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Archives for August 2010

Groundhog Day

Nick Bryant | 06:51 UK time, Tuesday, 31 August 2010


So an election campaign oft-compared to a national soap opera has produced a period of political deadlock that now has the feel of the movie, Groundhog Day. Whereas Bill Murray woke up every morning to Sonny and Cher's "I've got you, babe" blasting out of his clock radio, I find myself shaken from my slumbers by the "Three Independents" crooning on about "new paradigms" and "post-partisan politics", and indicating to Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard that neither has yet won their affections. "You haven't got us, babe", I suppose you could say.

Punxsutawney Phil

The furry star of Bill Murray's movie, Punxsutawney Phil, used to foretell whether winter was about to end or the residents of his small Pennsylvania town were in for another six weeks of bitter cold. How Canberra could do with an animal blessed with the same psychic powers to indicate when the next government of Australia will be formed. Already we know that the outcome of an election held in winter will not be known until the spring.

So for now the row continues between Labor and the Liberals over who won the most votes on election day. The arguments continue over which leader would best represent the interests of regional Australia. The independents keep on complaining about the heavy-handed tactics and "Rambo-style" phone calls of certain members of the Coalition. And Bob Katter continues to wear his trademark Ten Gallon hat, although he hasn't mentioned flying foxes and Taipan snakes for the past couple of days.

At least the briefings which the independents demanded from department heads and the like have now started, although Tony Windsor, the independent who represents the country town of Tamworth, has warned it is likely to be next week until he and his fellow regional independents finally make up their minds. Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP representing the seat of Denison in Tasmania, has indicated he could announce his decision as soon as today - not that it will decide things.

All of them are talking about Australia getting a more grown-up politics, and yet the ongoing rows about which party got the most votes will strike many as rather infantile. Possibly irrelevant, too, since the claims from both sides about their moral legitimacy to govern are unlikely to sway the independents. Nor, apparently, has a poll which suggested their constituents favour Tony Abbott over Julia Gillard as the next prime minister, which is has been the presumption all along given they represent traditionally conservative seats.

Personal chemistry, long-standing enmities, the bad blood between the independents and their former National Party colleague, and even the demeanour of the two prospective prime ministers. All of these factors could arguably weight more heavily. Will it help Tony Abbott, for instance, that he has started to publicly describe his conservative Coalition as the "government-in-waiting"? It may strike the independents as gratuitously hubristic. Or will it hurt Julia Gillard that she has not as yet offered a public explanation as to why her government performed much worse than expected at the polls?

Certainly, I would not like to play poker against the three key regional independents, because they have been incredibly hard to read.

Away from Canberra, there have been intriguing distractions on the news front. Paul Hogan, the comedian who used to lure tourists Down Under with the promise of throwing an extra crustacean on the barbie, is now what his lawyer describes as a "prisoner of Australia" because of allegations of tax avoidance. But I suppose we shouldn't be that surprised. Given the madcap drama of the past two months in Australia, it was surely inevitable that Crocodile Dundee would end up making an appearance....

Provisional post-mortem as the wait goes on

Nick Bryant | 02:52 UK time, Friday, 27 August 2010


In one of his more recent books, the cricket writer Gideon Haigh recounts a good yarn from the day when the English playwright Tom Stoppard applied for a job on Fleet Street. "It says here you're interested in politics," said the interviewer, as he perused the application. "Okay. Who's the Home Secretary?" Stoppard treated the question with exquisite disdain. "I said I was interested," he replied. "Not obsessed."

I confess that I have reached the same point with these post-election deliberations. These "Independents' Days," as everyone is calling them. I remain interested, though not obsessed; and I dare say many of you feel the same.

By the end of play today, it looks as if we will get a clear sense of which party or independent has won each seat. But we are no closer to getting a clear outcome. To help guide their choice, the three key independents have listed seven demands, which include detailed briefings from senior civil servants and politicians on both sides with key portfolios. They also want definitive costings on the election promises of both the main parties, a process to which the Liberal leader Tony Abbott is refusing to submit because of an ongoing row with the Treasury over a leaked story which damaged the Coalition during the campaign. Like I say, I'm interested, but not obsessed.

So while the impasse continues, perhaps we should carry out something of a post-mortem. Why did this election end up without a clear-cut result? Why did Julia Gillard's snap election gambit misfire? And what explained the unexpectedly strong showing from the conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott?
Tony Abott meets independent MHRs 25 August 2010
On the first point, perhaps political historians will come to reflect that this was an election that neither side truly deserved to win. Ahead of polling day, we detailed here the present phase of ugliness in Australian politics, along with its narrowness. We also dealt with the insularity and small-bore parochialism of a fairly visionless campaign, which for days was obsessed with process. Is there anything drearier in politics than debates about debates? So let's not belabour the point here.

But this election did produce strong evidence that Australians are fed up - embarrassed even - with the politics being put before them. In other countries, turn-out figures usually provide the key indicator of voter disaffection, something we cannot rely on in Australia, of course, because of compulsory voting. But as a number of you have already pointed out, the 2010 election has recorded the highest number of "informal votes" from the past six federal elections. Over 5% of the electorate cast an "informal vote" - that is to say, they did not think that any candidate or party merited their backing.

The surge in support for the Australian Greens offers another indication of frustration with the two main parties. With over 11% of the vote, the Greens ended up with the strongest third party showing since the Second World War.

In this post-election phase, there also appears to be widespread public respect for the three independents, whatever their idiosyncrasies. Their demands for a new kind of politics, though occasionally fanciful, have hit a chord. To many, they have come across as honourable, candid and trustworthy, not words that are commonly associated with politicians. During a phase in which Aussie politics has been brutally and sometimes cannibalistically tribal, their talk of acting in the national interest strikes many as unusually wholesome and refreshing. Votes being counted after Australian election

Then there is the anecdotal evidence gathered over the past few weeks, from speaking to voters and reading your comments. I have not encountered a single voter who considered the 2010 election a good advertisement for Australian democracy. Quite the opposite. Indeed, is it now possible to speak of Australia's political cringe?

