Leaders’ ignorance not bliss
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