In Seinfeld, George Costanza once discovered a sure-fire path to success: he just needed to do the opposite of what his instincts told him.
The Conservative Party reminds our politicians, there is a free and easy guide that is just as certain of delivering the right outcomes: do the opposite to what Twitter suggests.
Chris Kenny writes in today’s The Weekend Australian, the contemporary truism of politics seems to have received widespread acceptance – if your words and actions are applauded in the Twittersphere then they almost invariably will be at odds with what makes good sense or appeals to the broader electorate. Twitter would ban our largest export industry, mandate vegan tuckshops, beatify Tim Flannery, send Israel Folau to The Hague and place Sarah Hanson-Young in charge of the nation’s border protection.
But what is not so broadly understood is that a similar inverse guide to political decision-making comes from the love media. If politicians are endearing themselves to the public broadcasters, Nine’s former Fairfax mastheads and large elements of the Canberra press gallery, they almost invariably will be alienating themselves from mainstream values.
Bill Shorten discovered this the hard way; by May 18 the love media seemed to think the only task left for him and Labor was to install a new pie warmer at the Lodge. Then those pesky voters conspired to keep the Four’n Twentys in the freezer.
The ALP and Anthony Albanese have yet to demonstrate they have learned the lessons and Scott Morrison, too, will need to be ever vigilant as elements of the Coalition often risk playing to the wrong crowd. With obvious traps in slavishly following the exhortations of social media, opinion polls and mainstream media, the politicians, as ever, are left to fall back on their values and instincts.
Because these factors can all be so misleading, politicians and political parties without guiding values or conviction end up chasing their tails. After a decade of disillusion and distraction, both major parties need to reconnect with their core values – but the need is more pressing for Labor.
Adani is a glaring example. It ought to be the simplest thing in the world for a party of the workers to endorse a major resources project, so long as it receives environmental and other approvals. Labor’s ambivalence has nothing to do with its core values and everything to do with crude political considerations driven by noisy activists in cities far south of Adani’s proposed coalmine.
We will never know but it is my view that clear support for Adani would have garnered Labor many more votes in Queensland and other parts of suburban and regional Australia, with little cost in the inner-city electorates. Resources spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon has been talking up the project – and mining in general – since the election but the damage has been done. The instant post-election Adani enthusiasm from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk just amplifies electoral cynicism.
If the ALP can’t demonstrate a clear disposition in favour of secure, well-paid blue-collar jobs then it has completely lost touch with its central purpose. The dilemma is redolent of the colourful ALP critique delivered by Kim Beazley Sr to a party conference in 1970. “When I joined the Labor Party it contained the cream of the working class,” Beazley said, “but as I look about me now, all I see are the dregs of the middle class.”
The contemporary “dregs of the middle class” are the inner-city types that Robert Manne famously and expertly self-identified as the “permanent oppositional moral political community”, to whom Labor too often feels beholden instead of to aspirational working families. This demographic dilemma sees modern Labor so torn between smashed avocado and bacon and eggs that too many voters decide to skip breakfast altogether.
Labor’s great hope must be that the new Opposition Leader, as a Left faction stalwart who holds a trendy, inner-city seat, can provide a “Nixon goes to China” reset within the party. His craft beer and DJ-gigging street cred may mean the party’s green-left wing is willing to cut him some slack as he repositions to the pragmatic centre.
We will see. But he will need his frontbench to comprehend and embrace the pivot, because the ABC, Nine’s former Fairfax mastheads, Guardian Australiaand others in the love media will constantly be offering the siren song of green-left adulation.
Labor’s overreaction to the Australian Federal Police raids was another clear example of falling for misguided priorities. Instead of behaving like an alternative government with a mature approach to national security, it opted for a hyperventilated approach designed to appeal to elements of the media and throw a pall of guilt over the government.
Journalists cheered, of course, but away from the political/media class the insinuation the Coalition has us sliding towards a police state would have sounded hysterical and partisan, while non-journalists would have wondered why the media thinks it deserves exemption from the rule of law.
This is not to say there are not serious issues at play here and we shouldn’t have a debate about protections for journalists and whistleblowers. Rather, perspective and sobriety should replace shrillness and point-scoring.
“The government is responsible for this,” said Labor’s legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus, who ought to know better. “These are government documents, this is government information, the government referred this to the (AFP) … this government has some explaining to do here.”
Dreyfus even invoked the D-Day commemorations to suggest “some of the freedoms our forefathers fought” for were being threatened. This hyperbole wins favour at the ABC (now interviewing New York Times journalists condemning our press freedom) and from hard-left activists, but it won’t encourage mainstream voters to take Labor seriously.
Labor’s hypocrisy is exposed. When it was last in office, it tried to introduce de facto regulation of the print media. During this campaign it was mute about Greens plans ostensibly designed to tackle “hate speech” but that were directed overtly by Richard Di Natale at his loudest media critics.
In recent years Labor has hounded former workplace relations minister Michaelia Cash over a relatively benign media leak from her office, demanding her resignation. It also called for an AFP investigation into Centrelink details allegedly leaked to the media from former human services minister Alan Tudge’s office. Some consistency about whether leaks ought to be investigated wouldn’t go astray. Voters seldom overlook double standards.
The main challenge for Labor, as ever, will be economics. The ALP needs to abandon its arm-in-arm pairing of high taxes and high spending. Fitzgibbon has talked about how well-paid workers were turned off by Labor’s tax changes, but in the same breath talked about the need to make good on spending promises. New treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers has recognised the same tension.
Albanese needs to concede the error of this agenda – that attempting to co-opt an additional $387 billion for government over a decade was just too much – and commit to examining other, more meaningful tax reform that won’t increase the overall tax take (at least so substantially). Chalmers’s interview with The Australianyesterday was encouraging.
Albanese ought to abandon reckless climate and energy targets too, perhaps settling on a bipartisan goal of meeting the Paris targets while reserving the right to do more depending on economic conditions, how our energy grid is adapting and the extent of global buy-in.
In areas such as health and education, as former foreign minister and NSW premier Bob Carr has suggested, Labor needs to focus more on the outcomes it can deliver rather than nebulous commitments to additional dollars.
If Morrison had lost the election, the Coalition would have descended into an ugly, ideological and factional war over policy and positioning. But, having won, the Prime Minister has demonstrated that a track to the right was exactly what was required.
He will need to consolidate this return to core values and ensure it is worked through a range of issues, from economic policy that constrains the size of government to legislating for religious freedom, and from climate and energy policy to the escalating challenges of global diplomacy.
In these tasks, too, Morrison must ensure his team is not diverted by seeking the warm embrace of the wrong audiences. The quiet Australians have spoken and the Coalition must not allow them to be usurped by the squeaky wheels.