As to the question of Julia Gillard's failure to secure a majority, it will doubtless be argued over for years to come - and especially within the ALP. The Labor powerbrokers who ousted Kevin Rudd blame the former prime minister for leaking unfavourable stories which badly damaged Julia Gillard during the second week of the campaign. But in calling an election so soon after a ruthless leadership coup, few should surely have been surprised that the bloodletting overflowed into the campaign.

The same powerbrokers have blamed the ALP's awful performance in Queensland on an unpopular Labor Premier, Anna Bligh. This may have contributed, but I spent quite a bit of time in Queensland during the campaign and left with the more powerful sense that the treatment of Kevin Rudd was a more significant grievance.

The "Blame Rudd" powerbroker thesis is predicated on the alleged "Rudd leaks" being the hinge-point in Julia Gillard's fortunes. But, again, my sense is that she was in trouble before that. Surely you could date the end of her political honeymoon from the moment it was revealed that her "East Timor Solution" asylum seekers policy had not been agreed upon by the East Timorese government. Then came her proposal for a Citizens Assembly on emissions trading scheme, a contrivance that, for many, demonstrated the same political gutlessness which had got her predecessor into trouble.
Julia Gillard meets independent MHRs 25 August 2010
Back in 2007, it irritated me when The Guardian dubbed the federal election "The Climate Change Election". It was a decent headline, but poor analysis, because Workchoices and a widespread feeling that John Howard had done his dash were far more important factors. The irony is that that 2010 was much more of a "Climate Change Election". Not because the question of global warming loomed large. It didn't. But because the politics of climate change came to have such a crucial bearing over the past nine months.

Kevin Rudd fell out of favour partly because having called climate change the greatest moral issue of our times he put the ETS on the back burner. Julia Gillard attracted the same accusations of political cowardice when she proposed the Citizens Assembly. Tony Abbott won the leadership of the Liberals because of Malcolm Turnbull's offer to Mr Rudd of bipartisan support for the ETS. Then the new Liberal leader mounted his comeback by harnessing much of the scepticism that came to the fore after 'Climategate" and Copenhagen.

Paradoxically, Labor once viewed its green agenda as something which would keep it in power well into this decade, and chronically divide the Liberals. Remember the talk about how Rudd would call a double dissolution election after his ETS scheme was defeated and consign the Liberals to the wilderness. The dramatically altered politics of climate change were a key factor in this election.

So, too, was Tony Abbott, whom everyone underestimated. The ALP. The commentariat. Your blogger. The Liberals. And even, arguably, himself. His performance reminds me of the late, great Bob Monkhouse's signature joke: 'People laughed when I told them I was going to be a comedian. Nobody's laughing now."

Once derided as the "Mad Monk," Tony Abbott made people take him seriously. He not only demonstrated a level of discipline during the campaign which even close friends thought was beyond him, but clearly had everyman appeal. In our first television piece on the election, we included those now iconic shots of him in his scarlet Speedoes. What we should have explained, of course, is that wearing budgie smugglers in Australia is not automatically a vote loser. To some, it put on fleshy display the very thing which many voters clearly found attractive: his authenticity.

Sometime over the coming weeks - yes, that was a plural - we will find out who has emerged as Australia's prime minister. But I would love to hear your views on how we reached this point.

Post-mortem update:

Camo is right. An hour after I pressed send on this blog, Tony Abbott agreed to the independents' demand to have the coalition's policies costed by the Treasury, which looked like it could become a deal-breaker.

The Sydney Morning Herald is calling it "Abbott's costings cave-in."

The Coalition is also rejecting claims from the Greens' leader Bob Brown that it is manoeuvring for a new election.

For post-election tragics who want to keep up with every new twist and turn, this service from ABC does the job, as doubtless you already know.

Have a good weekend!

Blame game

Nick Bryant | 07:01 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Stable and effective government" is the new "Moving Forward" or "Stop the Boats", the mantras we heard ad nauseam during the campaign. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott both make the claim that they are the only leaders capable of delivering it.

Bob Katter

Meanwhile, Bob Katter, the force from the north and one of the newly-crowned independent kingmakers, is re-writing the lingua franca of Australian politics. How about this sound-bite, from when he appeared on national television in Australia on Sunday night. "There's a freedom issue here," he told Kerry O'Brien in a special edition of The 730 Report. "You know we're not allowed to fish much at all, we're not allowed to go camping or shooting or even boiling the billy. We've got a terribly problem with the deadly flying foxes. They're going to kill many more people than Taipan snakes do in Australia."

Did I mention this has sometimes been a weird and wacky election?

To add to the sense of implausibility, Rob Oakeshott, another of the kingmakers, is calling for a national unity government - a mix-and-match affair with ministers from all the parties. Attractive though it may be to many Australians fed up with the adversarial nature of Aussie politics, I think that idea can safely be filed away in the "non-starter" drawer. That said, Oakeshott is a serious politician with some really interesting things about the health of the Australian body politic, which you can read more of here. Bob Katter, for all his showmanship and eccentricities, has said some really interesting things about a "new paradigm" in Australian politics as well. So, too, has Tony Windsor, who makes up this powerful triumvirate. As I said in my last blog, it's particularly interesting to hear voices from the bush and the outback after a campaign focused so much on the suburbs.

Both the two major leaders have disadvantages heading into the face-to-face negotiations with the independents, which have not even got underway yet.

For Tony Abbott, it's the bad blood between the independents and senior figures in the National Party. All three kingmakers were former members of the party and left amidst acrimony. His broadband policy - something which haunted him during the campaign - may also require a rethink. It doesn't sound fast or ambitious enough for the independents. If there is to be a new paradigm in Australian politics, Abbott might also suffer from being the chief Liberal spear-thrower during the Howard years.

