Lead­ers’ ig­no­rance not bliss

The West Australian - - OPINION - MARK RI­LEY

It seems both our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are labour­ing at present un­der the weight of man­u­fac­tured ig­no­rance. Malcolm Turn­bull is do­ing his best to ig­nore Tony Ab­bott and Bill Shorten is, more or less, ig­nor­ing him­self.

Min­is­ters tell me that Fed­eral Cabi­net this week was re­mark­able more for what wasn’t dis­cussed than what was.

At the be­gin­ning of ev­ery Cabi­net meet­ing, be­fore min­is­ters get stuck into the for­mal agenda, the prime min­is­ter of the day nor­mally sets aside time for what’s called “po­lit­i­cal and strate­gic” dis­cus­sion.

It’s an op­por­tu­nity for min­is­ters to raise is­sues of po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance that wouldn’t or­di­nar­ily find their way on to the set agenda. In many Cabi­net meet­ings over the past year or so, it has pre­sented per­fect op­por­tu­ni­ties for min­is­ters to vent their spleens over Ab­bott’s lat­est pub­lic broad­sides.

But Tues­day’s meet­ing was dif­fer­ent. There was no men­tion of Ab­bott’s spec­tac­u­lar in­ter­ven­tion on en­ergy pol­icy the night be­fore in Lon­don. Noth­ing about the sac­ri­fice of goats to vol­cano gods, noth­ing about cli­mate change some­how be­ing good for the planet and “ab­so­lute crap” at the same time and noth­ing about the ap­par­ent need for the Govern­ment to fund the construction of a new coal-fired power sta­tion. Not a word.

Turn­bull has de­cided there’s noth­ing but down­side in en­gag­ing Ab­bott. He’s tried that. A cou­ple of times. It didn’t work. Turn­bull clouted him. Then Mathias Cor­mann gave him a belt­ing. Even Peter Dutton took a shot. But Ab­bott just pulled him­self right back off the can­vas and kept chuck­ing hay­mak­ers.

Turn­bull’s ap­proach now is to let Ab­bott punch him­self out and not be di­verted from the main game by con­tin­u­ally re­act­ing to him. The trou­ble with that the­ory is that it leads to ab­surd sit­u­a­tions, such as oc­curred on Tues­day when Turn­bull dodged re­porters’ ques­tions about Ab­bott as he left a pre­ar­ranged event and bolted for the car.

The other prob­lem is that Ab­bott’s in­creas­ing threats are ob­vi­ously hav­ing an im­pact on pol­icy de­vel­op­ment. Turn­bull has ruled out an emis­sions trad­ing scheme, changed Sec­tion 18C of the Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act and is now buck­ling on a clean en­ergy tar­get, all in re­sponse to Ab­bott and his small rump of crusty con­ser­va­tives.

It was in­ter­est­ing to read for­mer Lib­eral leader John Hew­son ad­vis­ing Turn­bull this week to mus­cle up to Ab­bott. I’ve lit­tle doubt that if Hew­son were in Turn­bull’s po­si­tion he would do ex­actly that. I can re­mem­ber when Ab­bott was one of Hew­son’s press sec­re­taries. Hew­son didn’t much like him then. It’s safe to say he likes him even less now.

But Op­er­a­tion Avoid Ab­bott is in keep­ing with the first of Turn­bull’s two rules for re-elec­tion: main­tain sta­bil­ity. The other is to keep your elec­tion prom­ises, no mat­ter what. Turn­bull wants to present him­self to vot­ers in two years’ time as some­one who has held his lead­er­ship and his party to­gether for a full term and de­liv­ered on his com­mit­ments from the pre­vi­ous elec­tion.

Good­ness knows, we haven’t had a PM who’s done ei­ther of those things for a long time.

Which brings us to Bill avoid­ing Bill. There’s much ill-feel­ing within La­bor about Shorten’s de­ci­sion to with­hold the full in­ter­nal re­view into last year’s elec­tion cam­paign.

