Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Battlelines: Where the election will be fought

boxing_largeWhile Tony Abbott began his first press conference saying he wasn’t afraid to fight an election on Climate change, it seems likely from early indicates he won’t have to. It will lurk in the background but, cold war style, it’s going to be fought through proxy wars in Economics and Foreign Policy.

Economics: As is obvious from Abbott’s early media appearences, he’s not running to deny climate change, rather the economic costs of acting:


7:30 Report Transcript

TONY ABBOTT: Kerry, I was doing my best to support the then leader. And that’s what frontbenchers have to do. But the Liberal Party is liberated as of today to follow our natural instinct, which is to oppose the Government. Now, this isn’t about climate change, it’s about the mechanism for dealing with it. This isn’t about climate change denial, it’s about stopping a great, big new tax.
….
TONY ABBOTT: Well I’m not sure that anyone is that happy about being out of pocket. But let’s look at the Rudd Government’s ETS. It looks, at this point in time, to be a great big tax to provide a great big slush fund to produce great big handouts administered by an enormous bureaucracy. It looks like a mechanism for a political slush fund more than it does as a mechanism to help the environment.

This kind of rhetoric didn’t take on when Barnaby Joyce was sprouting it, but Abbott is a far more effective comunicator, and the press is already starting to question labor using some of his language. But the more important reason why the politicians will shift from talking climate change to economics is that it is unfertile ground for winning votes. For both groups. As Possum Pollytics helpfully notes views on climate change are effectively locked in. The deniers are stuck fast, and whilst the pro-efforts could ebb some support, those who see the environment as a primary issue already voted Labor in 2007 (or Greens though after their no vote on the CPRS I don’t know why). Instead the fulcrum of the argument is two issues: Timing and Cost. The timing issue is labors to own next year.

Most voters support an ETS despite recognising there will be an economic cost. Abbott can’t shift those voters into denying the environmental need for an ets, but he can make them think the cost imposed by Rudd is too high. Rudd likewise will whack Abbott occasionally on the issue, but he probably can’t shift too many votes on it from 2007. It’s easy to vote for someone pledging action, its much harder to vote for someone who is making your bills higher. If he doesn’t have some big policy on Climate, or looks like he is slipping into denialism he could still (unintentionally) make it the issue again, but I think the moderates will prevail in getting some kind of a policy there.

The other reason I think economics will be the major issue of the election is because 2010 offers Labor a historical chance to fundamentally re-shift voters allegiances. John Howard, just like Reagan governed a coalition of economic liberals and social conservatives. But that has broken asunder. Facing a proudly self-identifying conservative candidate, Labor has the chance to peel those economic liberal voters to it long term. It would become the socially and economically liberal party, though keep control of the mainstream & its working class base thanks to its historical support for ensuring fair working conditions. This is what Keating envisioned, what Beazley abandoned, and what Rudd has the chance to complete.

Rudd came to government pledging to be an economic conservative, a term that was widely ridiculed when he launched his stimulus package. This spending allowed Turnbull perhaps his only effective attacks on debt, a theme Abbott will be sure to run on. But Rudd can claim those were extraordinary circumstances, and with a good faith effort on debt, some wise reform in the area of tax, and a couple of symbolic acts (revisiting parallel imports would be an example) he could convince the economic liberals that he shares their values. (His articles here on neo-liberalism havn’t helped, but can be ignored)

Along with the campaign to entice them, Labor is going to try and put the fear in those who have liberal views on both economic and social fronts. Socially Labor will argue that Abbott unlike Howard is not just conservative, but regressive. They’ll raise the concern he may restrict access to abortions, re-introduce no-fault divorce, punish the gays etc. It’s going to be ugly, but could be effective. Economically, note that while Abbott is going to run on tax, debt and ‘freedom’, he isn’t an economic liberal like Costello or Howard. It’s a late adopted faith for him, and his books and speeches are full of reticence about such reforms. Abbott is very much in the mould of a big-government conservative as more perceptive economic liberals like Andrew Norton have noticed. Carefully appealed to we could see those who consider themselves liberals seeing Labor as the only viable party.

Foreign Policy: No PM has come to the job as aware of foreign policy issues as Rudd since Whitlam, but Rudd hasn’t yet had a chance to use that strength to his electoral advantage. It’s like the six shooter strapped to his ankle as backup. But with Abbott having thwarted Rudd’s chance to go to Copenhagen with a deal, it may be pulled out early. Rudd will charge that Abbott wont be in line with international governments, and won’t be able to do advantageous deals with international governments across the ideological spectrum because of his position on climate change. Along a similar line over at The Interpreter there is the intriguing suggestion that the deniers problem with the CPRS is less about the environment than multilateral institutions, hence their revulsion to needing passage by the time of Copenhagen. Rudd can’t gain too much mileage from his multilateral credentials, but it can all fit a narrative of an Abbott government being uncomfortable with issues beyond the shores.
This will be even more potent attack in the context of SE-Asia given Rudd’s steady development of links and influence. Thanks to his strong popularity, and activism on the Asia-Pacific Community (which is starting to get support), Rudd will be able to argue that Abbott will be a foreign policy disaster in the region. He won’t exactly repeat Keating’s line on keating that Asian governments wont work with him, but he could come close.

Rudd also has the natural advantage of incumbency. When Labor won the election in 2007, the liberals were seen as the better party on national security by a 49-26 margin. By Feb 2009, that had essentially levelled. I havn’t seen a more recent poll, but expect the government to now be well ahead. There was always the faint air under Turnbull that the Liberals weren’t comfortable on foreign policy, from his slip of the tounge labeling of China as a friend, to Julie Bishop’s suggestion we should bow to china’s demand and not let in Rebiya Kadeer. Indeed staying just on China, there are also some odd claims in Abbott’s book Battlelines. In his very short section on foreign policy, he claims that in the case of conflict between China and Taiwan, Australia ought to side with Taiwan, “In Australia’s case this would not be choosing America over China, but democracy over dictatorship” (p 160). It may sound good to supporters to base your foreign policy on such ideological choices, but it would raise up the worst of the Bush/Neo-Con incompetent idealism. Remember Latham was very very careful to avoid talking about national security, but still lost badly on this score. Abbott’s lack of desire to talk about this issue is going to be noticed by the public who will interpret it as a sign of lacking competence. If Rudd is able to set the agenda, expect a lot of discussion about foreign policy come election time.

Things could easily change, but while Labor’s new adds are already reticent of 2007, i think the campaign this will mirror more will be 1996. Rudd will present an image of Labor as a party bold and open and willing to engage the world. An Australia on the make regionally and internationally, in a pair of hands whose already passed their first big test (gfc). Abbott may gain some early traction on taxes and welfare, but could easily scare voters with too much policy purity and it’s not likely to swing too many given slowly improving conditions (Rudd will be praying that was the last interest rate rise before the election). Instead he will be seen more to represent a cultural howl against Labor that, inverse to 1996 can only work to Labors advantage, entrenching them as the mainstream party against a rump conservative party. Abbott could be a very attractive leader, but it’s hard to see how he gets that 35% core support to go much higher.