For Julia Gillard, it's the bad blood within the Labor Party. There's something close to civil war going on within the party right now between those who blame Julia Gillard for not achieving an overall majority, because of her treachery in ousting Kevin Rudd, and those who blame Mr Rudd for destabilising her campaign through a series of alleged leaks. Tony Abbott has quite a neat sound-bite on this subject. If Labor could not deliver stable government when it enjoyed a majority, how can it do so as a minority government?

Julia Gillard is clearly worried about preventing this civil war playing out too much on national television. She blocked the Labor Senator Mark Arbib from appearing on ABC's popular QandA panel discussion programme on Monday night. As many readers will know, Arbib is one of the powerful New South Wales factional leaders who orchestrated the coup against Kevin Rudd. In his absence, ABC simply empty-chaired him, and read out a statement from Julia Gillard's office explaining his late withdrawal from the live broadcast.

In the blur of events over the past few days, we have not yet had the chance for a full and frank post-mortem on Election 2010. We'll try to do so later in the week.

In the meantime, thanks to 11pete11 for providing this link to a very useful guide to this post-election phase. And thanks to beachcomber1 and Stilgherrian for pointing out two absolute howlers in my last blog entry. Apologies. I blame a combination of the lack of sleep, caffeine poisoning, complete haplessness on my part, the talk of "another election" and an often confusion post-polling phase which at times has felt as mad as a cut Taipan snake.....

The three kingmakers

Nick Bryant | 08:27 UK time, Monday, 23 August 2010


Julia Gillard touched down in Canberra on her prime ministerial jet, hoping it wouldn't be the last time she gets to use it. Camera crews were also at Canberra airport to record the arrival of the three independent MPs who will determine this race: the once-obscure kingmakers who are now in the national spotlight.

I wonder how many times they have slipped in and out of the nation's capital without anyone paying them a blind bit of notice or even knowing who they are. Now Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are the talk of Australia.

There is a rich irony, of course. For the past five weeks the myopic focus has been on 20 marginal constituencies, many of which are to be found in the suburban fringes. Now voices from the bush, the outback and regional Australia have come to the fore.

They are an intriguing bunch.

Bob Katter from northern Queensland is a self-styled "Force from the North": a macho, straight-talking, no-nonsense sort of bloke, who appears to have stepped straight out of central casting. You can get a sense of that here, in a campaign advertisement, with impressive production values, which became something of a YouTube hit during the campaign.

Tony Windsor represents Tamworth in New South Wales, which is known as the centre of country and western music in Australia. As a state member in New South Wales, he helped prop up a conservative government. But that may not provide much of a form guide, because he clearly despises some of the leading lights in the Liberal/Nationals coalition - namely, Barnaby Joyce, the outspoken Nationals Senator. On national TV last night, he called Joyce a "fool" and "embarrassment".

Rob Oakeshott, arguably the most intriguing of the three, represents a seat in regional New South Wales. Like Tony Windsor and Bob Katter, the 40-year-old used to be a member of the National Party. But as with his fellow independents, the emphasis is on "used to be members". Again, that might not offer much of a form guide, because of the recriminations which surrounded their departure.

With the Greens likely to line up with Labor - though at a price - the focus is on these three independents, who have indicated they will form something of a bloc. The situation could be further complicated by the news from Western Australia that Tony Crook has beaten the Liberal incumbent Wilson "Ironbar" Tuckey, who is another of Canberra's more colourful characters.

The negotiation will play out over the next few days. My hunch is that we will not see an immediate resolution, especially while there are votes which remain uncounted.

More than 14 million people voted in this election, and the fate of this vast country now rests in the hands of three rather unpredictable kingmakers.

UPDATE: My apologies. In the first draft of this blog, written confessedly in a state of slight sleep deprivation, I said the Elvis festival was in Tamworth. it is, of course, in Parkes, as Stillgherrian pointed out.

Now Gillard must watch her back

Nick Bryant | 18:39 UK time, Saturday, 21 August 2010


So a scrappy campaign has ended with a messy result, and an election that's been compared to a national soap opera has not yet produced its concluding instalment.
The voters all chipped in with script lines. More than 14 million of them.

Perhaps they ultimately decided that nobody truly deserved to win.

Julia Gillard looked ashen-faced as she stepped before her supporters in Melbourne and admitted that the Labor government had so far failed to muster a majority. Then came the tacit acknowledgment that only horse-trading with the single Green MP and a handful of independents would keep the government in power. She even started heaping praise on them from the platform, which some might have viewed as rather pleading and desperate.

She decided to call a snap election thinking the honeymoon she had enjoyed after becoming Australia's first female prime minister would last until election day. Manifestly, it didn't. Instead she was punished in Queensland, especially for the manner in which she got the job. There was a big backlash against the government in New South Wales too, which was a rejection both of the federal government and a deeply unpopular state government.

But the backlash was not vicious enough to hand Tony Abbott a clear-cut victory. Doubts about his plausibility as prime minister may have lingered. Perhaps some prospective Liberal voters wanted more evidence that he had a vision for Australia and could be an innovative policy-maker.

At the end of a suitably twisty-turny night, the likelihood now is of a hung parliament with the handful of independents and the one Green MP holding the balance of power. The Greens won in Melbourne, gaining their first seat in the House of Representatives and achieving their best ever share of the vote. More proof of the disaffection with the major parties.

Julia Gillard failed to deliver Labor a decisive victory; the raison d'etre beyond the leadership coup two months ago. Presumably, she'll be watching her back.

Insular campaign lacks a big vision

Nick Bryant | 02:16 UK time, Friday, 20 August 2010


So this has been the politics that goes with the economic "wonder from down under", where a great national success story that unfolded in the aftermath of the global financial success has been followed by the slapstick of a madcap campaign.

