Once upon a time, Opposition was squarely a mug’s game. Everything was stacked against you. Incumbency was paramount. The government held the microphone. The challenge for an Opposition was to be the first paragraph of the newspaper story, not the last, or the lead to the nightly TV news bulletin, not just appear in a grab at the end in the name of balance.
That is no longer the case. As media has transformed, Opposition has become easier while governing has become vastly more difficult, a game of attrition.
The advent of 24-hour television news and the need to fill air time like stoking a coal furnace means opposition backbenchers and obscure shadow ministers, armed with talking points from the leaders’ office, receive equal billing to their government counterparts every day and night.
The proliferation of news websites and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter mean an Opposition, like the government, can easily circumvent mainstream media and talk-back babblers and self-publish their views and criticisms.
It’s open slather and a gift to any Opposition leader who, rather than seeking to win government using the power of ideas, just wants to fuel a willing public perception that the government is a pack of plonkers and feather bedders who couldn’t give a stuff about them. Every little mistake is amplified.
In London last week, Malcolm Turnbull called the challenge facing governments the “outrage cycle of social media politics”.
This week, in delivering the annual Earl Page political lecture, Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese warned the pitfalls for Oppositions were becoming just as great. Any party that used the new media to take the easy road to government risked being shoved out just as quickly.
Albanese noted how the negativity and volatility of politics has seen two first-term prime ministers ditched by their own parties.
“Will this instability become a permanent feature of the political landscape?” he said.
“There is no doubt that the pace of the media is having an impact. Complex issues cannot be addressed in 140 characters,” he said.
“The immediacy of online news websites means that no-one wants to miss a big event so detailed discussion of ideas is reduced to political power plays.
“It makes mature discussion of challenges more difficult.”
Albanese said while this can advantage the Opposition, “a plan to get into government does not equate to a plan to govern”.
Exhibit A was Tony Abbott’s government which, upon winning the 2013 election, resembled the dog that caught the car.
Strong policy needed
And that was why policy development in Opposition was now more important then ever. Landing in government with a sound policy platform will act as a firewall against the clamour that will inevitably arise to throw out the new government out and, as Turnbull said, usher in the next one.
This is not a new concept. During the last term, Labor developed more policy than any Opposition in living memory. A lot of it was risky at the time, like plans to tackle superannuation tax concessions, capital gains tax concessions and negative gearing. All are mainstream now.
Policies were announced early, not left until the election campaign, and for much of the last term, Labor led the policy debate.
In a speech this week, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said the same would apply ahead of the next election. If a government were to succeed, it had to have a mandate for its policies. Abbott’s 2014 budget showed what happened when you monumentally breach trust. Not only did it bring the government to its knees, it set back the course of budget repair by years.
Besides a mandate, the other key ingredient, said Bowen, was “fairness”. If the burden of repair is not shared the voters won’t cop you or your policies.
And this goes to the rapidly emerging theme now being hit hard by both the major parties. Inequality. Ever since the Brexit vote and the elevation of Donald Trump, both major parties have realised that growing inequality – real and imagined – is fuelling the stampede away from mainstream political parties in Australia and abroad.
Experts might cite statistics to dispute the levels of inequality in Australia but perception in politics is important. And there is nothing perceived about flat wages, underemployment and unaffordable housing and energy.
Bowen cited a recent intervention from Ben Bernanke:
“If the populist surge we are seeing today has an upside, it is to refocus attention on both the moral necessity and practical benefits of helping people cope with the economic disruptions that accompany growth.
“It’s clear in retrospect that a great deal more could have been done, for example, to expand job training and re-training opportunities, especially for the less educated; to provide transition assistance for displaced workers.”
On the same day, one of Turnbull’s chief economic advisers, David Gruen said strong jobs policies were needed to help workers left behind by technology. They are also needed to avoid the rise of populist politicians with anti-trade policies like Trump.
Scott Morrison has been hammering the theme for several weeks, arguing votes must now be earned, not chased, and that rigid political ideology was of little use these days. At the same time, lurching towards populism must be resisted.
It is a fine line and one about to be tested.
The government argues the best way to tackle inequality is to grow the pie and then distribute it. It still believes that its company tax cuts and refusal to reverse cuts to Sunday penalty rates are the best, long-term solution.
By contrast, Labor wants to chow down on said pie.
Bill Shorten used his speech to the economic forum to elevate tackling inequality as his No.1 priority.
It sharpens the lines of differentiation with the government by highlighting the company tax cuts and the penalty rate decision as two glaring examples of inequality.
Declaring the market system had failed, he has promised greater intervention.
And subsidies and taxes previously considered off limits will now be considered. Just like tackling negative gearing and super, Labor is now about to take on more risky policies.
True to Bowen’s pledge, Shorten should announce his plans sooner than later before the argument runs away from him.
He might be talking closing down obscure tax loopholes used by the wealthy but already folk are positing death duties, or capital gains tax on the family home.
In the era of media cycle outrage and voter fickleness, these things will take hold whether they are true or not.