her ''no carbon tax'' promise.) But the problem with presenting this courage and virtue as a plus is that her government went out of its way to make sure that the tax was innocuous in its effect on voters. Labor also largely squibbed any active defence of Gillard's turnaround, or selling of the virtue of the tax as a policy imperative.

Abbott was made to look foolish by the failure of the carbon tax to have a devastating effect on the economy. But this is likely to mean that no one is particularly passionate about it. Not any more, anyway.

Likewise, Abbott has a fairly well developed script about Labor's taxes (particularly a mining tax), about the need to balance budgets, to draw down debt, and to stop promising expenditure on the national credit card. He promises cut-backs in expenditure, and a program to reduce the size of the public service and the public sector, which he has said would be achieved by attrition rather than sackings,.

Labor warns of horrendous reductions in services under Abbott, and about the spectre of mass sackings of public servants. Labor has updated messages honed after the first Kennett government in Victoria in 1992 with accounts of the piteous suffering and public service sackings in Queensland after the installation of the Newman government last year.

This may have some impact in some seats, such as in the ACT. But much of the preaching will be to the already converted, and a good deal of the rest may actually help the Coalition. This is because of the government's incapacity to sell any achievements, coupled with the capacity of the Coalition to send an uncontested message of Labor government as bumbling, incompetent and wasteful. There is a big constituency for a reduction of a ''bloated'' public service.

Warning people that Abbott will sack public servants (something he has in fact promised not to do) may give some people yet another reason to want to vote for him. (That could be bad news for Canberra, particularly if, as can be expected, there is to be a crop of 30 or 40 class-of-2013 new Coalition parliamentarians with no experience of opposition, or public administration, but a good deal of ideological zeal about waste and inefficiency.

Labor has another problem in selling dire warnings of cuts under Abbott. Labor has been, and has marketed itself, as a ruthless pruner of bureaucracy. Even during the school hall pump priming there was no let-up with efficiency dividends, cost-cutting programs in particular agencies, and increased and more moralistic targeting of social welfare programs.

The social welfare constituencies, in short, have no real picture in their mind of Labor as the great friend of the poor and downtrodden. Nor do they have one of Abbott as the ogre-in-waiting.

Labor has significantly raised benefits for some classes of welfare beneficiary - such as aged pensioners. But the grateful complain, in the same breath, of its meanness to a class of single mothers, as well as to students and the unemployed.

During the week, the former minister for human services, Kim Carr, took the opportunity provided by his march to the backbench to strongly criticise the ideas behind, and the selling, of the Jobstart proposals. He is in exile, of course, for disloyalty to Gillard, but it is noteworthy that it was he, and Centrelink staff, who had to ''eat the shit sandwich'' associated with implementation of the scheme. The ministers responsible for the policy, Jenny Macklin and Bill Shorten, were never at any stage to be seen explaining or defending the policy (apart from Macklin's particularly inept and embarrassing performance in pretending she could adjust her lifestyle to living on Jobstart.)

Macklin's offer of savings on Jobstart may or may not have been good public policy. But good policy becomes good politics only with explanation, marketing and debate. In all of this, Gillard and her senior ministers were missing - perhaps hoping no one would notice, that the ''issue'' would go away. In fact, the policy struggles to get support, as a principled way of leading stray indigents to virtue, even among the anti-welfarism cheer squad.

Macklin is highly respected for being a policy wonk, intimately familiar with the macro-juggle of welfare resources. On this account, she chairs the cabinet committee which comes up with ideas that can be marketed as campaign promises. (Especially low-cost but intrinsically silly ones, such as community assemblies on climate change, and referendums about Aboriginal rights.)

But Macklin has never demonstrated any talent for or capacity with marketing ideas to the public at large, or even in engaging in debate about where policy should go. She is, in effect, an old minder who never made the transition to politician, let alone the minister and factional leader she has become.

She may have a hectoring debating style which sounds combative, but it has never been persuasive. In a good many areas, including Aboriginal affairs (and, possibly, maternity leave) her want of political skills has meant that she is, in any event, outflanked on both the left and the right by the opposition.

In September, a majority of Aboriginal voters will vote for conservative parties, for the first time in federal politics since the Aboriginal vote (which has existed in some form or other since 1901) mattered. This includes a majority of Aboriginal women - supposedly at the core of Macklin's policy and program drive.

That represents a rejection of Macklin's manner and style as well as the policies she has been promoting, which are, in no discernible respect (especially in relation to consultation) different from the those of the opposition. But Abbott is streets ahead of her - among both white and black constituencies - in seeming to personally care, in being seen to listen and learn, and in association with ''tough love policies.'' Labor went along with the coalition on intervention, coercive welfare and the (white) bureaucratisation of indigenous affairs without acquiring any political pay-off - indeed by alienating almost everyone. Nor was anyone ''saved'', whether from violence or sexual abuse, as a consequence of top-down one-size-fits-all policies.

Any optimism or pay-off from the stolen generation apology has disappeared. These days more indigenous children are being removed from their parents - if on ''welfare'' rather than ''racial'' grounds - than ever there were in the 1930s to the 1970s.

Labor is, if by a millimetre, slightly less awful in its policy towards refugee boat people than is the Coalition. But the difference is so infinitesimal that anyone considering voting on that issue could simply not be passionate for Labor - or even for a second preference for Labor, after a protest vote to the Greens. Many traditional Labor sympathisers are uneasy, even about second preferences, so disgusted are they by what they see as the betrayal of party idealism and simple morality.

None of this generates any enthusiasm for the Coalition. But added to the legions of people who feel they have no stake in the continuation of a Labor government, are those who would not lift a finger to help it.

Most such people have no hopes and expectations of something better. Many would not be surprised if it proves to be worse. They have simply ceased to identify with Labor and, particularly, with its leadership. They have ceased listening and turned off.

They don't care.

It is the old story - not a defection to the opposition but a judgment of a government found to be wanting, tired, torn and unable to inspire.

These are not deficiencies that can be made up for by last-minute public relations strategies or advertising campaigns. The balloon did not burst, it simply deflated.

History may well judge the government with less condemnation for its false starts, missed opportunities, or for a bumbling competence underneath the incapacity to sell, explain, communicate or persuade.

But it will, I expect, also look at the time, and the people, without pity or regret if only for contempt at that mixture of compulsive deafness and tin ear displayed, from the top down.

This incapacity to make voters identify (or even stick), or to evoke sympathy or empathy is perhaps the more justified by the seeming determination of those behind the wagons to gather in all of the dysfunctional elements that have brought Labor to this low ebb.

Gillard's last stand will be with the NSW Labor Right, the union bosses, the factional leaders who have propped her up, and the geniuses responsible for her most disastrous policies - around the bunker for one last glorious Gö¨tterdä¨mmerung. What a bonfire to watch - from the safety of some nearby hill.

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