Caricatures of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard

For the past two years the world has marvelled at Australia's seemingly recession-proof economy. For the past two months, it has looked on askance, like freeway rubber-neckers passing the scene of a pile-up made all the more inexplicable because the driving conditions seemed so perfect at the time.

It is the great paradox of the 2010 election. Australia emerges from the most serious global economic convulsion since the Great Depression without falling into recession, and yet the prime minister who would have been expected to take at least a modicum of credit gets ditched on the eve of the election by a deputy who then slumps herself in the polls.

In explaining this apparent paradox, perhaps historians will follow the same analytical furrow that Donald Horne ploughed in the early 1960s - that Australia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, but cursed by second-rate politicians.

Might we even one day call this The Lucky Country election? For many will agree with that great sage of the Canberra press gallery, the Nine Network's Political Editor Laurie Oakes, who described it as a battle between two "political pygmies".

Perhaps they will come to reflect on how the Gillard coup backfired, that the politician most closely associated with the economic wonder from down under, Kevin Rudd, is on the sidelines.

It was easy to detect real nervousness in the voice of Julia Gillard when she appeared on ABC's AM programme this morning. Going into this election, she surely did not expect to be involved in a photo-finish. Labor, unquestionably, is spooked by Tony Abbott's unexpectedly strong showing.

Visiting Australia at the start of the campaign, the Harvard academic and economic big brain Niall Ferguson was struck by the parochialism of the election, and the dismal quality of debate.

In a withering assessment, he compared national politics in Australia to local politics in his Scottish homeland.

"It is true to say that there is a quality of Australian political debate very reminiscent of local politics in Glasgow when I was growing up," he told Mark Colvin on ABC's PM programme. "There is a parochialism combined with, I'm going to say, an edge of nastiness that is very familiar."

"Now it may seem mean to use a term like parochialism but I think it is justified when you reflect on the magnitude of the changes that we are living through - massive shifts in the global economy, a radical transfer of economic power from the west to the east.

"And one listens to the contenders for the Australian premiership discussing in the most oblique and mealy-mouthed way issues about immigration and infrastructure that really, you know, sound more like Strathclyde Regional Council than a debate for the leadership of a major power in Asia-Pacific."

Certainly, it has been a very insular campaign, with hardly any focus on the rest of the region or the rest of the planet.

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The relationship with China; the ongoing mission in Afghanistan; where Australia fits in with what looks like being the Asian Century or, if not, the Asia-Pacific Century. None of these topics has been the subject of serious or prolonged discussion. Even "the boat people" have felt like an abstraction, rather than real people from real countries.

Because of the small-bore nature of the campaign and the microscopic focus on such a small number of marginal constituencies, many macro-national issues have been ignored, let alone some of the big international issues.

But this kind of politics seems to suit both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Neither could truly be called a big vision politician.

My sense, not only from reading your comments, but from speaking to a lot of voters in a lot of constituencies, is that many Australian voters have been deeply disappointed with the choice put before them in this election, that neither Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott have truly measured up.

The one prediction I am confident of making is that many Australians will be delighted to see the back of this scrappy campaign.

Of course, the old adage says that countries get the politics and politicians they deserve. So a final question on the eve of this poll, and one that I ask with enormous affection for this country - is that true of Australia and Election 2010?

The Howard Effect

Nick Bryant | 09:11 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010


Narrowness continues to prevail right up until the final hours of this election, as marginals continued to be bombarded and tiny pockets of voters get to decide the result. Consider this lead story on ABC News this morning, which reports on how Julia Gillard carved out a victory over Tony Abbott in a voter forum at the Brisbane Broncos Leagues club. It was based on a sampling of just over 150 voters, with 83 saying they preferred the Prime Minister and 75 saying they liked what they heard from Tony Abbott. Again, a tiny cohort of voters come to be vastly empowered. If four people had changed their mind, the story would have been very different.

howard_ap304.jpgTrue, it's the same elsewhere in the political Anglo-sphere. Voters in the US have complained for years about the disproportionate influence of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire at the start of the nominating process. Florida and Ohio get a huge say come the presidential election. British politicians do not spend much time outside marginals in the course of a general election campaign. But this Australian election has been extremely narrow and insular.

Wollemi makes a very good point. Both Gillard and Abbott are "novive leaders" and have sought to play it safe by focusing on narrowly-targeted campaigns. I particularly liked Adrian's advice as well. If you come to Australia, live in a marginal, because you will always get the attention of politicians, and much of their largesse.

I'll blog on Friday with some final thoughts. But I wanted your views on how former Prime Ministers have influenced the race. We have had Malcolm Fraser unleashing his patrician fury on the modern-day Liberal party. Paul Keating has mauled Bob Hawke. The Silver Bodgie was then the main warm-up act for Julia Gillard at her launch, although he primarily delivered a legacy speech talking about his own achievements (which are not insignificant, and extend way beyond being able to down a yard of ale at lightning speed).

Kevin Rudd, of course, made that dramatic re-entry in the race, standing in a flag-bedecked room which looked like one of those undisclosed locations in some underground West Virginian bunker normally reserved for American presidents announcing the start of nuclear war. Rudd was supposedly there for the purposes of detente, though few seemed truly sure. As we have noted before, sometimes it has felt that the only Prime Minister missing was Harold Holt, who, at the time of writing, has not yet emerged, Bond-girl like, from the surf of Cheviot Beach.

But one of the many ironies of Election 2010 is that the former Prime Minister who has exerted the most influence on this campaign has said very little. John Howard.

My sense is that his voice is rarely heard because his unspoken influence is so powerful and pervasive. Indeed, three years after his removal, this still has the feel of an election at the tail-end of Howard era, made all the more so because the Rudd term, which has definite "era potential," was brought to such an abrupt end.

