I began to study Australian politics seriously in 1958, when I was first eligible to vote, and the following year I undertook a master’s degree in History, with a thesis in very recent political history. From then on, politics was my subject, both the politicians and we the voters. I got used to elections that changed things and elections that didn’t, and began to look at the fine detail of it all.
Australia provides a Commonwealth arena, six State arenas and two Territory arenas, and they have striking similarities both electorally and in terms of government. We’ve had a Commonwealth election that has ended the rule of the ALP, and given it to the Coalition. People who were in power are now in Opposition, and they don’t like it. There is a tendency to blame the electorate or press barons, or misleading politicians from the other side — even on occasion themselves, though rarely oneself.
The new Government has Ministers who are learning fast just what is involved in being a Minister; it’s not at all a nine-to-five job. The cartoonists are getting used to a new set of dials. The Prime Minister seems fated to be drawn with a wide-open mouth with lots of teeth and two ears at ninety degrees to his head. Time will show us how the lesser lights are to be portrayed.
The first opinion polls are showing a swing back to the Labor Party, one of them a big swing — so big indeed that the pollster concerned warned that it might not be reliable. It doesn’t really matter. The Government’s poll results are going to get worse over the next fifteen months. It has a lot to do, and much of it involves cutting expenditure and dampening expectations. As so often, there was a budget ‘black hole’, but even the Labor Government had to admit there was one. None of the cutting and trimming will be popular. If the Government gets its carbon tax repeal through we won’t notice the change in our energy bills, which will have gone up again anyway.
The new Minister for Education doesn’t give a Gonski, and want to renegotiate the agreement with the States and Territories. For some reason, we are now all talking about ‘Gonski’ again, not the ‘Better Schools Program’ that Prime Minister Rudd insisted on as the title. Mr Pyne hasn’t quite explained why he wants to do this, but it is in keeping with the Government’s not talking much about boat arrivals, or about anything.
It doesn’t have to talk about everything, and indeed keeping government and politics off the radar is the right way to go, if you can do it. If you have a really serious decision to make, one that will affect the lives of a lot of people, it’s a good idea to let them know, in a measured way, what it is, and when you have to make the decision, and leave a number of options open. In time you can make your decision, and cop the flak. You won’t have to respond to the charge that you said nothing about it.
It is a rule of incoming government in a system like ours that if you have difficult things to do, you do them at once, in your first year. Year One is always the horror year, and although there hasn’t been much horror yet I expect that in a few months’ time there will be a lot of disgruntled people, bumper stickers saying ‘I Voted Labor’, and citizens groups about this, that and the other. Labor in Opposition will have a lot of confidence.
In Year Two you get into the positive aspects of your policies, and if the economy is bubbling along OK people begin to forget about the previous year. Life moves on. In Year Three you unveil some really nifty policies that will be implemented if you are re-elected. Does it sound Machiavellian? It is just plain common-sense, but political scientists actually studied all this years ago, and showed that there was just such a pattern.
The key is re-election. Politicians hate regular elections (unless they’re out of office), and will always tell you how awful it is that the term of office here is so short —why, in the UK, they’ll say, it’s five years! But it is not obvious to me that jurisdictions where there are now mandatory four-year terms are better governed or better places to live than those where the term is three years. Nor do I see any strong indications that we should follow British practice.
In the new year I would not be surprised if Mr Abbott were to do a bit of reshuffling. He’ll have discovered that he has a square peg or two, who are ill placed in the round holes they are administering. He might shuffle responsibilities too: there is no perfect way to arrange ministerial responsibilities. But when he and they all come back for work after the summer holidays, the cries of pain are going to rise in volume, and the Government’s standing in the polls will decline. It will be no time for the faint-hearted.