They say it takes time to learn how to be in Government. In turn, it takes time to learn how to be in Opposition. If you were to read the polls at the moment, it would be easy to argue that the ALP have learnt how to do Opposition much faster than the Coalition have learnt how to do Government.
Recent polls consistently show the ALP taking the lead against the Coalition, with both Newspoll and Nielson giving them a 52-48 edge against the Government. Given the history of new Governments having strong honeymoon periods, which tend to lead them to polling very strong polling in their first year of Government, this is a remarkable turn around. It is a turn around that puts the ALP quickly into contention for 2016.
I have always believed the ALP have every chance to turn things around in 2016. The Coalition’s victory was one based largely in a vote against the ALP, not in a vote for the new Government. In doing so, the Coalition came in to Government in a very weak position, a position that is being confirmed by new polling trends. Despite this however, two months in, the ALP are getting very lucky. Take a look at the past few months, and in no way are they settling in to Opposition.
I mean just look at the two biggest issues of the last couple of months. On the crisis with the Indonesians the ALP has been pathetic at best. When it became known that Australia had spied on Indonesia, the best Opposition Leader Bill Shorten could do was talk about a ‘bipartisan approach’ to the crises to heal the relationship. The ALP has ever since tried to dodge being at all heavily critical against the Coalition on the issue. And I can understand the concern that because this happened under the ALP’s watch, but in doing so they have failed to kick a massive goal against Tony Abbott. Whilst it was the ALP who did this, it was Abbott’s incompetence that continued the crises - a message that the party could have easily been hammering out every day against the Government.
On the other big test of the Government, climate change, the ALP’s messaging has been convoluted and confused. The party went through a painful process in which no one knew what on Earth its position was going to be, and then when it finally came out with one it included amendments to ‘scrap the tax’ that make their message extremely difficult to consume. The belief seems to be that the ALP needs to ‘remove the noose’ of the carbon tax from its neck, but in doing so it has developed a confused position that looks much more like a political fix than any form of policy coherence. It has continued to succumb to the potential attacks of the Coalition, once again putting itself in the position where it cannot effectively prosecute its position.
Every time they need to take a stand, every time they need to lay into the new Government for their obvious incompetence and radical program, the ALP stammers. It hedges its bets, tries to a find a compromise that ensures they aren’t criticised to heavily, and muddles its way through a weak attack.
And herein lies the problem for the party. The ALP party is not on track for potential success due to an effective turn around into Opposition, but rather because of what Tad Tietze has called the ‘auto-unravelling of the right’. The party is in front because the Coalition are losing it. And whilst of course it is still early, if the ALP are not able to fall more comfortably into the role of Opposition soon this could impact both their chances to take hold this lead and take Government back quickly, but more importantly their chances to hold on to Government when they do.
The ALP’s challenge is twofold. They not only need to effectively tackle the incompetence and extreme policies of the Coalition, but they also need to reposition themselves for the future. And that doesn’t mean a repositioning that simply changes some policies, but rather one that changes the shape of their politics – that shelves the failures of the past and presents and new, and fresh alternative. An alternative that effectively challenges the malaise in the current Australian population about politics – a malaise that is following Tony Abbott. The early signs however are not good. The Indonesia saga showed a party unwilling to go on the attack, whilst the ongoing debate on global warming paints a picture of a party that has not learnt from the failure of its past operations.
It’s time for the party to get some mongrel back into them. It’s time to start finally taking some principled stands, to start campaigning for the hearts and souls of all Australians, and to lay into the Coalition where and when they deserve it. And most importantly they need to figure out how to reshape their own politics. If not, they could be giving up their best opportunity to take back Government in the shortest time possible.