It is by no means a coincidence that the Liberal Party is fighting this election with an arch Howardite as its leader. Packed still with Howard loyalists, the party suffered something of an identity crisis under Brendan Nelson, a former Labor man, and, even more so, Malcolm Turnbull. Tony Abbott always presented himself as Howard's true heir, even his ideological love-child.

So while his sudden rise to the leadership was haphazard and chaotic, it felt stabilising for the rank and file: a return to the natural order. In Canberra, too, party discipline was very quickly restored, partly because the new leader came with the imprimatur of John Howard.

Just as significant, Tony Abbott's fight-back was based on a Howard nostrum: climate change scepticism. For the right, his scepticism had already helped legitimise and reinforce their own doubts, and thus had an emboldening effect.

Now, in this 2010 election, the Howard effect continues to frame the politics, much like the Reagan and Thatcher equivalents have in America and Britain. The fight still is for Howard battlers. They remain the defining demographic. Tony Abbott has come up with an Action Contract for Australia that reduces Howardism to its elemental parts. Economic liberalism, social conservatism and Australian nationalism, as Paul Kelly, The Australian's historian-in-residence has observed. Julia Gillard has produced a cautious manifesto written with the suburban, Howard-friendly marginals in mind.

Nowhere does Howard exert more influence than in the asylum seekers debate. Clearly,
Labor continues to be traumatised by the 2001 Tampa election, and operates on the assumption that the Howard government reinforced conservative attitudes towards immigration and boat people that are now immutable.

Julia Gillard's speech to the Lowy Institute was a case in point. Much of it read like the speech she truly wanted to deliver. But many detected the high-pitched squeal of dog whistle politics in her assertion that the debate should "not be constrained by self-censorship or political correctness". Then came the policy centerpiece of the speech, an East Timor Solution widely viewed as a variant of the Pacific Solution, which presumably was partly the intention. A curiously schizophrenic speech, it combined the "real Julia" and the "Howard-conscious Julia".

On border protection, the Howard effect is distorting because it has elevated the boat people question into a vital emblematic issue, which strikes many as way out of proportion with the scale of the problem and level of community concern. When recently I spent the afternoon touring the western Sydney seat of Lindsay, whose local Labor MP David Bradbury stood alongside Julia Gillard onboard that border protection vessel in Darwin, I did not encounter anyway near the kind of voter anxiety which I had gone there expecting to find.

Nearly three years ago, I found myself just metres away from John Howard in his once-lucky hotel in Sydney, the Wentworth, when he conceded the election to Kevin Rudd. The newspapers were ready, of course, with the obvious headline. But has "Howard's End" proved inaccurately premature.

The narrowing of Australian politics

Nick Bryant | 09:37 UK time, Tuesday, 17 August 2010


Enough of the ugliness of Australian politics. Enough of its madcap silliness, too. But what about the narrowness of Australian politics: the myopia of concentrating so much attention on so small a number of voters in so small a clutch of marginal constituencies?

Twenty seats will determine the outcome of this election - the Liberal-led coalition needs 17 more MPs to command a parliamentary majority. Half of them are in Queensland. Plausibly, if just 12,000 or so voters in these battleground constituencies were to switch allegiance from 2007, opting for the Liberals over Labor, Tony Abbott would win. So in a country where over 14 million are compelled to attend a polling station, just 0.1% of the electorate could ultimately decide the race.

Screen shows Julia Gillard flanked by fellow candidates

Confessedly, it is the kind of crude, back-of-the-envelope calculation which, though not inaccurate, comes with various caveats - the stuff of a political parlour game. But this kind of electoral arithmetic, along with the reductionism it breeds, drives the political game-plans of both parties. Efforts are trained, almost microscopically, on a tiny cohort of the electorate. And everyday, it feels that this election is all about them. Just monitor which communities the leaders target each day. The pins will all end up in marginals.

From the dominance of focus groups to the elevated importance attached to polls, narrowness prevails. Even the outcome of the great set-piece event of the campaign, the televised debate, is left in the hands of the undecided voters invited by the television networks to determine the trajectory of the fabled worm. In the case of the Nine Network, the whims of about 150 people making split-second decisions impact the campaign for days afterwards. Again, the overall effect is to falsely empower a small sample of wavering voters.

The narrowness breeds minimalist forms of campaigning. A solitary televised debate. One town meeting in Rooty Hill in western Sydney. A short press availability each day. Only a couple of brief, usually choreographed campaign events designed to fabricate an opening montage of shots for the evening news reports. Earlier in the campaign, I followed Tony Abbott on the trail foolishly thinking it would consume a full day. Yet after the Liberal leader visited a maternity ward and held a brief press conference an hour or so afterwards that was pretty much it.

This narrowness has also produced what could be its definitive photo-opportunity: when Julia Gillard boarded a border protection vessel in Darwin harbour to watch a training exercise involving a mock-up of a suspected illegal entry vessel. She was accompanied by David Bradbury, the Labor MP for Lindsay in western Sydney, that marginal of marginals - the Basildon, if you like, of Australian politics.

That same brevity is heard in the rhetoric of the campaign. The mantras repeated ad nauseam. The speeches which appear devoid of any expansive vision, overarching ideas or even a baby-grand narrative. It is a politics in which complicated policy debates, such as border protection, are reduced to short sound-bites which are couched in terms that the key electors not only understand but feel are in their own self- interest.

In state and federal government, the policy-making process is also being compressed by this narrowing of politics. Writing in The Monthly, the former New South Wales Labor government staffer Mark Aarons wrote about how focus groups were "being substituted for political judgment". State premiers were simply told to ditch policies which were unpopular with the public.

Now, at the federal level, we have the apotheosis of this approach. Julia Gillard's plans for a Citizens Assembly on emissions trading, a people's forum 150-strong. The policy is a focus group.

This is a global trend, and hardly new. But arguably its effects are more pronounced in this corner of the political Anglo-sphere.