The shroud of se­crecy is con­trary to La­bor’s rich tra­di­tion of bare-knuck­led self-anal­y­sis. Nor­mally, the ro­bust re­ports are dis­trib­uted widely through­out the party, lead­ing to post-mortems on where things went right and wrong and how to do it bet­ter.

But not with this one. Mem­bers of the La­bor front­bench and na­tional ex­ec­u­tive have been al­lowed to read only se­lected sec­tions of the re­port. And they’ve had to do it un­der su­per­vi­sion at the ALP’s sec­re­tar­iat or out­side ex­ec­u­tive meet­ings, with each copy in­di­vid­u­ally num­bered to guard against leak­ing.

Even then, they’ve not been al­lowed ac­cess to one cru­cial el­e­ment — the in­ter­nal re­search.

This week I’ve spo­ken to half a dozen se­nior peo­ple in­ti­mately in­volved in the La­bor cam­paign and in the re­view. Their re­ac­tions have ranged from be­muse­ment to out­right anger.

They all ask the same ques­tion: what have we got to hide? The an­swer, they all sus­pect, is what vot­ers re­ally thought about Shorten dur­ing the cam­paign.

It was ob­vi­ous from the pub­lished polls that Shorten lagged a long way be­hind Turn­bull in pop­u­lar­ity. His pre­ferred prime min­is­ter rat­ing started low and re­mained there through­out the cam­paign.

But cam­paign in­sid­ers tell me the qual­i­ta­tive re­search, taken from fo­cus groups and mass sam­plings, high­lighted the real essence of the prob­lem. Vot­ers wanted to “send a mes­sage to Malcolm” but they weren’t sure they could trust Shorten, the for­mer union boss, as prime min­is­ter.

So, strate­gists tai­lored a cam­paign that steered clear of Shorten’s weak­ness, his un­pop­u­lar­ity, and ran heav­ily on La­bor’s strengths in so­cial pol­icy. It opened with the an­nounce­ment of “100 pos­i­tive poli­cies” and reached its crescendo with the mother of all scares — the sup­posed pri­vati­sa­tion of Medi­care.

De­spite Turn­bull’s claim that “Medis­care” was a last-minute act of desperation, La­bor in­sid­ers tell me that back­end­ing the cam­paign with the ul­ti­mate fear fac­tor was the plan from the out­set. The party needed one sim­ple, totemic is­sue to di­rect vot­ers’ minds away from the Govern­ment as their pen­cils hov­ered above the bal­lot pa­per. Medi­care was that. And it worked.

I’m told the re­view ap­plauds Shorten’s per­for­mance on the trail. There is lit­tle doubt that he out-cam­paigned Turn­bull and that La­bor’s strat­egy was su­pe­rior to the coali­tion’s. That La­bor tore 14 seats from a sit­ting govern­ment un­der a pop­u­lar leader ren­ders that self-ev­i­dent.

But, and it’s a big “but”, the clear sub­text of the re­search is that the only thing that pre­vented La­bor from go­ing over the top and seiz­ing govern­ment was vot­ers’ reser­va­tions about Shorten.

As the in­sid­ers told me this week, it should be no sur­prise to any­one that with a more pop­u­lar leader and the same strong pol­icy ap­proach La­bor would have won.

So, why bury a re­port that makes such a pre­dictable con­clu­sion? There is no chal­lenge to Shorten on the hori­zon. La­bor is streets ahead in polling, de­spite his con­tin­u­ing un­pop­u­lar­ity.

This il­log­i­cal se­crecy just breeds sus­pi­cion and makes him ap­pear hy­per­sen­si­tive, if not com­pletely para­noid.

The les­son for both lead­ers is that ig­nor­ing problems doesn’t make them go away. Of­ten, it sim­ply makes them worse.

Mark Ri­ley is the Seven Net­work’s Po­lit­i­cal Edi­tor

Illustration: Don Lind­say

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