To attack rather than build is now the norm, but the Coalition’s negative campaigning is backfiring

Attacking a policy simply because it is open to attack can result in painting yourself into an awkward policy corner

First published in The Guardian Friday 7 November 2014


Tony Abbott in Manly.

Tony Abbott in Manly. Photograph: Don Arnold/WireImage

The Abbott led federal opposition in Australia was an extremely effective one. More disciplined than anybody forecast. They focused like a laser beam on any action by the Labor government that could be effectively attacked. It was primarily a negative opposition, with the biggest promises being the undoing of Labor’s legislative and infrastructure agenda. Abbott opposed the NBN, the mining tax, the carbon price, poker machine reform and much more.

There’s obviously nothing compromising about attacking a policy with which your party has a historical philosophical opposition. However, attacking a policy simply because it is open to attack can result in painting yourself into an awkward policy corner.

It’s almost universally agreed by economists and policy experts that a carbon price, through a tax or trading scheme, is the most effective and efficient method for reducing emissions. Julia Gillard opened herself to attack over the carbon price because of her promise during the election campaign that there would be no carbon tax under her government. The Coalition leapt on this broken promise and attacked the Gillard government relentlessly.

Once in government, the Coalition’s opposition to the carbon tax/trading scheme left them in a very awkward position because the domestic and international political climate was such that they couldn’t do nothing but, because of their campaigning in opposition, their climate policy couldn’t be a trading scheme and it couldn’t be a tax. That left us with Direct Action. It’s a garbage policy that pays polluters not to pollute, with no price signal for the rest of the economy. Direct Action rewards the most profligate polluters because they are the ones who will most cheaply be able to reduce emissions and it offers no assurance that emissions across the rest of the economy will not rise.

The smarter members of the Coalition know full well that the carbon price they dismantled was more effective and efficient at reducing emissions than the Direct Action plan they have replaced it with but inefficiency and ineffectiveness of climate policy is a small price to pay for power.

A market based approach to dealing with environmental externalities such as pollution fits perfectly within the Liberal party’s political philosophy. Plans like direct action that involve selective rewards to individual companies are precisely the kind of piecemeal initiatives that the Coalition have traditionally opposed. This third rate policy that goes against traditional Coalition philosophy is just one of many prices they have had to pay for their election strategy based on negativity.

The Coalition opposition to the National Broadband Network is similar, though more complex. The initial Coalition position was simply to oppose the NBN and cancel the project if they won power. Upon unseating Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader, Tony Abbott, in a move of tactical brilliance, made Turnbull shadow communications minister. This was clearly designed to politically destroy the publicly popular Turnbull as it made him the spokesperson for one of the Coalition’s most unpopular and indefensible policy positions, one that Turnbull himself, one would hope, probably didn’t agree with.

Among proponents of faster broadband infrastructure in Australia, Turnbull is alternately credited with saving the NBN and despised for being the harbinger of the Coalition’s much derided “NBN light”. Turnbull took the Coalition’s policy from no fast broadband to an investment in a “mixed technology” broadband infrastructure program that would deliver faster broadband to 98% of Australian homes and businesses – but still a fraction of the speed promised by Labor’s NBN.

Clearly the Coalition are not the only ones practicing negative campaigning. It’s become the norm. Small target politics is a result of relentless and effective negative campaigning from both sides of the narrow political divide and from vested interests outside of politics. It’s much easier to pick holes in somebody else’s work than it is to create defensible work yourself. The coalition’s negative campaigning during the 2013 federal election (well, actually during the entire six years of the Labor government) will also have a lasting impact on federal Labor who will likely be much more cautious next time they are in government.

The major parties are now likely to be more imbedded than ever in this negative mode of campaigning and it will take a concerted effort from the public and from the media to drag them out of it. We need to make it clear that critique of the other is only one small part of a valid campaign platform that should be founded on a positive vision for the country. The critique of other parties’ policies can then be related to how they fail to promote or create this vision.

The reality is that very few people voted the Abbott government into power. What they did was vote the Gillard/Rudd government out of power. This negative mandate resulted in a government that few were prepared for and who surprised so many with their first budget. Before the election we knew very well what the Coalition were opposed to but we knew very little about what they stood for. Will we be saying the same about Labor at the next federal election?

This entry was posted in Australian politics, democracy, Political philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to To attack rather than build is now the norm, but the Coalition’s negative campaigning is backfiring

  1. Julie S says:

    Interesting observations. Isn’t negativity the strategy of the Republcans in th US as well? Don’t they just want to stop everything Obama wants to do? In Sweden where I live we recently had an election which also seems to be a vote against what we know i.e the traditional parties in favour of newer parties who have not had power and not yet. The fact that the members of one of these come from extreme right wing groups has not deterred voters. The only consolation is that these anti-parties seem to self-destruct eventually as the members start attacking themselves. The PUP seems a good example of this.

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