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Saturday, 20 September 2014

Nothing Like Talk Of A War To Silence A Small Target Opposition Leader |

Nothing Like Talk Of A War To Silence A Small Target Opposition Leader |

Nothing Like Talk Of A War To Silence A Small Target Opposition Leader

By Ben Eltham

Labor Party's small target strategy has condemned them to approval or
silence while the 'War on Terror' plays out. Ben Eltham explains. 

Initiative in politics is an important, if nebulous, quality.

In the party political sense – and, like it or not, parliamentary
major party politics remains the single most important driver of change
in our society – initiative means the freedom of politicians to act: to
define the agenda, to move freely across political terrain, to lead
rather than follow.

Without the initiative, political parties find it very difficult to
gain traction. The appalling spectacle of Julia Gillard’s final year in
office is a good example. Despite some clear legislative victories and a
world-famous parliamentary oration, the Gillard government’s
week-to-week stumbles and pratfalls meant it was rarely in control of
its political destiny.

For much of 2014, it has been the Coalition’s turn to experience the vicissitudes of government. Labor has had the initiative.  The turning point was early in May,
that disastrous month in which the Coalition allowed the hardline
Commission of Audit to confuse and overshadow Joe Hockey’s first budget
(which was plenty austere in its own right).

Bogged down in domestic issues, the government has found it tough
going ever since. Attention has focused on Joe Hockey – understandably,
given the woeful performance of the Treasurer. But the gaffes and
stumbles are merely symptoms of a deeper malaise.

Voters don’t want the government to dismantle Australia’s social
democracy. The sentiment is apparent in both opinion polls, in the
nervous whispers that began to emanate from Coalition backbenchers, and
in the ordinary remarks of individual voters.

The Coalition’s trust deficit is exacerbated by the fact that it
never promised to radically reshape Australia’s social safety net.
Abbott’s much ridiculed promises of “no cuts” to health, education,
pensions and the ABC have garnered plenty of coverage since they were
broken, but the bigger picture is that by committing to maintaining
health and education spending, Abbott appeared to be accepting the
social democratic consensus of the Rudd-Gillard years. All that has gone
by the wayside.

What did Labor do with that initiative? Worryingly for Bill Shorten and his supporters, the answer appears to be: not much.

That’s important, because the political initiative is shifting back to the government.

Debate rages over whether Shorten’s generally measured and low-key
performance as opposition leader is a calculated tactic aimed at keeping
the focus on an unpopular government, or merely the result of a lack of
retail political talent.

Whatever the reason, one of the outcomes of Shorten’s relaxed style
is that the ALP has not landed any serious blows on the government.

In stark contrast to Abbott as opposition leader, Shorten has not
made himself into an attack dog, relentlessly tearing at the
government’s credibility and performance. Nor has he appointed a
suitable colleague to play that role – even when, in Anthony Albanese, a
rugged street fighter is close to hand.

In fact, you could make a good case that the government’s most damaging wounds after a year in office have been self-inflicted.

Shorten’s small target strategy is about to meet its first stern test. The reason? War and terror.

The government’s pivot to national security issues was apparent some
weeks ago – shortly after the MH17 disaster. When voters seemed to
reward Abbott and Julie Bishop for their activist role in responding to
the Ukrainian crisis, Abbott and his strategists drew the appropriate

The result has been an overt move to make national security the central theme of the Abbott government.

The renewed focus on security issues plays to the Coalition’s clear strength on such issue with voters. This week’s Essential poll,
for instance, ranks the government’s performance on a range of issues.
“Relations with other countries” ranks top, with a net positive rating
of +15 per cent. It’s the only positive, however. The Coalition is
polling in the negative for every other issue that Essential tested –
even its traditional strength of managing the economy, where it is
polling -6 per cent. On social policy issues like health and education,
it is polling in the negative 20s.

No wonder the issues of war and terror seem so attractive to the government.

And so the drums of war have started to beat. We’ve committed to a military intervention in Iraq. New anti-terror laws have been announced. The terrorism threat level has been raised (supposedly a decision made by ASIO, rather than the government, but obviously one welcomed by the current administration).

And today we’ve seen the largest counter-terrorism operation in domestic history, with coordinated raids throughout the suburbs of Brisbane and Sydney.

The media has been told that the raids have foiled a plot to kidnap
and behead a random citizen, in apparent homage to the televised killing
of western journalists by the Islamic State.

Whether this is true, and how much evidence the police have to
substantiate the allegation, will only be revealed once those arrested
are brought before the courts.

So far, we know only of 22-year old Omarjan Azari, who has been charged with conspiracy to prepare for a terrorist attack.

Given the social media presence of Islamic State, and the well-known
tendency for military intervention in the Middle East to radicalize
small groups of extremists in western nations, the raids must clearly be
taken seriously.

But the political bonus for the government is clear. With a real
home-grown terror plot to point to, the scare campaign on Islamic terror
will only intensify.

All of this means Labor is now at a cross-roads. Pragmatic counsel
suggests that Shorten’s decision to stay in lock step behind the
government on national security has removed the opportunity for the
Coalition to attack Labor as soft on terror. But it also limits his
ability to campaign against the budget.

For the time being, there is nothing Labor can do but stay quiet and intone motherhood statements of patriotism and concern.

But the terror headlines also impair Labor's ability to keep the
political focus on domestic issues. What a pity Shorten didn’t make more
of the initiative when they had it.

That’s history now. The initiative has passed to the Coalition. The
terror scare will almost certainly dominate federal politics for the
rest of this year. 

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