The Myths of Labor’s Grand Public Deception

  • by: Dennis Shanahan, Political editor, The Australian, 3/3/2012
Tony Abbott

From the moment Tony Abbott was elected Liberal leader, he has been underestimated by Labor and has outperformed all expectations. Picture: Kym Smith Source: The Australian

DURING most of the years of the Howard government, the Labor opposition ran a self-delusional narrative that John Howard was hated, hateful, unpopular, a liar, unelectable and against immigration and workers. It was a false narrative at odds with his electoral success but encouraged by an anti-Howard commentariat.

The Labor government is now in danger of doing what it did in opposition by believing a false narrative built on its own spin about its policies, politics and personnel.

Although problems have been obvious from the beginning, critics have been undermined and isolated, gross mistakes passed over and excused, policy and implementation failures blamed on others, and myths created to cover fundamental flaws as part of the grand public deception.

Worst of all, many members of the Rudd-Gillard governments either can’t see through their own deception or are so complicit in the errors they can’t afford to acknowledge the truth and deal with it rationally. These are deep-seated problems that cannot be swept aside by the simple political circuit-breaker of appointing Bob Carr as foreign minister.

This was the same delusion of the Labor years in opposition, so that after each election loss there were self-serving excuses and the electorate was derided.

In 1996, Howard was described as old-fashioned and incapable of dealing with Asia, not having policies and being elected only because people were tired of a Labor government that had been around too long.

In 1998, the ALP said it had been robbed after winning a majority of the two-party-preferred vote, but lost the GST election that Howard had taken to the people.

In 2001, the explanation was that Howard had run a campaign of dog-whistling on asylum-seekers and had been saved by the asylum-seeker laden Norwegian ship Tampa. Helped by superficial and ideologically driven camp followers, Labor continued to deride Howard and believe its own spin that he was unelectable in the face of self-evident political truths.

After the 2004 Howard victory, while Labor began to accept that the election of Mark Latham as leader was its own fault, there was still the view that Howard had lied and survived by fear tactics.

But, by 2006, Julia Gillard and others began to examine Labor’s own spin and to realise that the ALP was deluding itself, insulting voters’ judgment and fighting a false image.

By the time Gillard and Kevin Rudd were a team, the treatment of Howard began to shift: while he was still described as a climate change denier and dinosaur, there was more respect shown to him.

When the 2007 election campaign began, there was almost praise for Howard and a definite sympathy. The theme was that he’d been a good prime minister but had seen better days and it was time for a change.

As one Labor MP told The Weekend Australian at the time, it was about giving the electorate the sense of “putting down your pet labrador” – you didn’t want to do it but it was time.

Labor had finally realised its vision of Howard was out of touch with reality and the electorate.

Even in defeat, Howard had approval ratings that Gillard would give her right arm for now after only 18 months as PM. Yet even this successful experience of the Rudd-Gillard leadership has not deterred Labor in government from believing its own spin and prosecuting a strategy of denial and bluster that is out of touch with reality and the electorate.

Today’s false narrative, some of which has been exposed in the recent bitter days of raw recrimination, character assassination and cabinet savagery, is just as dangerous and damaging to Labor as it is to good national policy development. What’s more, the public discourse is being skewed by those who accept and prop up the false narrative because it’s easy and fashionable.

The main myths Labor is perpetuating to its own disadvantage are: Tony Abbott is unpopular and unelectable; the carbon tax is not leading the world and will gain public support once it’s introduced; the Rudd government was a good government that just lost its way; the reaction to the global financial crisis was an unmitigated success; the mining tax and Rudd as prime minister were destroyed by an advertising campaign funded by mining billionaires; the rise in asylum-seeker numbers is the Coalition’s fault; and criticism is part of a “hate media” conspiracy.

From the moment Abbott was elected Liberal leader, he’s been underestimated by Labor and has outperformed all expectations. As Opposition Leader his personal satisfaction ratings are low, but they are not as low as Gillard’s; he broke Rudd as prime minister; he took Labor’s majority at the election; has turned the carbon tax toxic; has overtaken Gillard as preferred prime minister; and has the Coalition’s primary vote in election-winning territory.

Abbott has pinched support among blue-collar workers and will continue to campaign against cost-of-living rises. His view of the carbon tax is much closer to the electorate’s than that of anyone in government.

Abbott is short on policies and wrong on issues such as the asylum-seeker legislation and the paid parental leave scheme, but a campaign of negativity about his negativity has not shifted his primary vote nor put Gillard ahead.

A large part of this unacknowledged Labor failure is linked with Gillard’s broken promise on a carbon tax, a written partnership with the Greens and a fixed price of $23 a tonne for carbon emissions from July 1, which Resources Minister Martin Ferguson confessed this week could damage industry.

The spin on the carbon tax has been that it will get public approval when Gillard demonstrated a conviction to act on climate change, when the compensation was revealed, when the legislation was revealed or when the legislation passed; but none of that happened and now it will be when the compensation is paid in May, or the end of the year, when the “sky doesn’t fall in”.

This week, Gillard has given the lie to her own claim the Rudd government was good and has exposed the government and Rudd as dysfunctional, chaotic, pathological and demeaning.

Yet criticism in The Australian as early as 2008 about Rudd’s chaotic work patterns and cabinet administration was attacked as a conspiracy from ministers and described by press gallery commentator Laura Tingle in The Australian Financial Review as a self-interested campaign for journalists to “get on the drip” of media stories from the PM’s office.

Exposure of rorts and waste in the $2.7 billion insulation scheme and the $16bn schools halls program on Sydney radio station 2GB and in The Australian was likewise dismissed as a “Murdoch press” conspiracy.

In the past two weeks, an independent report has found the disastrous home insulation scheme, which led to rorts and house fires, could have been foreseen and prevented. Just a good government that lost its way, as all of the senior ministers of the Gillard government sat around the cabinet table.

As for the debacle of the mining tax, which was the final straw for Rudd’s leadership, even this week Wayne Swan has been trying to blame billionaires and mining advertising for its collapse in 2010, when it was the Treasurer’s own failure to consult the mining industry that blighted the process from the beginning. While there has been further exposure of that fact this week, Simon Crean made it clear in June 2010 that the problem was insufficient consultation, in contrast to Labor’s successful Petroleum Resources Rent Tax.

Yet even yesterday, only an hour or so before Gillard was to announce Carr’s appointment, Swan was continuing to describe the report in The Australian revealing the offer and the cabinet revolt as ridiculous, and endorsing Gillard’s description of the story as “completely untrue” because: “That particular newspaper is conducting a particular campaign against the government. It’s been doing it for a long time and it’ll keep doing it. That’s their right. It’s a free country with a free media.”

Yes, Treasurer, and fortunately a media that includes some not prepared to accept Labor spin doctors’ false narratives for the good of the Labor Party and the nation.