And the paradox is that this approach disregards one of the central reasons why the Australian governmental model is so widely admired: whether in the de-regulation of the banking sector, a Labor policy, or the introduction of the GST (goods and services tax), a Liberal initiative, it was based on a bold politics which emphasised the national interest.

The wackiness of this campaign has almost defied analogy. It has produced wide-screen entertainment, for sure. But a politics focused on small snapshots of Australia. Perhaps you could call it a battle for Rooty Hill.

POLL WATCH: The polls are still contradictory, and suggest a photo-finish - even, dare I say it, a hung parliament.

Small room politics

Nick Bryant | 07:40 UK time, Monday, 16 August 2010


Labor officially launched its campaign in a small-ish conference room in Brisbane, which looked like it normally played host to actuarial seminars or perhaps time-share, holiday rental marketing drives.

We have heard a lot about small targeting campaigning - a minimalist form of politics which does not give your opponent much to aim at. Today we saw small conference room politics, which does not give your supporters much room in which to sit. I mention it not only because of my preoccupation with trivialities, but because it speaks of the control-freakery of modern campaigning. If you keep an event small, you can exert more control.

For Labor, the era of big launch venues is clearly over.

But Julia Gillard came with what she believed was an expansive vision of a modernised Australia, which she delivered, fluently, without an autocue. Talking to Labor insiders afterwards, the plan was to show she is a politician of conviction, and can speak on her own behalf. She was trying to present herself as a forward-thinking leader, with a plan for the future, who is up against a conservative leader whom she wants to portray as being rooted firmly in the past. It was classic future against the past positioning. She was basically saying there is only one leader with an optimistic vision in this race.

For her, the provision of faster broadband speeds has become the emblematic issue in the race. Her main policy announcement was a plan to improve the provision of healthcare in rural and regional Australia by increasing the amount of video conferencing and online consultation. It is all centred on the delivery of the National Broadband Network.

As she reached her conclusion, she evoked the memory of the post-war Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, who spoke of "the light on the hill," and then ventriloquised Barack Obama. "Yes we can," the great rallying cry of the 2008 American presidential election, became "Yes, we can."

At the Liberal launch, we suggested that it still requires a great leap of imagination to see Tony Abbott as a plausible Australian prime minister. Perhaps many will require the same leap to see Julia Gillard in the same light as Barack Obama.

Before Gillard spoke, one of Labor's top strategists spoke of one of the central problems of its campaign: the party keeps on winning two consecutive days but is struggling to put together three on the trot. Nobody has yet built up unstoppable momentum.

So the polls remain in flux, with a major poll on Monday showing Labor with an election-winning lead. But there was another major poll over the weekend which showed the Liberals ahead. This election will ultimately come down to 20 battleground seats, half of them in Queensland, of which more later in the week.

There was an awkwardness about this campaign launch, which was obviously because of the presence of Kevin Rudd. He was seated at the end of the fifth row, and while Julia Gillard paid him tribute he was not invited to speak.

The joke in the press room was that the choice of a small venue for the speech reflected the fact it was being delivered in Kevin Rudd's backyard - the former prime minister's parliamentary constituency is just up the road from here - and Julia Gillard is having a hard time with Queenslanders.

Call it what you may; The Queensland factor or the Rudd Effect. But it could still decide this race.

The Election: Week Four - The Battle of Rooty Hill

Nick Bryant | 03:00 UK time, Friday, 13 August 2010


"I have a happy habit of covering bizarre and often confounding elections." With a sentence pregnant with possibility, this blog came into the world at the start of the 2007 Australian federal election.

Three years ago, of course, the race was actually fairly easy to call. It was not confounding at all. There was an overwhelming sense that the former Prime Minister John Howard had out-lived his political usefulness; that he had "done his dash," as one voter rather memorably put it. With Kevin Rudd presenting himself as a risk-free alternative, a plausible prime minister, he started the race as the clear front-runner and ended it well in front. His election never seemed in doubt.

But it is the 2010 campaign to which the words "bizarre" and "confounding" can truly be applied. Certainly, it is a lot trickier to read and predict, partly because of the sense that voters are not hugely impressed with either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, and partly because there is not an overwhelming issue or theme which has come to dominate the race.

Both parties have struggled to present a compelling and easy-to-understand overall message. Moreover, the micro-messages which have been peddled have often been lost in the pantomime of the campaign - even if its great panto villain, the former Labor leader Mark Latham who has been recruited as a reporter for Channel Nine, doesn't quite follow the normal stage direction of "he's behind you" but tends to confront his prey head-on. As someone noted this morning on the wireless, he is a bull who comes with his own china shop.

My sense going into this week was that Julia Gillard would get her campaign back on track, partly because the press was itching to write a comeback narrative. And sure enough, she started it well enough. There was a poll which showed that Labor had nudged ahead again. She seemed to be back to her "it's a good day for redheads" best during a well-received appearance on the ABC programme QandA, an Aussie version of Question Time. The next evening, she received another boost from Tony Abbott's broadband blunder on ABC's 730 Report, which fitted Labor's narrative that he's a middle-aged fogey rooted in the past.

But then came the big set-piece event of the week, The Battle of Rooty Hill, a town-hall style event held in the emphatically Aussie setting of the Rooty Hill RSL, a Returned and Services League club in the western fringes of Sydney. In the heartland of the famed 'Howard battlers," the blue-collar working families who once voted Labor but went Liberal during the Howard years, it was Abbott who was judged to have connected with the audience. Given the vital importance of Sydney's suburban fringe, which is the home to many of the battleground marginals which the Liberals simply have to win, getting the battle honours at Rooty Hill was a notable achievement. It put Tony Abbott back in the race.

