Thursday, June 14, 2012

Who Shot The Messenger

After almost two years of swings and roundabouts, last weekend's Newspoll has Opposition Leader Tony Abbott now dead-set equal with Prime Minister Julia Gillard as preferred PM. There's a reason though, and its not Abbott's fault, of course. Mr Abbott says his unpopularity is due to his solemn responsibility to deliver unpleasant news to the electorate. In other words, Mr Abbott has accused Australian voters of shooting the messenger.

That's a very creative way of looking at things, although not entirely true...which is pretty much how Tony Abbott handles facts. In his infamous 7:30 Report interview with Kerry O'Brien, he stated   

"Well, again Kerry, I know politicians are gonna be judged on everything they say, but sometimes, in the heat of discussion, you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark, which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks."

Mr Abbott's job as Opposition Leader is largely about finding fault with the Government and communicating that to the electorate. Add to that his tendency to stray from the truth, to embellish, to "go a little bit further" to make a point, and we have an Opposition Leader who is focussing attention on the exaggerated negativity about the Government. 

"I'm here to hold the government to account and present a credible alternative," he told Macquarie Radio.

Tony Abbott is doing one of things fairly well. The other - presenting a credible alternative - seems to have been lost in an overflowing Too-Hard basket.

Last week was Good News Week for the Australian economy, which is reported as having the fastest growing economy in the developed world, increased workforce participation (38,900 new jobs were created last month) and an excellent report card from Dun & Bradstreet' Global Risk Register:

"Australia is one of the safest trade and foreign investment destinations globally, ranking alongside Canada, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, according to an analysis of 131 countries.

"Australia's rating also makes it the best ranked country in the Asia-Pacific region, ahead of Hong Kong, Singapore and New Zealand."

The Government was peacock-proud, the economic commentariat was in agreement. Australia's economic fortune cookie held nothing but good news. The global financial wobbles mean that we must be watchful, everyone agreed, but all in all, Go Us! 

Enter Mr Abbott.  

"But a lot of Australians today are saying, 'Wayne Swan does not live in the same world that we inhabit','' the Opposition Leader said in Victoria this morning.

"He's running around patting himself on the back, calling himself the 'world's greatest treasurer'.

"What I see people are saying is: 'shops closing down, my job under pressure, my wages under pressure, my costs going up' _ and look we're all delighted to see that the mining industry is still strong and we're all thrilled that the mining industry is carrying the Australian economy.

"So look let's be grateful for small mercies and that's what I suppose those figures yesterday were. But economic management does not depend on the occasional good statistic. Economic management depends upon consistent good policy and that's what we haven't had from this government.''

And there it was: Tony Abbott delivering his sad truths to the nation - but is he? Or his he talking down the economy for political gain. His sustained attack on the  Australian government's economic management the hallmark of his period as Opposition leader, and it's likely the only weapon he has. 

This strategy cannot keep working for him. He simply can't respond to a story like Australia having the fastest economic growth in the developed world by referring to "small mercies." Similarly, it would be too awful to contemplate that Mr Abbott might want our economy to stumble, just for the political triumph of saying "I told you so." The irony would be Mr Abbott winning the next election and having to deal with whatever nasties the economy has produced.

Last week, in the midst of the good news, ABC's Lateline tackled the negativity, so much more obvious when contrasted with the series of economic data: Even a high school student at a community forum suggested that Mr Abbott need to offer something other than just wall-to-wall sad-talk.

High School Student: Don't you think it would be more helpful if you could more clearly outline an alternative positive vision for Australia?

Tony Abbott: I don't believe that that is a fair characterisation of the positions that my colleagues and I are putting forward. 

And the high school student nailed it. Mr Abbott and his economic team of Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb need to listen to themselves. The Liberal Party Spin Team might think they're communicating something substantial, but the Australian people are hearing nothing but negatives, and it's the same old negatives they've been hearing for almost two years. Do any of these sound familiar?

Great Big New Tax / Carbon Tax / Mining Tax
Stop the Boats / Lost control of our borders
Pay back the Debt / Poor Fiscal Management / Return to Surplus
End the Waste / Fully Costed 

They should sound familiar. They were the cornerstones of the Liberals 2010 campaign, and we're still hearing the same catchphrases.

Last week, Glenn Stevens, Governor of Reserve Bank, delivered an address entitled "The Glass Half Full", in which he explored the many upsides of our economic position. 

Even now on ABC 612 Brisbane, the Prime Minister has revealed that while the Opposition is talking down the economy and foretelling the end of the coal industry due to Big Bad Carbon Tax Wrecking Ball, members of the Opposition are buying shares in coal companies.

The problem for the Liberals team is that with such a solid primary and 2PP voting intention in the polls, they don't need to change the message. It's working for them. They don't even need to change the messenger, despite his 59% personal disapproval.

Having said that, the Coalition failed to win the last election with this campaign. The next election is the Coalition's to lose, and if they do, this relentless negativity will be a key reason. 

When you're running for office in the best performing economy in the developed world, and your contribution to the national dialogue is about how bad the economy is, you just look silly. We're not shooting the messenger; the messenger is shooting himself.

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