Sean Kelly
Every parliament’s rule of three

First, a game. Think of any term of any Australian government. Perhaps Whitlam’s last, or Howard’s first. Or Kevin07. You have 20 seconds. Name three political events from those years.

Time’s up. My bet is most of you struggled to make the target.

Now for the second part of the game. It’s a simple piece of political arithmetic. Were the three things seen as good or bad? If two out of three were good, that government was re-elected. If not, it was gone.

For Howard’s first term I had gun laws, waterfront, GST. It’s a close-run thing: good, bad, mostly good. Which is how that election turned out. Howard got fewer votes than Kim Beazley, but scraped into power. By Howard’s last election, the maths was clearer: WorkChoices (bad), Costello leadership chatter (bad), rising interest rates (bad). Goodbye Johnny.

It’s a flawed game, of course, and not as much fun as Monopoly or Mafia. Nonetheless, all this frivolity yields at least one important lesson.

Many people who watch politics religiously – and almost all who do it full-time, as politicians, staffers, public servants or journalists – tend to experience it as a game in constant flux. When you’re paying close attention, it’s easy to make the mistake of seeing politics as the accretion of a thousand tiny events. The mistake of believing that everything matters.

This world view has been exacerbated by the rise of the fragmented 24/7 media cycle. Political professionals used to talk about “winning the day”. That phrase still gets used, but it’s now accompanied by talk of “winning the morning shows”, “winning the midday bulletins” and “winning social media”.

In substantive terms, it’s true: everything does matter. Every decision made by a government is likely to affect thousands of people. In political terms, those people vote, and there are occasional elections that are decided by a few issues affecting a few people in a few seats – the last South Australian election comes to mind.

But most elections are won by something more intangible. The Castle put it best: it’s largely “the vibe of the thing”.

We are just a year into the Abbott government. I know what you’re going to say – it feels longer, especially for those not overly impressed with our prime minister. On published polls, that’s most of us. So it’s worth stepping back and recognising that very little of what we’ve seen will be remembered at the next election, let alone in the annals of history.

George Brandis hitting himself in the face with metadata. Christopher Pyne stuck in a revolving door on Gonski. The terribly unpatriotic ABC. Resurrecting knights and dames. Eric Abetz on breast cancer. Joe Hockey thinking poor people get around by horse and cart. All of it will fade away.

So far there are only four contenders for the parlour game: the budget, terrorism, the carbon tax and stopping the boats.

I guarantee these won’t all last the distance. But not knowing what will ultimately affect the longevity of this government isn’t the same as knowing nothing at all.

As we head into the slow summer months, it’s worth considering what we do know – and those four contenders offer us valuable clues. The budget, as the leading contender to stick around, offers us the most clues – three, to be precise.

First, it has given away this government’s DNA: its inability to empathise with the community it governs, and its lack of any instinct for fairness. It has been the strongest indication to date of the radical nature of the Abbott project, tearing apart a social contract – on health and education – largely maintained since Whitlam. Because this attitude towards fairness is so deeply embedded in the thinking of Abbott’s MPs, it is a trait we will see emerge again, and it will therefore be difficult for voters to forget the first time they glimpsed its face.

Second, the budget has implications for other policies. The government’s deplorable sales job means that many of its promises to the electorate – such as paid parental leave – will never be delivered. More importantly, as veteran observer Laura Tingle points out, Abbott and Hockey need to go to the next election promising income tax cuts. The “budget emergency” hullabaloo, combined with the failure to deliver billions in savings through the senate, leaves the Coalition with few options to deliver the revenue needed for those cuts, but one big one: indirect taxation, in the form of the GST.

The third lesson from the budget surrounds Abbott’s attitude to his own popularity. Many, myself included, thought that Abbott the tight-lipped automaton would become a convincing human once he had actually been elected. We were wrong. He has been unable to shrug the sound-bite straitjacket, which has left him sounding like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz: stiff, creaky, lacking heart.

The prime minister’s determination to push ahead with a drastically cruel budget carries with it Abbott’s own verdict on this phenomenon: he doesn’t care. He’s bet the farm on engendering respect rather than affection. This is apparent in his largely successful approach to issues of terrorism and national security. Abbott knows few votes are won with foreign policy, and that national security elections such as 2001, with September 11 and the Tampa affair hopelessly entangled, are rare. But he knows, too, that such material offers opportunities to take on the air of a prime minister.

It’s certainly a more convincing pathway than the alternative. I’m talking about the awful tendency of recent times for PMs to continually utter the superfluous phrase “as prime minister”, as if they need to remind everyone at all times that the job is theirs, the way kids say “shotgun” or “dibs”. In one interview on the ABC’s AM program this year, Abbott did it three times. It has the opposite effect to that intended.

But this indifference to the love of the people means that Abbott is also free to keep up the negative campaigning that was his trademark in opposition. This is the lesson from the continuing carbon tax campaign and the frequent references to stopping boats: the government is obsessed with denigrating its predecessor. Of course, every government does this to some extent. Abbott has taken the practice to new depths with his royal commissions into unions and insulation.

This in turn tells us the largest thing we know about Abbott: he has no talent for the future. Even his one stab at big-bang reform – talk about the GST – was stolen from the Howard playbook. This is his biggest weakness, and Labor’s best chance. If Labor can grab hold of the future, leaving Abbott paddling around in the swamp of 2013, the next election may be up for grabs.

The Coalition is already preparing to fight the next election as if it were the last. Environment Minister Greg Hunt has begun to shift from taunting Labor about its “carbon tax” to talking about its “electricity tax”, in case Labor announces an emissions trading scheme. The names don’t matter: it’s the same campaign. But fighting the last war is always a doomed strategy. This fact was made strikingly clear by Obama’s recent climate deal with China.

That goes for Bill Shorten, too. There will be some in Labor ranks who think a GST scare campaign is their path to power, the way it almost was for Beazley, the way the carbon tax campaign was useful to Abbott. It’s not. People understand the GST in a way they once did not, and in a way they did not understand the carbon tax when it was at its nadir. Shorten will need to get onto positive ground and capture the public imagination with new policies. There is no other way.

Three final quick notes on this government. First, there are recent signs that Abbott is capable of adaptation. His shift from rhetorical confrontation to co-operation on federalism is noteworthy in itself, but most notable for the signal it sends that he is prepared to change. Watch this space.

Second, while the senate will continue to be chaotic, Abbott is slowly becoming more determined to get things done, which he has realised is the main game. Nevertheless, with Clive Palmer and Jacqui Lambie now at each other’s throats, his ability to continue his legislative streak is uncertain.

Finally, Abbott’s cabinet is startlingly uneven. Hockey and Brandis have been awful. You probably hadn’t even heard of David Johnston – until this week. That might be all right if there were any willingness on Abbott’s side to deal with them. But Abbott has internalised the wrong lesson from the Rudd years, willing to suffer avoidable blows to keep his colleagues happy.

It’s the wrong lesson because, despite occasional whispers, there is no chance of Abbott being knocked off any time soon. And that’s because his colleagues have internalised the much bigger lesson of Labor’s stint in government: do not remove a sitting prime minister, especially in his or her first term.

Because, if you do, it won’t just be one of the three things people remember about that term of government; it’s likely to be the only one.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 29, 2014 as "Every parliament’s rule of three".

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Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers.

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