At times of political uncertainty, when the mood of the nation is hard to gauge, it is often worth finding out what the Aussie bookies make of it all. They are predicting a Labor victory, presumably because they think that something approaching normal rules will eventually be applied. As we have noted many times before, Australian voters tend to give first-term governments a second chance (they have done so since the early 1930s), and the economy is, by international standards, in robust shape - even if many families face cost of living issues.

From spending quite a lot of time this week in quite a few marginals, my sense is that many voters want to mete out some kind of punishment to the Labor party, for ousting Kevin Rudd and for messing up things like the home insulation programme. But it is a mood of irritation and frustration rather than outright anger. They are not waiting with baseball bats in hands. It speaks of one of Tony Abbott's main problems: it is hard to harness a mood of bewilderment and confusion, and to fully engage voters who seem unimpressed with this entire electoral spectacle.

Abbott's Broadband Blunder

Nick Bryant | 06:27 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010


How much is a loaf of bread? What is the cost of borrowing? How about a pint of milk? Watching politicians get caught out by such questions is one of the great staples of modern-day campaigns the world over. Now Australia has delivered the digital equivalent.

abbott_afp304.jpgOn the day that the opposition Liberal party unveiled its new broadband policy, Tony Abbott appeared on the ABC's 730 Report, the country's most influential current affairs programme, and was forced to concede that he was no "tech-head". He clearly did not know what was meant by "peak speed," the quickest speed at which internet users can download material when there are fewer people online, which is usually very late at night.

Pressed repeatedly by Kerry O'Brien, Abbott floundered. Up the information superhighway without a paddle, I suppose you could say.
"I'm no Bill Gates here and I don't claim to be any kind of tech head," he said.
You can watch or read the transcript here.

During this campaign, Tony Abbott has tried to play it safe. But here, he was clearly well outside his comfort zone. He almost looked like the victim of one of those terrible mix-ups in the green room - the area where television guests have a glass of water, etc, before they are due on air - when the wrong guest is wheeled into the studio to talk on a subject they know very little about.

Australia's sluggish broadband speeds are a significant issue here, as no doubt regular readers of this blog will know. It is also one of the few policy areas where there is a very major difference between the policies of two major parties.

The Labor government plans to create a National Broadband Network (NBN) based on fibre optics at an estimated cost of $A43bn (£25bn). It would offer download speeds of 100 megabits per second that would reach 93% of Australian homes and premises.

The opposition has now put forward a cheaper alternative: a $A6.3bn network, based on upgrading existing copper networks. It would reach 97% of the population, be rolled out sooner, but the broadband speeds would be slower: a base line minimum, to use the jargon, of 12 megabits per second.

The opposition claims the National Broadband Network will be a "great big white elephant". The government claims the opposition is offering Australians a "second-class" broadband network, which will leave the country in the "digital dark ages". I'm no tech-head either, but here's a debate between a couple of experts who are.

The broadband debate is highly emblematic. The government claims it shows that the Liberals are rooted in the past and promote business-friendly policies that are not always in the interest of the common good. The Liberal's scheme would rely on the private sector.

In response, the opposition claims the Labor government does not have the competence to roll-out a national broadband network, and that the problems with the school building programme and home insulation scheme show it cannot deliver major infrastructure projects. To them, the NBN amounts to nationalisation.

You can get more of a sense of the political debate here.

As we predicted over the weekend, Tony Abbott is coming under much greater scrutiny. How significant, then, is his broadband blunder?

Liberal launch

Nick Bryant | 14:16 UK time, Sunday, 8 August 2010


For many Australians, the idea of opposition leader Tony Abbott becoming prime minister requires an enormous leap of imagination. Nicknamed the Mad Monk, partly because he once trained to become a Catholic priest and partly because he's got a reputation for being so erratic, he continues to face a plausibility problem.

Tony Abbott

I was in Brisbane for the official launch of the Liberal campaign, and the auditorium was full of MPs, Senators, party activists, and perhaps even a leader himself, who probably started the year thinking they had little chance of winning the election, but who now sniff victory. The polls continue to suggest the Liberal Party could be on the verge of an unexpected comeback, and that Tony Abbott might become the Steven Bradbury of Australian politics. For the uninitiated, Steven Bradburywas the Aussie speed skater who won an Olympic gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City games because his rivals were involved in a massive pile-up on the final bend, allowing him to skate through to a wholly unexpected victory. Certainly, Abbott displayed enormous caution at the launch, not wanting to trip, slip or stumble at his big, solo set-piece event of the campaign. He was trying to present himself as a safe, risk-free choice.

He wasn't putting a vision before the Australian people so much as offering a restoration. With John Howard in the front row, whom Abbott described as his "hero", the present Liberal leader pledged the return of stable, competent and principled government which he claimed were hallmarks of the Howard era. He called it "grown-up government".

Attacking Julia Gillard, he pledged to "bury an era of gutless spin" and to end the Labor "soap opera", as he put it.

After listening to one speaker after another, as they served as warm-up acts for their leader, my notebook is full of words like 'competency", "stability", "rectitude" and "common sense", which were applied to the Liberals. Perhaps the best one-liner of the day came from the Nationals leader, Warren Truss, which is itself a measure of how bizarre and unpredictable this election has become. He accused the Labor government of 'loitering without intent".

Absent from Tony Abbott's speech was any great vision or big idea. Significantly, the speech did not include a single new promise. There's a policy break-down here .

This was not so much a speech about the future as the everyday. He was basically saying that when it comes to the routine, day-to-day running of the government the Liberals could bring much greater experience, aptitude and professionalism.

After the wackiness of the past seven days, which surely must have come to a head over the weekend when the former Labor leader Mark Latham tackled Julia Gillard in his new capacity as a guest correspondent for Channel Nine's Sixty Minutes, I suspect this could be the week when Tony Abbott comes under greater scrutiny and a new seriousness creeps into the campaign.

Knowing that he is going to be the focus of more attention, another of Tony Abbott's aims at the launch was to create as small a target as possible.

Aside from the Liberal launch and the Latham ambush, the other main event over the weekend was the meeting in Brisbane between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Again, it almost defied analogy.

This week will surely be more even-keeled than last. But who knows? As one senior reporter put it to me today, the only thing that could make things much more bizarre right now would be if Harold Holt re-emerged from the sea.

Rudd is back

Nick Bryant | 12:48 UK time, Thursday, 5 August 2010


To say the Australian election is becoming more soap operatic seems somehow inadequate. It almost qualifies as an entirely new dramatic genre. Certainly, it is ground-breaking. There's Julia, the fledging Prime Minister. There's Tony, the wannabe Prime Minister, and now there's Kevin, the deposed Prime Minister.

rudd_afp304.jpgJust days after going under the knife - as opposed to being stabbed in the back - in an emergency operation to remove his gall bladder, he announced this afternoon that he was coming back on the campaign trail at the invitation of the woman who so brutally ousted him. 'I'm Kevin, from Queensland, and I'm back,' he might as well have said.

As I write, it is unsure whether Julia Gillard fully illuminated the Batman sign in the skies above Brisbane, or whether Rudd dived into the nearest telephone box to re-emerge as an election-saving superhero. When she asked him to campaign, she might not have anticipated that he would swirl his cape with such passion and panache.

So while Julia Gillard was in the north of the sunshine state announcing funding for a new road, the sort of thing a local council leader could have done, Kevin Rudd was in Brisbane looking determinedly prime ministerial. Just consider the staging and visuals of the event, which included two Australian flags on either side.

He pre-announced the move in a radio interview on the ABC programme Late Night Live, which was also highly symbolic. Not only is it beloved by the progressive intelligentsia in Australia, of which Rudd clearly still considers himself the titular leader. It is presented by Phillip Adams, a presenter who very publicly resigned his membership of the Australian Labor Party in protest at Kevin Rudd's treatment.

The former leader will campaign in Queensland and New South Wales, the two states which will probably decide this election. But the benefit of having him in Queensland, his home state, could easily be outweighed by the television and radio airtime he will consume nationwide. He dominated the headlines today, and will no doubt dominate them again when he ventures onto the trail sometime over the weekend. He threatens to completely overshadow his new leader.

There's also the problem of the muddled message it conveys. If the Labor party needs him so badly, then why did it dump him in the first place?

One of the major problems for Labor in this campaign is that Rudd's abrupt dismissal has made it hard for Julia Gillard to claim much credit for what was the central achievement of his truncated government: Australia's success in avoiding recession in the aftermath of the global financial crisis. That came to be known as "Wonder from the Down Under." Is Rudd's return the blunder from Down Under?

Tony Abbott's women problem

Nick Bryant | 09:44 UK time, Monday, 2 August 2010


The Australian election is starting to resemble an Australian barbeque, with the men in one corner and the women in the other.

Were it not for Julia Gillard's lead amongst female voters, she would be facing an embarrassing defeat in an election now just three weeks away.

Going into last month's televised debates, she held a 28-point lead as preferred Prime Minister amongst women - she was polling twice as well with women as she was with men.

Tony Abbott is happily married, has three daughters and two sisters, but many females continue to view him with suspicion.

The Economist has called it Abbott's Angst . Many of his problems stem from his opposition to the abortion drug, RU486, during his time as Health Secretary in the Howard government.

A devout Catholic, who once trained to become a priest, his controversial stance meant he was targeted by demonstrators who confronted him with placards reading: "Get Your Rosaries off my Ovaries". He's also been falsely accused of opposing IVF, the fertility treatment. He actually supports it.

Then there's the Iron Man image, that love of gruelling triathlons and long bike rides (earlier this year, Melbourne to Sydney). Other extracurricular pursuits have also struck many women as rather bloke-ish. He's a volunteer rural firefighter, which seems to me a rather commendable thing to do, and a surf life-saver, which, again, is an odd thing for which to be criticised.

Perhaps it's those tight budgie-smugglers, which he ritually threw onto the flames of a barbeque in a pre-election stunt - although, again, he's hardly alone in wearing them. Perhaps it is the Lycra shorts. Perhaps it's the fact that he's a boxing blue, or was an enthusiastic rugby player. You get the idea. He's not only a bloke. He's a bloke's bloke.

Abbott has a strategy to deal with this gender problem: his advocacy of a paid parental leave scheme, which has angered the pro-Liberal business lobby. The strength of his advocacy is a measure of his women problem.

Oddly, he's now benefiting from Julia Gillard's decision to appear on the front cover of Women's Weekly in a glamorous make-over - her most overt appeal yet to female voters. Inevitably, it is now being seen as a metaphor for her entire campaign: all style very little substance; new prime minister same old accident-prone government.

Having lost the first two weeks of the campaign, the new prime minister has promised to throw out the rulebook, as she put it, and show Australia "the real Julia". It begs the obvious and now endlessly analysed question: who have we been watching since she ousted Kevin Rudd?

To undo the damage of one make-over, she intends to do another.

UPDATED 08:46 UK time, Tuesday, 3 August 2010

On the very day that Tony Abbott sought to improve his standing amongst women by focusing on his paid parental scheme which is more generous than the government's - and by campaigning alongside one of his daughters - he ran into further trouble with his reworking of the phrase "no means no". Julia Gillard, having previously indicated she would take part in only one televised debate, challenged him to a second face-off. This was Mr Abbott's response: "Are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, 'No' doesn't mean 'No'." Then he repeated the phrase, showing that it was not just a slip of the tongue. "When she said 'No', I thought she meant 'No' ... I believed her."

"HERE'S a tip for Tony Abbott," wrote Samantha Maiden of The Australian in a blog that's already attracted a big response "It's never a terrific look for a bloke to make jokes about a woman and whether or not 'no means no'".

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